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British Columbia, Western Canada

Penticton gateway to the South Okanagan:

Come with us as we explore British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, located in the province's southern interior. It is a region ripe with fruit, culture and great Canadian scenery. The name Okanagan is the English reference given to the Interior Salish First Nations tribe who first settled in the valley. Derived from a Salish term translated roughly as place of water.


A Rich and Fruitful Land: The history of the valleys of the Okanagan, Similkameen and Shuswap




Lying 400 kilometers east of Vancouver along the Canada-U.S. border, the famous Okanagan Valley stretches approximately 20 kilometers by 250 kilometers in the B.C. Interior. It makes up only the small northern tip of a western desert that extends intermittently between the Coastal Mountains and the Cordilleras into the Great Basin Desert of Oregon.

From Vancouver via the Trans-Canada, either join the Coquihalla Highway, go north to Merritt and east on Highway 97c to Kelowna, or stay on the Coquihalla until Kamloops and head south on Highway 97 (from the east, turn south at Sicamous). Highway 97 joins the valley's municipal centers and provides excellent views of orchards and vineyards as it winds along Okanagan Lake's clay cliff shoreline. From Vernon to Osoyoos, the highway stretches 180 kilometers.

The valley's four main centers, from north to south, are Salmon Arm (in the north Okanagan),Vernon, Kelowna, and Penticton. With the smaller towns and communities, these cities make up the B.C. Interior's most populated area. Development continues to expand with industrialization (agriculture, manufacturing, construction, transportation and retail), and tourism doubles the valley's population during the summer months.


The North American Cordillera, located along the West Coast of the continent, encompasses several mountain ranges. Most of the mountain systems in this area are oriented in a north-south direction parallel to the Pacific coast, and the major valleys follow suit. The Rockies - probably the best known range - include a narrow range of peaks less than 160 kilometers wide, west of the Albertan foothills. The remaining major chains, in a roughly westerly direction, include the Columbia, Omineca, Cassiar, Skeena, Coast, and Island mountains - all of which are igneous in origin.

The Columbia Mountains, comprised the Purcells, Selkirks, Monashees and Caribous, were uplifted between one and two million years ago, and include impressive peaks more than 3,000 meters high.

West of the Columbia Mountains is the Interior Plateau, which covers much of Interior B.C. and is home to the Okanagan Valley. A plateau, like a mountain, is an uplifted section of Earth's crust, which has not been subject to folding or carving. As with all uplifted areas, however, these relatively flat expanses are subject to erosion. For example, the region's rolling terrain has been molded by river action.

A small portion of the Cascade Mountains extend into Canada just west of the Okanagan Valley. The rest stretches down to California. Making up the B.C. Cascades, from east to west are the Okanagan, Hozameen and Skagit ranges.

The Okanagan Valley was formed by glacier activity during the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. Mile-thick ice layers retreated 10,000 years ago, scraping the surface and leaving behind valuable sedimentary deposits along its borders. Additional mountain river erosion and flooding left behind nutrient and mineral rich soils which have accumulated into deltas. (Click here for more about Okanagan soils and farming.) (link to the agriculture section)

The system of oblong lakes in the Okanagan Valley is a remnant of the glacial retreat. Okanagan Lake, the largest , is 111 kilometers long and ranges from about 3.2 to 6.4 kilometers wide. East of Okanagan Lake are Swan, Kalamalka (a Salish word meaning lake of many colors) and Wood lakes. To the south are Skaha, Vaseux and Osoyoos lakes. The system drains south into the Okanagan River, crosses the border into Washington, and joins the Columbia River. The Columbia then veers west and carves a path through the Cascade and Coast Mountain ranges to drain into the Pacific Ocean.


Four First Nations groups initially inhabited the B.C. Interior: all tribes of the Interior Salish or Salishian language family; Lillooet; Shuswap (now Secwepmc); Thompson (now Ntlakapamux); and Okanagan. The Okanagan territory encompasses approximately 72,500 square kilometers, 70 percent of which lies in south central B.C., and 30 percent of which crosses into northeast Washington.

Of the seven Okanagan dialects spoken, Northern Okanagan is heard in the Okanagan Lake and River areas. More accurately, n-seel-ick-CHEEN is the native Salish term that refers to those who speak any of the Okanagan dialects.

European colonization brought land surveys and the establishment of reserves. After B.C. joined Confederation in 1871 land holdings were reduced even further.

In 1996, approximately 2,178 Okanagan lived on the along the northwest arm of Okanagan Lake, southwest of Okanagan Lake, north of Osoyoos, and near Kelowna and Enderby. Land claim and aboriginal rights issues continue to be disputed and resisted.

(Information from the 1999 Canadian Encyclopedia: World Edition Copyright 1998 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.)


While searching for an accessible route to transport furs to the Pacific, Europeans began exploring the B.C. Interior. In 1811 Scottish trader and explorer David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company sailed to the junction of the Columbia and Okanagan rivers and built Fort Okanagan. He then traveled north to Thompson River and in so doing, established the Okanagan Valley trail that united the Upper Fraser and Lower Columbia sections. By 1824 the trail was dominated by the activities of the Hudson's Bay Company which provided fur caravans along the lake hills until 1847. Between orchards and vineyards remnants of the trail remain for historical hikes.

The first permanent valley settlements were established in 1840 by Father Charles Pandosy of the Oblates of Mary. Missionary camps were located at the head of Okanagan Lake and near what is now Kelowna. The valley population grew with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858 and in the Caribou region in 1861. Both the Caribou Road (now Hwy 97) and the Dewdney Trail (now Hwy 3) were built as a result. This opening up of the B.C. Interior attracted 150 Overlanders from Ontario in 1862, and continued growth came with the establishment of Canadian Pacific Railway services by the 1890s.


The Okanagan boasts an extremely diverse terrain. You can scan a panorama that melts from dry desert to lush basins, or graduates from low grasslands to upper forest hills to less majestic mountains that accentuate their ice-capped elders far in the distance.

Although in a dry belt, the Okanagan's natural vegetation is divided into two general categories. North Okanagan is dominated by a "dry/rain shadow forest" characterized by sage bush, antelope bush (also called greasewood), bunch grass and scattered ponderosa pines. It is a green and fertile region with a much wetter climate than the rest of the valley.

Southern Okanagan has near desert-like conditions which produce a more arid but unique vegetation, unlike any other in Canada. Here, the deep valley becomes grassland - too dry for tree growth without irrigation. Sagebrush shrubs, cheat grass, poison ivy and sumac are scattered with beautifully colored prickly pear cactus, Okanagan sunflower and bitter root.

The region's wildlife is also unique. In the winter, hoofed animals such as mule deer and bighorn sheep migrate down from the mountains into the warmer valleys. White-tailed deer, cottontails, jackrabbits, badgers and muskrats are seen throughout the seasons. The valley is a birder's paradise, hosting mallards and canvasbacks in the cooler north, along with canyon wrens, white-throated swifts woodpeckers and calliope hummingbirds in the warmer south. Alligator lizards, painted turtles, and several snakes (western blue racer, rubber boa, gopher/bull, and Pacific rattle) frequent the area, as does the odd scorpion.

Conservation concerns have arisen in the valley's southerly reaches due to extraordinarily unique wildlife coupled with a booming population.


Although the deltas in the area hold potentially fertile soil, the extremely dry conditions in the Okanagan keep soil nutrients from plants. This climate is characteristic of most valley systems and is due to air movement over mountain chains. Here, as moisture-rich air moves eastward from the Pacific, it must rise to cross the Cascade Range. As it does, it cools and condenses into rain on the western mountain slopes. Air crosses the chain, falls and becomes warm and dry, leaving the eastern slope and valley in the rain shadow. When the valley is deep the phenomenon can result in desert-like conditions. The Okanagan receives a minimal average of 25-40 cm precipitation, and a hefty 2,000 hours of sunshine per year.

In order to tap into the fertile soil deposits created by erosion, massive irrigation is required. Thankfully for Canada's apple-eating population, the rivers and lakes are now drained extensively to convert dry bunch grass into lush green orchards.

The first industry in the Okanagan Valley was ranching. In the northern regions, dairy and beef herding are ideal since the meadows require little or no irrigation. In the southern valley, fruit farming is the main industrial focus and is made possible by the intensive irrigation that converts desert land into orchards and vineyards.

There is a long history of fruit growing in the Okanagan, which dates back to the Oblate missionaries' first fruit crop in 1862 near Kelowna. During the 1890s Governor General Aberdeen began offering large sections of land as a fruit-growing incentive, and later plantings were made in the southern valley for soldiers returning from the First World War.

Outside the Lower Fraser Valley, the Okanagan is one of British Columbia's most important agricultural areas, and provides the country with one-third of its commercial apples. Apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, prunes and grapes also line the valley floor, where warm temperatures and long growing seasons make for ideal conditions.

The three main oblong lakes in the valley - Skaha, Kalamalka and Okanagan - create an ideal temperate climate for wine-producing. During the 1920s, commercial grape plantings near Kelowna began to supply wineries. Since the introduction of large-scale irrigation, B.C.'s wine industry has grown exponentially - almost all the provincial wine comes from the Okanagan region.

Since then, local wines have become more distinguished, and with higher quality standards instigated in the 1990s, the Vintners Quality Alliance seal now appears on labels. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Gewurztraminer are among the reputable varieties from the area. The valley's wine route winds along Okanagan Lake and includes several vineyards and more than a dozen wineries and related establishments.

Visitors and residents enjoy wine tasting, food and events during the annual spring (first five days in May) and fall (first half of October) Okanagan wine festivals.


Along with Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler and the Rockies, the Okanagan is one of the province's prime tourist destinations. Its beautiful scenery, warm climate, provincial parks and beaches attract holiday seekers from Canada, the U.S. and beyond.

Tennis, golfing, hiking, mountain lake fishing, water sports, skiing, orchard touring and wine tasting are just some of the activities from which to choose during a stay at any of the numerous bed and breakfasts and deluxe resorts throughout the valley. Hostelling is becoming more popular, and Silver Star (northeast of Vernon) and Okanagan (south of Kelowna) provincial parks provide nature lovers with excellent camping and canoeing opportunities.


Penticton (pop: 33,000)
Penticton's Salish name was Phthauntac, or "ideal meeting place." It then became Pen-tak-tin, or "place to stay forever." In the southern Okanagan, Penticton lies near the junction of highways 3 and 97, between Okanagan and Skaha Lakes. It is a half-day drive from Vancouver and a full day from Calgary.

Like Vernon and Kelowna, Penticton was settled along the trail used by the Hudson's Bay Company fur brigade until 1847. In 1890 Penticton's first orchards were established, and fruit production became the main livelihood after irrigation systems were implemented in 1905. In 1915 Kettle Valley Railway connected Penticton with Hope and Nelson, opening up the southern Interior. The railway was later abandoned due to harsh conditions but now provides an excellent historical foot and bike trail.

Boasting a daily average of ten hours of sunshine during the summer, the city has become a tourism and fruit-growing mecca. Skaha Bluff rock, Apex Ski Resort, various beaches, campgrounds, museums, galleries and vineyards provide visitors with leisure activities. Major annual festivals and events in Penticton include: Highland Games (mid-July), Peach Festival (end of July to end of August), Square Dancers Jamboree (early August to mid-August), IronMan Canada (August), and Air Fair (August).

Kelowna (pop: 95,000)
Kelowna is derived from a Salish word meaning "grizzly bear." Midway between Vernon and Penticton, Kelowna is located on Highway 97 along the shores of Okanagan Lake. Established in 1892, it is now the most populated city in the valley.

The first fruit trees were planted here by missionaries in 1862 and fruit production grew to become one of the area's biggest industries. Wine-making, fruit-packing, processing and tourism are the city's other mainstays.

Kelowna's theatre company, symphony orchestra and galleries attract many visitors and its beaches are just minutes from the city center. For the more energetic, Knox Mountain provides hiking trails and excellent views of Okanagan Lake. In 1958, a 1,400-metre-long floating bridge was built to connect Kelowna and Westbank, and remains the longest of its kind in Canada.

Kelowna is also home of the elusive "Ogopogo" lake monster, a statue of which stands in the city and resembles a long serpent with a head like a goat or horse. A Salish legend describes a lake monster, N'ha-a-tik, that lived in a cave in Squally Point near Kelowna. The beast received its current name in 1924. There have been sporadic reports of sightings over the years, and the fever has resulted in suggestions that the Ogopogo is a cousin of "Nessie," Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.

Vernon (pop: 32,000)
Vernon's original Salish name is hun-cul-deep-moose chin which means "jumping over place." Located at the junction of highways 6 and 97, Vernon lies among three lakes: Swan, Okanagan and Kalamalka.

During the fur trade, Vernon was a camp on the Okanagan Valley trail. Initial missionary settlements were established in the 1840s, and in 1860 Cornelius O'Keef started the first cattle ranch. In 1887 the town was named for Forbes George Vernon, a city pioneer and chief commissioner of B.C. lands and works.

During the 1890s the town was connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway when a branch was constructed from Vernon to Sicamous. This opened up the previously inaccessible region and resulted in population growth and increased development. During the First World War, Vernon became the largest military camp in B.C.

Today, Vernon is the Okanagan's most populated northern city, with forestry, stock breeding and tourism as main industries.


The City of Festivals:

World-class festivals and events happen here. From Elvis to jazz, Ironman Canada to square dancing, Penticton is alive with celebrations of the arts, the seasons and just plain fun! Plan your holiday around one of the city's many festivals or events.

City of Penticton:

A four-season destination for vacationers and business travelers alike. Come and explore Penticton, a place to stay forever. Whenever you plan on visiting, there is sure be something to keep you interested and busy.

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• This page last updated May 4, 2011 • Created June 2002 by Barb Aoki for

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1929 Sandstone Drive; Penticton BC; V2A 8Y6

(250) 490 3336

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