OKANAGAN FALLS & AREA D

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

Driving south from Penticton, Highway 97 descends a steep hill at the south end of Skaha Lake, and the community of Okanagan Falls comes into view.

Widely known as OK Falls, the unincorporated town has a population of 2,266, based on the 2021 census. This makes it the main population centre of Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) Electoral Area D.

From the descent, you see the rocky outcrop of Peach Cliff towering above the town. A former trestle of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) crosses a stretch of lake below you, now forming a bridge for walkers and cyclists to join the KVR trail up the western shore of Skaha Lake. 

Okanagan Falls – Area D
The waterfall that gave Okanagan Falls its name is gone, replaced by a series of weirs like this one just downstream from the highway bridge. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Along the southern shore of the lake, and in the town, several beachside parks make an idyllic spot for swimming or picnicking, and they are popular in the summer months: Kenyon Park, Christie Memorial Park, and Lions Gardens Park.

After crossing a bridge over the Okanagan River, Highway 97 continues east before turning south onto Main Street. Small businesses line both sections of the highway, providing easy access to motorists passing through.

Okanagan Falls has basic amenities such as a recreation centre, library, elementary school, the Keogan Sports Park, a Legion branch, and even a provincial park.

Services such as hospitals, airports, high schools, and big-box shopping are easily accessible in Penticton, about 20 km to the north, and Oliver, about 30 km to the south. Both these larger centres are accessible by BC Transit buses that pass through OK Falls.

RDOS Electoral Area D also includes smaller communities such as Upper Carmi, Heritage Hills/Lakeshore Highland, and Skaha Estates. A noteworthy inclusion is Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park, north along the eastern shore of Skaha Lake. This park is famous for its exceptional rock climbing.

The area is also known for its vineyards and excellent wineries, which add to its tourist appeal.

South of OK Falls, much of Vaseux Lake is included in Area D. This lake is wilder than other lakes of the Okanagan, making it an excellent place for birdwatching, other wildlife viewing, and the use of non-motorized boats such as kayaks or canoes. It’s common to see a herd of California bighorn sheep east of the highway, or sometimes high above in the rocky bluffs.

One thing you won’t see in Okanagan Falls is the waterfalls that gave the community its name. Twin falls were once located on the Okanagan River near where it flows out of Skaha Lake. They were replaced by a series of weirs on the river built for flood control. 

OK Falls Hotel had been closed in recent years, but the hotel was renovated and the pub reopened in April 2023. (Richard McGuire Photo)

History

When the community was established in 1893, it was known as “Dogtown.” The name of the lake, Skaha, means dog in the Shuswap language. Indeed, the lake was known earlier in the 19th century as Lac du Chien, the French form of “Dog Lake,” and it later took on the English form. In 1930, the name “Skaha,” was mistakenly chosen because in the local Okanagan Syilx language, skaha means horse.

For history buffs, OK Falls has several reminders of local life in the early 20th century.

Heritage Place, located on Main Street just south of the hotel, is home to the Bassett House, a house built from a prefab kit ordered from Eaton’s in 1906. The house, which was shipped by train and barge from Winnipeg, shows visitors early 20th century furnishings.

Also at Heritage Place is a museum containing home appliances, machinery, and other reminders of local life a hundred years ago or more.

A popular thrift shop, staffed by volunteers, sells used clothing and helps to finance the facility.

Behind the thrift shop is a small museum dedicated to Kenny McLean, a local rodeo star most active in the 1960s and 1970s. McLean, 1939-2002, was born to a Syilx mother and Scottish father in Penticton, the youngest of 10 children. He grew up on a ranch at Okanagan Falls. McLean was the only rodeo cowboy inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, and later became the only cowboy to receive the Order of Canada. He is also commemorated with a statue across the highway in Centennial Park.

Okanagan Falls rodeo star Kenny McLean, active in the 1960s and 1970s, is commemorated with a statue in Centennial Park. He was born in Penticton to a Syilx mother and Scottish father. There’s also a small museum to him at Heritage Place across the street. (Richard McGuire Photo)

A block to the west is Okanagan United Church, long known as “The Blasted Church.” The church was originally built in 1898 in the mining town of Fairview, just west of present-day Oliver. With Fairview in decline and Okanagan Falls lacking a proper church, a movement started in 1929 to acquire the church and move it north.

The windows were boarded up and four sticks of dynamite were hung from the rafters and ignited. The blast, under the direction of an engineer, shook the church’s nails loose, allowing the church to be disassembled and transported to its present location at Willow Street and 11th Avenue in Okanagan Falls.

Another reminder of the past is the railbed of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), which is now a recreational trail popular with walkers and cyclists. After World War I, a spur line was built south from Penticton to Oliver, and eventually to Osoyoos. Initially, freight was sent by barge between Penticton and Okanagan Falls, but later the track was extended up the west side of Skaha Lake, establishing a rail link between the main KVR and the Okanagan spur.

Portions of the KVR trail exist to the south of Okanagan Falls, but the trail is closed around Vaseux Lake, necessitating use of the busy highway. Northward, however, the trail along the western shore of Skaha Lake to Penticton is in good condition and is one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire KVR.

Okanagan Falls United Church has an interesting history that led to it being called “The Blasted Church.” The church was moved in 1929 from the old Fairview mining camp near Oliver to Okanagan Falls. The workers are said to have used dynamite to loosen the nails and remove it from its foundation. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Economy

Okanagan Falls has an economy built on agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and services. It also benefits from its proximity to larger communities such as Penticton, Kelowna, and Oliver.

Unfortunately, despite the success of such businesses as wineries and wood products, OK Falls has experienced economic decline in recent years.

A 2020 Economic Development & Recovery Plan is blunt about the challenges: “…Okanagan Falls is in a state of economic paralysis. A once blossoming small community, its economic fortunes have suffered from gradual decline.”

The report also notes the poor visual state of the downtown area, leaving visitors with the impression that the community takes little pride in its physical appearance. OK Falls also fails to capitalize on the more than 9,000 vehicle visitors who pass through daily, the recovery plan asserts.

 

The Okanagan Falls Legion Hall is painted with a mural celebrating Canada and its military history. Branch 227 of the Royal Canadian Legion is located just across Hwy 97 from the thrift shop and Heritage Place. (Richard McGuire Photo)

The closure in September, 2019 of the community’s only grocery store, an IGA, caused alarm, and this was followed a few months later by the Covid-19 pandemic which exacerbated economic woes.

There have been positive developments since then, with the formation of a new community organization, the Okanagan Falls Community Association, focusing on economic improvement. Its Economic Development & Recovery Plan, in conjunction with the RDOS, identifies positive steps the community can take.

Meanwhile, the grocery store reopened in 2022 as Belich’s AG Foods, and there has been redevelopment of the OK Falls Hotel, as well as a Centex gas station.

Structurlam Mass Timber Corporation, a company manufacturing prefabricated, laminated wood products, has a long history in Okanagan Falls and Penticton and is a major employer. In April 2023, news broke that the company filed bankruptcy due to the cancellation of a contract between its Conway, Arkansas operation and Walmart. The Okanagan Falls and Penticton locations were to remain open as a new buyer was sought. On June 15, 2023, Mercer Mass Timber announced it is acquiring Structurlam and its subsidiaries and will take over operations.

Okanagan Falls is also looking again at incorporation, which would provide a local municipal government. Originally, incorporation would have encompassed most of RDOS Area D, as recommended by a local committee, but the province argued for a smaller area including only OK Falls and its industrial area. Results of a study are scheduled for completion in March 2025.

A cyclist rides on a trestle bridge along the old route of the Kettle Valley Railway north of Okanagan Falls on Skaha Lake. (Richard McGuire Photo)
The hall of the Okanagan Falls Volunteer Fire Department is located on 11 Ave. at Hwy 97. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Okanagan Falls Elementary School is located on Cedar Street south of 11 Ave. It serves students from Kindergarten to Grade 7, as well as pre-school. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Okanagan Falls Business Stories

Many people have moved to Okanagan Falls with the idea of starting a business in mind. Others, already living here, have also seen a need and taken the plunge. Please visit our Stories page and read about some of the people who have started businesses in Okanagan Falls and elsewhere in the South Okanagan.

Karl Mancheron and his wife Joannie Parent are owners of KJ Coffee Bar. The KJ in their name comes from the first initial of their first names. (Richard McGuire Photo)