OSOYOOS

BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

Among the most dramatic views of the South Okanagan is the descent from Anarchist Summit, twisting and turning down switchbacks to the Town of Osoyoos in the valley bottom.

There are two pull-offs – one for traffic climbing east on Highway 3, and one for traffic descending west. Either one is worth a stop, depending on your direction of travel.

The westbound descent from Anarchist Summit to Osoyoos Lake is about 1,213 m (3,979 ft.) of elevation depending on the time of year, and therefore the level of the lake.

Below the viewpoints, Osoyoos Lake reaches in both directions – its North Basin stretches to an inlet from the Okanagan River, and to the south lies the small city of Oroville, Washington.

Two spits of land extend most of the way across the lake from Osoyoos – one covered with hotels and the east-west Highway 3; the other is home to the former Haynes Point Provincial Park, now known by its Syilx Okanagan name of “sẃiẃs.”

Indeed, the name “sẃiẃs” refers to those spits stretching across the lake that historically enabled people and livestock to cross. It’s also the root of the town’s modern name, Osoyoos, pronounced: Oh-SUE-yuss.

Osoyoos 2 - Area A
The lookouts on the way to and from Anarchist Summit give an excellent view of Osoyoos. Pictured here, Highway 3 crosses the lake on a spit with a bridge. East of the bridge is Hotel Row where a number of hotels line the North Basin of Osoyoos Lake. To the right (north), outside the frame, is the head of the lake. To the left, also outside the frame, the South Basin extends across the international border to Oroville, WA. (Richard McGuire Photo)

A crossroads

Osoyoos has long been a crossroads. It is the only community in the Okanagan with intersecting north-south and east-west major highways. Across the lake from the viewpoint, an elongated building on Highway 97 marks the international Canada-U.S. border crossing, the busiest crossing in the B.C. Interior.

The north-south Highway 97 roughly follows trails up and down the Okanagan Valley that were used for hunting and trade by local Indigenous peoples thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.

Portions of the route were later used by European fur traders of the Pacific Fur Company and later the Hudson’s Bay Company in the first half of the 19th century. It passed through Osoyoos to connect Fort Kamloops with Fort Astoria in Oregon, later Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.

After the Oregon Treaty of 1846 established the 49th Parallel as the international boundary, Osoyoos got its first of several customs houses.

Highway 97 is the only continuously numbered highway in B.C. extending from the U.S. to Yukon borders. Highways numbered 97 also extend south through Washington and Oregon to northern California.

The east-west Highway 3, known in Osoyoos as Main Street, has a colourful history. It’s also known as the Crowsnest Highway because it crosses the Rocky Mountains at Crowsnest Pass on its way between Hope, B.C. and Medicine Hat, Alta.

This highway was originally the Dewdney Trail, built in the 1860s to connect Hope to the Kootenays, allowing the British colonial government to extend its presence to the mining camps and small towns springing up north of the border.

Today, Highway 3 brings many of the thousands of annual visitors to Osoyoos from Alberta and the B.C. Lower Mainland.

The Town of Osoyoos official slogan is “Canada’s warmest welcome.” It refers to both the friendliness of the people in this resort municipality as well as the warmest average annual temperatures in Canada. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Canada’s Warmest Welcome

When we hear the Osoyoos slogan, “Canada’s Warmest Welcome,” we often think of the small-town friendliness that greets thousands of visitors each year, as well as the unique climate that on average is the warmest in Canada.

With summer temperatures occasionally reaching into the high 40s Celsius, and desert-like arid landscapes, it’s easy to see how a marketing mythology developed claiming that the Osoyoos “Pocket Desert” is a northern extension of the Sonoran Desert of northwest Mexico and southwest United States. Though not in fact connected to this southern desert, the diverse landscapes and microclimates around Osoyoos make the area outstanding in its own right – without pretending to be somewhere else.

Osoyoos Lake, also said to have the warmest average annual water temperature in Canada, offers sunbathing, swimming, boating and water sports. It’s the main draw.

The lake is surrounded by vineyards and wineries, as well as orchards growing cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples and more. In the past, when irrigation from Oliver’s “Ditch” brought tree fruits to Osoyoos, the town boasted having “the earliest fruit in Canada.”

But when it comes to “warmest welcomes,” we might also want to look at the many people who have moved to Osoyoos from across Canada and around the world.

Approximately one fifth of Osoyoosites are immigrants and two fifths were born in a Canadian province other than B.C. When you consider that many of the remaining two fifths born in B.C. were born in other parts of the province, most residents of Osoyoos came from somewhere else.

Like Oliver, Osoyoos has seen waves of immigrants from different parts of the world. In the 1920s, many came from the United Kingdom. Both communities experienced an influx of German and Hungarian agricultural settlers after the Second World War. Significant numbers of Portuguese settlers began arriving in the 1950s to farm.

The most recent wave was Indo-Canadians – mostly Punjabi Sikhs – who came to the South Okanagan in the 1980s and 1990s, even though there had been some immigration from Punjab to B.C. since the turn of the 20th century. Punjab is a farming state and these immigrants have become major owners of South Okanagan orchards, vineyards, and wineries.

Osoyoos also experiences seasonal migrations of people, often referred to as “snowbirds.” When the Prairie provinces experience long, freezing winters, many Prairie snowbirds flee to Osoyoos to rent accommodation by the month.

While winters are milder in Osoyoos, there is some snow and ice, especially from December to March. So when the Prairie snowbirds arrive, many Osoyoos residents head farther south as snowbirds to places like Arizona, California, or Mexico.

There’s also a major influx of summer visitors, typically from Alberta and the B.C. Lower Mainland, swelling the population of Osoyoos with sunseekers.

In summer, the beach at Gyro Park and in front of Watermark Beach Resort is a popular spot on a hot day. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Economy

The major drivers of the economy in Osoyoos are agriculture and tourism. Throughout most of the 20th century, agriculture largely consisted of orchards growing cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, apples, and other tree fruits.

Since the late 1980s, with the arrival of high-quality vinifera grapes, vineyards have been replacing orchards and wine production has been flourishing.

Tourists, especially from the B.C. Lower Mainland and Alberta, are drawn by the superb climate and gorgeous lake, but there’s also a growing synergy between agriculture and tourism. Wine touring, fine farm-to-table dining, and U-pick fruit are some of the activities that fall under the label of agritourism.

Tourism sees a surge in the May to September period, but the shoulder season and winter draw an increasing number of visitors.

As one of 14 B.C. communities recognized as resort municipalities, Osoyoos benefits from the provincial Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) program, which directs hotel taxes to local projects that support tourism.

With its strategic location at the intersection of two major highways and an important border crossing, Osoyoos is a transportation and warehousing hub. The Buena Vista Industrial Park at the western entrance to town is home to numerous such industries, as well as businesses selling aggregates and building materials.

A small airport across Highway 3 from the industrial park serves small private aircraft and also doubles as a drag-racing strip at summer events. Its paved runway is 755 m (2,477 ft.) long.

Osoyoos is also a retirement community, and the median population age is 62 (2021 census), one of the oldest in Canada. As such, it is home to numerous businesses serving seniors, including Mariposa Gardens Retirement and Care Community, one of the town’s largest employers.

Shoppers looking for impersonal big-box retail stores will need to drive north up the valley. Instead, an array of friendly family-run enterprises provides unique boutique-style shopping on the Osoyoos Main Street.

The Sonora Community Centre has a gym/auditorium, a weight room, numerous meeting rooms and the Osoyoos branch of the Okanagan Regional Library. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Recreation

Osoyoos has a wide range of outdoor and indoor recreational facilities, both for organized and informal recreation.

Many local residents and visitors alike enjoy the long golfing season at the town’s two golf locations. The season can start as early as February or early March, depending on the year. The Osoyoos Golf Club has two 18-hole courses, the easier Park Meadows, and the more challenging Desert Gold. Across the lake, there’s also a nine-hole course, Sonora Dunes Golf Course, at Spirit Ridge.

The Sonora Community Centre offers a gym/auditorium, a weight room, and numerous meeting rooms providing programs for adults and children. The Osoyoos branch of the Okanagan Regional Library is located here.

The Sun Bowl Arena operates for most of the year and provides indoor skating and hockey for all ages. It is home to the Osoyoos Coyotes, a Junior B team in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL).

Adjoining the arena is the curling rink of the Osoyoos International Curling Club. There’s also an outdoor skateboard park next to the arena.

Pickleball is a racquet sport especially popular among seniors. It can be played indoors at the gym in the Sonora Community Centre, or outdoors on courts just north of Osoyoos Secondary School.

The area next to the high school also includes tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and an off-leash dog park with separate fenced areas for large and small dogs.

Kinsmen Park on the east side of town has a soccer field as well as a playground. There are also playgrounds at Lions Park and Osoyoos Elementary School.

A network of parks lines the shores of Osoyoos Lake east of the downtown area, offering swimming, walking, picnicking, and relaxing. Several parks have dog swimming areas. Some of the parks have multiuse trails where cycling is permitted.

The largest park in this network is Gyro Park at the foot of Main Street, which has a bandshell and is the scene of concerts such as the summertime Osoyoos Music in the Park, as well as Cherry Fiesta/Canada Day events. The park also offers swimming and beach volleyball.

Swimming is also popular at Legion Beach and Cottonwood Beach, among others.

sẃiẃs (Haynes Point) Provincial Park has a day use area with swimming, in addition to heavily booked camping sites.

There are several popular walking and cycling paths around Osoyoos. A popular one is the paved Canal Walkway, which starts just north of the high school and continues 4.3 km through sage and antelope brush overlooking vineyards and orchards below. You can do a loop around the airport or continue north on rougher gravel trails.

Several businesses in Osoyoos rent boats, kayaks, paddleboards, bicycles, and other equipment for outdoor sports.

A recently opened new Main Street location of the Osoyoos & District Museum and Archives welcomes visitors. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Culture

Osoyoos is home to many talented artists, who show their work along with other regional artists, at two galleries in town, as well as on the walls of many local businesses.

The Art Gallery Osoyoos (TAGO) is a community art gallery with exhibitions changing about every three weeks. It has longer “Artisan Markets” throughout the summer and the pre-Christmas season that are geared to summer visitors and Christmas shoppers respectively.

The Okanagan Art Gallery at the bottom of Main Street is an artist-run cooperative. In its six rooms, artists regularly refresh their own displays.

Osoyoos also has a lively music scene.

During the summer, Osoyoos Music in the Park offers free Friday-evening concerts at the Gyro Park bandshell, featuring both local and non-local musicians.

Osoyoos Performing Arts presents a series of concerts year-round, featuring renowned musicians from a variety of genres, with an emphasis on blues. These take place at different venues depending on the type of event.

Several private businesses such as Jojo’s Café and The Flame have also held live music events.

The Osoyoos and District Museum and Archives recently moved to a high-profile Main Street location opposite the Town Hall. Its displays present many artifacts showing the history of the community and life in the last century.

The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre at Spirit Ridge presents interactive displays showing the history and culture of the Syilx Okanagan people. The centre also does important research on the local rattlesnake population. A particularly popular presentation is called, “Snakes Alive,” which seeks to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding rattlers and other snakes.

Not to be confused with it is the Osoyoos Desert Centre, next to the landfill site. This facility introduces visitors to the semi-arid shrubland environment and the plants and animals that live here. The 67-acre interpretive facility provides a 1.5 km boardwalk to view the sensitive environment on a guided or self-guided tour.

Osoyoos Elementary School is the only K-7 school in Osoyoos. For the remaining grades, students can attend Osoyoos Secondary School. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Schools

Osoyoos has two schools.

Osoyoos Elementary School offers instruction from kindergarten to grade 7. There’s also a StrongStart pre-school program.

Osoyoos Secondary School serves grades 8 to 12. With just over 200 students and about 18 teachers, the school offers a level of individual teaching seldom seen in larger cities.

Osoyoos Business Stories

Many people have moved to Osoyoos 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 Osoyoos and elsewhere in the South Okanagan.

Jasmine and Marco Calisto have been operating Rooster Mafia Foods since February 2022 near Legion Beach in Osoyoos. It's a market deli strongly influenced by Portuguese traditions. (Richard McGuire Photo)