This post marks the 12th chapter of my 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip, and I've been having a fabulous time camping my way around British Columbia. I've wandered through places that have etched stories in my heart – from the serene beauty of Okanagan Lake Provincial Park to the tranquility of Christina Lake. I've sipped on the finest wines at Columbia Garden Winery, immersed myself in the soothing waters of Nakusp Hot Springs, and even embarked on a historical odyssey through Yoho and Banff National Parks. Today's post will find me camping in the South Okanagan town of Osoyoos (oh-soy-yoos), BC.
Osoyoos is a town in the Canadian desert -- yes, that really is a thing! Come meander with me as I take you on a virtual ride through three days spent in Osoyoos. From the rich Nk’mip (in-kah-meep) indigenous history to just chilling on the beach stuffing myself full of cherries and apricots, it was a great way to spend a few days before heading home for a quick check-in and a birthday celebration for my son.
Osoyoos: A Oasis in the Desert
Osoyoos is a small town in the Okanagan (oh-kah-nah-gun) Valley, very close to the Canada-USA border, about 5 hours east of Vancouver or 2 hours south of Kelowna. You can also fly in to nearby Penticton or Kelowna airport and rent a vehicle to enjoy a splendid road trip in the area.
This is one of the most unusual geographic regions in Canada. The town is in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains, at the northern end of the Sonoran desert (which extends through the continent from Mexico). This creates a hot, sunny, and dry climate area known as the "Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone". It is more precisely called a "pocket desert" because it technically gets too much precipitation but this zone regularly boasts the lowest annual precipitation, warmest annual temperature and being the warmest fresh water lake in Canada.
The entire Okanagan area is beautiful with rolling hills, lots of resorts, cottages, guesthouses, gorgeous lakes and campgrounds. The Okanagan is known for its incredible fruit orchards and wineries.
The Nk’mip indigenous history is an integral part of Osoyoos' identity. Their connection to the land, the stories passed down through generations, and the wisdom embedded in their traditions add a richness to every corner of this oasis. The Nk'mip presence is felt strongly in this area and later in the blog, I will share a couple of must-see Nk'mip experiences.
The name Osoyoos comes from the Syilx word soo-yoos, meaning "the place where two lakes meet" referring to the narrows formed by two spits across the lake. Ancient rock art and local oral history show that Aboriginal people have lived here for thousands of years.
The first Europeans to Osoyoos were fur traders who had ventured up the Okanagan River to Osoyoos Lake and farther north in the early 1800s. After the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the fur trade in 1821, the Okanagan Valley became a major trade route for supplies to inland forts of British Columbia and for furs that were shipped south to the Columbia River for transport to European and Asian markets.
During the gold rushes of the mid and late 1800s, thousands of miners from all over the world headed to the goldfields. Most prospectors made and lost a fortune (or two or three or more!) and returned home with empty pockets and tales of hard work and hard living. Entrepreneurial types created businesses. Those unable or unwilling to return home set up homes and created lives in various communities along the way. The original gold rush towns that still remain were the ones that recognized other opportunities as the gold rushes waned.
Although the fruit-growing possibilities were noticed by the early settlers, it was not until 1907 when the first commercial orchard in the area was established, growing cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, and apples. As Osoyoos developed into a lush growing zone, it promoted “ the earliest fruit in Canada.” It was not until the 1960s that grape-growing became established on a large scale. Today, vineyards are a major feature of the landscape.
Today, with a population of about 5,000, agriculture and tourism are the community’s largest economic sectors. Osoyoos’ motto today is “Canada’s warmest welcome.”
Things to Do While Camping in Osoyoos
Osoyoos is not a party town. It's quiet and there is no nightlife to speak about. This is a small town that swells in population over the summer months. Families have returned to the same spot for generations. Accommodations can be found in high end resorts and apartment rentals or humble beach cabanas and campgrounds. Osoyoos is all about the beach life.
The Okanagan is home to 39 wineries, so it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out which ones you should go to! There is only one winery in Osoyoos proper but the Golden Mile Bench area is very close by with multiple wineries...with stunning views, beautiful vineyards, attractive tasting rooms, and interesting tours. Many also have highly-rated fine dining restaurants. Follow Hwy 97 heading north of the lake or follow the loop that includes Oliver and Penticton. Wine fans should check out the Wine BC web site for a run down on all of the wineries.
OK Wine Shuttle
OK Wine Shuttle is a great way to go on wine tours without worrying about limiting your drivers' tastings. This shuttle service drives in a loop and hits several wineries. It runs from 10:00 to 19:00 daily. They have several different packages available at different price points. Check out their website to plan your winery tour.
image: OK Wine Shuttle
I decided to visit the Nk'mip Cellars Winery, the first indigenous winery in Canada. As I approached the Nk'mip vineyard, I realized this was a whole resort and cultural area. I will be staying here on my next trip through Osoyoos. Everything I saw here was excellent quality and the reviews of the campground are very good.
The tasting room has a welcoming rustic charm with wooden barrels in the corners and photographs hung about that tell the story of the Nk’mip community's connection to the land. The staff is warm, welcoming, enthusiastic and very informative.
The three wines I remember most were a Merlot, their "Dreamcatcher", and a Rosé that is apparently out-of-stock in most wine stores. I started with the 2020 Merlot, a velvety red with notes of dark cherries and a hint of spice. Next up was the 2022 Dreamcatcher, a white blend with a citrusy aroma and the flavours of green apple and pear. It was the 2022 Rosé that stole the show for me. With its delicate blush hue, I was treated to the taste of red berries and a subtle floral undertone. This was the bottle I chose to buy, thinking of the grilled chicken I was planning for dinner.
Tumbleweed Spirits Tasting Room
The Tumbleweed Spirits Tasting Room is a distillery making vodka, gin and moonshine that is located in Osoyoos, not far from the campground I had chosen. If you want a change from the wineries, this distillery makes a nice change. I didn't visit it this trip but have thoroughly enjoyed it on previous visits.
At 12 miles long (19km), Osoyoos Lake sits on the border between Canada and USA and is located in both Osoyoos, BC and Oroville, Washington. Osoyoos Lake is the warmest fresh-water lake in Canada. Visitors to Osoyoos tend to spend a lot of time in, on, and about the lake. Many of the campgrounds and resorts have their own private beach areas, where families and groups set up for the day with kayaks, paddle boards, various inflatable floaties, and large canopies. Most of the beach areas will include some shade but the prime spots are often taken, so it's a good idea to plan to bring a sun umbrella or shade tent.
Rent a Boat, SUP or Sea-doo
You don’t need to own a boat or paddle board, you can rent one for an hour, day or week in town. There are several companies available but I used Wakepilot (which also rents Sea-doos!) to rent a standup paddle board for $25 an hour. If you are part of a larger group, you can rent full-sized speed boats or pontoon boats too. Wakepilot has rental facilities in several resorts around Osoyoos so you choose the most convenient location to where you are staying.
Osoyoos is surrounded by fruit stands. A stop at one of the hundreds of fruit stands is an absolute must for fresh farm to table options. Most fruit stands also offer fresh bread, non-alcoholic ciders, vegetables, jams, honeys and sauces. There is little to compare to the taste of cherries that were hanging from a tree just hours previous. Make sure to stop and pick up whatever fruit is in season.
Nk'mip Desert Cultural Center
The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is a spectacular state-of-the-art interpretive centre with lots of exhibits both indoors and out. There are two theatres, hands-on displays and lots of education stations to help visitors learn about the indigenous history of the area.
image credit: Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre
The multi-media indoor exhibits were fascinating. There were amazing displays of the traditional beadwork, basket-making and traditional clothing. History is usually shared in the indigenous community in an oral story-telling format. This was replicated by the sharing of the stories, legends, and connections from the guides and exhibits. Daily trail walks and presentations are available during the summer months.
Outside of the centre, I followed a trail that led to a traditional village. The path wound through the desert with signs providing insights into the Nk’mip people's knowledge of the desert, understandings of the natural world, and their spiritual beliefs.
Arriving at the village, I was fascinated at the sight of a traditional pit house and sweat lodge. I really enjoyed the metal sculptures depicting figures doing traditional tasks and activities.
The basic entrance fee to the Nk'mip Desert Centre is $16 per adult for a self-guided tour. The centre is open from 10:00 - 16:00 daily. The outdoor boardwalk is 1.5 km and the provided booklet guides visitors along 12 stops, each focusing on different facts about Canada’s only desert landscape.
Be aware that there is very little shade on the boardwalk. On a typical summer day in Osoyoos, a hat and water bottle are recommended. It is possible to get some drinks and snacks at the gift shop.
Camping Osoyoos: Brookvale Holiday Resort Review
I was looking for a quieter area of Osoyoos, away from the public beach and the main part of town and found Brookvale Holiday Resort -- the most southern campground on the eastern shore. This is a family-owned and operated campground that has attracted families for generations (although it has changed owners several times over the years). It has RV sites with hook-ups, tenting sites with 15 amp service, beach sites, and 12 side-by-side cabanas.
The self-catering cabanas, a fairly common accommodation type in the area, are small (12 x 18 ft) and very basic. They include 2 sets of bunks with foam mattresses, a hot plate, and refrigerator but do not include a toilet or shower which are shared with the campers. Renters bring everything else, including bed linens/sleeping bags.
Rates vary according to the season and the services required, ranging from $42/night for a tent site in the off-season to $54 for a fully-serviced site in peak season. Cabanas are rented on a weekly basis during peak season for $595/week.
Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
This campground is on the eastern shore and is the last campground along the road before the Osoyoos Regional Park and the Canada-USA border. Their beach is located across the street from the main campground. It's currently a less-developed area but there was a fair amount of construction of what looked like holiday condos suggesting it will become more developed in the next few years.
Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
The campground is very well-equipped. The washhouse includes hot showers, flush toilets, and laundry. The cabanas open onto a grassy area with a playground for kids. There is a private beach and a boat launch across the road. The office also has a small store with treats and basic camping needs.
They do have somewhat inconsistent WIFI. Where I was located, near the wash house, the service was pretty good but the teens from the upper sites gathered around the washhouse and office to use their phones.
Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
The sites are small with no privacy between the sites. The best sites are booked up to a year in advance. The family opposite me have booked the same two sites for the summer for more than 30 years. My site, at the end of the row, was roomier than most. There is some shade but not a lot. The desert climate creates a lot of dust. It was extremely dry while I was there -- as a matter of fact, this area was evacuated due to a fast-moving wildfire two days after I left. (the fire has been contained without wide-spread damage)
Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
There are very few services along this road. The closest grocery stores, convenience shops, and liquor store are on the opposite side of the lake, at least 2 kilometres away. There are some cafés and restaurants in the larger hotels but no stand-alone restaurants in this area of east Osoyoos. There is an amusement park called Rattlesnake Canyon about 1 kilometre from the campground that was very popular with the kids and teens.
I did enjoy the lakeside walk which was quite pretty with plantings and a water feature. The walk is a great way to check out all the fancy private campgrounds with the very expensive huge motorhomes and their permanent patios, the homes along the way, and the beautiful lake views. Btw, if anyone dives in this lake, you might find my drone on the bottom -- I wondered if the winds were too strong but went ahead anyways.... another lesson learned.
Noise Levels 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
The noise around this campground during the day was the sounds of campers, children, and boats on the lake. It was very quiet at night. The only night-time disruption was the night a sudden thunderstorm came through and campers were rushing outside to take down their awnings and canopies in the wind and rain. (I had checked the weather report and had taken my canopy down, so I stayed snugly and smugly in bed)
Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️
The area where I was located wasn't particularly attractive but the upper areas were better. The site is arranged efficiently and tightly. The green area where kids gathered to play and adults joined together for evening drinks was a lovely and cool grassy area. The beach area has some shade but most shade is claimed by those full time summer residents. The view from the beach is lovely. The low levels of light pollution provide a stunning night sky on clear nights.
Kłlilx’w (Spotted) Lake
My last stop was made as I was leaving Osoyoos and heading towards home. The unique Kłlilx’w Lake (pronounced k-thlelth0k), also known as Spotted Lake, is a sacred indigenous mineral lake located along Highway 3, west of Osoyoos. The land surrounding the lake was privately owned for 40 years, but in 2001 the federal government acquired it for the Okanagan Nation. Visitors are not allowed close to the lake and may only visit by invitation from a local band member. There is no official pull-out or viewpoint, so be aware of traffic if you plan to stop along the highway.
The lake's unique beauty lies in its spotty surface, a result of the mineral-rich water evaporating in the summer heat and leaving behind mineral deposits. Throughout the summer, the spots shift in size and colour as the minerals within each change with further evaporation. Colours ranging from blue to green to yellow appear, depending on the mineral makeup of each individual spot. The sight of the lake was unlike anything I had ever seen, a mosaic of colours that seemed to shimmer.
This lake is more than just a visual spectacle; it holds deep spiritual significance for the Nk’mip people. Kłlilx’w Lake is considered sacred, a place of healing and reverence. The belief is that each of the different circles holds its own unique medicinal and healing properties. As I stood by the highway, gazing at the intricate patterns formed by the mineral deposits, I couldn't help but feel the spirituality the lake represents. While I wished I could get closer to the lake, I understood the importance of respecting the Nk’mip people's wishes.
As I reflect on the experiences that have shaped this road trip, I invite each of you to head off on your own adventures. Whether you're a fellow road-tripper, an armchair traveller, or someone planning your next getaway, may this journey inspire you to explore, to seek connections, and to discover the magic that resides in every corner of our world.
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Even though I am headed home for a couple of days, this was not the end of my Summer BC Road Trip. I was soon back on the road to Vancouver Island for the second half of this wonderful van life adventure. I hope you will join me!
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