Trails of the Okanagan

Quietly, behind the scenes, the Trail of the Okanagans Society has been making progress in its plan to create a regional trail between West Kelowna and the Canada-U.S. border.

It’s more challenging than the almost-completed Okanagan Rail Trail between Kelowna and Coldstream, and the Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail between Armstrong and Sicamous (construction starting this year).

“It is important to understand that the task for trail building south of Kelowna is different than for the sections north,” says Janice Liebe, society president.

“There never was a rail line between West Kelowna and Summerland due to the topography. And sections of the rail bed, particularly in the Osoyoos area, have been privately purchased and developed, and are no longer available to be converted to a trail. That said, a proposed route has been defined making use of existing trails, abandoned rail beds and some quiet secondary roads to connect continuously for the 125 kilometres between West Kelowna and the international border.”

To add to the complexity of establishing a regional trail, there are many local jurisdictions involved as sections of the proposed trail fall within the boundaries of the jurisdictions of the Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Regional District of Central Okanagan and the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen as well as the communities of West Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland, Penticton, Kaleden, Okanagan Falls and Osoyoos.

“The Trail of the Okanagans is an advocacy group and does not build trails, but works with all of the above to advocate for the trail and to have it included in official community plans as a priority route that will create a pan-Okanagan trail that connects all communities south of Kelowna. And we are making progress,” said Liebe.

“The Trail of the Okanagans’ development south of Kelowna requires a lot of persistence and patience,” added Henry Sielmann, society past president.

“The topography along the perceived 125-kilometre trail is much more diverse than north of Kelowna. This makes the trail more interesting, but also adds to the complexity and cost of trail construction. Then, there is the large number of stakeholders that all need to be motivated and coordinated.

“About six years ago, the society had made very good progress developing a consistent vision for the connection from Peachland to Summerland to Penticton and Okanagan Falls,” he said.

“But then, a series of wildfires and flooding distracted resources from districts and communities, and sections of the route suffered additional severe erosion. Elections for local governments caused some of those who had been onboard to leave office. We had lost much of the momentum.”

There is no doubt that local municipalities and districts are in favour of trail construction, he said.

“And hopefully, recent efforts to develop strategies with First Nations will allow those involved to build a vision that rebuilds the momentum and can form the basis for funding this undertaking. I believe that the provincial government has a big role to play and hope that they will come onboard."”

Sielmann believes one of the most promising developments lately was the addition of a council member from the Penticton Indian Band to the board of directors of the Trail of the Okanagans Society.

“This opens a whole new range of possibilities and I very much hope that it will accelerate the development of our trail system in the South Okanagan while offering the opportunity to integrate cultural and historical aspects of First Nations across this region.”

Here are the latest accomplishments toward the West Kelowna to Osoyoos trail.

— West Kelowna to Peachland: The WFN just completed a three-metre paved multi-use pathway through its territory on Campbell Road just off the Bennett Bridge, said Liebe.

“The Regional District of Central Okanagan is in the process of updating the Kalamoir Regional Park plan which will determine how a multi-use pathway can be constructed through the park to connect between Campbell and Sunnyside roads in West Kelowna.

“This pathway was identified in the Sustainable Transportation Partnership of the Central Okanagan as a priority route and part of the Westside trail to connect West Kelowna to the Bennett Bridge and to Peachland.”

The City of West Kelowna is reviewing the existing waterside pathways for improvements to better support active transportation and to separate cyclists from pedestrians between Sunnyside and Whitworth roads, she said.

“Since 2018, the RDCO created Goats Peak Regional Park and converted a private gravel roadway to a trail. This is one of the most beautiful sections of the trail with spectacular unobstructed vistas of Okanagan Lake.

“Last year, the RDCO purchased a piece of private property that allowed for the park and trail to be extended to Whitworth Road in West Kelowna,” she said.

“At the moment, there is a stair with a bike ramp at the connection to Whitworth, and the society is advocating for an extension of the pathway within the park to connect in more level fashion to Gellatly Road South. With these moves, the trail now extends to the boundary of Peachland at Seclusion Bay Road."

In collaboration with the Gellatly Bay Trails and Parks Society, the society has completed engineering designs and has obtained Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure support for a trail to be built within the MOTI easement between Goats Peak Regional Park and Buchanan Road in Peachland.

Through the District of Peachland, grant funds have been applied for and construction is anticipated to take place in 2024 if successful.

“This trail will offer the first-ever safe active transportation route away from Drought Hill and will finally connect Peachland to West Kelowna,” said Liebe.

Peachland is completing its first Active Transportation Plan. It includes the Trail of the Okanagans as a priority route.

— Working with First Nations: “Significant sections of potential trail fall within PIB and OIB lands, and indeed the entire proposed route is within traditional, unceded territory. Much of the society's efforts over the past two years have been the beginning of a learning process on how we can best be of support,” said Liebe.

“As of last fall, Tim Lezard, a current councillor with the PIB, has joined the society board and has provided much valuable advice. The PIB has purchased the KVR rail alignment that runs through the PIB reserve.

“It is up to the band to determine what will happen with the rail bed and on what timeline. For the time being, the PIB has advised that the trail is unsafe for use and that those that use the rail bed are trespassing.

There are many sections that are badly eroded and unsafe. In other areas, the PIB, the City of Penticton and the RDOS have formalized an agreement for the maintenance of the channel trail on the west side of the Penticton Channel.”

Summerland is of constructing an extension to the multi-use pathway along Giants Head Road and will open the pathway late spring this year, she said. Summerland is also developing a new downtown plan which includes the Trail of the Okanagans route.

The Trail of the Okanagans just launched its new logo at the beginning of March, noted Liebe.

“It was designed by Emily Pooley, a 14-year-old Syilx artist. The logo design exceeded our expectations and is a beautiful design that connects Syilx cultural values and history to the creation of the trail over 6,000 years ago.”