Kelowna is the largest city between coastal BC and Calgary, and the Kelowna metropolitan area has a population of just over 200,000 in the centre of British Columbia's Okanagan valley, spread down both sides of Okanagan Lake. The City of Kelowna comprises the bulk of the population on the east side, while the City of West Kelowna and the Westbank First Nation on the west side have the remaining approximately 1/3. The two cities are joined by the William R Bennett Bridge, a floating bridge with raised span to permit boat passage.
Kelowna has a rapidly growing population, and is famous for both holidays and retirement. Historically it has not had a large youth population, who have left the city for education or employment, but with the growth of UBC Okanagan and a burgeoning tech industry, it is beginning to diversify out from the traditional staples of agriculture, tourism, and retail. Its nicknames include Kelownafornia, and K-town. The word 'Kelowna' is a respelling of the Okanagan word for 'Grizzly bear'.
Kelowna's geography is defined by lakes and mountains. The east side is predominantly built on the flat terrace of an old lake bed, with limited building on the adjacent mountains (such as Knox Mountain and Dilworth mountain). Building is concentrated on the terraces on the east side, but sprawls more over the mountain slopes on the west, where there is less flat land immediately adjacent.
The city is focused around a pinch-point on Okanagan lake, which was traditionally known to the Okanagan (Syilx) people as 'the swim across place'. There is an annual officially organized swim across the lake in summer, where police shut down boat traffic in the morning and the swimmers' safety is monitored.
Kelowna's location in a long valley running north-south is largely responsible for its climate and lifestyle; the warm dry air coming north from the Sonoran desert creates the local climate, and arctic air masses are typically blocked by the mountains. Occasionally cold air enters, and causes cold snaps.
The weather allows for myriad golf courses in the valley, as well as water sports on the lake (swimming, boating, kayaking, fishing, etc), while the local mountains support ski resorts like Big White.
The area covered by Kelowna is large for the population, and urban development tends to be sprawling and low density. There are ongoing efforts to densify, in particular the downtown area, and to improve public transit and cycle routes. As of 2016, Kelowna was labelled "the most car dependent city in Canada", and had the highest rate of car ownership in BC. Global News, Kelowna bus riders asked to weigh in on transit.
The region has many parks based around mountains, rivers and canyons, with waterfalls like Bear Creek and Fintry (on the west side) and Canyon Falls (on the east). Okanagan Mountain just to the south of Kelowna has many hiking trails around the park, and Knox Mountain immediately north of downtown has a trail to the top with a pavilion overlooking the city at the summit. Mount Boucherie in West Kelowna is another popular hike, the remains of a long-dormant volcano.
Kelowna is occasionally described as being a 'desert', but is more accurately described as 'semi-arid'. The winters are cool compared to the BC coast, but mild against any major Canadian city further east, rarely dropping below -15C due to valley inversion cloud, which can make winters gloomy, but also traps warmth in the valley. They are rarely long, and cold temperatures are normally gone by March. Summers are long and hot, with daytime highs frequently exceeding 35C. Unfortunately, the valley's heat and aridity often lead to forest fires; common sighs include It wouldn't be summer in the Okanagan without half the valley being on fire and You know summer's coming in Kelowna when you pass the airport & the water bombers are all lined up.
Kelowna International Airport (YLW) is linked by regular flights to Canadian destinations (with several flights daily to Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto) and international, mainly in the USA and Mexico. There are no direct flights to Europe.
Highway 97 runs north-south through the Okanagan valley, beginning at the US border at Osoyoos and continuing north through Vernon towards Kamloops. In Kelowna, it functions as one of the city's main arteries, as Harvey Avenue, with many of the city's big-box stores and strip malls laid out alongside it. Highway 97C, the Okanagan Connector, is a relatively new road striking out west across the mountains and Pennask Summit to join the Coquihalla Highway at Merritt. On the Connector and Coquihalla, Vancouver is approximately four hours west of Kelowna in good weather.
Winter tires are required for all mountain highways in BC between October and March, and are recommended in the valleys. They are not required if you are remaining entirely within the Okanagan, but it is not possible to drive between the coast and interior without them.
There are no railways to Kelowna. The city has never been served directly by passenger service, and both the Kettle Valley railway and Kelowna Pacific Railway have been converted to rail trails.
Kelowna lost its Greyhound service in October 2018 along with the rest of western Canada, but a coach service to Vancouver has been re-established.
Population and demographics
As of the 2016 census, the Kelowna census metropolitan area had a population of 195,000, growing at about 3,000 per year. It was the 3rd largest census region in BC, and the 22nd largest in Canada. The metro region is some 25 square km larger than Metro Vancouver, despite having a population less than 1/10 the size.
Around 85% of the population speak English as their first language; German is the second most common mother tongue (at around 3%), followed by French.
UBC Okanagan Okanagan College
The City of Kelowna contains multiple different areas, which were settled as different towns and grew together. The built-up urban area on the east side of the lake has been amalgamated into a single city, and is separated by green space from Lake Country (to the north). Okanagan Mountain blocks Kelowna from Naramata and Penticton to the south. The city council is elected at large and does not have wards representing the communities, which include Rutland, the Mission, Glenmore, and downtown.
Across the lake, the City of West Kelowna voted narrowly not to join the City of Kelowna, but to incorporate as its own City. The City of West Kelowna is more spread out and low density, covering communities such as Rose Valley, Shannon Lake, the Town of Westbank, and two reserves of the Westbank First Nation, Tsinstikeptum 9 and 10.