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British Columbia & Alberta, Canada
by Glen Cowley

There are not enough “a's” in “aaaaaaaaah” to impart the soothing sensation of slow immersion into a mountain hung hot springs pool.

The Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia 800 kilometre Hot Springs Circle Tour affords travellers a week-long, hot-springs-per-day experience. From the luxurious to the rustic are offerings of international acclaim.

Day One

We slipped off the Trans-Canada Highway onto Highway 23, just west of Revelstoke, and were soon at the tiny Shelter Bay ferry terminal for the free, 25 minute jaunt across the Arrow Lakes to Galena Bay. 15 minutes later we were twisting down the drive to Halcyon Hot Springs lodge.

Saddled beside the Arrow lakes, under the shadow of the Monashee Mountains, the new lodge, dated 1998, rises upon the memory of the original; which began life in 1894 under the hand of Captain Sanderson, a river steam boat captain whose remains are buried on site. The rich history of the old lodge, from halcyon days to fiery demise in 1955, are recounted in a book available on loan at the front desk. Few original buildings survived the fire and flooding caused by the damming of the Columbia; save for the poignant presence of the 1945-built chapel where owner Dr.Frederick Burnham buried wife Anna and sister in law, Elizabeth. Dr, Burnham himself perished 10 years later in the lodge's flaming end.

Present day lodge amenities, from chalets to rooms to fine dining and soothing pools, did not disappoint. A serene wilderness surrounds this warm luxury like a single heavenly star. Heavens, free of city glare, as clear as nature created them.

A dip in the 100 degree warm pool contrasted sharply with the steamy intensity of the hot pool at 107 degrees. A quick 55 degree cold pool plunge had me thinking Vienna Boys Choir. We settled in the warm pool, lazing at length and drinking in the mountain-lake vista. Above us restaurant patrons dined at the Kingfisher restaurant, soft music perfumed the air and the sun slowly set, lavender hued, behind the Monashees. Patio lights lent calming luster to the three upper pools.

Day Two

After a quick morning dip we regained the highway for the short drive to Nakusp, passing the gravel road to St. Leon Hot Springs; a rather daunting wild hot springs side trip for more daring souls.

Nakusp's community-owned pools nestle within a secluded, wooded river valley 12 paved miles off the highway just north of town. Accommodations include six chalets and campsites strung close by a circular pool complex surrounded by steamed plexiglas walls. Services include a small novelty store and basic restaurant facilities. If less imposing than Halcyon it is no less charming and friendly. The circular pool has an apportioned hot pool cooking at 105 degrees and soothing warm pool at 98 degrees.

Day Three

The journey to Ainsworth wound through narrow valleys which brought us to historic mining town New Denver and its well kept edifices recalling heady days near the turn of the 20th century. We grabbed a quick picnic near the shores of Slocan Lake under the towering Valhalla Mountain Range and close by the local museum housed within the old Bank of Montreal building dating from 1893. Cruising through wooded walls on winding road we passed crumbling ruins of old mining sites on the way to equally historic Kaslo. Here the carefully restored stern wheeler S.S. Moyie sits upon shore as a museum; its last 1957 run but a memory. Immense Kootenay Lake exploded into view; its horizon fading far, far to the south. Like New Denver Kaslo has cherished and cared for its historic buildings and architectural aficionados could easily spend a holiday weekend just exploring the two old towns' offerings.

Another 20 minutes south landed us in cliff-faced Ainsworth, clocking 2 hours driving time from Nakusp. The Ainsworth Hot Springs Hotel, restaurant and pool dominates the old town; a pale reflection of the busy lake port that began life in 1882 at the start of the Kootenay mining boom. The fine-dining restaurant overlooks the pools and the renowned circular hot pool caves, originally carved out of the rock by early miners. They are a unique attraction complimenting the large warm pool, comfy hot pool and the bone chilling cold dip pool. Busy year round, the pools are within reach of nearby Nelson and reflect popularity with a broad demographic.

The panoramic splendor of mountain and lake dimmed to the warming comfort of night lit pools and a feeling of serenity wafted over us as the evening drew dark. Food and lodging options are limited at Ainsworth but Kaslo, Balfour and even Nelson are close enough to consider their facilities.

Day Four

A long travel day began well as we caught the 8:30 am ferry, the Osprey 2000, pulling out from Balfour on its 35 minute scenic free ride across Kootenay Lake. The large capacity ferry is equipped with a coffee/snack bar and extensive viewing venues.

From Kootenay Bay we cruised to Creston then west for the headwaters of the Columbia River. This time we we not making for a resort. This time we taking a wee side trip off the beaten track. Lussier Hot Springs is a bumpy 18 kilometres off the main highway just shy of the headwaters of the Columbia River at Columbia Lake. At points the road narrowed along the steep sided valley with the river rushing far below but this is a well traveled route despite its heart fluttering exposure. When we reached the parking lot just inside Top of the World Provincial Park it was a teem with cars, trucks and motor homes.

A winding dirt track led sharply down to the dancing Lussier River where rustic boulder-framed pools were awash with bathers. German and French accents wafted upwards as people of all ages scrambled about and lounged in the gravel-bottomed pools. The hot pool stood around 105 degrees as we eased in. Personal sized nooks and crannies housed singular soakers. Friendly chatter warbled like a flock of song birds. Lussier is unlike its more developed kin, a little harder to get to, a lot closer to the wilderness and thus its unique attraction. A bit of adventure increased its allure.

A short drive got us to Fairmont Hot Springs and a fine B&B. Fairmont provides a host of accommodations and is the ideal setting for a couple nights to take in area hot springs.

Day Five

Fairmont's hot springs fame has seeped through time with singular acclaim as the Smoking Waters of First Nations legend. On a hill overlooking the pools at the lodge, natural hot waters seep and stream over a calcified knoll, its sulphuric aroma wafting close to the ground and housing a few warm, bathtub-size pools carved within for those inclined to experience a more natural setting. A series of stone rooms with bathtub pools recall the early years of commercial exploitation.

The lodge pools were the biggest of all we had experienced and are enjoyed by people of all ages. This is Alberta's playground, in particular Calgary's.

Day Six

Radium Hot Springs hides behind the cloistered red walls of Sinclair Canyon in Kootenay National Park on highway 93 to Alberta. Known to the white man since the days of the fur trade when Hudson Bay Company governor Sir George Simpson enjoyed the waters; its history is ancient and carries an aura of being B.C. hot springs royalty. Long has it been associated with the world famous magnificence of the Rocky Mountain National Parks of Canada.

Its appeal is year round and nearby Radium Hot Springs is chock full of accommodations hinged upon the soothing allure of its waters. Expansive facilities include a large warm pool and small hot pool but also a full sized pool; making this as much a family destination as that of Fairmont. Here you are within the bowels of the mountains. If fortune favours, you may witness deft-footed mountain sheep on the overlooking rock face cavorting indifferent to the human presence below.

Day Seven

This was a long drive day to Golden then on through the rugged Selkirks, but hardly boring. Topping the Rogers Pass under the towering gaze of Mt Tupper and the wrinkled rock face beneath Illicilliwaet Glacier we fell away into insignificance amid the immensity of an alpine world.

Canyon Hot Springs was our last stop and perhaps the least formative of them all. Yet this unassuming resort with a few chalets, campgrounds and its simple hot and warm pools had a comfortable family appeal. Just off the Trans Canada, under the shadow of imposing peaks, it is a soothing break from the busy traffic rush.

As the mountains faded into our rear view mirror the next day we cruised on as relaxed as meditative monks; our senses peacefully assailed amid the powerful beauty of nature.

If You Go:

Hot Rocks – Travelling the shoulder seasons (May/June and September/October) when fewer tourists are sharing the winding roads and scenic settings allows you time and circumstance to leisurely drink in the experience. You can check ferry schedules and road construction using the BC Ministry of Transportation site. Water socks are handy for walking about the rocks at Lussier Hot Springs.

www.bchotsprings.com – provides information on all of the Kootenay hot springs in one handy site.
www.th.gov.bc.ca/highwaytravellers.htm – provides updated information on ferry schedules, road construction and conditions.
www.kootenays-bc.com - provides information on accommodations and activities in the Kootenays
www.bcgasprices.com – provides an updated breakdown of best gas prices in B.C.

Photo Credits:

Photos are by Glen Cowley.

Contributor's Bio:

Since 1994 Glen Cowley has parlayed his interest in sports, travel and history into both books and articles. The author of two books on hockey and over fifty published articles (including sports, biographies and travel) he continues to explore perspectives in time and place wherever his travels take him. From the varied landscapes of British Columbia to Eastern Canada and the USA, the British Isles, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and France he has found ample fodder for features.
See Glen Cowley’s website at: http://www.windandice.shawwebspace.ca