Spring into something hot
There is a feeling of discovery in coming around a bend in the trail and seeing wisps of steam rising from still, dark pools, and something primal about slipping into a wilderness hot springs. Such secret places are known to have been sacred to native cultures the world over. Battles have been fought and claims “jumped” to maintain ownership of such sites.
A friend and I set out on a quest to visit such sites. Our interest was piqued by a chance discovery of a map of the “Hot Springs Loop” drive, a 500-mile circle route in northern Washington and southeastern British Columbia. The route takes travelers through the scenery of the B.C. Rockies – up the Slocan Valley, over Rogers Pass and down the east Kootenay trench, with the Bugaboos to the west and Yoho National Park to the east. Stops along the way include a number of developed hot springs – Ainsworth, Nakusp, Halcyon, Canyon, Radium and Fairmont to name a few. Surely, we thought, there was more to this. In addition to all the fancy spas and resorts there must be wild secret places where one can go back in spirit to earlier days.
Our trip kicked off with a leisurely drive along the Washington state highline over Rainy Pass, north to Tonasket, through Colville then north to Ione, Washington. Crossing the Canadian border, we drove up the east side of Kootenay Lake under the long shadows of the setting sun. The feature attraction at Ainsworth Hot Springs resort, our first stop, is a hot spring-fed cave carved into the hillside. After a quick breakfast the next morning we paid the $10 fee for a one-time soak and went in to explore. The Ainsworth springs originate above the resort in the Cody Caves area.
Water works its way down through porous rock to a depth of about one mile until it strikes what is known as a lakeshore fault. Hydraulic pressure forces the water up along the fault where it emerges at Ainsworth Hot Springs. Miners attempting to increase the flow of hot water from the springs carved the horseshoe-shaped resort cave. Mineral-laden water dripping from the roof has formed stalactites and other lovely spelotherms such as soda straws and flowstone. The cave is a natural sauna, so after a few quick circuits we retreated to the open-air pool to enjoy the cool morning air and breathtaking views of the lake below.
The real adventure began after our morning dip. We loaded up the truck and headed north to search for an undeveloped spring site located on provincial forest land along the banks of the Halfway River just south of the town of Nakusp. The bone-rattling drive along a potholed gravel forest road seemed much longer than the advertised 11 km (6.83 miles). Just as we were beginning to think we’d missed the trail, we rounded a bend and found a narrow parking strip choked with 10 or more vehicles. So much for solitude. Still, we’d come this far, so we gamely set off down the steep trail to the river.
I dove off the trail at the first faint downhill track. Slipping and scrambling down to the river, we emerged on a wide gravel bar. The bedrock wall about 500 feet downstream looked about right – but where were all the people? Spying a rock cairn, we headed downstream. Sure enough, there were a series of small hot pools just where the river hit a steep bedrock wall … but still no people.
Not quite believing our luck, we shimmied out of our clothes and slipped into the uppermost pool. As we soaked and enjoyed the view upriver, we saw people on a gravel bar about a quarter of a mile upstream. They looked back at us quizzically, but swift rapids and another bedrock wall blocked the route along the river to our little pools. After enjoying a long soak we dressed and headed back up the hill, angling upstream towards what we figured must be the main spring area. We clambered over a small bedrock hummock and dropped down into the real Halfway River hot spring. A nest of youthful hippie-wannabies was camped under a blue tarp right on the edge of the most desirable riverside pool. Several rustic wooden tubs filled with hot water (and other bathers) dotted the riverbank as we worked our way upstream, congratulating ourselves for our serendipitous “mistake” of heading downhill too soon.
The hot springs loop goes north from Halfway River, across Upper Arrow Lake on a small ferry to Revelstoke, then over Rogers Pass through Glacier Provincial Park to Golden. We bypassed Canyon Hot Springs Resort (closed for the season), and headed south down the Purcell Trench.
A quick stop at Radium Hot Springs, the western gateway to Yoho National Park, revealed a low-key family style bathing center. Kids from the nearby town were having a swimming lesson, while a handful of tourists enjoyed the pool fed by the hot springs. Our target was elsewhere though. The amiable proprietress of the Ainsworth Motel had told us of growing up in Fairmont where her mother had worked at the glamorous Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. She advised us to ignore the main resort, park in the overflow parking lot, and head for the top of a small knoll to the “Indian Baths.” That sounded like our kind of place.
Fairmont Hot Springs was almost empty, as “tourist” season in the Canadian Rockies seems to be very much focused on summer hiking and winter skiing, without much happening in between. The campground was deserted, so we snagged a spot just as dark fell then headed down to try out the resort pool in the moonlight. Nice enough, and obviously popular with the few families and retirees taking advantage of the off-season. The real treat came the next morning. We hiked uphill at daybreak to find the original concrete bath house, a small tub carved into the “tufa” bedrock, and a series of shallow natural pools colored vivid brown, green and blue against the pale calcareous background. We spent a delightful hour trying each of them, with the mist in the valley hiding the main resort and almost leading us to believe we were alone on an undiscovered hillside.
Next on the list was Lussier Hot Springs, a set of undeveloped pools located in White Swan Provincial Park. The parking area sports toilet facilities and a small changing room, with a well-maintained path leading down to the springs. A fabulous series of clear, rock-lined pools is perched right on the riverbank, with oh-so-hot water in the top pool gradually working down to a pleasantly warm bath where one can adjust the temperature by allowing in as much icy creek water as necessary to remain comfortable. This delightful and peaceful site was almost our own. We shared the spot with one other bather, who spoke of yet another nearby “wilderness” spring called Ram Creek Hot Springs, as well as Dewar Hot Springs, located about 5.5 miles (9 km) up a reportedly “muddy and indistinct” trail. Alas, our time was coming to a close, so those adventures would have to wait for next time. x