Getting into Hot Water: Hot Springs along the Powder Highway

Getting into Hot Water: Hot Springs along the Powder Highway

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You’re driving along the Powder Highway, catching views of mountain lakes as you skip from ski town to ski town in search of frozen H2O. Your mind wanders, imagining these lakes in summer: beaches baked in sunshine and the blue waters cooling your toes. And though you’d never trade this ski trip for a summer of lounging, some part of you — maybe those sore ski muscles? — longs for a little TLC.

And then, as if by divine providence, you round a bend in the highway and spot a sign. It’s directing you to warm waters bubbling up from the earth and held captive by pools, allowing locals and visitors to enjoy. This, my friend, is just one of the many Kootenay hot springs. And your Powder Highway ski trip is incomplete without a visit to at least one of them.

Ainsworth Hot Springs, photo by Matthew Brown

Ainsworth Hot Springs
Kootenay Lake

“The caves are the main feature that makes us unique from the other hot springs,” starts Jake Murfitt, assistant general manager of Ainsworth Hot Springs, referencing the water-filled tunnels that dive into the mountainside.

Situated in the oldest surviving community on Kootenay Lake and surrounded by views of both the lake and the Purcell Mountains, the history of these springs goes back hundreds of years. It includes visits from the Sinixt and Ktunaxa peoples, who gathered here to ease their muscles after hunting trips and battles.

That was long before the commercial opening in 1930. “Like many natural attractions in BC, non-indigenous peoples moved in to establish [mining] communities,” says Murfitt.

In April 2015, the Lower Kootenay Band regained these healing waters, thus returning the Ktunaxa people to the site. In doing so, the band added a second unique aspect to the pools: that of being the only commercially-owned and operated First Nations’ hot springs throughout the region (and beyond).

At least a few things will stay the same: The waters average between 35-42ºC year-round, the rate of water flow naturally changes the water in the pools and caves six times a day, and the views are just as healing as the waters themselves.

“People from around the world share treasured memories of their first visit to Ainsworth,” says Murfitt. “We strive to keep that feeling of ‘aahhh’ as we upgrade the property and amenities throughout.”

Fairmont Hot Springs offers three separate pools, photo by Zoya Lynch

Fairmont Hot Springs
Columbia Valley

Like having your soaking temps “just so”? With three pools, each held at a different temperature (39ºC, 32ºC, and 30ºC), it’s a safe bet that Fairmont Hot Springs has your comfort level covered.

The history of Fairmont Hot Springs traces itself back to early-20th century ranching days when John Hankey took over the property and offered both accommodation and access to the springs for two dollars a day. Over the decades since, the property’s various owners built upon the visions of their

Predecessors. A bathhouse, swimming pool, restaurant, bungalows and various other improvements and expansions followed, turning the resort into what visitors find today: the largest natural hot springs in Canada and a mecca for those who believe in the health and wellness aspects of the naturally-heated waters.

“We flow over 1.2 million gallons of fresh mineral water through our pools daily allowing us to use minimal levels of chlorine,” says Rachel Dick, marketing coordinator at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. And unlike some hot springs that sometimes has a touch of sulphuric smell, Fairmont’s are odourless.

All that’s needed to complete this sweet sensory experience is something to feast your eyes on; good thing the views of the Columbia Valley and Purcell Mountains beyond stand ready to serve this exact need. 

Halcyon Hot Springs, photo by Steve Ogle

Halcyon Hot Springs
Arrow Lake

1890: the First Nations people in this area of the Monashee Range help Captain Robert Sanderson locate the source of the hot springs. He purchases 400 acres of surrounding land, constructs a hotel equipped with plunge pools for its guests, and opens the doors to visitors.

And thus the legacy of Halcyon Hot Springs waters, and their ability to rejuvenate and restore health, was born.

Like Fairmont Hot Springs, Halcyon customizes the temperatures of its terraced pools to suit different degrees of comfort. Depending on the pool, the warm waters move from 32-38-42ºC. The resort’s managers strive to suit even the discerning tastes of pint-sized bathers by tempting them with a spray park located on the lower level of the resort’s decks.

But it’s the water itself — or more specifically, what’s in it  — that gives credence to the years of claims that the springs have restorative virtues for visitors.

For centuries, the First Nations people used the name “Great Medicine Water” to describe Halcyon Hot Springs. More recently, studies show some proof that the name isn’t far off: minerals such as sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium are found in the water. But it is especially the appearance of lithium that is said to aid in a variety of medical conditions including depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even in helping to regenerate pathways in the brain.

Halcyon’s water, and its minerals, is so pure that it claims to be one of the few places in the world where the water is “still bottled and drinkable today.”

And, in keeping with our skiing road trip readers, one traveller to the resort says, “If you are sore from a long road trip or big day of adventures, go and unwind in Halcyon Hot Springs! Let the warm water of the natural mineral springs heal your achy bones and invigorate your spirit!”

Nakusp Hot Springs, photo by Lee Orr

Nakusp Hot Springs
Arrow Lake

When I contact Terry Welsh, director of Recreation & Parks for the Village of Nakusp, I get a reply that first dives into the history of the area’s hot springs.

After following up with my own research, I see why he started with there: the springs took over 80 years to develop, with lot of citizen pushback against private developers who tried to stake claim over the years.

“Explorers originally accessed the hot springs by foot or horseback, taking the 12 km journey from the town of Nakusp, winding their way up the mountain trail through old growth forests,” says Welsh. That same trail exists to this day, now used by outdoor recreation enthusiasts year-round for mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing.

And with a reward like hot springs at the end of a 12 km outing, who wouldn’t be up for some trail time? But the hot springs aren’t only accessible by trail these days; travellers can arrive by car and stay in one of the chalets or, in summer, pitch your tent in the campground. With these and other upgrades, the hot springs have evolved into what Welsh calls “the perfect blend of seclusion, comfort, and accessibility”.

“It is one of the only places I know of where you can see rare wildlife, forage through the forest, and enjoy the comforts of modern day life,” says Welsh. “It truly is a hidden gem amongst the majesty of the Kootenay Mountains.”

Radium Hot Springs hot pool, photo by Shannon Harrison

Canadian Rockies Hot Springs
Kootenay National Park – Radium Hot Springs

If you’re looking for a place to hold a post-ski day soak with 550 of your closest friends, Radium Hot Springs is your answer. Located just inside Kootenay National Park in Sinclair Canyon, Radium holds the record as the single largest hot spring pool in Canada.

And though staring up at two solid rock canyon walls while you’re hanging out in the 39ºC pool is pretty spectacular any time of year, Karin Smith, Parks Canada’s marketing coordinator for the Canadian Rockies Hot Springs, says the winter is when the views get magical.

“During the winter, heavy frosted trees and rocks surround the hot springs facility making the hot pool a magical place to relax and soak,” says Karin Smith.

And, she notes, “the red rock [of the canyon] is absolutely gorgeous.”

The hot springs, considered a spiritual place for First Nations people for centuries, were purchased for $160 in 1890, after which the waters were held captive through the construction of a concrete pool. Once Kootenay National Park was established, the current-day facilities were added: a cool pool, onsite spa, and aqua-court building — which is, itself, undergoing a major upgrade.

Smith continues with the details of the renovations: “Once complete, these projects will protect a federally designated heritage building and hot spring facilities for future generations to enjoy... reduce our environmental footprint, improve accessibility and improve habitat [for local species].” That means, if you’re lucky, you might just spot more of the area’s bighorn sheep while hanging with all 550 of your friends.

Go Backcountry

Prefer a wilder experience? The Kootenay region has plenty of hot springs ready for you in the backcountry you’re ready to get yourself there.

*Note: Some hot springs were intentionally left off if official closures were known (or if they cross onto private land). Additionally, winter access may require winterized vehicles and/or touring gear. Please consult with locals before heading into new backcountry areas, respect any signage, and once in the backcountry, keep noise low, pack out anything you bring in, and leave the site as you found it.

Halfway Hot Springs (near Nakusp) - about 25 km north of Nakusp off of Highway 23; three main pools of differing water temperatures for bathers.

Lussier Hot Springs (near Fairmont) - located within Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, several pools of differing temperatures cool as they move closer to the Lussier River.

Words by Gina Begin.  Cover/top shot by Olivia Robinson at Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park

Gina Begin - Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. On a quest to reach the distant adventures of North America, she lived in her car, traveling to ski the backcountry of Alaska, sleep under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climb Colorado's frozen canyons, photograph Nova Scotia’s coves, backpack in southern US wildernesses and munch on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But after three years living on the road and seeing the many wonders this continent had to offer, she chose the place she knew would fit an explorer looking for a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains.

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Tags: Canadian Rockies Columbia Mountains Explore Canada ExploreBC The Kootenays

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