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Soak, rinse, repeat: A relaxing dip into Canada’s finest hot springs
By John Nelson, from the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Cover photo: Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort
Soak, rinse, repeat.
This is the gloriously relaxing routine along the 500-plus-mile Hot Springs Circle Route through the Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia.
I did it as a camping road trip, which made it even better. For my money, the Kootenays are just as gorgeous as the famed Banff and Jasper National Parks region, and they don’t get the same kind of tourist overload during the summer months.
It takes five to seven days to do the region justice. When you’re not hedonistically lying around in mineral pools, you can hike, bicycle, fish, enjoy water sports, and best of all, meet Canadians, who must be the planet’s friendliest people.
I lost track of how many times people asked me, “Where are you visiting from?” followed by a jovial “Welcome to Canada!”
Kootenay Lake region
From Spokane, it makes sense to start a hot springs tour just across the border in the artsy mountain town of Nelson. We grabbed a campsite at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, one of the best places to stay along the entire route. It feels scenic and remote, even though it’s only 20 minutes from town.
The park has 9.5 kilometers of trails along the creek, through woods and lakeshore. It’s also just 16 km from Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, one of the Kootenays’ most stunning places, which has more than 100 km of trails.
The park is undergoing an interesting remodel this year with the construction of a bear-viewing platform over the spawning channel of Kokanee Creek. In fall, black bears come in droves to feast on kokanee salmon during spawning season, and the platform will provide safe tourist access to watch the bears.
Hike the park, swim in the lake, and then hit nearby Ainsworth Hot Springs, which has its own attractions. Besides having a large pool, Ainsworth offers its famous “hot springs caves” – which feel a little like walking through an overheated amusement park tunnel of love. For the quintessential experience, stand under the steaming springs that fall down the cave walls.
Fairmont and Radium
Everyone needs to take the Kootenay Lake Ferry at least once, and now’s your chance. From Kokanee Creek, drive 20 minutes east to Balfour and get ready for a scenic crossing on the world’s longest free ferry.
Yes, that’s right – it’s free, just one of many reasons to love Canada.
You’ll pass through Creston and Cranbrook and emerge into the broad Columbia Valley, flanked by the ginormous mountains of the Purcell Range to the west and the Rockies to the east. It’s a beautiful drive.
We camped at Fairmont, a good choice. This is the biggest resort along the route and camping there offers a chance to use the hot springs without leaving the property.
Hiking and biking trails snake through the mountains at Fairmont. I went on a great hike/trail run, then had a soak in the massive Fairmont pool, filled with an international soup of visitors.
There were Europeans, Asians, Africans, Indians – and, of course, those friendly Canadians, saying things like, “Isn’t this lovely, eh?” The people-watching alone was fantastic.
The next day, we traveled onward to Radium Hot Springs just 30 minutes down the road, but first we made a side trip to Invermere, a mountain town at the base of nearby Panorama Mountain Resort. Invermere has a ski-town vibe and is an excellent place to seek creature comforts – among them the fine caffeinated products of Kicking Horse Coffee.
Invermere is the Kicking Horse headquarters, and the flagship facility is a bustling hangout filled with attractive mountain-town hipsters. The company motto: “We make coffee that kicks ass.”
After getting my kick, we headed to Radium, just inside the boundary of Kootenay National Park. It’s hard to find a more scenic and satisfying hot springs experience. The setting among canyon walls is stunning and the history of the pool dates back more than 100 years. The well-kept facilities have a satisfying old-school, museum-quality feel.
Revelstoke, Halcyon and Nakusp
From Radium, Revelstoke is about three hours away. You’ll pass through Golden, a hiking and river sports mecca, and then travel over scenic Rogers Pass through Glacier National Park (the Canadian version) and Mount Revelstoke National Park. The hiking opportunities are vast in this historic region, and you can learn about Canada’s first transcontinental rail route at the Rogers Pass visitor center.
I love Revelstoke for a lot of reasons. It’s home to one of North America’s best ski areas, but it’s also a great summer location, with access to lakes and hiking.
It also has a great radio station called the Stoke FM 92.5, where I heard (of all things) punk rocker Jello Biafra playing one night from Williamson’s Lake Campground, a lovely spot just outside of town. It was a weird and wonderful surprise.
We missed Canyon Hot Springs, just up the road from Revelstoke, because it was still closed for the winter months, but that was OK. After all, you can’t soak in every hot springs on this route. Besides the commercial operations, there are dozens more in the backcountry.
Next on the hot springs hit list is Halcyon, about 1.5 hours south of Revelstoke. Again, you get to take a free ferry, this one across scenic Upper Arrow Lake.
Halcyon Hot Springs Resort is another full-service place in a beautiful setting, with excellent dining and lodging options. The pools look down at Arrow Lake and up at the nearby Monashee Mountains, and with no towns nearby, it feels like your own private pool.
We camped 40 minutes down the road at another watering hole, Nakusp Hot Springs, yet another beautiful and remote place to soak. The road to the hot springs travels 13 km off BC Highway 6 high into the mountains, and the camping spots here are well-kept and scenic.
From Nakusp, your tour of the Hot Springs Circle Loop is over, but the scenic driving continues. BC-6 takes you through the historic mining towns of New Denver and Silverton along beautiful Lake Slocan back to Nelson.