There’s something about hot springs that makes it easy to strike up conversations with strangers.
Perhaps it’s the heat that makes one so relaxed that all inhibitions dissolve, or the well-deserved reputation of the Kootenays as one of British Columbia’s most welcoming and laid back places.
Over my four-day road trip to the Kootenay Rockies I made new friends in healing waters, visited a ghost town, checked out the world’s oldest passenger sternwheeler, and saw a Bull moose walking in an easy-flowing river stream.
But what stands out the most is how easy friendships are made as you float in one of the region’s six developed hot spring resorts, which includes Halcyon, Ainsworth, Nakusp, Canyon, Radium and Fairmont in B.C.’s southeast. I visited the first three of the six hot springs resorts, but on my second night in the Kootenays I met a woman who has done them all.
Bev Gowler, of Salmon Arm tells me she suffers from arthritis, so she and a friend are on their own hot-springs hopping road trip. We struck up our first conversation in Halcyon Hot Springs, bobbing in the warm waters of one of its pools.
Besides the resort’s large, seasonal pool, there was also a cold water plunge pool, a hot 40 C pool and a pleasantly warm pool, where one section’s flow takes you softly spinning around a circle, with most guests using a few pool noodles to keep comfortably afloat.
I felt like Goldilocks choosing which pool was “just right” for me and opted for the warm pool, where I first met Gowler, a hot springs expert.
We quickly realize we must have just missed each other at the nearby Nakusp Hot Springs earlier that afternoon, and would likely meet again since we were both staying at Ainsworth Hot Springs the next night. Ainsworth, which is operated by the Ktunaxa people, have utilized the site as a place for healing for generations.
“The minerals of the waters are supposed to help arthritis,” says Gowler. “I’ve been in and out of hot springs before, but this time I wanted to do all of the hot springs. I don’t think I’ve left a stone unturned.”
But, she adds, she doesn’t visit natural, undeveloped hot springs, which often require a long hike in the woods to get there, which she can’t do because of her arthritis.
“I prefer going from my hotel room straight into a hot springs,” she says.
It has been three decades since I last visited the Kootenays, and unfortunately I never experienced one of their hot springs prior to this trip. Looking back I wonder why it took me so long to return since it was so easy to get to the region where its rewards are many.
After an easy one-hour flight between Vancouver and Castlegar I enjoyed a scenic two hour drive to my first destination at Halcyon, on the shores of Upper Arrow Lake where traffic was minimal and the fall colours are evident.
Along the way I stop at the Slocan Lake viewpoint, with its aerial view of the lake below, and later Ione Falls, an 18-metre (60 foot) waterfall, between the charming town of Nakusp and Halcyon Hot Springs.
I also stop for lunch, and chat with retired hippies, at Silverton Camp Cafe, where a billboard boasts the historic mining town is “in the middle of nowhere and the centre of everything.” And it’s from them I learn I should stop at the nearby ghost town of Sandon, just 20 minutes from Silverton.
This historic site, accessed by a short gravel road, receives no government funding but is maintained by a dedicated group of locals, who are happy to chat with visitors about the town’s history.
Like New Denver resident Greg Shorter, who volunteers with the Sandon Historical Society, and on the day I visit was overseeing operations at the tourism centre, located in what was once Sandon’s city hall, built in 1900. Today, one of its private owners was busy replacing old siding in a restoration effort that began in 1988. The building was partially buried after the Carpenter Creek flood in 1955, which destroyed most of Sandon’s buildings at the time.
“The focus is on preserving history and showing it to the next generation,” says Shorter, adding the town was once a vibrant silver mining town, with a population peak of 5,000 in 1899 at the height of its silver boom, which lasted until 1900.
Today, Sandon, has just five residents, and is literally a ghost town since one spirit reportedly haunts the basement of the Sandon Museum.
It’s also home to Canada’s oldest operating power generating plant.
Sandon Generating Station, which first started making power in 1887, continues to do so, says tour guide Don Broughton, who says the station, which is hooked into the provincial power grid, generates enough electricity daily to power 400 homes.
After Sandon we drive to Kaslo, another great spot for history buffs, since its home to the S.S. Moyie, a sternwheeler launched Oct. 22, 1898, when there were no roads or trains into the remote mountain valleys of the Kootenays, and ferried freight and passengers to and from Nelson to the south end of Kootenay Lake.
The quaint town of Kaslo celebrated the 125th anniversary of the S.S. Moyie Oct. 22, after completing a $1.2 million restoration effort last year in anticipation of its milestone birthday. (A total of $3.4 million has been spent restoring the vessel since the 1990s.) Our final stop of the road trip is to Nelson, on the shores of Kootenay Lake and a favourite for outdoor enthusiasts since its surrounded by wilderness. Skiing, mountain biking, paddling and hiking are just a few of the many activities locals and visitors enjoy in the region.
Nelson is also known for its artist community, which is evident in the many art galleries and colourful murals painted throughout the historic downtown district. Nelson has more than 350 heritage buildings and sites, like the Nelson Museum Archives & Gallery, housed in the old post office, built in 1902, and the Hume Hotel, across the street, which has been welcoming guests since 1898 to name just a few. Since my road trip was all about relaxation I ended my trip at the character-filled hotel, with a visit to the Aura Spa & Salon for an infrared sauna and detoxifying seaweed wrap and facial massage. While not a hot springs, of course, it turned out to be an equally soothing experience. There’s no better souvenir than that.
Where to stay and eat if you go
Halcyon Hot Springs Resort: Has a variety of accommodation spread throughout its quiet forest setting, adjacent to Upper Arrow Lake. From cottages to loft chalets, all within easy walking distance to the hot springs. Breakfast is included at the resort’s fine dining restaurant Alcedo.
Ainsworth Hot Springs, operated by the Ktunaxa people, provides a unique first nations experience. Besides enjoying the hot springs and the cave there’s also indigenous-inspired food available at the hotel restaurant, Ktunaxa Grill, where you can order bannock with spruce butter, bison french onion soup and wild game chili.
Cloudside Hotel in Nelson is located within steps of the city’s historic downtown and is a nice change for travellers since this boutique hotel is in a charming, heritage home. In Nelson, I enjoyed their healthy and delicious Satay Bowl at Sprout Plant-Based Eatery, located near my hotel, and one of the best wood-fired pizzas (the Funghi with a sherry thyme cream sauce) I’ve had at Marzano, a modern Italian pizzeria.
Kim Pemberton was hosted by Kootenays Rockies Tourism, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.