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Touring British Columbia’s Hot Springs

The author at Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway. Photo by Robert Smith

In 1811, explorer David Thompson of the Northwest Company set out to map the Columbia River from its source in the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. No doubt, at the end of a hard day’s travel, he and his party would have welcomed soaking in an outdoor hot tub..

And while I have no evidence that Thompson actually visited any of the region’s hot springs, it seems pretty likely his party would have taken advantage of those they found. British Columbia’s interior is dotted with mineral springs heated by subterranean magma, and I plan to try a few.

Southern British Columbia shares much of its history and geography with the Pacific Northwest U.S. The Coast Range extends north into British Columbia, as do the Cascade Mountains, while the Rockies form the Province’s eastern border. Between the coast and the Cascades are lush rainforests. In the middle, the northern reaches of the Sonoran give British Columbia a true desert, while the Columbia River watershed drains the rain and snowmelt from the Rockies’ western slopes.

Westside Road snakes along Okanagan Lake. Photo by Robert Smith

Early explorers traded with the indigenous peoples for beaver pelts, and the goal of David Thompson’s trip was to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. This would also reinforce England’s claim to the region that is now Washington State. Sadly for Thompson, a party sponsored by John Jacob Astor beat him to the mouth, and established the town of Astoria. (The Oregon Treaty of 1846 eventually settled the Washington-British Columbia border at the 49th parallel.)

I’m riding my 1982 Laverda 1200 TS Mirage, essentially a bored out and detuned version of the famous Jota 1000. In the late 1970s, Laverda decided not to compete with the Japanese multis on sheer power, so their muscular 180-degree triple was repurposed as a sport tourer. To help smooth vibration and to meet noise restrictions, the Mirage used softer cams and lower compression; then to recover some of the lost grunt, capacity was boosted to 1,116cc. The Mirage only lasted two years, replaced in 1983 by the sophisticated RGS 1000 with its rubber mounted 120-degree engine.

Time to ride

The Hot Springs Circle Route is well marked. Photo by Robert Smith

Destination one from Vancouver is the lakeside town of Nakusp in the Kootenay Mountains. That’s where Laverda guru Wolfgang Haerter has his shop, B&B lodge, and probably the biggest assembly of Laverda parts in the world. Because you never know when a classic bike will need bits …

It’s not the first time my Laverda has visited Wolfgang’s. A previous owner was trailering it there when bike and trailer parted company, although still connected by a tie-down! It says a lot for the Laverda’s ruggedness that the drop-and-drag damage was limited to a destroyed muffler, footpeg and grab rail — though the timing pickup cover still bears the scars, and the gas tank has some superficial rash. Of course, Wolfgang had all the replacement parts in stock.

Hope

I leave the Trans-Canada in Hope and head east on the Crowsnest Highway, No. 3, which winds through Manning Provincial Park in the northern Cascade Mountains. The Park presents a rolling landscape of alpine meadows between dense stands of evergreens. For most of the 80-mile ride through the park, I’m able to pass the lumbering RVs with ease, but on the steep descent into the old mining town of Princeton, the two-lane highway makes a series of steep downhill turns. Passing the belligerent log trucks and four-way-flashing 18-wheelers requires patience and good brakes!

From the center of Princeton, I cross a rickety bridge and turn on to Old Hedley Road. I’m soon rolling along a rural highway that tracks the Similkameen River as it churns and splashes through the valley. Hedley was once home to a thriving nickel mine, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town center features antique stores and a mining museum. Back on the Crowsnest, the tarmac sweeps east through the broad and lush Similkameen Valley to the country town of Keremeos, its main street lined with heaving fruit stands.

Westside Road is also popular with riders in nearby Kelowna. Photo by Robert Smith

I turn on Green Mountain Road, which snakes over the Okanagan range and down into Penticton, the peach capital of British Columbia. The narrow highway winds thorough valleys of tall grass and tree-lined canyons toward Apex ski resort before turning east through the Penticton Indian Band’s territory and down to the Okanagan Valley. It’s a perfect afternoon ride under warm sunshine moderated by cooling shade trees. I join Highway 97 going north toward Kelowna, British Columbia’s second largest city.

I follow 97 as it winds north along Okanagan Lake, the surface like a vast indigo mirror. I’m riding past vineyards and orchards under blue skies spotted with fluffy clouds. I could stay on 97, which crosses the lake before shuffling through seemingly endless strip malls, traffic signals and stop-go traffic. But I’m taking a more exciting route: in West Kelowna, I turn north instead on Westside Road, which ricochets along Okanagan Lake’s ragged shoreline and swoops over towering headlands to the lakehead near Vernon. Sightlines can be tricky here; too much speed, and you risk overcooking a blind bend or rear-ending a dawdling car.

Nakusp

From Vernon I turn east on Highway 6 into the Monashee Mountains. The almost deserted highway sweeps across a broad valley of grain and pasture before climbing into evergreen forest. Near the 4,000-foot summit, the trees part to reveal a lush green lake draped with mossy overhanging branches. This is deer and bear country, and I scan ahead for telltale movement. On the ride down the eastern slopes to Arrow Lake lie a challenging series of tight curves that entertain while demanding respect.

In the 1960s, there were two Arrow Lakes separated by a narrow land bridge; but then the valley was flooded as part of the Columbia River system. There’s a free cable ferry, which growls across the narrow waterway. The lakeside spa resort of Nakusp is a quick 50-mile sprint along the North Arrow Lake.

Nakusp is a neat lakeside town of brightly painted cafes and stores. The hot springs provide 50,000 gallons of fresh filtered water per day to a large outdoor pool with a constant temperature of 102 degrees. The steaming mineral water melts away the day’s muscle aches and stiffness before I remount the Mirage for the short hop to Wolfgang’s and a well-earned beer. The Laverda has run fine all day; the broad seat allows for some butt-shifting changes in riding position, and I’ve fine-tuned the adjustable handlebars and footpegs to suit my preference.

The big triple produces lots of lazy torque and power for passing. Though smooth at cruising speeds, buzzy vibration comes in at higher revs. Handling is deliberate but rock steady, while the brakes are … adequate — somewhat wooden feeling and needing a good pull on the lever. In fact, all the controls need a firm hand. The only real issue: the stock mirrors are useless — though an Italian rider might say “if you need to see behind you, you’re not going fast enough!”

Ainsworth

Ainsworth Hot Springs sits on Highway 31 by Kootenay Lake. Photo by Robert Smith

I’ve planned a day trip to Ainsworth Hot Springs. I ride south the next morning under crisp sunshine along Slocan Lake, perhaps the most beautiful of British Columbia’s waterways, its broad sapphire surface surrounded by dense evergreens. A thin haze clings to the mirror-like surface. In New Denver, I turn east on 31A, which winds into the Kootenay Mountains below Kokanee Glacier, taking a short cut to Kootenay Lake. Deservedly popular with bikers, this curvaceous highway shows some deterioration from frost heaves and subsidence, though sections have now been smoothly repaved. 31A exits into the lakefront hamlet of Kaslo, where the sternwheeler S.S. Moyie is permanently beached. A century ago, the Moyie would steam south from Kaslo carrying silver ore to the railhead in Nelson, for shipping to the smelters of Washington State. Ainsworth is just 10 miles or so south, and I cruise Kootenay Lake’s shoreline enjoying its lazy curves. Ainsworth resort has a large tiled hot pool maintained at 96 degrees with a stream-fed plunge pool. There’s also a system of caves closer to the springs’ source where water temperatures can get to 114! I wander into the caves, waist deep in a steaming mineral soup, marveling at how some hardy souls can spend more than a minute there, then I tentatively slip into the plunge pool. The chilly water takes my breath away.

Halcyon

Aboard the Galena Bay Ferry for a 20-minute ride to Revelstoke. Photo by Robert Smith

I’m leaving Nakusp early on a crisp, clear morning toward the Galena Bay ferry to Revelstoke. First, though, I plan to check out Halcyon Hot Springs. Halcyon was once famous as a “clothing optional” spring, but a new resort overlooking Upper Arrow Lake now permits only properly attired bathers. In any case, I’m too early for the pool’s 9:00 a.m. opening and I have a ferry to catch. I pull onto the ramp just as the ferry Galena is loading. Scarcely a ripple troubles the lake surface. After our 20-minute crossing, the railroad town of Revelstoke is just a 25-mile ride north. It was here that trains would take on an extra locomotive for the steep grade up to Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains. Now with more powerful diesels, no extra shove is needed, and the town has lost its original purpose, though it has a new role as a base for heli-skiing in nearby Glacier National Park.

Radium

I’m continuing east to Golden over Rogers Pass, a long, steady climb on the Trans-Canada. As I round a series of sweeping turns near the summit, sparkling, snowy peaks jump into view. Though just 4,400 feet, Rogers Pass “enjoys” some of the heaviest snowfall in the Province, and the road runs through a series of snow sheds that redirect avalanches above the highway.

Radium Hot Springs is family friendly. Photo by Robert Smith

In Golden, I turn south into the Rocky Mountain Trench, a long shallow valley squeezed between the Selkirks and the Rockies. It’s near here, incidentally, that David Thompson started his trip in 1811 by way of the Howse Pass Trail. My passage is smoother and swifter as the Laverda runs down the miles toward Radium Hot Springs.

A confident prediction in Radium Hot Springs. BC has plenty of mountains! Photo by Robert Smith

The little Alpine-themed town sits under the grand sweep of the Kootenay mountains, and is accessed by Sinclair Canyon, a narrow slice in the rock face. I leave the Laverda to cool off in the parking lot and head for the Springs. When I first catch sight of the municipal pool with its concrete surround and brick buildings it’s a disappointment. Nevertheless, the water is clear, clean and toasty. But I can’t tarry long.

Fairmont

Fairmont, perhaps the glitziest of BC’s hot springs resorts. Photo by Robert Smith

I know that just a short ride south is Fairmont Hot Springs Resort and its 3.5-star hotel. With the hotel’s cozy pine-paneled rooms overlooking the pool complex in its grassy rustic setting in the foothills of the Rockies, Fairmont is probably the glitziest of British Columbia’s hot springs.

Highway 3 dissects the old copper mining town of Greenwood.  Photo by Robert Smith

And for freer spirits, a few hundred feet into the hills above the resort, are rustic hot pools behind the original resort building. From here, the view of the Kootenay Mountains, spread out in a ragged line of peaks across the Trench, is arresting; and if you’ve forgotten your swimsuit, it’s no problem …

Harrison

The Crowsnest Highway No. 3 skirts Christina Lake near Grand Forks. Photo by Robert Smith

South of Fairmont, BC 93 is lined with strip malls in Cranbrook, then winds through fruit orchards to Creston where I rejoin the Crowsnest Highway, now westbound. The Mirage pulls steadily up the long climb to the 6,000-foot Kootenay Pass, where the broad highway climbs to the tree line before drifting down into Salmo, a town of rustic, frontier-era boardfront buildings.

The descent into Osoyoos features a series of traverses and hairpin turns. Photo by Robert Smith

From Castlegar to Grand Forks and on to Rock Creek, the Crowsnest dances around the Monashee Mountains before exiting at a spectacular overlook on Anarchist Mountain. Appearing like a Google Earth image, three thousand feet below is the lakeside desert town of Osoyoos. The descent to the lake is a cascade of traverses punctuated with tight hairpins, and I’m soon idling through the sweltering downtown past cheerful motels and ice-cream outlets. Summer temperatures here regularly top 100 degrees.

The Crowsnest Highway runs through the Similkameen Valley. Photo by Robert Smith

West of Osoyoos on 3, I’m backtracking my outward route as far as Hope, but there I cross the Fraser River and pick up Highway 7. About 30 miles west is the vast Harrison Lake and its hot springs resort complex. The town has a Bavarian theme with Black Forest-styled store and restaurant facades. I’m not sure it’s a total success. There’s a public indoor hot pool (which seems to defeat the purpose) and the toney Harrison Hot Springs Resort Hotel. But the attraction of Harrison in summer is the lake; and while the lake is glacier-fed, its chill is also moderated by hot springs.

Osoyoos emerges like a satellite view from Anarchist Mountain overlook. Photo by Robert Smith

On my steamy July afternoon, that seems far more appealing than an indoor hot pool, so I park the Laverda next to the beach and find a public washroom to change in. Now all I need is an ice cream cone … MC

Published on Feb 3, 2021

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