West Kootenays – Mountains, Ghost Towns, Hot Springs and Lake Ferry Crossings

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By: Bob Kenyon

Looking North on Arrow Lake to the Mountains

Looking North on Arrow Lake to the Mountains
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2008

The West Kootenay mountains of British Columbia (BC) are great destination for a road trip with mountains ranges, ghost towns, hot springs and lake ferry crossings on the beautiful Arrow, Kootenay, Revelstoke and Slocan Lakes. The West Kootenays are in the south-central part of BC along the US border with the states of Washington and Idaho, where there are several border crossings (Cascade/Christina Lake, Paterson/Rossland, Waneta/Trail, Nelway/Salmo, Rykerts, Kingsgate and Roosville).

From Canada the West Kootenays can be accessed by several routes from the provinces of British Columbia or Alberta:

In B.C. travelers coming from Vancouver, on the Trans-Canada #1 Highway, can enter the area by going south from Revelstoke (Hwy. 23). Alternatively they can go south from Golden to Radium, on the west end Kootenay National Park, then continuing south to Cranbrook. It’s also possible the travel south east from the Okanagan by going east from Vernon (Hwy. 6) or taking a twisted route that follows the U.S. border from Osoyoos.

From Alberta go west via Banff/Lake Louise to Golden or Revelstoke (as above) or travel from Banff to Radium via Kootenay National Park. There is also southern route, from Alberta, traveling west, into B.C. via the Crowsnest Pass (Hwy. 3), Sparwood and Fernie.

Travel through National Parks, in Canada, require you purchase an annual pass, short term pass (with stopovers) or straight through pass (no stops or side trips). Speed limits in the National Parks are reduced (i.e. 90 kms) and special reductions for wildlife on the road and dangerous stretches. Guns in the National Parks must be sealed by park officials. Fishing requires a park license and no motor boats are allowed.

Campgrounds in the parks are well organized for tents, trailers, and recreational vehicles. Bear proof garbage bins, firewood, water and washroom are provided. Many have showers. During peak season (June to September), reservations for campgrounds, cabins, hostels and hotels are highly advised. No backcountry ATVs are allowed and backcountry camping and climbing require permits. There are stiff fines for picking plants, rock, kindling, etc. and also for feeding wildlife.

The Trans Canada Highway, Golden, Radium, Cranbrook to Revelstoke, or going the opposite direction, is know as the Hot Springs Circle Route in B.C. (868 km/540 mi) Travelers can enjoy the area’s hot mineral springs. The springs include, Fairmont, Radium, Canyon, Nakusp and Ainsworth Hot Springs.

In the eastern part of the Kootenays, Fairmont Hot Springs, a short trek across the highway and up the rocks will lead you to the remains of the old bathhouse and carved-out baths in the rock. The more adventurous traveler may want to go to the undeveloped Lussier Hot Springs, north of Fairmont. The springs are made up of several rock pools with gravel bottoms. The hottest pool is up to 43C, and then the water cools as it flows down through the rest of the ponds towards the Lussier River. The small, icy river makes an excellent cold plunge.

Lucier Hot Springs

Lucier Hot Springs

To access the Lussier springs go east off Highway 93/95 at the Whiteswan Provincial Park exit (located 22 km North of Skookumchuck or 8 km South of Canal Flats). Take the Whiteswan Forestry Road up to the hot springs. It is a good condition gravel logging road that is accessible during the summer season with any vehicle. It is a 17 km drive up the road and be aware of the narrow winding section climbing up the Lussier gorge towards the end of the drive. There is a parking lot at the top with a change room/toilet and then a short walk down to the springs.

Aisworth Hot Springs

Natural Steam Bath – Ainsworth Hot Springs
Photo: Tourism BC

For those seeking an interesting developed hot spring experience, try going to Ainsworth Hot Springs, south of Kaslo. At these hot springs they have large warm pool and to the delight of many visitors a small hot pool fed by an arched cave. The water in the small pool and cave is also naturally brown, yellow but it’s perfectly harmless.

Bathers can wade through the water and sit in a faintly lit, dripping, steamy cave. Much like a natural steam bath! For those wanting a quick cool-off, beside the small hot pool is a cold pool, that’s fed by a man-made waterfall.

Those with an enjoyment of caving (spelunking/kersplunking) will want to visit the Cody Caves, just south of Ainsworth.

S.S. Moyie - Kaslo, BC.

S.S. Moyie at Kaslo
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2008

Don’t miss the charming Village of Kaslo, which is the oldest incorporated community in the West Kootenays (1893). In addition to the well restored historical building, you can also visit the National Historic Site the SS Moyie, the world’s oldest intact passenger sternwheeler of its kind. It was also the last operating sternwheeler in western North America and is now permanently berthed in Kaslo.

Nelson, BC. Post Office

Nelson Post Office & Customs House
Photo Credit: Kootenay Lake ©Alistair B. Fraser

South of Kaslo, with its dramatic lake and mountain setting, arts college, and well-preserved 19th century architecture, the city of Nelson, well off the beaten track in southeastern BC, has become a magnet for artists, writers, and filmmakers. Known to movie-goers as the location for the Steve Martin’s 1986 film Roxanne, this lakeside spot is so rich with galleries, festivals, and cultural life it’s been named, by John Villani in his book The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America, as one Canada’s leading arts towns.

Nature plays a role here too! The surrounding landscape, of snowy peaks, lakes, hot springs, and pristine but accessible parkland, is among the most beautiful and artistically inspiring, in the province.

Sandon, BC. City Hall

Sandon City Hall/Fire Hall
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2008

Throughout the West Kootenays are several abandoned mining towns, in various states of deterioration the ghost towns of Cody, Nashton, Retallack, Sandon (with it’s collection of out-of-service Brill trolley buses), Three Forks, and Zincton. They are interesting for those that like to poke around amongst tossed timbers and decaying buildings.

Other notable historic towns in the West Kootenays are New Denver, on Slocam Lake, with its Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre (NIMC), the only interpretive centre in Canada dedicated to the history of the uprooting and internment of over 22,000 Canadians of Japanese heritage, during the Second World War.

For travelers interested in the history of the RCMP (formerly known as the Northwest Mounted Police) a visit to the Fort Steele Heritage Town, northeast of Cranbrook, would be worthwhile. There you can go back to the 19th century and even hike the last mile of the Dewdney Trail, the first all-Canadian route across southern British Columbia, completed in 1865.

For an rugged wilderness excursion, try the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park The Purcell’s high mountains, pristine lakes, flowing grasslands, and alpine wildflower meadows draw adventurous backcountry trekkers. Other visitors come for the fishing, hiking, horseback riding, ski-touring, and wildlife viewing opportunities. Mountain climbers come to tackle such peaks as Mt. Findlay and Hamill, which are both over 3,600 m (11,000 ft) high. For backcountry trekkers, the historic Earl Grey Pass Trail traverses the northern portion of the conservancy, a rugged multi-day route that provides stunning views to experienced hikers.

Kootenay Ferry

Ferry Crossing From Kootenay Bay to Balfour
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2008

Travel in the West Kootenays also involves crossing lakes by ferry. As opposed to the ferries, on the west coast of British Columbia; these inland ferries are operated under contract, to the Ministry of Transport and are free to use.

There are crossings at:

  • Across Kootenay Lake, 35 kilometres east of Nelson on Highway 3A, between Balfour (west side) and Kootenay Bay (east side), 70 kilometres from Creston on Highway 3A.
  • Across Upper Arrow Lake, 49 kilometres south of Revelstoke on Highway 23, between Shelter Bay and Galena Bay.
  • Across the junction of Upper and Lower Arrow Lakes at Arrow Park, 22km south of Nakusp on Highway 6.
  • Across the Lower Arrow Lake, about 59 kilometres south of Nakusp on Highway 6, between Fauquier and Needles.

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