Robert Smith cranks up his old Laverda and his core body temperature as he hits the roads of southern British Columbia in search of the perfect hot springs experience.
When explorer David Thompson of the Northwest Company was mapping the Columbia River in 1811, he liked nothing better at the end of a hard day’s slog than relaxing in one of the many hot springs lining his route in what was later to become British Columbia.
Actually, I have no idea whether Thompson dallied at any of BC’s mineral springs, but given the cool nights in the Kootenay Mountains, it seems pretty likely he and his party would have taken advantage of a hot alfresco bath. BC’s interior is dotted with natural springs heated by subterranean magma, and I plan to sample some of them.
I’m riding my classic 1982 Laverda 1200 Mirage. My route will take me from Vancouver through Manning Park and east to Keremeos, past Apex Mountain ski resort and into the Okanagan Valley. From there, I’ll turn east again through the Monashee Mountains and on to the Arrow Lakes and the resort-spa town of Nakusp. I’ll return through Castlegar on the Crow’s Nest Highway Three.
Manning Provincial Park at the northern extremes of the Cascade Range presents a rolling landscape of alpine meadows surrounded by dense forest. For most of the 130-kilometre ride through the park, I’m able to pass the lumbering RVs with ease, but on the run down into Princeton, the road makes a series of steep downhill turns, and passing is strictly verboten. Logging trucks join the melee, and my progress is halting.
I’m following the Similkameen River as it churns and splashes down into Princeton. Across a rickety bridge is the old road to Hedley, and I’m soon speeding along a rollicking chip-sealed two-laner while the four-wheelers lumber along the new road on the opposite bank. Hedley, once a thriving nickel-mining town, now cashes in on that heritage with mine tours and tourist trinkets. Green Mountain Road allows me to leave the traffic behind, with the narrow track meandering along verdant valleys of tall grass and shade trees toward the Apex ski resort before turning east across the Penticton Indian Band’s territory. It’s a perfect Saturday afternoon ramble under blue skies spotted with fluffy clouds.
Highway 97 swings along Okanagan Lake, a vast ripple-free indigo mirror. In Westbank, I turn north staying on the lake’s western shore. Westside Road, which deeks around the crenelated shoreline and swoops over towering headlands, is just the road for a more staid steed like my Laverda. Too much speed here, and you risk overcooking a blind bend or rear-ending a dawdling car.
From Vernon into the Monashees, Highway Six crosses a vast prairie of grain fields and rangeland before winding into evergreen forest. Near the 4,000-foot summit there’s a spectacular series of tight curves that leave me smiling, especially as the traffic has evaporated. At Needles on the Arrow Lakes, there’s a narrow isthmus where a cable ferry growls across. On the far side is the excellent Mushroom Addition restaurant where the burgers come with (optional) wild pine mushrooms and chanterelles harvested in the forest. The charming lakeside spa resort of Nakusp is a quick 80-kilometre sprint along the North Arrow Lake.
Annoyingly, though, Nakusp Hot Springs is closed for repairs. Undaunted, I decide on getting wet on the inside instead, and having parked the bike for the night, I head for Picardo’s restaurant for a beer and some pizza.
NEXT MORNING I RIDE SOUTH UNDER MORNING SUNSHINE along Slocan Lake. A thin haze clings to the azure surface, while dense evergreen forest rises on the opposite bank, a mile or more away. Slocan is perhaps the most beautiful of BC’s lakes, a vast, sparkling sapphire set into the deep green forest. From New Denver, 31A winds into the Kootenay Mountains below Kokanee Glacier, taking a shortcut to Kootenay Lake. In recent years, the surface of this curvaceous but less traveled road has deteriorated greatly from frost heaves and subsidence, but I’m delighted to find it’s now resurfaced with smooth, fresh tarmac.
Route 31A exits into the delightful lakefront hamlet of Kaslo. Ainsworth is just 10 miles or so south, and I cruise Kootenay Lake’s shoreline on 31, 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 source where the water temperature gets 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 or two there, before tentatively slipping into the plunge pool. The chill water takes my breath away.
Departing Nakusp next day, I head out 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” resort, but a swanky new facility overlooking Upper Arrow Lake now permits only properly attired bathers, and the resort area is being developed with “lifestyle” condominiums.
I pull onto the ferry ramp just as the D.E.V. Galena is loading. The lake could be a millpond, scarcely a ripple troubles its surface. The railroad town of Revelstoke is just a 20-minute ride north. Revelstoke was once where trains would take on an extra locomotive for the steep grade up to Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains. Now with the advent of more powerful locomotives, this service is no longer necessary, and the town has changed into a resort destination—a handy base for heli-skiing in nearby Glacier National Park.
I CONTINUE EAST TO GOLDEN OVER ROGERS PASS, A LONG, STEADY climb on Canada One before some beautiful sweeping turns where sparkling, snow-draped peaks jump into view. Though only 4,000-feet high, Rogers Pass “enjoys” some of the heaviest snowfalls in BC, and the road passes through a series of five snow sheds that redirect avalanches over the highway.
In Golden, I turn south into the Rocky Mountain Trench, a long valley squeezed between the Selkirks and the Rockies. It’s near here, incidentally, that David Thompson really did arrive in 1811 by way of the Howse Pass Trail before taking his walking tour of the region. Fortunately, my passage is smoother and swifter as the Laverda runs down the miles toward Radium Hot Springs. Built in the likeness of a Bavarian hamlet, the little town sits under the grand sweep of Kootenay National Park’s peaks by a narrow slice in the rock-face called Sinclair Canyon. I leave the Laverda to cool off in the parking lot and head for the springs. But when I first catch sight of the place, more like a municipal pool with its concrete surround and brick buildings, it’s a disappointment.
Fortunately, another resort, Fairmont Hot Springs, is only 20 miles further south. The hotel’s cozy pine-paneled rooms overlook the pool complex and its grassy rustic setting. And for freer spirits, a few hundred feet into the hills above the resort, there are natural hot pools maintained by the Kootenay First Nation. From here, the view of the Kootenay Mountains, spread out in a ragged line of peaks across the Rocky Mountain Trench, is arresting—and should you arrive there without a swimsuit, it’s no problem …
South of Fairmont, my route takes me through the strip-mall city of Cranbrook and past fruit orchards to Creston, rejoining the Crowsnest Highway going west. The Laverda and I climb over Kootenay Pass, where the broad, sweeping highway rises to the tree line before drifting down into Salmo, a small town of frontier-era architecture. From Castlegar to Grand Forks and on to Rock Creek, the Crowsnest dances around and through the Monashee Mountains before exiting at a spectacular overlook at Anarchist Mountain.
Far below, as though I’m looking at it in a Google Earth image, is the desert town of Osoyoos and its eponymous lake. The 3,000-foot descent 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. Osoyoos is effectively the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, and summer temperatures regularly reach 105F.
West of Osoyoos, I backtrack my outward route as far as Hope, but here I cross the Fraser River and pick up Highway Seven. About 30 miles west is the vast Harrison Lake and its hot springs resort. The town is another Bavarian-themed locale, with many store and restaurant facades decorated in Black Forest style. There’s a public indoor hot pool (which seems to defeat the purpose) and the tony Harrison Hot Springs Resort Hotel. But the real attraction of Harrison in summer is the lake, which though glacier-fed, is also heated by the hot springs, helping to moderate the snowmelt’s chill.
On my hot July afternoon visit, the lake water 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 …
BC has other hot springs to explore: there’s Canyon Hot Springs in the Rockies; Meager Creek in the Coast Range near Pemberton; Skookumchuck Hot Springs near Lillooet Lake; and many more. Sounds like a good excuse for another ride!
- Robert Smith Canadian Biker #245