Hot Springs & Wildlife: A BC Interior Road Trip

In May 2013, I was temporarily without an apartment, so I decided to take the money I otherwise would’ve spent on rent, and spent it on a road trip into the beautiful British Columbia interior instead. While I had originally only planned to see snow-capped Canadian Rockies and deep green forests, I found a lot of hidden gems and eventually turned my trip into a hot springs circuit and inadvertent wild animal tour.

I went through a nomadic period for about a year and a half, from late spring 2012 to early autumn 2013. A lot of this was due to having my family and friends spread into various places, and some of it was an effort to find myself and figure out my future. If you’ve read my article about Utah, you know that I love road trips and I love venturing out into the middle of nowhere.

I had been traveling back and forth between upstate New York, central California, and the Vancouver BC areas during this time (which encompassed the cross-country trip that included my Utah experience), and had pared down my possessions to a large travel suitcase and a car trunk full of things I wanted to keep. I genuinely enjoyed simply not having “stuff”. I had also lost the majority of my kitchen items in summer 2012 due to a shed fire where some of my boxes were stored, which was caused by a smoldering BBQ grill. So when I got back to Vancouver in late October 2012, I didn’t have much.

I began subletting a room from a friend who was going to Indonesia for several months. When he planned to come back in May 2013, I was going to have to find a place, but I wasn’t quite ready to settle somewhere just yet. I had planned to go back to California for the summer anyway, since my friends had a room for me available in June. That meant I still had a one month window to fill.

I already owned a sleeping bag, and in a moment of synchronicity a couple friends of mine were giving away their tent, which I called dibs on the moment I saw their post about it. I decided I’d buy the rest of what I needed in cities along the way.  I had a basic plan of various points I wanted to see over a two week period, but I didn’t map it out meticulously. I crashed with a friend for the first week of May, and then without really knowing what I was going to get up to, where I’d stop, or what I was going to see, I embarked.

I left early morning on May 8th and first made it to Harrison Hot Springs. It’s a small town with a little resort and a couple shops, but I wasn’t there to be in hotels. I followed signs to a camping area, but I wanted somewhere more off the beaten path and close to the lake, and the campgrounds split off into the woods. The forest access road I followed ended up splitting off into a little hidden alcove with another small, unlabeled camping area directly on the lake. I paid the groundskeeper in cash and set up at the last area on the end. Being on the early side of camping season, I had no immediate neighbors, and had this cove all to myself, complete with a pebble beach.

So of course I started a bonfire I made out of driftwood. Again, if you read my Utah story, you know I love building bonfires.

I also spin fire poi, so I practiced until my arms hurt. I stayed there another day because I was still winging it at this point. On my second day I helped the groundskeeper carry a large driftwood log to his site. He planned to make a bench out of it, and had already crafted a whole deck by himself.

The following day I packed up and left, stopping in Hope. Hope was where the original Rambo movie First Blood was filmed, and they’ve apparently never forgotten that because it’s still a major fixture in their tourism brochure. I stocked up on supplies, got some food, and topped off my gas tank before heading up to Merritt and then moving east towards Kelowna. Kelowna is in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, where a large portion of British Columbia’s wine comes from. I’ll get back there for a vineyard tour someday, but it was night by the time I arrived, so upon my approach to the city I forked north instead and followed signs to campgrounds north of the city on the west side of the lake.

Here’s the weird part: I have absolutely no idea where I stopped. I remember following signs that said a campsite was something like 12km north of Kelowna, but I cannot for the life of me find it on a map. I’ve even tried Google Street View going up the coast, and I still can’t find it. I’m starting to think it’s the Brigadoon of provincial parks, and only appears once a century. There’s a campground much closer to the city on a map, but the terrain is wrong and the pictures on the park’s website don’t look like anything I remember. It remains a mystery.

What I do remember is that it was dark and the park gate was closed, so I parked along the main road and walked in with my gear past a bunch of campsites, down a road that had a steep decline, came upon a beach with a few picnic tables, then ended up hiking up onto a rock precipice past a bunch of trees. Nobody was there so I ended up making a small fire, which I used to cook up some beans in a small pot I brought. There wasn’t really a place to put up a tent comfortably, so I just laid out a little foam pad I bought, put my sleeping bag and pillow on it, and slept surprisingly comfortably on the rocks.

When I woke up (to the sound of loons), I got a better view of the place, and walked around a bit. There was a boat launch further up the coast and some fairly large cliffs overlooking the water. Again, none of this has helped me locate the place again. I think I’d have to go back there to rediscover it, and even then I probably couldn’t tell you exactly which way I went. One thing the park did have, thankfully, was beach showers. It was cold, but I couldn’t exactly be choosy at that point. Side note, according to my photo timestamps, this was the 11th.

Yep, I got nothin’.

I headed back to Kelowna to eat, get a well deserved cup of coffee, and buy some groceries. Canned goods, campfire smokies, eggs for hard-boiling, fresh fruit, mixed nuts, some Gatorade, plus a couple 10L jugs of water for drinking, washing, and putting out campfires. I bought a couple more supplies that I noticed I still needed (like a new can opener because my old one was terrible), and headed north to Vernon and then east to the Needles Ferry. The vehicle ferry is free, and runs back and forth all day. It was a pretty cool little trip across Lower Arrow Lake.

Approaching late afternoon, I headed into Nakusp, a town so small that the Google Street View vehicle passed through the one main road in the town and just said “nah” for the rest of it. The Nakusp area, however, does have hot springs, which I found out when I used a local coffee shop’s free wifi. That opened a new door for me on this trip. The weather was expected to take a colder turn despite the previous several days being pretty nice, and some geothermal warmth would make that a bit more palatable. I started looking up more hot springs, and figuring out which ones I could visit if I was heading further east.

Nakusp Hot Springs has a couple interesting facilities. You can drive right up to the main public pool, or you can walk on the trails in the back and soak in a tiny 1-2 person concrete recess with a submerged bench. I did the latter first, but the clearing they were in had tons of mosquitoes, so I didn’t last long there. I decided to go back to the pool, which was very nice. It was later in the day so there weren’t many people, and the deck surrounds a circular geothermally-heated pool that’s just the right temperature for relaxation and swimming.  It was good for a soak, but not my highest rated. I’m counting these as two since you have to trek in a bit from the road to get to the smaller personal ones.

Hot Spring Count: 1 & 2

North of Nakusp is another hot spring called Halcyon, but it’s a full resort, and I was trying to avoid that. Public pools are fine with me, natural springs are great if set up properly, but resorts feel too planned, as if they could’ve just heated up the pool themselves.

Instead, something on the way that I’d read about caught my eye: a hidden, hard to find natural hot spring called Halfway Hot Springs. The turnoff is unmarked, and a maze of forest access roads branch off – some impassable – snakes through a rough unpaved route. I actually turned down the wrong access road at first, and pulled over to make sure my phone’s GPS was correct – I was out of cell range but turning my location on still worked. A helpful man driving the other way had me follow him a little further up Route 23 to show me the entrance. I’m just now realizing how this sounds like the beginning of a slasher movie.

Anyway, I didn’t get murdered. I made the trek in, found the right path based on the directions I looked up, and eventually got there after dark. Exploring a sloping trail down on foot, I had to turn back due to flooding, and pulled my car up a bit further. My flashlight here was indispensable. Dark forest in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night, well off the beaten path, and soggy ground due to it still being mid-Spring.  Again, somehow I wasn’t murdered, nor was I clawed to death by a wild animal. I did find this little guy though:

Animal Sighting: Owl

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I wasn’t totally isolated. I saw a couple SUVs parked along the road, and realized I probably should’ve had a better car than a used ’96 Honda Accord if I was going to be taking back roads like this. In any case, there were other campers there. Finally, I found the springs down another sloping trail. The pools there were pretty small, and had a makeshift feeding system using garden hoses, but it was a nice midnight soak and someone had built a shelter there of his own volition. I read a little about it, and one guy was responsible for all the hoses, structures, tubs, and benches that accommodated people in this best kept secret.

Hot Spring Count: 3

Unfortunately, I’m now reading that the BC Parks Department has now taken over and fully developed this site as of Summer 2016, so it’s no longer secret and there are access fees. Some might say that’s a bonus because it’s now more accessible and the roads and grounds are better maintained and have facilities, but I really enjoyed being able to check out the little-known natural gem hidden in the woods. It had a real DIY feel to it.

I slept in my car that night, rather than setting up somewhere in the dark. Not particularly comfortable, and I only got a few hours. It was still dark by the time I left, but was early morning on the 12th by the time I got back into Nakusp, so I hung around town until a coffee shop opened and abused the hell out of their wifi since I’d been deprived over the past week. I updated a few friends on my position, ate some breakfast, and headed east and south.

There’s a scenic view along the road near Silverton, BC with an incredible view overlooking Slocan Lake from high up. On that day it was overcast, there was no breeze, and the water was probably the calmest I’ve ever seen on the surface of a lake.

I headed down into Nelson with the intention of finding a campground, but the one in town was more for trailers than cars. After exploring the city a bit, I headed towards an unpaved route into the mountains, Kokanee Glacier Road, to see if I could check out the glacier park. I got a ways in, but still being mid-May, the road was unfortunately snowed over past a clearing. Instead of heading back, I set up camp in the clearing, which seemed to be either a turnaround point or a parking lot for logging vehicles when in use. It was empty now, so I set up my tent with one side against the nearby hill and the tent flaps facing my car door, in case anything came for a visit in the middle of the night. Across from me was a cascade of snow coming from the adjacent mountain peak.

It was a windy and cold night, and I awoke in the dark to find that the cover tarp had blown off the top of my tent, so I had to weigh it down with rocks. I’m lucky my sleeping bag was warm.

In the morning – the 13th if you’re keeping track – I packed up my site and moved on. Now, I’ve always hated backtracking during road trips, so instead of heading back to Nelson for breakfast, I drove up to Kaslo, a tiny town with a couple cafes. I got some food to go, and found that the town actually has a decent skate park, which I thought was pretty cool. Better to give the kids in a small town in the mountains something to do.

After eating, I headed down to a place I passed on the way up: Ainsworth Hot Springs. While this sort of counts as a resort, it has a public pool and one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen: a hot springs cave. The spring water flows through a horseshoe shaped cave, and you can take as much time as you want going through. There are places to sit and soak, and when the air gets too stuffy you can continue onward and head outside to a large warmed pool. Or if you’re brave, a small cold water pool. I dipped a toe in and found the latter wasn’t for me, but I did switch between the warm pool and the hot cave a few times. I’d definitely recommend this place if you’re ever passing through the Kootenays. I’ll probably spend a night next time.

Hot Spring Count: 4

I soon realized that by coincidence I happened to be on an actual “Hot Springs Circle Route”, according to road signs. The loop coincided pretty well with my road trip direction, so I figured why not integrate that into my route.

The next mode of travel was another ferry in Balfour that took me across Kootenay Lake. Along the drive I found a very scenic place, and the low clouds rolling off the mountain and letting the sun peek through gave off an almost mystical feel.

Shortly after the ferry, I found an RV park where I rested a while and napped in my car. The rest of the day I took it pretty easy. There weren’t many places to stop so I subsisted off of my groceries, then pulled off the road into a little rest stop close to the US border to sleep. By now I had become an expert in hanging sheets on my car windows to get a better night’s sleep and more privacy, but reclining the seat back was still not a very comfortable way to spend a night. It made me long for a station wagon or a hatchback.

On the plus side, the next morning I found a motorcycle campground with indoor showers, paid by donation. It’s specifically for bikers, but they didn’t mind a car driver dropping in for a shower. The facilities were really nice, the showers were hot and had good water pressure, and the woman I spoke to who ran the site was very friendly and offered me free coffee.  You don’t really realize how much you take a hot shower for granted until you don’t have access to one, but getting fully clean again was a really nice feeling.

By the time I reached Cranbrook, I had started thinking about a turnaround point. I have some extended family in Calgary, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go all that way. I opted to continue playing it by ear, but I knew I at least wanted to see Banff. While stopping in Cranbrook for lunch, I emailed a former film school classmate of mine who grew up there to ask what there is to see and do. Her response was basically “nothing”, so I continued north, passing by Fort Steele, a heritage town with a bunch of old frontier-style buildings and attractions. I believe it was still closed for the season though, but I did get to take a look around.

Heading north on the 95, my tour map that I saved at my last wifi stop (did I mention I had no data plan at the time, so I had to save or screenshot everything at cafes?) told me the next hot spring was Lussier Hot Springs. The gravel road leading up through the mountains is narrow, winding, and comes uncomfortably close to a sheer edge with no guardrail, so this might not be for you if heights are an issue. I had a couple anxious moments when some particularly large trucks came the other way and I had to edge even closer to the dropoff. Frankly, I was unimpressed by Lussier. You park at the top and walk down a hill to some pools created by people making circles of rocks, but the water is quite shallow and the pools themselves are rather small.


Hot Spring Count: 5

For reference, I was standing on the edge of the largest pool here, and the big rock at the far end is about the size of a single seat. They’re not really soaking pools, but they’ll come up to your waist if you sit in it and submerge your legs. On a day with a lot of visitors though, you’ll pretty much just get to dip your feet in. The view of the river is pretty, but I don’t know that the drive there is worth solely the hot springs. Instead, make it a little pit stop on the way to Whiteswan Lake a little further down the road.

My pictures can’t do it justice, but due to the reflection of the mountains, Whiteswan Lake had an incredible shade of deep green-blue, and I just had to pull over and snap a few shots. There are campgrounds on the south road, and another if you loop around to the north edge of the lake, where there’s also a boat launch. That is, if you don’t mind your boat probably falling off the cliff on the road in, because I honestly can’t imagine towing one in without that happening. Maybe I’m just a wuss.

Back on the main road, I headed north. I quickly discovered that both Fairmont Hot Springs and Radium Hot Springs are more resort-oriented. Apparently there is a natural one a short hike from Fairmont, but it was getting late in the day and I wasn’t sure where I was sleeping that night yet, so I didn’t want to go hunting. What I did see however, was something a little north of Fairmont:

A gosh-darn bona-fide real-life bison stampede!

Animal sighting: Bison

I first pulled over when I saw a large dust cloud being kicked up from a distance. I soon realized it was a stampeding herd. They were heading the opposite way as this picture at first, then looped around the trees and headed the other way, first moving slowly and then picking up speed. Something I never thought I’d witness in person. Take that, bucket list.

While I had camped out in my tent for a few nights already during this trip, unfortunately several were also spent in my car due to a lack of places to spread out (at least not without paying for it, as my budget was entirely food and gas-based), so that night I slept in my car again at a rest stop in Radium Hot Springs. One thing I didn’t realize until morning was that the toll booth into Kootenay National Park was free if you’re just passing through. I found that out in the morning, and continued into the park.

The drive along the 93 is one of the best drives I’ve ever been on. The terrain changes frequently and the views are incredible. One minute you’re overlooking huge forested mountain valleys, the next you’re heading towards a giant yellow rock plateau, the next you’re in a red rock canyon.

And then I met this little guy:

Animal sighting: Bear

Now, despite evidence to the contrary, I’m not an idiot. I kept my distance, rolled my windows up, and planned an escape route in case of emergency. This one was on the small side – a little bigger than a cub but smaller than an adult – but there didn’t seem to be any others nearby so I figured it would be safe enough to take a picture and move on.

This area opens up to some of the most incredible mountain views I’ve ever seen, though at that point in the morning much of it was clouded over by morning fog rising up off the snow caps. The road snakes down into a valley, where you start seeing rivers made of light aquamarine glacial runoff.  Again, pictures hardly do it justice but the river practically glows blue.

I stepped over some rocks onto a little island in the river, because I was planning on cooking up some food for both my lunch and for later consumption, but I didn’t want to chance it spreading in a national park. I hard-boiled my eggs and roasted my smokies and continued on my way. I think at this point I had bought some peanut butter, bananas, honey, and bread, so I was able to put together sandwiches too.

Pretty soon I reached the Continental Divide, located along the Alberta/BC border, where all rivers to the west flow west, and all rivers to the east flow east. A couple hours later, I was in Banff.

While it’s pretty touristy, there’s a certain old European Alps village feel about it, which has to be on purpose.  It’s pretty small in size, but there’s enough to walk around and see in an afternoon, as there are a ton of little shops and restaurants. It also sports a surprisingly high Japanese population, to the point where many signs are in English, French, and Japanese. I hoped there would be some really cool reason for this, but the actual reason is rather dark: The WWII-era Japanese internment camps were a little ways north in Jasper, Alberta, and a lot of the families never moved away from the area afterward.

Following my tour of the town, I headed over to Banff Upper Hot Springs. Although I was avoiding resort-based ones for the most part, I really needed a soak by this point. The pool is outdoors and at the top of a large hill, so you get great views of the adjacent mountains while soaking in the large warm pool. I imagine it’s even more refreshing in the dead of winter, which makes it such a popular destination.

Hot Springs Count: 6

I spent the night in my car that night, too tired from the last few days to continue, and a bit sleepy from the hot springs soak. The next morning I headed out to Canmore to visit my friend Meagan from film school, who grew up there and was staying with her parents for a while before moving back to Vancouver. We grabbed some lunch, and I got to see the giant terrifying head statue. Seriously, Canmore has a huge head sculpture lurking up out of the ground right on the main drag. It was commissioned by the town due to the town’s name meaning ‘big head’, which I believe is actually a mistranslation, so now they’re stuck with this big weird head sculpture. I don’t get it either. I decided not to advance toward Calgary and turned back. Canmore ended up being my turnaround point.

The drive back was pretty easy since I stuck to the Trans Canada Highway, so I got to do most of the drive back in a single day. I stopped in Revelstoke and Salmon Arm, the latter of which has great views of Lake Shuswap.

I got to Kamloops by dinnertime. I grabbed some food in town, then as the sun started getting low in the sky so I began looking for a place to turn off just north of the town alone route 5. I’m not even sure what I was looking for, just a place to turn off, but it led me out towards Sun Peaks Resort.

Along the way I did eventually find a little dirt road to turn off, but I missed the turn. I noticed the path went behind a little hill though, so I turned around and followed the path away from the main road. The place I found couldn’t have been more perfect – it wasn’t a driveway or an access road at all. It actually just led to this little alcove with a big hill full of pine trees separating it from the road, and the way in further was blocked by a downed tree. This place was a dead end anyway, so nobody would be using it. I’ve tried to find it on maps, but the road is unmarked. I’m sure I could figure it out using Street View someday.

This ended up being where I fully camped out for the last time on my trip, setting up my tent and having a full cookout. It turned out to be one of the better nights of my trip because the place was so cozy and there was ample firewood. It helped that my day had been so long and tiring too, because I actually got a really good sleep that night. I got my fire going, cooked up some beans in a pot, roasted some smokies, and I was even able to make a pot of tea by boiling some of the water I had, which felt great since the nights were still pretty cold in mid-May (the 16th at this point).

The next day I took it pretty easy, as I was in the home stretch. I took my time packing up, then headed back down to Kamloops for a little sightseeing before heading out. I really like the geography of Kamloops. All the hills look somehow wrinkled.

Rather than heading directly back to Highway 1, I headed further west where the 97 splits off at Cache Creek and then meets the 99 into Lillooet. The road there weaves through some pretty huge mountain valleys, and feels closer to desert than the temperate rainforests I’m used to in BC.

As always, pictures don’t do the scale of the landscape justice, but this ravine was so deep that passing boats in the river below looked like ants.

Right along those tracks a bit below me, I spotted something else:

Animal sighting: Rams

Yes, in case you’re wondering, I actually had to get their attention for the picture by yelling out “baa”.

Shortly after, there was a spot that has a pretty amazing shift in how the landscape looked. As you go south of Lillooet, you cross a river. The change is dramatic and surprising; on the north side of the river it’s all desert and small vegetation. On the south side, the typical BC pine forests begin. It’s seriously night and day – someone could shoot a movie here with two vastly different locations just by moving across the water.

After weaving through a lengthy stretch of winding and steep mountain roads, I spent most of the rest of my day in Whistler. Although it’s rather touristy I enjoy the village there, and I discovered a cozy little crepe place while looking around. Heading over towards the chair lift area, I figured there wouldn’t be much activity with ski season over. I was wrong; there was a pretty major downhill bike rally going on.

The rest was nice, as was the ability to stretch my legs after the last couple days of long drives. A little after sunset, I was finally approaching Vancouver again, with my trip coming to an end.

I stayed with friends for the rest of the month, then had an extended visit back home in New York from June to July, before heading back and taking yet another road trip down to California via the coastal 101 through Washington and Oregon. I kept doing the nomad thing for the summer until I finally was able to find a roommate wanted ad on Craigslist, which brought me to the apartment I still live in today.

All in all, I got more than I expected out of this trip. More or less, it was Part 2 of my big nomadic soul-searching (after the trip that included my Utah article), splitting my time between New York, California, and BC for about a year and a half and whittling down my possessions until they could all fit comfortable in my car. I learned that I have a lot more survival skills than I gave myself credit for, and that it’s really not that hard to wing it on a trip like that, even on a limited budget. That said, the first shower I took and the first real bed I slept in after getting home from that trip was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Two weeks. Roughly 2,200km (1367 miles). A metric ton of coffee.

 

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