NAKUSP, B.C. — I’m floating in a pool of hot water, gazing at an evergreen-ringed, hazy summer sky. These waters are said to soothe body, mind and soul, and I’m wondering, does it really work? I monitor myself for signs of relaxation, stretching out calves and quads stiff from a recent backpacking trip.
And a wave of calm does envelop me, almost immediately. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but who cares? A placebo effect is still an effect.
This is Halcyon Hot Springs, just outside Nakusp, B.C., one of many hot springs encircling the Kootenay Rockies region in southeastern British Columbia. Retirees and families and couples are all here seeking that vacation holy grail: relaxation. And these places just about guarantee it.
I found out about B.C.’s hot-springs bounty when my co-author, Steve Zusy, and I were researching our book, “Motorcycle Touring in the Pacific Northwest.” This area’s curvy roads appeal to motorcyclists, but so do the hot springs — nothing beats an evening soak after a day beating yourself up on a bike. We were in a hurry when we came through, and I swore I’d be back for the full experience.
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Circling the springs
On this trip, I focus on the springs closest to Washington, but they’re only part of what the B.C. tourism board calls the Hot Springs Circle Route. The 530-mile loop features seven easily accessible springs, each with its own personality dictated by temperature, setting, mineral content and ownership. Several hug the shores of long lakes lying between a series of steep, tree-covered mountain ranges.
The mountains are also full of hikes and cycling trails that are all the more rewarding when you know a soak awaits at the end. In winter, this is part of a “powder highway” of ski resorts, heli-skiing outfits and cross-country trails, and most of the hot springs are open year-round.
I start in Nelson, a three-hour drive north of Spokane. It’s not officially a part of the hot-springs loop, but having first fallen in love with it when it was featured in the Steve Martin movie “Roxanne,” I can’t pass it by. I hoof it up and down the stairs that lead from one steep residential street to another, tightening my leg muscles — the better to test the hot springs’ powers later.
Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort overlooks Kootenay Lake about an hour north of Nelson. It features a big, not-too-hot pool popular with families, but the big draw is its horseshoe-shaped, 108-degree cave pool, first developed in the 1930s.
I check into my room at Ainsworth’s on-site hotel and look through the guest information book — and pause at two warnings. The first: A pool is not a good place to be in an electrical storm, even if it is in a cave. The second: In a cave filled with warm air and water, glasses will certainly fog up.
Fortunately, the weather is quiet. Having been warned about the glasses issue, I explore the cave sans specs, half-blindly following the dim underwater lighting.
The experience would be trippy even for those who could see well. Lumpy yellow, green and orange stalactites formed from mineral-rich drips hang from low, curved ceilings, and an occasional spatter of water falls on unsuspecting heads. It’s too hot to be inside for long; afterward, the bravest patrons head straight for the adjacent cold-water pool for a bracing splash.
On my way to Nakusp Hot Springs, I stop at Kaslo, an adorable lakeside town and home of the world’s oldest passenger stern-wheeler; and Sandon, a mining hub turned ghost town. The region’s rich mining history reflects a different kind of mineral: precious metals including gold and silver. Many of the hot springs’ earliest customers were miners looking to cure work-related ailments.
There’s no hotel at Nakusp Hot Springs, but a campground and handful of rustic cabins surround the warm and hot pools. (The town of Nakusp is not far away.) Up a side road, this spot is low-key and secluded, making it a fuss-free day-use option.
Like all the region’s hot springs, Nakusp has its own combination of minerals, each with touted health benefits. Here, the cocktail includes sulfates, chlorides, calcium, copper and magnesium. As at all the developed hot springs, the water is treated and the mineral aroma is light.
Hot springs manager Pat Farish says she sees the effects on visitors: “They feel good and relaxed, any aches and pains disappear, and they sleep well,” she says.
The many accessible hikes in the area make it easy to add exercise to the itinerary; pick up advice, a hiking map and snacks at Nakusp Hot Springs.
Another way to relax
At Halcyon Hot Springs, up the road from Nakusp, the name reflects relaxation’s importance. The water here is high in lithium — yes, that lithium, often prescribed as a mood stabilizer. The resort’s lodging options range from camping to single-family chalets, all tucked into an otherwise undeveloped area.
The lithium water is said to have a calming effect on everyone, and I’m here to test that theory. I’m skeptical, but the waters do seem to have an effect once I climb in. The genteel, flower-decorated surroundings overlooking Upper Arrow Lake don’t hurt.
I buy a couple bottles of the resort’s lithium-rich drinking water, also said to soothe, and drink a few sips. So far, so good. I drink half a bottle before my next hike and am feeling pretty blissed out until I return to find that the remaining water from both bottles has leaked all over my passenger seat. Well, at least the car should be happy.
Seattle-based freelancer Christy Karras is a regular contributor to Seattle Times outdoors coverage.