British Columbia’s Hot Springs Circle Route offers places to soak and play along a 500-mile loop, with options for day and multi-day trips

Story by Molly Priddy | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Perhaps it’s the manmade line dividing two great nations north and south, or maybe it’s just that Montana has so much to do.

Regardless, I’m still trying to figure out why I’d never ventured into the Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia before this fall, when a friend and I took a daytrip to check out some of the natural hot springs and resorts located just hours from the Flathead.

What drew us was the natural wonder of the Hot Springs Circle Route, a rough loop of hot springs set in breathtaking mountain terrain that would take an adventurer a week to fully explore.

The Circle Route runs just over 850 kilometers — or nearly 530 miles — starting from Cranbrook and ending in Creston, with 13 stops for soaking, recreating, and sightseeing along the way.

This gem of a loop may seem hidden to many Americans, but the folks at the HelloBC, the official tourism bureau for British Columbia, say this remarkable drive is a popular route for travelers of all stripes, from singles to families and groups.

“The many natural hot springs in the Kootenay Rockies region offer everything from a full resort experience to backcountry wilderness,” said Wendy Van Puymbroeck of the Kootenay Rockies Tourism branch of HelloBC.

On the road to the 13 hot springs along British Columbia's circle route

On the road to the 13 hot springs along British Columbia’s circle route

First Nations people originally discovered the hot springs, she said, and used them for medicinal and healing purposes. The naturally warm water bodies are a geological phenomenon found in abundance throughout the Kootenay Rockies, allowing for discovery and adventure as wild as you want it to be — some are still natural pools near rivers, while others have been transformed into resorts with plentiful amenities and luxuries.

Our adventure had us aiming for Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, just a couple hours north of Whitefish. The morning was chilly and gray, with low-lying clouds and fog obscuring the incredible spine of the Rockies that we followed the whole trip.

By the time we hit the border crossing at Roosville, the fog was thinning, but would hang around until the sun finally burned bright enough in the afternoon. Canadian border patrol offered their two cents about which hot springs to visit, and we were across the actual border in no time.

Driving on U.S. Highway 93 nearly the whole way, we only had to change roads at Cranbrook, where a slight right turn had us on Highway 95 and on the Circle Route. We passed Fort Steele, a restored 1890s pioneer boomtown, and Skookumchuck, making our way north.

By the time we hit Canal Flats, an industrial town set in rugged mountains, the sun was shining, and the incredible scenery finally came out from hiding. White and gray jagged peaks ripped into the blue sky, wild and alpine, enough to make two people who have lived in the Flathead Valley for years and visit Glacier National Park regularly say “wow” and “holy smokes” at nearly every turn.

Visitors soak in one of several pools at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort

Visitors soak in one of several pools at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort

The journey to Fairmont Hot Springs — the Canadian version, not to be confused with the popular destination in Montana — took us past Columbia Lake, a massive water body that serves as the birthplace of the mighty Columbia River.

Fairmont sits just at the north end of this huge lake, nestled into the mountainside under peaks that could fit right in with the Swiss Alps. The resort offered deep, blue pools of warm water piped in, with diving boards and various soaking opportunities. Nearby, shops and a market provided food, beverages, and the little things you may have forgotten on the way out the door.

The mountainous backdrop pulls double duty: not only is it postcard-worthy, but in the winter it also boasts a ski area with 14 runs and three lifts, making it easy to imagine ending a day on the slopes with a dip in the springs. Lift tickets for adults are $47, and $37 for youths, with age-based discounts on top of that.

All told, it took us about three hours to reach Fairmont. For comparison, it’s about the same amount of time it would take to drive from the Flathead to the Bitterroot Valley, or from Kalispell to Coeur d’Alene. The closeness surprised me; for some reason, the idea of crossing the border made the trip seem like it would be more arduous.

But this was simple, an easy one-day trip that still allowed us time on the way back to stop by the natural pools of Lussier Hot Springs, set in an idyllic canyon next to the Lussier River.

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Road trip time

There isn’t much signage denoting the turn, other than that directing us to Whiteswan Lake. The drive took us up a logging road still very much in use, into a different valley running parallel to the highway, with two walls of mountain ranges hemming us in. About 20 minutes later, we found the springs, already in the shadows of the mountain despite the afternoon sun.

Popular and simple, these springs offer rock pools of warm water directly next to the river, allowing the adventurous a nice temperature shock to the system jumping from one to the other.

Our drive back was peppered with more “whoa” and “pull-over-I-need-to-take-a-picture” moments as the peaks that previously hid in fog revealed themselves against a bluebird afternoon sky. We hit the border again, energized and relaxed from our trip, and we’d only been to two of the stops along the Circle Route. We hadn’t even broken into the bigger, more dramatic scenery further north, in Golden and along the border of Banff National Park.

As we continued back into the United States, greeted by the town of Eureka, two thoughts replayed in our conversations, over and over: “How have I never done that before?” and “I can’t wait to go back.”

For more information on the Hot Springs Circle Route, including links and phone numbers for resorts and campgrounds, visit www.kootenayrockies.com/soak-relax/hot-springs/.