It’s a beautiful late-September afternoon. Whisps of clouds float across the clear blue sky as I gaze in awe at the surrounding Columbia Mountains. The ferry chugs along slowly and a crisp breeze hums across Upper Arrow Lake.
I’m on my way to check out the hot springs along the stretch of Highway 23 South on the other side of the Galena Bay-Shelter Bay ferry. I’ve been in Revelstoke for two years and I haven’t ventured beyond Halcyon. I’m alone on the trip, armed with my Backcountry Road mapbook and vague descriptions of the hot springs that I plucked from the Internet.
My first stop is St. Leon’s hot springs. To get there you drive south down Highway 23 past the Halfway River. The turn off for the St. Leon Forest Service Road is a few kilometres later, just after the end of a long passing lane. I’m first off the ferry and I zip quickly down the highway and right past the turn off. I turn around at a rest stop a few kilometres down the highway and a few minutes later I’m jostling down a bumpy forest road, looking for a sign –any sign – of a trail.
Well, I don’t see a trail but the series of fire pits alongside the road sure gives things away. I get out and make my way down the steep slope, not on a trail but pretty sure that somewhere below I’ll find the hot springs. St. Leon’s hot springs have a long history. At the turn of the 20th century there was a hotel nearby and the springs were visited by people from all over the Kootenays. The hotel stayed open until the 1950s when the SS Minto was taken out of service and reaching the site became too difficult.
Today the springs are located 3.5 kilometres down a forestry road, on private land, and maintained by volunteers. Like all wilderness spots, it’s imperative to leave them in better shape than you found them in. In my case, that meant carrying around a few water bottles.
Walking down the hillside, I spot the springs from above, the blue tarp of a make-shift shelter visible from up high. St. Leon’s hot springs consists of three pools. The largest one is made of concrete and water is piped in through a long tube from the springs source just above. The water is nice and warm but not overly hot – almost bath like. With no one else around, the only sound is the creek running down the hillside and the occasional bird chirping.
My next stop is Halfway hot springs. The turn off is a few kilometres north of St. Leon’s off Hwy. 23, but the drive down the forestry road is three times as long (10.5 kilometres to be exact, according to the directions I have). The road to the hot springs is bumpy and full of pot holes but not too much trouble for my low-clearance minivan. There’s a car parked at the top of the path down to the springs. If you have good clearance you can drive down even farther but I’m not taking any chances.
The directions I have to the hot springs are pretty vague. I walk down the road a bit until I spot some camp sites. After a bit of circling I spot a trail that leads to a lower camp site. A bit more wandering and I see another trail heading to the banks of the Halfway River. When I get there, I spot a few small pools separated from the river by rocks and sand. It looks much smaller and not nearly as developed as what I’d imagined but the pool is warm and inviting. I sit down in it, with the sun shining down the river, slowly dipping behind the trees.
The water was cooler than St. Leon’s – still warm but not exactly hot. As I found out later, I was at the wrong spot. A few hundred metres farther along the road and I would have arrived at the bigger, hotter springs, where people have created several box pools and created an elaborate hose system to manage the water temperature. Still, with the sun setting and a water fall roaring, I was still in a pretty amazing place.
Eventually I pried myself out of the water. I still had Halcyon to hit up and I wanted to get there for sunset. I jolted and caromed back Highway 23 South, where I turned north. Nine kilometres later I came to the turn off for Halcyon Hot Springs.
Halcyon is the grand dame of hot springs in the area. The resort is perched just above the Upper Arrow Lake and has been around in various incarnations since 1894. The resort was a party place full of drinking, dancing and gambling until it came under new ownership in 1924 and turned into a health spa.
Unlike St. Leon’s and Halway, Halcyon is a full on resort. There are four pools available – one normal swimming pool, one hot water pool, one warm water pool and, finally, a cold dip pool. There’s a day spa and cottages and campsites available, and the high-end Kingfisher Restaurant.
I didn’t go swimming at Halcyon on this trip. I’d been there twice before so this was simply a photo stop. I stepped out onto the deck above the pool. The sun had already descended below the Monashee Mountains but the sky was still glowing and people were relaxing in the pools below. I set off to catch the 7:30 p.m. ferry for the dark ride back to Shelter Bay and onwards to Revelstoke feeling relaxed.