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Nakusp is a quaint town of around 1,500 inhabitants located in British Columbia’s stunning West Kootenay region. Settled along the sandy shores of Upper Arrow Lake, Nakusp is reached via ferry, which adds to the rural, secluded appeal of the village and its surrounding inland rainforest.
Nakusp’s largest draw for travellers is its four natural hot springs. Nakusp Hot Springs and Halcyon Hot Springs are commercially run establishments that resemble outdoor swimming pools. The other two, Halfway and St. Leon, are a little more unique. They are open to the public but located on private ground, so the utmost respect for the area is paramount for keeping these springs accessible. Those willing to make the daunting descent down a cliff-face will be rewarded with pristine views and a rugged spa experience free of charge.
Whether you drive through Revelstoke or Vernon, you have to take a ferry to reach Nakusp’s hot springs. On the bright side, the ferry ride is free! The attendant on our crossing jokingly told us that BC Ferries charges enough on the west coast to make this journey complimentary. The ferry is actually an extension of the highway. Click here for ferry schedules. Nakusp is also accessible via Highway 6 from Nelson; a route that passes the incredible Valhalla Provincial Park.
The hot springs are located a short drive out of Nakusp. The road to reach St. Leon Hot Springs is 25 kilometres north of town and currently unmarked. Bring a GPS to search for St. Leon Creek. The logging road to Halfway Hot Springs is located an extra kilometre up the highway, right before the bridge that crosses Halfway River. It is currently marked with a red road sign. A 4-wheel drive is highly recommended, as these roads are rarely plowed in winter.
European settlers began building the village of Nakusp in 1892. Throughout the 1890’s, there were numerous attempts at claiming ownership of nature’s gift to the Kuskanax valley: the thermal hot pools that were said to medicate ailments and rejuvenate the body. After years of struggle over development and administration, a logging road was build to offer easier access to the spa. Nakusp’s citizens have fought hard to keep the hot springs as public ground and to have the area designated a Class A Park.
Today, the Nakusp Hot Springs and Hacelyon Hot Springs can be reached from the highway. But I didn’t go to Nakusp to sit in commercial spas. I came for the reviving water surrounded by wilderness, which took a seriously steep hike and some help from fellow travellers to find.
Nakusp’s main street has two small pubs, one coffee shop and a couple small restaurants where neighbours can meet to gossip. In winter, the farmer’s market is held indoors at the local fire hall.
The hidden hot springs have a culture of their own. Out here, nomads and mountaineers bask in the glorious nature, swapping stories and singing songs. International skiers and snowboarders venture down from Revy to restore their sore muscles. The summer months are excruciatingly hot and crowded, especially before and after the nearby Shamballa festival. The ideal time to enjoy the natural hot springs is on a drizzly autumn afternoon or during the brisk months of winter, when clumps of snow add pops of white to the camouflage-coloured scenery.
It’s common to meet families, hippies, couples and dogs soaking up the warm water. Be forewarned: it’s more than likely you will encounter some nude bodies around Halfway and St. Leon. This is a free, open place to let loose, without judgement, expectations or rules!
When the weather allows it, there are plenty of prime camping spots to pitch a tent and enjoy the outdoors. In cooler months, visitors can rent chalets or hotel rooms. My boyfriend and I spent a late November weekend enjoying the rustic, romantic Camping Cabin at Serenity Views just north of Nakusp. We were treated to our own private beach, an outdoor BBQ and numerous trails to wander.
See & Explore
Halfway Hot Springs
We weren’t exactly ready for our trip up to Halfway. Early Saturday afternoon, Mark and I piled into his small car with a couple bottles of winter ale, two towels and our swimsuits. Leaving Serenity Views, we turned down Highway 23 and headed towards the Shelter Bay Ferry.
On the way to the hot springs, we passed a magnificent waterfall. We pulled over for an obligatory photo opt. Since we were already decked out in hiking gear, we decided to risk a little scramble up the wet rock.
Twenty minutes later, we were bumping up a rough logging road. The higher we climbed, the worse the road got. We were pushing our luck, fighting through snow, holding our breath and betting on when we would get stuck. Eventually, we decided to pull over and hike the rest of the way, even though we didn’t really know where we were going.
No sooner had we ditched the Oldsmobile than a lifted pick-up truck came barreling our way. We flagged down the driver and hitched a ride. After about five kilometres, we turned into a small parking lot where the trail to the hot springs begins. There’s no way our little vehicle would have made it—and I’m not convinced we would have even spotted the “Halfway” sign on our own.
We got out, loaded up our gear and stepped over to the ditch. The path we had to take was a sheer drop. Although it was only 1 kilometre down, the hike was intense. I was thankful to have my KEEN Revel III hiking boots to stop me from slipping and sliding along the snowy embankment. My knees were shaking by the time we made it to the bottom. I was more than ready to unwind in some steaming sulphur water.
The first thing we saw was naked bodies.
A wooden hot tub held two grinning nude bathers. There was an amateur set of bleachers built next to it, with a blue tarp as a make-shift roof. We waved and continued towards the river, stepping carefully to avoid poison ivy.
The next pool we stumbled upon was much more my style. Rocks had been piled to create a wall, enclosing the hot water in a natural bathtub.
In the summer, when the river is high, freezing water runs directly alongside the enclosed pool. In winter, it trickles by over icy pebbles. A few people lay in the pool, clad in bikinis and shorts. We slipped into our bathing suits and joined them.
The water was shallow but instantly welcoming, especially against the bitter air outside. The main pool could fit 10 people snuggly. There were two nearby pools: one hotter, one colder, both smaller than the first. The temperature was controlled by green and black hoses that had been rigged up by nomadic explorers, just like us.
We spent the remainder of the daylight hopping between the burning hot tiny pool, the freezing glacial river and the lukewarm tub, sparking conversations with fellow travellers and enjoying the cool tingle of light rain on our faces.
Once the sun fell, we dried off and redressed. The hike back up the hill was excruciating on the lungs. We caught a ride to the Alero and bumped down the logging road to our cabin in the dark, satisfied, relaxed and eager for our next adventure.
St Leon Hot Springs
Sunday morning greeted us with more rain. We took off for St. Leon and got horribly lost. We must have driven past the right logging road at least three times. Frustrated from racing the short winter sun, we began turning down every dirt road we saw.
We were barreling down a ruptured path when an SUV rolled up behind us. They were heading to St. Leon’s as well. Our new friends advised us to dump our car at the close by parking lot and hop in with them. A few kilometres down the road, we found more SUVs pulled over on the road. Another short but steep trek downhill landed us at Nakusp’s second untamed hot springs.
The pool at St. Leon was larger but cooler than the main pool at Halfway. The bottom of the pool is concrete. It was significantly less comfortable than the rocks we had to lean against at Halfway. It’s said to be in the shape of a guitar, but to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell.
St. Leon was once home to a luxurious hotel that burned down in 1968. The only building on site today was a small, man-made shelter where we hid our valuables from the rain. I hoisted myself up to a smaller pool with the help of a knotted rope tied to a log. This pool was deeper, warmer and smelled noticeably of rotten eggs.
Cedar trees stretched above us. As the mist congealed with the orange sun, the last thing I wanted to do was return to reality—but it was also exactly what had to be done.
In comparison, I preferred Halfway Hot Springs over St. Leon. However, both were incredible, and I know I would have felt as though I missed out if we hadn’t experienced each.
If you decide to journey to Nakusp’s uncultivated hot springs, please pack in what you pack out—and if you spot any floating cans or rubbish, pick it up to add to your karma.