Kootenay National Park, one of the gems of the Canadian Rockies, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020. It’s spectacular at any time, however our recent visit was even more rewarding because of the fall colours. One big advantage of visiting the park is that it’s less busy than its next-door neighbour, Banff National Park, but has scenery that is just as impressive. Indeed, the diverse landscapes are outstanding, from glaciers in the high peaks of the northern part to semi-arid grasslands on the Columbia Valley in the south.
Highway #93 – Valleys, Mountain Passes, Trails, and River-side Stops
There is essentially one road through the park – Hwy #93, also known as the Banff-Windermere Highway, that runs the length of the park from the south end near the village of Radium Hot Springs to the north end where it meets the Trans Canada Highway at Castle Junction, shortly after crossing into Banff National Park. Near the north end, the highway crosses the Continental Divide, separating waters flowing to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as forming the border between the two parks and two provinces – Alberta and British Columbia.
For much of the way the highway follows the Vermilion River, then the Kootenay River farther south, with several turnoffs to trailheads, picnic sites, campgrounds, and scenic viewpoints galore. At the southern end it meets the Columbia Valley at Radium Hot Springs – one of the park’s key attractions.
Radium Hot Springs – both a village, and the hot pools
The name Radium Hot Springs refers to both the hot springs pools which are a short distance inside the park near the south end, and the name of the village just outside the park. According to oral history, the Ktunaxa people of the area used to bathe in the hot water. Things really started to pick up in 1911 when a British medical journal, followed by other medical studies, talked about the curative powers of the radium in the water. Commercial pools developed and later became part of the park. While we find hot springs in various parts of the Rockies, these are in a class by themselves. The setting is breathtaking, tucked into the cliffs of the canyon. Unlike some hot springs which have a strong sulphur smell, here the water is odourless and clear.
The southern entrance to the park is among the most impressive park entrances anywhere. The highway squeezes through massive rock walls of Sinclair Canyon, and nearby are the brilliant Redwall Fault cliffs. The road continues to twist and turn as it climbs to the Kootenay Valley Viewpoint, quite likely the park’s most photographed sight.
A handy guide to driving through the park is the Kootenay Guided Tour App (links available from the park website). The GPS-triggered app not only alerts you and provides details to points of interest along the way, but also includes behind-the-scenes stories by Parks Canada staff who work there. Be sure to download it onto your mobile device before venturing out on the highway, since there is no cell service once you leave Radium Hot Springs.
Easy Hikes and Walks
The park abounds in awesome hiking possibilities, including several major backcountry treks with various levels of difficulty. During the summer, you can also take a guided hike to the Stanley Glacier area to see the famous Burgess Shale – fossils over five hundred million years old.
If you like to take things a bit easier, some stunning countryside is also accessible on day hikes rated as “Easy”. The Cobb Lake Trail is a pleasant 5.4 km return walk that starts just west of the Kootenay Valley Viewpoint. The forest trail descends to Swede Creek then goes slightly up and ends at tiny Cobb Lake. This is a gorgeous spot, looking its best during fall colour season. The walk has an altitude change of 190 metres, mostly near the beginning as you descend to the creek by a series of switchbacks.
The Dog Lake Trail starts at the McLeod Meadows picnic area, 28 km north of Radium Hot Springs. You can do the 5.2 km walk by going to Dog Lake then returning the same way or make a longer circle route by combining it with other trails. There’s only a 40-metre change in elevation. Here too, the small lake was especially scenic because of the fall colours. Another highlight is near the beginning of the trail where you cross two bridges spanning the unreal blue waters of the Kootenay River. The shallow edges are favoured spots for fly fishermen. If you don’t want to do the entire trail, it’s definitely worthwhile coming at least this far.
The Paint Pots to Marble Canyon Trail links two of the park’s famous landforms. The paint pots consist of an unusual orange ochre, which was used as paint pigment in the days before the park. Come here after a rain and you’re guaranteed to walk away with colourful shoes.
Immediately after crossing the bridge on the way to the Paint Pots is the trailhead for the trail to the Marble Canyon, a limestone and dolomite gorge that has been eroded into some wild shapes, making it a great spot for photography. Normally, there is another parking lot for Marble Canyon slightly farther north along the highway. However, during our visit, that approach was closed for construction so the only access was along the trail starting at the Paint Pots. In any event, it’s an easy, pleasant walk of about 6.8 km return, following the banks of the Vermillion River almost the entire way.
The Valleyview Trail is short, only about 1.2 km one way, but the views are non-stop. The trailhead is on the road that runs from Radium Hot Springs village to Redstreak Campground – the park’s main campground. From here the walk follows the hilltops overlooking the village, with sweeping views over the broad Columbia Valley. It makes for a short convenient walk if you’re staying in the campground. If you want more of a workout, another branch of the trail runs uphill from the visitor centre in the village to the rim of the valley. Another short hiking option, mostly through the forest, is from the campground to the hot springs, about 4.6 km return.
The park’s larger wildlife ranges from grizzly and black bears to moose, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. What you might see is often a matter of chance. However, we usually don’t have to go far afield to find bighorn sheep. They seem to like hanging out close to the village and the hot springs area. We saw them every day as we either left or returned to Redstreak Campground.
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