In the heart of the Kootenay wilderness is the tiny village of Ainsworth Hot Springs, set into the mountainside overlooking the vast expanse of Kootenay Lake and the Purcell Mountains.
The village is the location of the Ainsworth Hot Springs, whose natural hot springs feature a unique horseshoe-shaped cave where the darkness, the mineral deposits and the humidity all combine to offer an exhilarating experience.
The hot steamy, odourless shower of mineralized water falls from the cave’s roof and forms a waist-deep pool, providing a rejuvenating natural steam bath. The main pool provides the perfect place to relax and enjoy some of West Kootenay’s majestic scenery – Purcell Mountains and Kootenay Lake.
The springs originate in the Cody Caves area, directly above and to the west of Ainsworth Hot Springs. The water works its way down through porous rock to a depth of 1.5 to 2 kilometres, increasing in temperature at a rate of 40 degree Celsius per kilometre, until it strikes what is known as the Lakeshore Fault. This fault is an impervious layer of rock lying at an angle of 45 to 50 degrees from Ainsworth Hot Springs to a point directly below the Cody Caves. Hydraulic pressure forces the water up along the fault where it emerges at Ainsworth Hot Springs, where the hot water spills through caves and out into the main pool. From the caves, the outflow of piping-hot water is filtered twice and lightly chlorinated before flowing into the slightly cooler outdoor pools.
The hot springs are heated naturally and vary in temperature between 40-42°C (104-114°F) in the Cave, 35-38°C (96-101°F) in the Pool, and 4-10°C (40-50°F) for the Cold Plunge. The caves are old mine tunnels carved out by miners attempting to increase the flow of hot water from the springs. Visitors can explore the cave’s tunnels and stalactites, relaxed on a hot ledge, find the natural hot shower or have a natural sauna.
Considered to be the best commercial hot spring in BC, Ainsworth is open year-round, and is popular with families and local residents wishing to linger in the soothing waters and play in this exhilarating wilderness playground. Any time is a good time to visit Ainsworth, but the cool, crisp air on winter days provides a delightful contrast to the warmth and humidity in the caves.
Like many Canadian natural attractions, Ainsworth Hot Springs was probably first discovered by native Indians who came up to Kootenay Lake in the late summer to take advantage of the sockeye salmon run. Since this timing coincided with the ripening of the huckleberry crop, it would be natural to assume that after spending the days clambering around the hills these people would welcome a soak in the hot springs. This idyllic lifestyle probably continued for decades until the Indians guided the first prospectors in the area.
In 1882 George Ainsworth of Portland, Oregon, applied for a preemption of the townsite that is now Ainsworth Hot Springs. It was at first called Hot Springs Camp, and had been founded on the strength of silver, lead and zinc discoveries in the vicinity. The mining company that owned the property in the 1920s built the first pool, primarily for use by the miners. The pool and caves were completed in the early 1930s, with extensive renovations in 1983 and the present hotel built in 1987.
Ainsworth is located adjacent to one of the largest lakes in British Columbia, Kootenay Lake, which has some nice beaches, including the beach at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park. From Balfour you can catch the longest free ferry ride in the world, a 40-minute scenic crossing of Kootenay Lake from Balfour to Kootenay Bay on the east shore of the lake.
Buchanan Lookout (elevation 6,263 feet/1,909 metres) is a great day-use spot for family outings, with spectacular views, lovely flowers in season, and a 2-km loop trail below the lookout that provides access to viewpoints on the rock bluffs. Buchanan Lookout was the first fire lookout constructed in British Columbia (1920) and the sixth to be registered in Canada. Interpretive displays on fire lookouts are also located in the present tower, a 14′ x 14′ cab built in 1965. Travel north to Kaslo, then head west on highway #31A for 3 km to the Blue Ridge Forest Services Road. Follow the main road for 7.5 miles (12 km) to the lookout, staying right at the 7-km junction.
Hang Gliding: The Lookout on Mount Buchanan also provides ramps used by hand gliders for launching. The two ramps are managed by the Kaslo Hang Gliding Club.
Cross Kootenay Lake and stop in at Boswell, where the Glass House of the late David Brown features half a million empty, square embalming fluid bottles used to build this curiously beautiful house.
Golf: Golfers have three golf courses to choose from in the area: The magnificent Balfour Golf Course and Eagleview Golf Course south of Ainsworth Hot Springs in Balfour, and Kokanee Springs Golf Resort in Crawford Bay, on the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake. Golf Vacations in British Columbia.
Fishing: Kokanee Creek and Kootenay Lake maintain considerable populations of various fish species, including kokanee, rainbow and cutthroat trout, dolly varden, burbot, and whitefish. Kootenay Lake supports record-sized rainbow trout. ‘Kokanee’ means ‘red fish’ in the Kootenay Indian language and is the name given to the land-locked salmon that spawn in large numbers in Kokanee Creek in the late summer. Charter fishing and rental boats are available.
Diving: Dive amongst discarded relics from yesteryear off Ainsworth in Kootenay Lake, the site of refuse disposal by the community way back in the past. This site is a treasure trove for junk divers searching for old bottles and other memorabilia along the sloping lake bed, at depths of 60 feet (18 metres) and deeper. Dive sites are also located off the community of Kaslo to the north of Ainsworth.
Skiing: In winter, blast out of some of the legendary ‘bottomless powder’ at Whitewater Ski Resort, a popular spot for snowboarders and downhill skiers located a short drive south of Nelson. The community Ski Hill in Nelson, Morning Mountain, also offers great family and beginners skiing.
Cross-country Skiing: Over 16 miles (25 km) of cross-country skiing trails at Whitewater Ski Resort are maintained by the volunteer operated Nelson Nordic Ski Club. Many of the nearby golf courses also offer cross-country trails in the winter months. Snowmobilers can head for the Cedar Creek Forest Service Road to Cody Cave Park.
Skiing & Winter Activities in the Kootenays.
Hiking: The 2-km Fletcher Lake Trail (difficult, 92-meter elevation gain) is a steep rustic trail leading into an alpine lake area. The trail starts on a skid road in a cutblock, and winds its way through dense sub-alpine forest and creekside vegetation to the east end of Fletcher Lake. The area is inhabited by grizzly bears, so hikers should make a noise when hiking. Hike in groups, and store food out of bear-reach and well away from campsites. The site at Fletcher Lake provides good backcountry camping and fishing. Access to the trailhead is via the Fletcher Lake logging road that branches off Woodbury Creek logging road north of Woodbury Creek. A number of hiking trails are located in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park.
Fletcher Falls Recreation Site beach site on the west shore of Kootenay Lake offers picnic facilities and 4 campsites. Cartop boats and canoes only. A trail above the camping area leads to a spectacular waterfall and moss-lined grotto on Fletcher Creek. The falls are most spectacular in the spring when visitors are washed by the cool mist off the falls. Access to the site is 8 miles (12.5 km) north of Ainsworth on a dirt road immediately south of the Fletcher Creek bridge.
For an experience under this world, visit Cody Caves Provincial Park on the eastern slopes of the Selkirk Mountains, near Ainsworth Hot Springs. The cave system features an underground stream flowing through ancient limestone formations, discovered by prospector Henry Cody in the 1890s.
The rugged mountain wilderness of Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park offers excellent recreation in summer and winter, with some fine angling for trout in the more than 30 glacier lakes. The park is a mountain wilderness of 32,035 hectares, most of which lies above 1,800 metres. The Kokanee Glacier is one of three glaciers within the park that feed over 30 small lakes.
Kokanee Creek Provincial Park south of Ainsworth has facilities that include hiking and ski trails, a visitor centre with displays, educational interpretive programs, and the largest campground in this part of the West Kootenays. Canoeing and kayaking are popular and there is a boat launch located east of the day-use area. The large 1-km sandy beach makes this one of the best places for swimming and sunbathing in the area.
Travel back into the history of this region, to the Ghost Town of Sandon, once the Capital of the Silvery Slocan and now a renowned and restored historic site. Located northwest of Ainsworth on Highway 31A, Sandon was an incorporated city of 5,000 people at the height of the mining boom in 1892. Two railroads once served this Monte Carlo of Canada, with its 29 hotels, 28 saloons, opera house, 2 newspapers, 5 men’s clothing stores, a bank, and several other gambling halls, brothels, offices, stores and businesses.
A shameful period of history has been commemorated at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, on Josephine Street in nearby New Denver, where visitors can enrich their understanding of internment history. In 1942, about 22,000 Nikkei (people of Japanese descent), 75% of whom were Canadian citizens, were stripped of their civil rights and labelled “enemy aliens”. The federal government ordered men to road camps, while families were placed in animal stalls awaiting forced removal to interior BC relocation camps or sugar beet farms in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. More information on Internment Camps in British Columbia and Canada.
North of Ainsworth is Mirror Lake and the quaint little hamlet of Kaslo, nestled on the shores of Kootenay Lake. Kaslo enjoys the distinction of being called British Columbia’s Prettiest Town and the Switzerland of the Americas. Elegant Victorian era buildings, tree-lined streets and magnificent lake and mountain views give credence to these titles.
South of Ainsworth is the pretty little village of Balfour on the north shore of the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, at the junction of the lake’s North, South and West arms. From Balfour you can catch the ferry for the 40-minute crossing of Kootenay Lake to Kootenay Bay.