Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Soak in Lussier Natural Hot Springs, British Columbia

Lussier Natural Hot Springs, located in the Kootenay mountain range of the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, are possibly the nicest natural hot springs I've had the pleasure of visiting.  I realize I haven't visited many natural hot springs, but I feel safe in saying the Lussier Springs are stunning and relaxing and anyone who visits them will be glad they did.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
What a view from the Lussier Hot Springs!

I heard about the Lussier Hot Springs from readers of this blog (thanks readers!) and decided I just had to visit them this summer during our annual family trip to Invermere, B.C.  Upon discovering the closer Fairmont natural hot springs had been destroyed, the visit to Lussier was a no-brainer.  We packed up the swim bag and diaper bag, buckled the baby in the car seat, and headed off down Highway 93 (which also appears on the GPS as Highway 95).  Lussier Hot Springs are located deep inside Whiteswan Provincial Park, which is just past the village of Canal Flats.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Road signs to watch for when driving to Lussier Hot Springs - the logging trail road, the park sign, the springs sign.

Be prepared - the road to Lussier Hot Springs is a logging road made of gravel that winds through the park, and at times alongside a mountain cliff.  The road is surprisingly well-maintained for a logging road (no deep ruts, washboard, or over-graveled slippery parts), but I still recommend you drive slowly and carefully.  You may encounter logging trucks approaching in the opposite direction, wildlife, and even a cow or two.  At one point on the drive, my husband hit the brakes, thinking we were coming up to three giant moose - as we got closer, we realized we were looking at three cows crossing the road.  Oops!  And of course, at times the road gets scarily close to the cliff - so slow and steady definitely wins the race in this case.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The edge of the road leading to Lussier Hot Springs.  Go slow!

You will drive for about 30 minutes down the logging road into Whiteswan Provincial Park - the distance is about 25 kilometers, but you have to drive slow.  It is impossible to miss the Lussier Hot Springs parking lot - even if there weren't about 10 vehicles already parked there.  There are two hole-in-the-ground toilets which also function as change rooms, and a nice, big sign announcing the presence of the springs.  You won't get lost, trust me.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The beautiful and peaceful Lussier Hot Springs in British Columbia.

Finding your way down to the springs from the parking lot is just as easy.  It is a short four-minute hike down a nicely maintained pathway.  Wooden railings prevent people from tumbling down the hill.  It is a little steep, so if you packed runners, wear them.  I stupidly wore sandals, and although it was by no means impossible, I did wish I had better shoes.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The steep but beautiful pathway down to the hot springs.

At the bottom, you are met with an extremely picturesque scene.  The Lussier River bubbles along, icy cold and clear, and just to the side right on the edge of the river, are three pools.  They are just about as natural as it gets - it is obvious people have built up the edges of the pools with rocks over time, but you can clearly see where the hot springs feed right into the pools.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The hot springs nestle directly against the Lussier River.

The upper pool is the hottest, and I was only able to soak in that one for short spurts.  The bottom right pools were warm to tepid, depending on how close to the river you were sitting.  In certain areas, small rivulets of river water occasionally flowed over the rock barrier and into the pools.  The left-hand pool was deserted, and when I stepped inside I could see why: it was just as cold as the river.  Not my idea of a great place to lounge!

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Lounging in the 'medium' temperature hot spring at Lussier.

The springs were busy, but not crowded. There may have been about 30 people there in total, and there was tons of space in the pools.  The hot pool is a bit smaller, so you were left sitting a little closer to people than you might find comfortable, but it wasn't as if we were piled up on top of each other competing for space.  And people seemed to leave the springs at the same rate they were arriving, so it never got too bad.  (We arrived before lunch, and by the time we were leaving it did seem to be getting a little busier.  I recommend visiting the pools earlier in the day if you want them to be quieter.)

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Lots of people enjoying the Lussier Hot Springs, but it wasn't too crowded.

The springs are free to visit, as is Whiteswan Provinical Park.  Of course, proper bathing attire is requested (no skinny dipping!) and pets are not allowed.  I'm pretty sure other common sense no-nos apply, such as no liquor and whatnot.  There are signs informing you of the rules, and I'd follow them, because park rangers make the Lussier Hot Springs part of their regular rounds.

We didn't end up staying too long, as Avy Bear was getting a little cranky and we didn't want a crying baby to spoil the serenity for everyone.  Next year, though, we are definitely going back!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Update: Fairmont Natural Hot Springs 2014

This summer, during my family's annual trip to British Columbia, I had the chance to do a quick check-up on the natural hot springs located beneath the commercialized Fairmont Hot Springs.  After two years of people commenting on my blog, lamenting on the hot springs' state of disrepair, I had to see for myself.  I'd promised my readers to let them know if the springs had changed much from when I'd visited last.

fairmont hot springs, natural hot springs, hot springs in b.c.
Fairmont Hot Springs as they appeared in 2012 - beautiful 'warm' pools to lounge in.

My husband, daughter and I took the familiar path down towards the RV park outside the commercial springs.  A creek runs down the mountainside, separating the resort from the camping area.  Just beside the creek, a gravel trail (now fixed from the muddy mess we encountered last time, after the big mud slide in 2012) leads you down towards the hot pool run-off areas.

The road to the former natural hot springs in Fairmont, British Columbia.

The gravel trail leading down to where the Fairmont Natural Hot Springs used to be

We followed the gravel trail down for about six minutes, and found the first hot pool run-off area.  The hillside is sleek with the algae that thrives in the temperate waters, and the creek warms slightly as the hot pool run-off mingles with the glacial water.  But don't stop there - that's not the only run-off area near Fairmont.

It may be a water outflow area, but it used to be so nice...

Further down the path, just another five minutes, is the area where there USED to be three fantastic naturally formed hot pools.  A waterfall, shooting warm water run-off from the resort hot pool, USED to supply the natural hot pools with their heat.  (People have debated whether or not the hot pools I am talking about are indeed 'natural' since they are supplied with run-off from the commercial pool, but I argue that the commercial pool is fed from a natural spring, so it's just as natural as the resort pool, if not more... but I digress.)  My point is, when we arrived at the area where the natural pools USED to be - they weren't there.

The area where the Fairmont natural hot pool used to be is now just a water run-off area - so sad!

I wasn't surprised.  Several people had commented on my Natural Hot Springs blog post that the pools had been destroyed during clean-up from the mud slide. I was expecting to see what I saw: a small waterfall sending tepid water down to a pile of jagged rocks, the water sliding down the rumpled and crumbled hill to the creek beyond.  One teeny tiny pool persisted, but it wouldn't be big enough for one person to lounge in and soak.  The whole area was destroyed, sadly.

The one tiny hot pool left over from the razing of the Fairmont natural hot springs.

I'm not sure why this happened - I know there was a mudslide, but I'm not sure why there was a need to annihilate the natural pools when they were obviously still in good shape after the mudslide occurred. Perhaps there was a safety issue?  I didn't see a safety issue when I was there last, but Mother Nature is unpredictable and ever-changing, and who is to say something dangerous didn't arise?  Another possibility is that the Fairmont Resort prefers to have people come and pay to swim in their hot spring, and not to sit in the natural ones just below the resort.  But who knows?

We enjoyed the hike down the trail, regardless of whether or not the natural hot pools were there.

Despite the reason why, the fact is that there are no more natural hot pools to enjoy in Fairmont, B.C., unless you go to the Fairmont Resort Hot Springs.  Read about some other, true NATURAL hot springs in British Columbia in my post on Lussier Hot Springs!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs

It's that time of year again - the time of year where we pack up our vehicle to the brim with suitcases, tennis rackets, good food, water sprinklers, board games, and beach toys, and head off on a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains of Canada to enjoy a week's stay in Invermere, British Columbia. This is our seventh year renting a cabin in the valley with my husband's family, and our first year doing so with a baby in tow.  (The car, incidentally, seemed MUCH fuller this time around!)

Banff Gondola, Sanson Peak, things to do in Alberta
My family on our first holiday together - here's to many more in the future!

Making the five and a half hour journey through the mountains seemed like a bit of a stretch with a six-month-old, so my husband and I decided to split the trip into two days and sojourn in Banff for an evening.  This way, our little one would have some time to enjoy her freedom from the car seat, and we'd have a chance to do a little 'backyard' tourism.

Our first night ever in a hotel with the baby was a great success (she really enjoyed swimming in the hot tub), and we woke the next morning bright and early, ready to have a fun day out and about in Banff.

Our first stop was to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, located about five minutes from downtown Banff up the side of Sulphur Mountain.  Avy-Bear loves a good swim, and we thought it might be a nice way to start the day for her.  The hot springs are super easy to get to, with clearly marked signage and a big, open parking lot.  We grabbed our bags, locked up, and headed inside.  There weren't very many people there - it was 9:06 a.m. and the hot springs opened at 9:00 a.m.  It is recommended that during the holiday seasons people arrive early if they don't want to be sitting in a crowded pool.  At 9:00 a.m. we were maybe sharing the pool with about 20 others.

things to do in Alberta, natural hot springs Alberta, Banff tourism
The Banff Upper Hot Springs at 9:00 a.m. - all ours!

The pool is a balmy 40 degrees Celsius, making it a nice, hot soak. You are only recommended to stay submerged for 10 minutes at the most, due to the temperature.  We popped in and out of the water much more frequently, considering we had a wee baby with us. The view around the hot springs is gorgeous, and although the springs themselves are very developed and commercialized, you do feel like you are soaking in the middle of nature.  On one side of the springs, there is a deck with a balcony that overlooks the Rocky Mountain range, and it is very calming and peaceful to sit there while you cool down from the steaming waters.

Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta, Banff tourism
Cooling off on the hot springs deck during a quick sun shower.

We only stayed for about an hour before deciding to leave.  The cost to soak in the pool is $7.30 for adults, and $6.30 for youths and seniors.  Avy was free, as are all kids 3 and under.  Since the price is quite reasonable, leaving after an hour didn't seem like a waste.

On our way out, we found a little 'pool' built into the side of the trail leading to the parking lot - you could dip your feet in and the temperature was just as warm as the commercialized pool.  Unfortunately, it is not big enough to swim in, but it sure felt nice on the feet!

things to do in Alberta, Banff Upper Hot Springs, outdoor hot spring
Enjoying a dip in the 'natural' hot spring at Banff, just off the main path.

After a quick breakfast and a stroll around the extremely busy downtown, we headed to the Banff Gondola.  This tourist attraction is quite popular, so it is suggested that you book tickets in advance (although I did see some people buying their tickets right there - whether they had to wait 2 hours to ride to the top is unknown to me). Tickets were $35.95 per adult, and $16.95 for children 6 to 15.  Avy, again, was free.

Our tickets were for noon, so we had a twenty minute wait before we were to line up to board our gondola. The line-up seemed really long, but it moved quite quickly and efficiently.  The gondolas are small - they hold four people and you must sit during your ascent to the top of the mountain.  Two attendants slow the gondola enough for you to hop on, and then send you on your merry little way.  Thus, the line moves at a snappy pace.  My husband had our daughter strapped to his chest, and the attendants were generous and let us board the gondola alone, without another couple.

Excited to be going up the Banff Gondola!

We had fun on the way up - the view is amazing, the mountain incline sharp. We watched hikers winding their way up the steep slope, and waved to people going down the gondolas across from us. Avy enjoyed the smooth ride and watched the scenery with great interest.

going up the Banff gondola, things to do in Alberta, Rocky Mountains Alberta
The view from the Banff Gondola, going up Sulphur Mountain.

It had been raining that morning while we were soaking in the hot springs, and the mountain range in the distance had been hazy with clouds and the remnants of a few major forest fires around B.C.  However, during our ride up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the skies cleared and we were able to see all the way down the valley.

Banff gondola, Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta
The view of Banff and the Rocky Mountains from the top of Sanson Peak.

The ride up the gondola lasts about ten minutes.  Once at the top, there are gift shops, a restaurant, and a snack shop.  You can stick around the gondola station and view the vista from the observation deck, or you can partake in a 20 minute hike to the summit of Sanson Peak.  We chose the latter.

Sanson Peak hike, Banff Gondoloa, things to do in Alberta
Starting our hike to Sanson Peak.  The wooden trail made it very enjoyable.

The hike was fantastic, and I highly recommend that if you take the time to go to the top of Sulphur Mountain, then you best better do the hike to the weather observation station at Sanson Peak.  A well-built, smooth wooden boardwalk acts as a trail to the peak, made of 28 switchbacks allowing you to climb to the summit with ease.  There are about 10 look-out points along the way, offering stunning views and photo opportunities.  A word of warning: there are a lot of stairs, going both up and down both ways, and the trek to Sanson Peak is NOT wheelchair or stroller friendly.  Unfortunately.

Another family photo from one of the lookout points along the trail.

At the top of Sanson Peak, it was super windy. Avy stopped to have half a bottle, but we had to cap it and turn around, leaving the peak behind us and finding a sheltered bench so she could finish her lunch.  If you go to the peak, pack yourself a hoodie or windbreaker to protect yourself from the elements at the top.  After all, you are standing on top of a mountain!

Rocky Mountain trees, Rocky Mountain valley, Banff Gondola, Sulphur Mountain
A view of a Rocky Mountain valley, covered in trees.  It is still hazy from all the forest fires.

It is estimated that visitors spend an average of 2 hours at the top of Sulphur Mountain.  We were up there for about an hour and twenty minutes, and were ready to head back down.  (We didn't explore the gondola station very long, so I can easily see people spending two hours in total up at the top.)  On the way down, the attendants take a photo of you sitting inside the gondola, and then try to sell you a copy at the bottom. We didn't fall for that.  It was expensive, and besides, we were seated with two strangers and I had no desire to pay good money for a photo with two unsmiling, unknown people.

We continued our journey to Invermere after the gondola, which was a good thing for Avy, who was in desperate need of a nap.  However, it was a great way to spend a day in Banff.  How lucky are we to live so close to such a beautiful location?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Alberta's Devonian Botanical Gardens

This summer, my goal is to explore as much of the beautiful province of Alberta as I can with a six-month-old baby.  My little Peanut is a great traveler in the car, and loves to people-watch and explore new surroundings, so I am hopeful that I can get out and about as much as possible.

Our first 'mother-daughter' adventure took place at the Devonian Botanical Gardens just outside the town of Devon, Alberta (about half an hour south of Edmonton).  It was a smokin' hot summer day, my husband was away at a conference in Banff, and Avy Bear and I were looking for something relaxing to do.  The drive wasn't too far for us, and the weather for the day made an afternoon out seem promising.

Trying to get in some summer fun checking off our 'backyard bucket list' in Alberta!

It is pretty easy to find the gardens.  There are signs posted throughout the town of Devon, and it is a basic drive 6 minutes along the highway, skirting Devon, until you enter Parkland County and see the giant entrance sign.  For all you GPS lovers, type in 51227 Alberta 60, Parkland County.

The gates open at 10 a.m. each morning and stay open until around 5 p.m. (hours vary depending on the season, so check out their website before you plan your stay).  It is $13.50 (plus GST) for an adult to visit, $3.00 for kids 7-12, and $5.00 for teenagers.  Seniors and students can get special discounts with valid ID.  I thought it was decently priced seeing that you can stay as long as you like, and the gardens are extremely beautiful.

Enjoying a beautiful summer day at the Devonian Botanical Gardens outside of Edmonton.

Here's the breakdown of the Devonian Botanical Gardens: Under the guidance of the University of Alberta, the gardens were established in 1959.  It mainly acts as a tourist attraction, but due to its affiliation with the university, there are lots of ecology and conservation projects and experiments done by students there, too.  The gardens sprawl over 80 acres, and also include another 110 acres of protected natural areas.  Within these 80 acres are sectioned, themed gardens.

The themed gardens include the:
  • Kurimoto Japanese Gardens
  • Native People's Gardens
  • Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden
  • Plants of Alberta Garden
  • Herb Garden (which includes a children's sensory garden where kids can taste, touch and smell certain plants)
  • Peony Collection
  • Primula Dell
  • Greenhouses
Avy and I did not have the chance to explore it all, and we unfortunately discovered that not all areas are stroller (and therefore wheelchair) accessible.  We missed the Peony Collection altogether, and could not access Primula Dell as you had to walk across the grass and it was just too bumpy for the little one.  The Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden, which is shaped like a bowl, could be viewed from above when pushing a stroller, but the pathways down into the bottom were made of stepping stone stairs, or took you down a steep grassy incline.  So we skipped that area too.

There is a natural wetlands area as well, with two pathways leading to a beautiful lookout point - one pathway is cedar chipped and slightly difficult to navigate with a stroller (and I'd assume a wheelchair) but it is much better than the natural one that is riddled with tree roots and deep ruts. Avy and I started on that path and had to turn back.

Stuck on the natural wetlands pathway - we had to turn around.

Our favorite area was the Kurimoto Japanese Gardens - it is elegant, peaceful, and of course, beautiful.  There is a large lake (large for a botanical garden, that is) in the center, with wooden bridges spanning the narrower parts.  Waterfalls send bubbling water down into the lake.  A pagoda with a gong stands on a hill overlooking the lake, and several covered sitting areas dot the shoreline.  Koi fish swim in the peaceful waters.

Picnics are allowed in the gardens, and all the staff asks is that you clean up after yourself and not loiter on the grass for too long to prevent damage.  Avy and I enjoyed a brief picnic and diaper change, tidied up, and continued on our way, and the staff merely stopped by to say hello and coo over how happy the baby seemed.  There is also a place where you can buy food, in case you forget your picnic, and the prices seemed reasonable.

The gorgeous Kurimoto Japanese Gardens at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

We also really enjoyed the greenhouses, particularly the tropical butterfly greenhouse. Massive butterflies soared through air, conglomerating on certain bushes, and even landing on my shirt!  None landed on Avy, although I had my camera waiting just in case.  The air was hot and humid, so for those of you who get uncomfortable easily, prepare yourself mentally before entering.  It is worth a stay inside the greenhouse - there are lots of colorful, exotic flowers and of course, lots of butterflies to discover!  The other greenhouses include an arid desert climate, and a temperate climate.

The tropical butterfly greenhouse at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

Something I know Avy will enjoy in the future was the honeysuckle maze.  It was in need of a trim at the time of our visit, and I got pretty scratched up pushing the stroller through the pathways, but I could see it being grand once tidied up.  There were several end-of-year field trips attending the gardens while Avy and I were there, and the maze was riddled with happy children running in circles, shouting out to one another, and generally having a great time getting lost.  In the center of the maze was some sort of abstract metal art installation that the kids were climbing, trying to map their escape from the maze.

Getting scratched up and lost (but having fun) in the honeysuckle maze.

The pathways are made of a variety of mediums - pavement, cedar wood chips, and dirt were the most common.  They wind all throughout the gardens, leading you past the different sections.  As we strolled through the Plants of Alberta, we passed a second lake and watched several school groups participating in pond-dipping activities and scavenger hunts.  It seemed like a fun place for a school field trip.

For any gardeners out there, if you see something you like in the gardens, obviously you can't pick it or harvest seeds from it.  However, there are greenhouses on the premises that sell plants and seeds for you to try at home. (When I checked the prices seemed a bit expensive but what do you expect?)  Another no-no at the Devonian Botanical Gardens - don't bring your pets.  I can easily guess that having pets peeing on the plants is frowned upon.

Don't pick anything at the Gardens - but you can always buy what you need at their store!

Something I'd like to try that I discovered on the website are the Thursday night "Date Nights".  The facility opens late for registered couples and allows them to participate in a variety of fun couples' activities.  The ones I saw on the website include beer tastings, rumba dance lessons, taiko drumming workshops, and live music.  If it wasn't such a long drive for my hubby and I, I'd beg him to go to one (the taiko drumming sounds like a ton of fun)!

There you have it - a fun Alberta bucket list activity for either yourself, your family, or you and your significant other.  It is affordable, entertaining, and also gets you out and moving.  I highly recommend it!