Photograph by Gunter Marx, Corbis
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The Liard River hot springs offer a warm respite, even in the middle of winter.
Photograph by Gunter Marx, Corbis

Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park

Follow a wooden boardwalk path through a warm-water swamp and boreal forest to soak in Canada’s second largest hot springs. Originally known as Tropical Valley for its lush terrain, Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park in British Columbia encompasses about eight pools, one of which is open to bathers. The thermal waters simmer between 108° and 126°F in the rustic public pool, making the park a popular rest stop for drivers on the nearby Alaska Highway. "The hot springs draw people from all over the world," says Belinda Clark, the park’s manager. "Visitors often come for a day the first time and return the next year for an entire week because they enjoyed it so much."

When to Go: The park, pool, and highway are open year-round, and all three are busiest in the summer. Clark recommends winter, the off-season, when traffic is light, the surrounding forest is covered with snow, frost builds steam off the water, and the northern lights add a celestial show to most evening soaks.

How to Get Around: The hot springs are located at Historical Mile 496 of the Alaska Highway. From the campground, walk five minutes on the raised wooden boardwalk over the swamp to get to the pool. Look out for moose and other wildlife feeding in the swamp and surrounding forest, and for the 14 different species of wild orchids nurtured by the thermal waters. Once you arrive at the pool, change into shorts or a bathing suit in the dressing rooms, and store your belongings in one of the 24 cubbyholes. The wooden deck and the stairs into the pool can be slippery in winter, so be careful. There is seating built along the side closest to the stairs, but move around to experience the varying water temperatures. The right side is warmest, so enter by the left-hand set of stairs to ease in gradually. After soaking for a while, cool down by walking or floating back to the left side; a cold spring chills the water at the far left end.

Where to Stay: The adjacent provincial park has 53 campsites with full services May 1 to October 14. Camping is available year-round, with reduced fees and services off-season. You can reserve online. Across the Alaska Highway is the 12-room Liard Hotsprings Lodge, open year-round for accommodation and fuel. The lodge also features camping facilities and 20 pull-through sites for RVs. About a 40-minute drive south, the Muncho lakeside Northern Rockies Lodge offers water-view rooms, suites, and log cabins.

What to Eat or Drink: If you’re not camping around the fire pit, the Liard Hotsprings Lodge has a simple restaurant open only during the summer. The Northern Rockies Lodge has a Swiss-themed dining room that’s open year-round, even to nonguests; it serves breakfast (muesli and fresh breads), lunch, and dinner that includes schnitzel with mushroom sauce, Hungarian goulash, rainbow trout, and homemade bumbleberry or apple pie for dessert. The tiny nearby Coal River Lodge restaurant seats 24 and also is open all year. If you go, stop by the gift shop to check out the owner’s homemade chocolates and jams, all made with berries from the area.

What to Bring: Mosquitoes can be horrendous in summer, so bring repellent. Also, while the pool is open 24/7, the boardwalk isn’t lighted. Bring a flashlight for evening soaks.

What to Watch Before You Go: American Experience: Building the Alaska Highway (2005). The PBS documentary tells the story of how U.S. Army soldiers cut pathways through primeval forests in 1942 to build the 1,520-mile highway traveled, in part at least, by everyone who visits Liard Hot Springs. The soldiers also built the original wooden boardwalk leading to the hot springs pool.

Helpful Links: BC Parks

Fun Fact: The tiny freshwater fish darting back and forth under the park’s wooden boardwalk are lake chub. Endemic to the park, these small fish are unique among North American minnows because they can survive in such warm water.

Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels .