From time to time here on the blog, I’m going to feature entries from one of the 101 Travel Bits books. Today, I’m featuring 101 Travel Bits: The Alaska Highway, available for purchase at Amazon on Kindle, the Kindle app (for any phone or tablet) or in paperback.
Travel Bit Number 39: Liard River Hot Springs
Of all the stops along the Alaska Highway, few are more popular with travelers than the Liard River Hot Springs. A series of natural hot springs that are now part of a Provincial Park, Liard River Hot Springs are a chance for weary travelers to get off of the road and soak in warm, natural pools that remain open all year long.
The first known record of the Liard River Hot Springs comes from 1898, when explorers arrived in the area and noted the presence of the springs. In the mid-1920s, a pilot doing reconnaissance for mineral exploration stopped at the springs to inquire about a trapper and his daughter living in the area. Upon his return to civilization, his stories of the hot springs inspired incredible stories stating—falsely—that the area was home to not only monkeys and parrots, but even dinosaurs. The hot springs were nicknamed the Liard Tropical Valley, and remained a part of Canada subject to fantastic, and usually untrue, stories for years afterward. As it turned out, the rumors about the presence of the hot springs were true, even if the details of the creatures one would find there were not accurate.
During World War II, the soldiers working on the portion of the road near the hot springs used them as a natural bath; they were also the first to build paths and boardwalks to the hot springs. As soon as the road opened to tourist travel in 1948, it became one of the biggest draws along the highway. Today, tens of thousands of visitors stop for a warm soak every year.
While not palm trees, the plants in the hot springs and surrounding pools are typically found in warmer parts of Canada lying hundreds of miles to the south; there are even fourteen different species of orchids around the springs. Across the world, hot springs are often described as islands that are isolated pockets of climate within a larger climate; an ecosystem within an ecosystem. Liard River Hot Springs is no exception.
A study of the vegetation around the Liard River Hot Springs found 82 species of plants growing near the springs, of which 43 were temperate species not normally found in the area. For many of these 43 plants, the hot springs were the furthest north they had ever been discovered. There are multiple species of carnivorous plants that call the hot springs home, in addition to orchids and ferns that are not normally found anywhere near this part of the world.
When it comes to animal life, the hot springs attract a large number of animals thanks to their warmth and open water throughout the year. On the smaller side, tiny lake chub call the hot springs home; these small fish dart beneath the feet of visitors walking the boardwalks across the warm swamps to the hot springs and are uniquely able to withstand the warm water and chemical content of the hot springs.
On the larger side, the hot springs are also home to many moose, who placidly graze along the boardwalks, happy for an easy meal in these Canadian tropics. There is some evidence of a snail that exists only in the vicinity of the hot springs, but a lack of study means no one knows for sure if the snail exists. Years ago, pranksters let a snapping turtle loose in the swamps around the pools, despite it being well north of its normal habitat. Thanks to the warm water of the pools, though, the snapping turtle survived for years, evading capture by the park rangers and providing a unique wildlife viewing experience for this part of Canada.