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Although close to the major cities of Vancouver BC and Seattle WA, the lovely little town of Harrison Hot Springs has yet to be overdeveloped or over commercialized.

Its rustic quiet charm, beautiful setting, and mineral hot springs all combine to make this a wonderful relaxing destination for a short (or long) break.

 
 
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Harrison Hot Springs, BC Canada

A sleepy quiet backwater town with lovely hot springs and beautiful surroundings
 

Ringed by mountains on three sides and the lake on the fourth side, this photo shows the town's major hotel (the Harrison Hot Springs Resort); with the rest of the town hidden in the trees to the left and out of the picture.

Part One of a three part series on Harrison Hot Springs, BC; part two suggests where to stay and eat, part three reviews the Harrison Hot Springs Resort in detail, and part four offers suggestions on what to see and do.

 

 

Only 85 miles east of Vancouver, and 150 miles north east from Seattle is Harrison Hot Springs, a small town of about 1600 people.

As its name implies, it is the site of some natural mineral hot springs, and is in a beautiful part of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

Whether you visit for the hot springs or just for the beauty and relaxing ambience, Harrison Hot Springs is sure to please and to reward you with a positive experience in return for your visit.


Why Visit Harrison Hot Springs?

Harrison Hot Springs in BC is just over a 90 minute drive from Vancouver, BC and about three hours from Seattle, WA.  This makes it a great place for a weekend getaway for people living in the I-5/Hwy-99 corridor, and is not too distant to encourage visitors to add it to their time in the Pacific Northwest.

Some people visit to 'take the waters' in the hot springs, and others visit simply to enjoy a 'get away from it all' relaxing break in a beautiful natural environment.  There are no big name international hotels, no chain fast-food restaurants, and no fast paced life in general.  Parking is free, and there are no stop lights in the tiny town, which you'll probably walk around rather than drive once you get there anyway.

Like many destinations, Harrison Hot Springs allows you to pick and choose the style of vacation you want.  Some people will want to do nothing except enjoy its beauty and tranquility.  But for those seeking a more active experience, there is plenty to see and do in the area, ranging from farm tours to fishing, from eagle watching to golf.

A Quick History of Harrison Hot Springs

Now and then - the rebuilt Harrison Hot Springs Resort in 1930 (after a fire in 1920 destroyed the earlier buildings) on the right, and - on the left - as it is today, with tower blocks on either side now dwarfing the main building.

The hot springs have been known to the local 'First Nations' Indians for a long time, and were called 'Waum Chuck'.  They were considered a supernatural place, and the water was believed to have curative powers if drank.

It is generally considered that the official white settler discovery of the hot springs occurred in either 1858 or 1859.  Apparently three miners were either traveling to or returning from the Cariboo gold fields (stories differ!) and the town of Douglas (at the time one of the largest towns in BC and starting point of the Cariboo Trail, but today totally vanished) at the top of Harrison lake.  As they neared the bottom of the lake, their canoe tipped over and they fell out.  The miners discovered, to their surprise (and relief), that the water was warm rather than cold.

The hot springs were first named 'St Alice's Well' after Alice Douglas, daughter of then BC Governor James Douglas.

Harrison Hot Springs, Harrison lake, and the Harrison river were all named after Benjamin Harrison, who was a director and deputy governor of the Hudson's Bay Company until 1886.

With the start of the gold rush in 1858 and until 1866, access to the gold fields was exclusively via the river and lake, then on up the Cariboo Trail from the top of the lake.  In 1866 the Fraser Canyon Highway was opened, providing a more convenient way of traveling to and from the gold fields.

In 1873 the springs and 40 acres of land surrounding them were purchased by Joseph Armstrong, and he announced ambitious plans to create a major health spa at the site.

After solving the problem of how to get the water from the spring (and keeping the lake water out), he proceeded to build a bathhouse at the spring site itself, and then piped the hot water (145F or 63C when first emerging from the ground) along the lake shore to where he built the St Alice Hotel, located where the modern Harrison Hot Springs Resort's tennis courts are.

The spa source as it is today can be seen in this picture, and is a pleasant short stroll along the lakefront from the Resort.

The hotel was opened in 1886, at which time the Canadian Pacific Railway started service to nearby Agassiz.

The bathhouse, with capacity for 50 guests at a time, was destroyed by fire in 1905 and never rebuilt.

The hotel was also destroyed by fire in 1920.  It was replaced in 1925 by the building which now forms the central part of the resort, and renamed the Harrison Hotel.  It was a popular place, and was the first 'resort' style destination in southwestern BC.

There was little else to the town except the hotel for many years, and because the hotel had a monopoly on the hot springs water, there was no opportunity for other hotel/spas to be built nearby.

During World War 2, the hotel became a sanitarium for returning servicewomen from Europe.

Shortly after the war, the hotel re-opened, and enjoyed steadily growing popularity.  The hotel acted as an 'anchor' for the town as a whole, and employed growing numbers of people, to the point where the town incorporated in 1949.

A public pool was built and opened in 1967.  The hotel agreed to share some of its water with the public pool, giving people who were not hotel guests a chance to bathe in them in the public pool.

In 1999 the Harrison Hotel was renamed the Harrison Hot Springs Resort, and then, in 2001 with its further expansion and opening of the new Healing Springs Spa, it was given its current full formal name - the Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa.

The town established a tourism office in 2007, and their efforts seem sure to encourage further growth and better recognition of the area into the future.

Today there is a population of about 1600 people in the town of Harrison Hot Springs.

The Weather in Harrison Hot Springs

Summers are warm to hot and reasonably dry.  Day temperatures regularly go above 80 and sometimes exceed 90.  Due to the northern latitude, the days are long and sunny.

In the winter, the days are of course shorter, colder and wetter.  There may be a couple of light snow falls each year, but the snow quickly melts away.

In general, it is probably a bit warmer than Vancouver in the summer and a bit cooler than Vancouver in the winter.

Getting to and from Harrison Hot Springs

(Click image to open a larger more detailed map)

Most people will drive to Harrison Hot Springs.  But if you're traveling from further afield than easy driving distance, you'll first wish to fly in to a nearby airport and then probably use a rental car to get the rest of the way to the town.

There are two main nearby airports - Abbotsford, which is the closest, and Vancouver.  In addition, you could also consider Bellingham or Seattle and drive from there (check that you can take a rental car across the border in such a case).

Abbotsford Airport (airport code YXX) is the closest and has some services provided by Westjet as well as small regional airlines.  Vancouver (airport code YVR) is a major international airport and has plenty of flights from many places.

It is about a 45 minute drive from Abbotsford and a 90 minute drive from Vancouver Airport.

Driving to Harrison Hot Springs from Vancouver

There are two main routes to drive between Vancouver and Harrison Hot Springs.  The fastest route is proceeding along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) to exit 135 and then following the signs from there up to Harrison Hot Springs (HHS).  This will take you about 90 minutes from downtown Vancouver to HHS, and is a distance of 80 miles (130km).  The entire length of the highway is limited access motorway/freeway, with at least two lanes in each direction, allowing for quick and easy travel.

A more scenic route which is shorter but will take you longer to drive is going via Hwy 7, which runs more or less parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway and to the north, on the other side of the Fraser river.  This is not a motorway/freeway route.

If you choose to take Hwy 7, we recommend you proceed on the main Trans-Canada Highway between Vancouver and exit 44 (Coquitlam) then take Hwy 7B north to join Hwy 7.  This avoids the worst of the congested urban part of Hwy 7, while giving you all the beautiful scenery on the eastern rural part of the drive.  This route is 75 miles (125km) but will take closer to two hours to drive (of course depending on traffic).

Driving to Harrison Hot Springs from Seattle and the US

In most cases you will travel to Harrison Hot Springs from the US by driving up I-5, then turning off just north of Bellingham (at exit 255) and traveling over to Sumas where you cross the border into British Columbia.

A couple of miles north of the border, you can then either join the Trans-Canada Highway and continue east to the HHS turn-off, or you can keep going directly north to Hwy 7 and take the more scenic (but somewhat slower) route east from there.

It is 150 miles (240 km) from Seattle to HHS, which takes a reasonably easy 2.5 hours driving time; sometimes longer - depending on traffic and waits to pass through the border.  Fortunately the Sumas border post isn't as busy as the ones on I-5, so wait times are usually moderate, although be wary of arriving at a peak time such as Sunday afternoon when a lot of holiday makers will typically be returning home in both directions.

Don't forget to fill up your car with gas before leaving the US.  Petrol is about 30% more expensive in Canada.  Fortunately you can almost certainly do a roundtrip between I-5 and Harrison Hot Springs with plenty to spare from a single tank of gas.

A note for Americans visiting Canada

We suggest you take your passport with you to make crossing the border simple and uncomplicated.  Currently you don't need a passport, but soon this will change.

If you want Canadian cash, it is best to withdraw some from an ATM.  There are a number of ATMs in Harrison Hot Springs.

Beware of paying for Canadian goods with US currency.  When we were there, with a US dollar worth C$1.25, one retailer (pictured here, Aziz at the Husky Food Store) would only offer us a 1:1 exchange rate, which was outrageously unfair.  A second retailer offered a rate of US$1=C$1.10 which was still much less than it should be.  It is better to get Canadian currency from an ATM and pay the best 'commercial' exchange rate through your bank, and that way you avoid being ripped off by greedy local merchants.  The other excellent strategy is to pay by credit card whenever possible.

Lastly, your cell phone will almost certainly internationally roam and work just fine in Canada.  But - be careful.  You might find yourself paying as much as $1/minute for the calls you place and receive, because you're now in a different country and most US cell phone plans don't offer free roaming in Canada.

Trains and Buses

Canada's Via Rail has train service to nearby Agassiz and to Chilliwack as part of its train service between Vancouver and Toronto, with three trains a week available in each direction.  If you wish to travel to either place, you need to arrange for the train to make a special stop and this is offered only on some trains, and requires 48 hrs advance notice.  Some trains stop in Agassiz and others in Chilliwack.

Greyhound operates several buses each day between Vancouver and Chilliwack.

Boat

If you have a not unduly large sized boat, you can probably navigate all the way to Harrison Hot Springs from Vancouver and Puget Sound, traveling via the Fraser and Harrison rivers.

Needless to say, if you choose to do this, ensure you have the latest charts and check with marinas along the way for conditions and mooring facilities.

How Long to Stay in Harrison Hot Springs

There's not a huge amount to see in Harrison Hot Springs.  But most people who choose to visit are not seeking to create an action packed itinerary filled with activities all day every day - it isn't that sort of area.

This is not to say there isn't a range of things to see and do in and around HHS, and we detail what to see and do in Harrison Hot Springs in the fourth part of this series.  But most people go to HHS to relax, to take it easy, and perhaps to soak in the hot pools.

As such, HHS is an ideal weekend getaway for working couples who live in the Seattle/Vancouver region.  Go there after work on Friday, stay two nights, and return home on Sunday afternoon; or for a real treat, stay over Sunday night as well and turn up for work slightly late, but very refreshed, on Monday morning.

Retirees could take advantage of sometimes lower rates and fewer people by visiting during the week, and perhaps they might also choose to stay for more than two nights.

Read more in Parts 2, 3 and 4

Be sure to read the information about where to stay and eat as part two of this series, part three reviews the Harrison Hot Springs Resort in detail, and part four offers suggestions on what to see and do.

 

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Originally published 5 Dec 2008, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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