The Paint Pots have a history of stories told and untold from travelers long ago. The landscape among this trail is one that is truly unique and adds to the profound diversity of Kootenay's National Park's scenery. This interpretative trail takes you through a history of time with remnants of the earth's natural, iron rich ochres and left over equipment that once were important to both the First Nations and the Europeans respectively.
The Paint Pots consist of 3 pools made up of cold mineral springs that are surrounded by earth predominantly composed of iron ore. The spring water within the pools themselves is acidic and consists of extreme metal content. This is not to say that your hand will sizzle away if you touch the water. The pH level of the water was only measured to be 2.5 to 3.5 when studied back in 1970.
With the Cambrian rocks surrounding the area there is a high amount of iron, magnesium, lead and zinc elements within the pools. As the spring outlets of the paint pots flow into the Vermillion River, much of the mineral composition is deposited into the River (most of the lead, ¾ of the magnesium and zinc and a little less than half of the iron). With the fast rushing water of the river and the mixing of the acid water with limestone, much of the acidic water is diluted and reduces any pollution (studies show that limestone and oxygen help retain normal surface water pH levels as the iron, magnesium, zinc and lead are predominantly removed).
The landscape surrounding the Paint Pots is uniquely created as well. The iron ore accumulates around the edge of these 3 pools thereby increasing in height. As a nearby stream flows into 2 of the larger pools, a greenish color is created. As these mineral pools bubble up, the iron ore stains the earth around the pools an orange-red color. The material itself can look and feel like clay and can be found in a variety of colors from red to orange to yellow; red ochre because of hematite mineral or be yellow ochre because of limonite mineral. When you reach the end of the trail where the Paint Pots lie, it is quite the colorful landscape!
The ochre beds found at the Paint Pots were originally discovered and used by the Natives, in particular the Kootenay (Ktunaxa), the Stoney and the Blackfoot tribes. The ochre beds were important for the First Nations people especially in their celebrations and for trade and the Paint Pots are still considered very sacred to them. Previously, when the First Nations people discovered this area, they cleaned the yellow ochre and with the water, kneaded the ochre into walnut sized balls which were flattened into cakes that were then baked. The red ochre was used as paint on a variety of things. First the red ochre powder was mixed with animal grease or fish oil. The paint was then ready to be used from body paint to tipis to clothing and pictures on rocks (the pictographs which you see at Grassi Lakes and Grotto Canyon are examples of this). The paintings that were drawn, whether on rocks or on their clothing and tipis, depicted their day to day lives as well as their beliefs. Pictures of animals to supernatural beings and other abstract drawings were represented amongst these paintings and the ochre was the primary way of being able to create such illustrations that have lasted until this day in many places.
The Paint Pots were not only an important source to the First Nations people. The Europeans also have had a history of using the iron rich ochre beds found along this trail. It is believed that the first European to come to the Paint Pots was Dr. James Hector, a physician and naturalist from Scotland, as part of his explorations taken part during the Palliser Expedition.
In 1857, the Palliser Expedition was established with Captain John Palliser, Eugene Bourgeau a botanist, Captain Thomas Blakiston who was a magnetical observer, Dr. James Hector and John Sullivan who was a secretary. These men travelled across the ocean to begin on a 3 year mission to map out the region between Lake Superior, one of the 5 great lakes of North America, and the Rocky Mountains. Other objectives of the mission included scientific data gathering, assessing the land for agricultural capabilities as well as mapping out transportation routes across the Rocky Mountains.
When the group of men reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains which is present day Morley, they spilt into 3 different ways to cover more ground. Dr. James Hector together with a native guide, spent the next 2 years (1858-1859) travelling the upper reaches of the Bow Valley from present day Exshaw through to Vermillion Pass and down the Vermillion River where he would have come across the ochre beds of the Paint Pots. There are recordings of the first description of this area written by James Hector in his journal along with sketchings of the Vermillion Pass area amongst many others (Parks Canada, 2009).
“Here in the corner of the valley on the right side is the Vermilion Plain, which is about a mile in extent, with a small stream flowing through it. Its surface is entirely covered in red ochre ...the Kootenaie Indians come to this plain sometimes and we found the remains of a camp and a large fire which they had used to convert the ochre into the red oxide which they take away to the Indians of the low country and also to the Blackfoot...”
Interesting fact: Eugene Bourgeau began this beginning part of the journey with Dr. Hector. He ended up staying in the alpine regions near Exshaw as Dr. Hector pressed on. Mr. Bourgeau named many of the bold and massive mountains and lakes which his surrounded him including present day Lac De Arcs, Pigeon Mountain, Grotto Mountain and Wind Mountain. As Dr. Hector travelled even further west, he eventually came to present day Mount Bourgeau, which he named after his fellow friend, Eugene Bourgeau.
From the early 1900's the ochres found at Paint Pots became significant commercially as the substance was used as the base of paint back in Calgary and became actively mined. As you walk along the area, presently, there are remnants of rows of ochre that are still waiting to be shipped out. The process back before the 1920's consisted of the ochre being dug out by hand (wonder how long the workers' hand remained colorful after) and hauled away by wagons drawn by horses to Castle Mountain where it was shipped on the C.P.R. line to Calgary. Afterward, more technological savvy methods (well for those times!) were used to collect, toast and grind the iron rich oxide found in the ochre such as grinding machinery, scoops drawn by horses, clay tiles and rail cars. Some of this equipment can be still found scattered amongst the area and around the trail, rusted and broken over many years of neglect and not being used. Mining the ochre beds was eventually phased out to protect the uniqueness and landscape of Kootenay National Park.
It should be noted that while this trail is wheelchair accessible, it is recommended on days where it has not rained recently. The ochre beds are frequently rather wet which resulted in narrow planks of wood being laid horizontally on the trail to allow walking across without getting wet. This does not bode well for wheelchair access as it is nothing more than 2x8's laid end to end.
Paint Pots Trip Log
As you make your way down the wide compacted trail, in about 60 meters you come to a fork. The Orche Beds below are wheelchair-accessible; to help facilitate this, the trail breaks into two. The left hand side is for wheelchairs and allows a gently descent to the valley below. The right is a bit more direct, but steeper.
After descending about 13 meters you are greeted with a pleasant bridge that helps you cross the Vermillion River. It even includes a little bit of authentic sway!
After the bridge crossing you have about a 400 meter stretch of generally level terrain as you cross through the ochre beds. The color below your feet is still very unique here as everything around you has an orange ting to it. The ochre beds are also the end of the wheelchair portion of the trail.
After passing through the ochre beds you are faced with the hardest part of the hike, the 38m ascent to the paint pots. The trail is still wide enough to walk side by side and you are greeted with an abundance of deadfall in the little creek beside you as you make your way upwards.
Upon making it to the Paint Pots you are presented with a unique pallet of rich colors you do not get to see very often. Everything from the ground beneath you to the milky fluid flowing between the small pools of water oozes a vivid orange color. Try to avoid getting your boots too dirty or any on your clothes as it is a bit of work to get off.
Return is the same way.
GPS Plotted Route
GPS overlay of the Paint Pots hiking trail.
After starting the trail, you dip down towards the river before it levels off for about 400 meters. It then climbs up towards the Paint Pots. The graph does make it look rather intense but you have to keep in mind it is only 38 meters elevation gain.
Click here to download the GPS route in GPX format. You may have to right click and select "Save Link As" if your browser does not download it automatically. Be sure to save it as a .gpx file.
What were your experiences hiking Paint Pots?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.