There's this spot on the Al-Can. It's a tiny spot of heaven. You know how a pet will lie in wait for the sun to come through the window at just the right angle so that he or she can settle into the spot of snugglewarmth thus created? This spot on the Al-Can is like 4 square miles of that. If other places on the Alaska Highway are pools of coolness, this is a raging torrent of awesome. It's at Historical Milepost 496, actual mile 475 of the Alaska Highway, which is about 100 miles south of the halfway point between the start in Dawson Creek and the Alaska border.
(Forgive me for jumping around a bit before I eventually do cover the route in a generally southward direction. It's just that when I think "Alaska Highway" this is the first happy spot that pops into my mind, once I finally brush away the orange-colored cobwebs of evil.)
Those who're driving north have no idea what they're in for, but those coming south have already survived nearly all the evil orange flags they're going to have to endure. By this point on the trip, the road finally has left the Yukon Territory and struck out due south into British Columbia. Boy, is that a happy feeling. While the Yukon is plenty attractive, BC is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen on this planet, and better yet the traveler can enjoy it without all the tooth-jarring rough spots in the road to contend with. You'll be overjoyed to be able to pick up some decent speed between construction sites, while you're still enjoying the sights.
You'll be happily picking up so much speed, in fact, that you'll probably be tempted to cruise right on by Liard Hot Springs. I was. But don't. Please, for the sake of lush, warm, soothing paradise, don't.
I've been to quite a few hot springs in quite a few locations over the years. Liard is right up there--if not the best, then at least one of the best, judged solely as a hot springs area. That fact that such a great hot springs experience is right smack in the middle of a grueling drive is what elevates it to super-special.
One of these days, in fact, I have promised my family that we're going to go there just on a vacation, without having anywhere in particular to drive to that day or even the next.
It's crowded, of course. The tiny spot of heaven is fairly famous; while there I met tourists from all over the world. It's a weekend vacation destination for folks from Edmonton or many other west Canada cities. Expect, then, to meet people from everywhere. The great thing is that they'll all be tremendously happy people. I don't think even Archie Bunker could stay grouchy there.
The spot to which I keep referring is officially called the Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. It'll cost you $10 for a family to frolic in the park for the day. That's CAN$10, not US$10, though the difference between the two has become virtually meaningless other than the fact that the Canadian $1 and $2 coins are really cool while the United States coins are--well, not. Regardless, most folks that I ran into just traded evenly, one Loonie for each George Washington.
I hate to admit it, but that last was awfully fun to say.
Regardless, take $10 in either currency with you, half that if you want to frolic by yourself and let your family sniff the sulfur after you return, relaxed. The solo frolic is probably a bad idea, though, especially if you have a redhead in your home. You might return to find all your underwear burnt, and making the rest of that drive with no underwear couldn't be pleasant.
The parking lot is cavernous but also really busy. Get there early in the morning if you can (yeah, right, you're driving the Al-Can, so good luck planning something time-specific). It took us a few times around it to find a spot, but we eventually did. When you offload, take your swim suit, your towel, and your camera. Don't forget the camera. You'll be walking across a muskeg on a plank pathway through an area they call "Tropical Valley" because the warm moist air creates a plant and animal ecology that's both unique and beautiful. Every time I've made the few-hundred-yard walk I've seen something cool, from moose to birds to blooming orchids. Ferns I've never seen anywhere else wave their fronds at passers-by.
Oh, and bear sightings are possible, but don't worry. They don't eat tourists except in tourist season.
There is a changing area up near the hot springs, and it was a nice one indeed. I haven't been there since they announced a refit of the area, so I can only assume the new changing area is even nicer. It's got toilets, anyway, and as I recall they're real toilets, with flushing handles even.
The first pool is the biggest and the hottest. It's named Alpha pool in a stunning display of lack of creativity. It's not very wide but it's long, and there are warmer and cooler spots up and down the pool. By chatting with some of the other visitors you'll quickly learn all about where to go to find the water that's just perfect for you. The mostly sandy bottom is easy on the feet, too.
You'll smell the sulfur, of course. I don't recall it being that bad, but I'm not bothered by such things and besides, I was focused on getting an aching back down into the water.
Up the path a bit farther is--yes, you guessed it--Beta pool. That pool is a little cooler and much, much deeper. You can actually swim in it, in fact. I enjoyed that pool, but I enjoyed Alpha pool's greater warmth, after several long days of driving, much more.
There's a campground as well as a hotel there, and on the web site I linked you can reserve a spot at either one. If you're driving a rig down the Al-Can to get there, though, I'd recommend considering your arrival time carefully. I've never been able to follow a schedule on the that damnable road, missing key benchmarks six times now, and it's usually been the fault of something on the order of a land slide or a forest fire.
Plan carefully, then, and don't depend on your cell phone to make/change arrangements once you get away from civilization.
Oh, and keep in mind that it's always a small world. Last time I was there, I ended up chatting with the parents of a woman I'd just left behind in my previous job.