The Paint Pots trail will take you to a group of mineral-rich springs in Kootenay National Park, that are incredible colours; Just like natural pots of paint. As well as the colourful pools of water, the iron-rich water has stained the surrounding soil a vibrant ochre colour. It all looks incredible against the bright green grass and the blue waters of the Vermilion River.
This part of the Canadian Rockies has impressive mountain views in all directions, but it is pretty cool that you can visit these geological features without much effort. If you just pop up to the Paint Pots and back, you’ll be walking less than 2km – so this is another great option for families. The Paint Pots are within a National Park and this area is sacred to the Ktunaxa people, so please be doubly careful to leave no trace.
Paint Pots Map
Paint Pots – The basics
Distance: 1.9 km
Elevation gain: 50m
Time: 30-40 mins
What to bring:
This is super short. You only really need your camera.
There are loos in the car park.
Dogs: Yes (on a leash)
How hard is it? Easy-peasy. This is more like sightseeing than hiking.
Extra notes: There is no cell service in Kootenay National Park. Download maps and details before you drive into the National park!
Paint Pots trail – Getting started
You can find the car park right next to the highway (Banff-Windermere Parkway), 35 minutes away from Lake Louise, or 40 minutes away from Banff. If you are coming from the car park, just walk towards the Vermillion River, then cross it on a pretty foot bridge. Once you’re over the bridge you want to take the path on the left. Someone has scratched “paint pots” on the sign. Turning the other way will take you to Marble Canyon.
The first part of the trail goes through the Ochre Beds. There are plenty of orange coloured pools between the grasses. The colour of the soil is pretty bright, but it looks even brighter when wet. Luckily there are boards to help you avoid the soggiest sections of the trail.
First Nations Pigments
This area is sacred to the Ktunaxa people as they used these ochre beds to make red ochre paint since ancient times. The signboard said people made walnut-sized balls of red clay, flattened them into cakes then baked them. Once hard, people could ground the cakes into powder, and mix that powder with fish oil or animal grease to make paint.
At the turn of the 20th Century, settlers also started to mine the pigments. They dug up the clay by hand and carried it (well, horse-drawn wagons carried it) over to the train line by Castle Mountain. Then it was loaded onto trains to Calgary to be used as a pigment for manufacturing paints. There are still some mining tools (all now bright orange) left by these ochre beds. The mining stopped when this area became part of the new Kootenay National Park in 1920.
The colour varies a bit as you walk around, but it is various shades of yellow, red, orange and brown. We found the brightest red hues as we hiked up the path towards the paint pots.
The Paint Pots
If you keep walking up the hill, you’ll reach the actual “paint pots.” These are formed by the accumulation of iron oxide that bubbles up from the cold mineral springs. This makes the water mildly acidic and very full of minerals. It is mostly iron ore, but also contains zinc, manganese and lead. All these minerals create a very colourful landscape.
These pools are at the highest part of the trail, so the bright orange/red streams flow from here down to the ochre beds below. If you are worried about the natural pollution from these mineral rich waters – it’s not too bad. Basically the acidic waters mix with the fast-flowing waters of the Vermilion River (which is full of limestone from the surrounding rocks like marble Canyon.) This dilutes the acid and reduces pollution. Still, I wouldn’t recommend drinking the water near the paint pots!
Most people stop at the paint pots and then head back to the car park the way they came. However if you look on the map at the top of this page, you’ll see that there is also another trail that returns to the car park via a loop. If you don’t mind a slightly longer walk, it’s a lovely (and quiet) trail.
You need to take the first turning on the right to follow the marble canyon/ochre paint pots connector trail. This path is down hill most of the way and you may have it all to yourselves – we didn’t see any other hikers until we got back to the river.
Once you reach the Vermilion River, you can either turn left to hike to Marble Canyon, or turn right to return to the Ochre Beds car park.
The last section of trail along the river has some incredible views, so it is worth doing the loop if you have a little extra energy. You’ll know when you’ve made it back to where you started as you’ll be able to see the footbridge.
Or, walk to Marble Canyon
If you fancy stretching your legs a little more, you can hike over to Marble Canyon (it’s 4km in one direction, with minimal elevation gain.) It is quite an interesting walk through the remains of the forest fire from 2003. The spaces between the burned trees are now filled with wildflowers, and the new trees are still quite small, so this route is fantastic for views of the surrounding mountains and Vermilion River.
The Paint Pots are a very interesting (and beautiful) geological wonder in Kootenay National Park. Whether you stop to take a quick look, or have fun on one of the slightly longer hiking options, you’ll definitely want to visit here if you are in the area.