How Big Are Rabbitkettle Hot Springs?

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Mineral-rich water gushing from the earth has built a huge staircase of pools in the remote Canadian wilds. The remote and beautiful valley of Canada’s South Nahanni River has inspired more than its share of legends. Tales of murdered prospectors and other dark, mysterious events are commemorated in such place names as Broken Skull River, Deadmen Valley, and the Funeral Range.

On a less ominous note, there long were persistent rumors of tropical valleys as well, true Edens hidden among the mountains where snow never fell. Such tales no doubt were inspired by the area’s many thermal springs, including the most spectacular of all, Rabbitkettle Hot Springs.

Perched on the bank beside a meander in the Rabbitkettle River, a tributary of the South Nahanni, they are an unbelievable sight. A broad, nearly circular dome of rock some 225 feet (69 meters) in diameter rises to a height of 90 feet (27 meters). From a central pool at the top, water spills down the sides through a succession of terraced pools, each bounded by a curving wall of rock about 12 inches (30 centimeters) high. Ranging in color from yellowish-white to gray, the huge natural fountain stands out in stunning contrast to the dense spruce forests that surround it.

The water that wells up into the summit pool is pleasantly warm, since its temperature reaches about 70° F (21° C). But in this limestone region it is saturated with dissolved calcium carbonate and other minerals. As the water flows in a thin film over irregularities on the surface, the dissolved minerals are precipitated from the water and then deposited as layers of rock—in this case a fragile type of travertine known as tufa.

Despite its look of timelessness, the elaborately terraced structure is relatively young. During the Ice Age, which ended a mere 10,000 years ago, the entire region was blanketed by a continent-wide ice cap; any similar mound of rock that might have existed on the spot before that time would have been completely destroyed. But ever since the glaciers retreated, the hot springs have been bubbling to the surface and depositing their burden of dissolved minerals.

Even now the mound is constantly though imperceptibly changing. In time individual pools become filled with rock, the water spills over their edges, and new tiers of damlike barriers are formed.

Rabbitkettle Hot Springs have been protected as part of Canada’s Nahanni National Park since 1972. Other attractions in the area include glacial lakes, snow-covered mountain peaks, pristine forests, deep caves, and dark canyons filled with the deafening roar of foaming white-water rapids. And vying with Rabbitkettle Hot Springs for honors as the prime scenic attraction in the park are the towering twin cascades of Virginia Falls hurtling into a wilderness chasm.  Sarah loves travelling the world and writing her website.

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