Historical themes at Liard River Hot Springs include First Nation use of the area, the fur trade, geological survey exploration, settlement by pioneers, and construction of the Alaska Highway.
The Liard region was home to people speaking the Athapaskan and Kaska tongues, with original groups including the Beaver, Sikanni, Nahanni, and the Dog Rib. Moose was a mainstay of these peoples and they travelled the rivers of the region by canoe. Following the arrival of white man, native use became closely linked to the fur trade and exploration work.
The first written recording of the hot springs on the Liard River was made in 1835 by Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Following Campbell’s exploration, the Liard River was used as a trading route to the Yukon. The rapids along the upper Liard River were so treacherous that this route was abandoned in 1870.
The first scientific exploration of the Liard region was undertaken in 1887 by R. C. McConnell for the Geological Survey of Canada. William Ogilvie further explored the Liard in 1888 and 1889 and his party camped at Liard Hot Springs on both expeditions.
The first white man to live at Liard River Hot Springs was Tom Smith, a prospector in the Klondike Gold Rush, who built and lived with his daughter in a cabin by the Alpha pool in the early 1920’s. They left the area after two years of trapping; on their way to Fort Liard, Tom was drowned in the Liard River, while his daughter was rescued by some local First Nations people, and sent to the Anglican mission at Hay River.
The Japanese thrust to Alaska and the allied commitment to supply war materials to the Soviet Union spurred construction of the Alcan Military Highway (Alaska Highway). The 1,600 miles of highway was construction by 10,000 American Army Engineers and 6,000 civilians. The first boardwalk and pool facilities were built by the American Army in 1942. Liard River Hot Springs Park was created in April 1957.
Liard River Hot Springs is underlain by folded, faulted sedimentary rock overlaid by a veneer of glacial drift. The springs may be related to a major fault system which parallels the valley on the south side of the Liard River, however, the exact mechanism and source of the hot springs are unknown. It is believed that ground water following gravity seeps down through the folded, faulted sedimentary rock of the Liard Plateau down towards the earths core.
The groundwater, heated and pressurized by hot gases deep underground, strips minerals from the rocks and is forced back to the surface along natural faults to emerge as a thermal spring. As the hot springs water bubbles from the earth it reacts with air and certain minerals are deposited. Calcium carbonate is one of the minerals that precipitates to form tufa. Tufa forms the terraced base of the Hanging Gardens. About eight pools make up the hot springs complex in the park.
Unlike most other thermal springs in Canada, Liard River Hot Springs does not flow directly into a nearby river or creek, but into an intricate system of swamps. These warm swamps are the most unique feature of the park; these swamps create a micro climate allowing a unique vegetative community to thrive here.
Liard River Hot Springs lies in the Liard River Valley and is located in the Liard Rabbit Plateau. The park lies within the Boreal Black and White Spruce biogeoclimatic zone. The majority of the 250 plant species in the park are of the boreal variety. However, the effect of the hot springs accounts for the occurrence of 14 thermally influenced species.
The hot spring vegetation is striking compared to outlying areas in species composition, in the large diversity of species (including 14 species of orchids) and the luxuriance of its growth and its early-blooming growth pattern.
There are several plant communities in the park that exhibit thermal effects. The pools themselves create a rich environment for growth. Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) gives the springs a tropical look as well as cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) that grows to extremely tall heights. Thermally influenced species that thrive near the spring include black snakeroot (Sanicula marililanda), Lyall’s nettle (Urtica lyallii) and yellow monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus).
The occurrence of tufa (calcium deposits precipitated from hot springs water) influences the hot springs vegetation pattern. Tufa forms the base for the spectacular greenery and flowers that grow at the Hanging Garden.
The warm water swamps although being extremely shallow never freeze in winter due to the continual inflow of warm water. The vegetation here is very interesting and often overlooked. Aquatic plants include the bladderworts, butterwort and sundews which are all carnivorous plants. The carnivorous plants are likely due to the low nitrogen content of the spring water. Several species of orchids and the uncommon Kalms lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) are found on tufa islands. Successional meadows supporting cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) shrubs occur in previously wet swampy areas.
A total of 104 bird species and 28 mammals have been recorded at Liard River Hot Springs. Moose are year-round residents and provide the most consistent viewing opportunities. During the summer months, bulls, cows and calves are observed feeding on aquatic vegetation in the swamps.
Mallard ducks and Canada geese are known to breed in the area. Shorebirds such as the solitary sandpiper and common snipe breed in the swamp. Gulls, swallows, blackbirds, kingfishers, and nighthawks are frequently observed near the swamp, while flocks of bohemian waxwings use black spruce perches around the edges of the swamp. Many species of woodpeckers, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows have also been observed in the park.
Of particular interest to visitors are the numerous small fishing swimming in pools alongside the boardwalk to Alpha pool. The tiny lake chub that swim back and forth under the boardwalk are unique due to their ability to survive in the warm water of the swamp.