Archaeologists believe that people have lived in this area for 10,000 years or more. Long before Europeans arrived, Aboriginal people bathed in the Radium Hot Springs. The Paint Pots is another site respected as a sacred place by First Nations. Groups from both the east and west sides of the Rockies would visit the site for ceremony and to extract ochre dye used in traditional rituals, for decoration and trade.

Evidence shows that Kootenay National Park has long been an east-west travel route. It is believed that the area encompassed by the park was travelled on a seasonal basis by First Nations; no evidence of year round occupation has been found. The Ktunaxa regularly crossed the Rockies via White Man Pass (south of the boundary) Simpson Pass and Vermilion Pass to hunt buffalo on the plains.

Undoubtedly the first non-native people in the area were trappers and fur traders. The first recorded visit was by Sir George Simpson in 1841 rather a rushed visit as he was trying to go around the world in record-time. Hard on Simpson's heels was James Sinclair who came over Whiteman pass leading a cavalcade of Red River settlers en-route to Walla Walla, Washington. In 1858, geologist James Hector, led a branch of the Palliser Expedition into the north end of Kootenay. On the same trip, Hector got kicked in the chest by a horse in what is now Yoho National Park and left for dead, but miraculously recovered hence the name, Kicking Horse River.

By the early 1900s, local businessmen such as Randolf Bruce were lobbying for a road linking Windermere to Banff. Eventually the road was completed by the federal government in exchange for title to a strip of land on either side of the route. In 1920, this land was set aside as Kootenay National Park.

Protecting our cultural heritage

Kootenay National Park is well-known for its striking natural features but it also plays a very important role in protecting historical and cultural heritage. By linking the past and the present, cultural heritage helps us understand who we are as Canadians. Within the park, there are 97 known archaeological sites, one National Historic Sites and Monuments Board site (commemorating Sir George Simpson's trip through the area), one federal heritage building (the Radium Hot Springs Pools) and many historic artifacts and cultural features.