The Paint Pots and the associated ochre beds form an area of unusual physical and chemical activity and have a history of use by both Aboriginal groups and Europeans.

The Ktunaxa (formerly Kootenay), as well as the Stoney and Blackfoot tribes, collected ochre here for important ceremonies and for trade. The yellow ochre was cleaned, kneaded with water into walnut sized balls, then flattened into cakes and baked. The red powder was mixed with fish oil or animal grease to paint their bodies, tipis, clothing or pictures on the rocks. These paintings depicted many objects from day to day life as well as more abstract drawings that may have originated in dreams or represented supernatural beings. The Paint Pots site is still considered a sacred site by First Nations today. Please treat it with respect - stay on the trail and do not remove the ochre.

Dr. James Hector of the Palliser Expedition was likely the first European to visit the ochre beds. In August of 1858, Hector and his party crossed Vermilion Pass from the Bow Valley and descended the Vermilion River. In his journal he gives the first known description of the area.

"Here in the corner of the valley on the right side is the Vermilion Plain, which is about a mile in extent, with a small stream flowing through it. Its surface is entirely covered in red ochre ...the Kootenaie Indians come to this plain sometimes and we found the remains of a camp and a large fire which they had used to convert the ochre into the red oxide which they take away to the Indians of the low country and also to the Blackfoot...

It is likely that the ochre beds were visited by prospectors from the 1860s onward. In the early 1900s the ochre beds were recognized as being of commercial importance and were actively mined. The ochre was dug by hand, sacked and hauled by horse-drawn wagons to the C.P.R. line at present day Castle Mountain, 24 kilometres away. It was then shipped by train to Calgary to be used as a pigment base for paint. The rows of low ochre mounds are evidence of the last collection, which was never shipped out. In the 1920s, a more elaborate extraction method was used. Rail cars, horse-drawn scoops, clay tiles, and grinding machinery was used to collect, roast and grind the oxide.

Mineral claims still existed when Kootenay National Park was established in 1920, but they were gradually phased out due to a growing awareness by the Parks Branch that mining activities were incompatible with the role of parks as scenic areas and protected landscapes.

The paint pots themselves are formed by the accumulation of iron oxide around the outlets of three cold mineral springs. As the rim of iron builds up around each pot, they gradually increase in height. The greenish colour of the two larger pots is the result of the mixing of fresh water from a small creek, which empties into the largest pool.