The pass was first explored in 1858 by the Palliser Expedition led by Captain John Palliser. The pass and the adjacent Kicking Horse River were given their names after James Hector, a naturalist, geologist, and surgeon who was a member of the expedition, was kicked by his horse while exploring the region.
The original route of the CPR between the summit of the pass near Wapta Lake and Field was known as "The Big Hill"; with a ruling gradient of 4.5 percent (1 in 23), it was the steepest stretch of main-line railroad in North America.
Due to frequent accidents and expensive helper engines associated with railroading in the pass, the CPR opened a pair of Spiral Tunnels in 1909 that replaced the direct route. Although these tunnels add several kilometres to the route, the ruling grade was reduced to a more manageable 2.2 percent (1 in 46).
The Trans-Canada Highway was constructed through the pass in 1962 following essentially the original CPR route. It reaches its highest point at the Kicking Horse Pass with an elevation of . The winding, narrow roadbed in this area is currently being upgraded to improve safety and capacity.
Divide Creek, a creek that forks onto both sides of the Continental Divide, is located at Kicking Horse Pass.
It was made famous by Dave Broadfoot in the CBC Television series Royal Canadian Air Farce. Broadfoot played The Honourable Member for Kicking Horse Pass in the satirical series, and in his personal standup routines.