Wells Gray Provincial Park

Let’s put the history books away because today’s blog on one of my other passions; exploring Canada’s natural wonders. Today I’ll show you some images captured in Wells Gray Provincial Park. If you love waterfalls you’ll love Wells Gray. Please note that this blog is meant to give you a taste of Wells Gray and provide some tips if you decide to go. This is not a guide as the distances and locations are approximate. There are many books and websites that will provide precise information for that purpose.

Wells Gray Provincial Park is located in central British Columbia, Canada. Travellers going west from Edmonton to Vancouver drive right past two of the major entrances to the park. Those travelling from Calgary need to turn north at Kamloops and then the highway heads straight to Clearwater which is at the turnoff to the park’s main entrance. Those heading east from Vancouver need to turn north just past the community of Hope and use the Coquihalla Highway to go to Clearwater. It’s not too close to any of these three major cities and that is part of the charm of Wells Gray. Wells Gray does get busy in the summer but it never gets crazy busy. This park must be well known in Germany because I’ve always encountered Germans in the park and noticed that even some of the cafes and other business in the area have bilingual signs, English and German. Regardless of where you come from this park will amaze you with its waterfalls, lakes and other natural wonders.

Helmcken Falls

There are a number of different ways to enter Wells Gray Provincial Park but most people will use the Clearwater entrance as it leads to most of the best known attractions in the park. Helmcken Falls is synonymous with Wells Gray many people as it’s easily the most recognized attraction. The falls cascade 141 meters to the canyon below. Many websites claim Helmcken Falls is the fourth largest waterfall in Canada. I don’t know if that means by the amount of water flowing over the precipice, the height of the falls, or some combination of the two metrics but that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the falls are an easy drive approximately 45km from Clearwater at which point it’s basically right next to the access road. You don’t even need directions as the main road through the park leads right there. Just stop when you see a lot of other cars parked although there are plenty of signs as well.

If you really like the falls and are willing to go on a hike to see them from a less visited vantage point I recommend the Helmcken Brink Trail. This trail is mostly undulating but without any significant elevation gain. The falls are about 3.5 km from the trailhead so give yourself up to 3 hours to hike in and out with time for the view. Depending on the time of the year you may need a lot of insect repellent or none at all. I’ve been down this trail two or three times and on one such trip I was nearly running out as hordes of biting insects chased me. You should use your own best judgement as to taking children on this trail as there are no protective metal fences or rails and a fall over the edge will almost certainly prove fatal. That said, this trail does reward you with many views of both the Murtle River and Helmcken Falls which you won’t find in the tourist guides. The images below are from the Helmcken Brink Trail.

I definitely feel that the hike is worth the better view but that depends on the bug situation and the time available to do the hike. However don’t let this be your only stop in the park. There is so much more to see.

Sticta Falls

If you are lucky enough to get one of the campsites at Falls Creek Campground near the very northern end of the main access road, or about another 30 km from Helmcken Falls, Sticta Falls is a hike right from the campground. It’s a short hike of a little more than 1.5 km but the trail does include some switchbacks. There’s some interesting rock formations along the way. We did it as a relaxed after supper hike.

As I recall we were the only people at these falls on this visit so we stayed for quite some time. If you are staying at the campsite, be sure to walk along the trail between the campsite and the river. I don’t recall what the name is of these smaller falls but they are so close that you really shouldn’t miss them.

Dawson Falls

Dawson Falls are on Murtle River the same as Helmcken Falls but a little more upstream. Some guidebooks will say that these falls require an easy 1.5 km hike but it sure seemed shorter than that. We arrived on a cloudy day but that just made them easier to photograph.

Ray Farms and Mineral Springs Loop

Ray’s Farm and Mineral Springs Loop is a 3.9 km easy loop nature walk which is north of Helcken Falls toward your campsite. The mineral springs are similar to hot springs because hot water is bubbling up and depositing minerals that create unique formations. These are not hot springs to sit in but a chance to see a quieter part of the park and some interesting geology. I’ve included a photo of a young fellow taking a picture of the mineral deposit just to give some perspective as this is not a mountain or lake. It’s actually quite small but endlessly fascinating. That image was captured several years ago so the mound might even be larger now.

The Mineral Springs look like a miniature volcano

Do be careful around the mineral springs. Not because there is any unusual risks to you or your children but because the mineral deposits themselves are quite delicate. Also, when we were on the trail there were so many frogs that we had to watch our step as to not harm any of them.

Clearwater Lake

If you brought a canoe or kayak with you this is a highly recommended lake to visit. It’s about 70 km from Clearwater and has many campsites that can only be reached by boat. Here’s a quote right from the BC Parks Guide.

“From a boat launch at the south end of Clearwater Lake, canoeists, kayakers, and motor-boaters can access 16 campsites, 3 backcountry trailheads, fish for rainbow trout, and admire some of the many spectacular waterfalls for which Wells Gray is famous. Each lake is approximately 22 km long, with Clearwater running north/south and Azure east/west. Canoeists use the 500 m portage between the lakes; a minimum 9.9 hp motor is required to navigate the river channel. Boat tours and guided canoeing trips are available”.

On our trip we canoed to one of the islands and stayed to eat lunch before returning to the boat launch.

As you can see the weather was perfect and the water was calm. This would be a great place to camp for a night or two, especially if you enjoy fishing. At 22 km long this lake will never seem crowded.

Murtle Lake

BC Parks has this to say about Murtle Lake: “Murtle Lake is world-famous as the largest canoe-only lake in North America”. I’m not so sure about world famous but it’s definitely big and worth a trip or two. We had a real adventure when we visited Murtle Lake.

Many years ago my wife and I, along with another couple, canoed this lake on Thanksgiving weekend in October. I don’t know why we went in October but likely that’s just when everyone’s schedules worked. We could tell from the parking lot that there was only one other group on the lake. The other people broke just about every rule in the book as far as canoeing safety and common sense. They were four guys in two canoes but they must have split up early on along the way to wherever they were heading. The two guys who paddled the last canoe were not just drinking in their boat, they were plastered. They had a big dog with them (dogs are not allowed at the lake), they didn’t bother to wear their lifejackets and I could go on. Suffice to say that this was a problem waiting to happen and it did. It’s a long story that was published in a magazine about Canadian canoeing. They tipped into the freezing October waters and this happened far from land. They were very fortunate that we discovered them because their friends didn’t come back until well after we brought those two guys back to shore and started a fire to warm them up. I will never forget Murtle Lake or our experience with a real time rescue.

To get to Murtle Lake you have to leave the Clearwater area and travel up the Yellowhead Highway toward Edmonton. At the community of Blue River you turn off the Yellowhead and drive 27 km along a very rough road. You don’t need a truck or 4 wheel drive but you don’t want to take your new German sports car either. At the end of this road is a parking area and this is when you start the 2.5 km portage. The portage itself is easy if you have the right equipment so don’t plan on carrying a canoe over your head like you would do for a short portage around rapids. You need a canoe cart for this portage as it’s just too far to carry your canoe and gear. At that time we were able to rent carts at Blue River but you best check ahead to make sure that is still possible if you don’t own a cart already. At the end of the portage there is a calm lagoon which is perfect for loading up your gear. This is where you set off on your adventure. The lake is sort of “V” shaped and nearly everyone goes to the west or left arm of the “V”. Once you set off you’ll likely see a very different lake outside of the lagoon. We certainly did. We found that throughout the mid-day the winds picked up and the lake became very turbulent with waves and swells like you would expect on an ocean. I’ve canoed other large lakes such as Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park and the whole 7 day Bowron Circuit in BC but Myrtle Lake was by far the bigger challenge. Our canoe was designed for this type of water so with some effort we made it to our campsite. It had just enough room for the two tents in our group. I believe that most of the camping areas on the lake are designed for small groups of two or three tents. I remember seeing a lot of volcanic rock on the island that was a short distance from our campsite. That should not be surprising as most of Wells Gray Provincial Park was formed by extensive volcanic activity. This is certainly a destination for the budding geologists who can see volcanic formations throughout the park. Unfortunately my images from the Murtle Lake trip were in camera film and not likely of good enough quality to scan so I’ve no images of the lake for this blog. Murtle Lake looks like any other mountain lake except when the waves get large and I wouldn’t have taken my camera out then anyway.

I can recommend Wells Gray Provincial Park to anyone looking for an extraordinary outdoor experience in the mountains. I’ve only shown you three of the 39 waterfalls that are in Wells Gray so it’s high time I returned as well so that I can discover more that this park has to offer.

If you go, I suggest that you first pick up the guide book called Nature Wells Gray by Trevor Goward and Cathie Hickson. It’s an excellent handbook of where to go and what to see and you won’t have to depend on your cell phone reception in order to use it.

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