Last May Long Weekend, Maria and I decided to take a road trip up to Wells Gray Provincial Park. The drive is about 1.5 hours north of Kamloops, just north of Clearwater. The park is situated in the Cariboo Mountain range and is the 4th largest provincial park in BC. The area is home to pristine glacial lakes, countless hiking trails, lush meadows and perhaps the biggest draw, waterfalls (39 to be exact)!
Where to Camp
When planning a trip to Wells Gray, you have a few options for accommodation. If you don't particularly want to rough it, there are several mountain lodges in the park that offer overnight accommodation. If you want to do the complete opposite, there are many back-country campsites located throughout, with some just beside Clearwater and Azure Lake. If you're like us and want something in between, there are also 3 front-country campsites to choose from, which we've reviewed below.
This is the largest and most "luxurious" campground in the park, located at the end of Clearwater Valley Road right next to Clearwater Lake. The facilities include running water, firewood service, showers, a store and even a café offering boat rentals and paid WiFi service.
Falls Creek (Recommended)
Located right beside Clearwater Lake Campground, Falls Creek provides a smaller, quieter, more secluded experience while still being close to the lake and all the activities the park has to offer. Running water and firewood services are also provided here.
Less popular, but similar to Falls Creek in terms of size and services. Online reservations are not accepted here so be sure to arrive early to secure a site during a busy weekend.
Located on the western arm of the park, this campground is much more accessible via 100 Mile House. The services offered here are similar to the above, but accessing the main attractions of the park can be a bit of a pain as you need to travel along over 60 km of logging roads (often closed late Fall - early Spring).
What to See
The park is open year round with a variety of activities and things to see depending on the season. The winter time is great for seeing the unique frozen spires and waterfalls breaking through ice and snow. Spring is the time to see all the falls flowing at max capacity with the fresh snow melt. Finally, summer is the perfect time to see the salmon run and do a bit of fishing. Other seasonal activities include snowshoeing, white water rafting, hut-to-hut hiking and golfing. Below are some sights we recommend seeing no matter what time of year it is.
This long and narrow waterfall is an excellent primer to the type of cascading beauty you are going to see throughout the park. Like many of the falls in the park, it was formed from volcanic activity originating from Trophy Mountain over 300,000 years ago. Located only 10 km from the Yellowhead Highway, this is probably the most visited and easily accessible attraction in the park. From the parking lot, it is only about a 5 minute walk to the main viewpoint. There is also a small nature hike that continues another 15 minutes from the viewpoint before looping back to the parking lot.
This is one of the only falls in the park that you can actually safely walk behind, so it offers quite a unique experience. To get to the main viewpoint of this fall, you will need to park in the Moul parking lot which is clearly marked 23.5 km up Clearwater Valley Road. The hike from the parking lot takes about an hour. The total round trip distance is 5.8 km and it's relatively flat. Having to walk a little ways into the wilderness to get here, the experience feels more immersive and pristine. Be prepared to get soaking wet venturing anywhere even remotely near this fall anytime between May and June.
Mushbowl / Dawson Falls
One of the most treacherous stretches of the Murtle River, Dawson Falls and the lower Mushbowl rapids are one swim you hope you never have to take. Mushbowl can easily be viewed by crossing the Murtle River bridge and parking on the south side. The parking lot for Dawson Falls is located just before the bridge if you are heading north. The falls are about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot. They are over 100 m wide during max flow and are the widest in the park!
At almost 3 times taller than Niagara Falls, it's no wonder Helmcken Falls is so iconic and is often the first thing someone brings up when Wells Gray is mentioned. The main viewing platform is located just a couple minutes from the parking lot, which is about a 4 km drive off of Clearwater Valley Road (right before it transitions to gravel). This is a great spot to launch a drone and get some aerial shots -- just make sure to be respectful. If you want to view the falls up close, you can do so via the South Rim Trail. The trail is located on the south side of the Murtle River and is about an 8 km return hike. The trail is mostly flat the entire way and follows the river right to the falls. We highly recommend taking the time to see the falls from the south side (but don't forget insect repellent!).
Built and cultivated by the Ray family in the 1920's, this clearing now serves as a beautiful 3.9 km nature loop trail. The trail-head is located right next to the parking lot off of Clearwater Valley Road. It's one of Wells Gray's best windows into the past and, due to the nature of the land, offers viewing of wildlife and fauna not found anywhere else in the park. Be sure to check out the old homestead ruins and red mineral springs during your walk.
One of the most impressive rapids at the park is located just a few kilometers downriver from the Falls Creek Campground that we stayed at. Bailey's Chute is 30 feet of sheer and raw natural power and is named after Jim Bailey who, in 1952, actually drowned just downstream when his canoe capsized in these rapids. The main viewing platform is about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot on the other side of the road. From the platform there is a 3.5 km loop trail that takes you farther along Clearwater River and through the forest back to the parking lot. Amazingly, in September, this is an excellent vantage point for watching the salmon migration as they jump upriver against the extreme white water.
We only scratched the surface of things to see and do at Wells Gray and would have loved to spend more time here during our stay. The park truly is a hidden gem of British Columbia and offers all the best of the Canadian wilderness and beauty without crowds of people getting in the way. As always, we'd love to hear any experiences you've had in the park or any questions you might have in the comments section below.