At the end of September I went on an OMG-summer-is-ending-must-go-camping-before-it’s-too-late trip to Wells Gray Provincial Park near Kamloops, BC. Somehow, I had never been there before. It has a reputation as being a huuuuuge provincial park with tons of ginormous lakes for canoeing but I didn’t know much else about it. It’s not nearly as famous as the national parks in the Rockies or Garibaldi Provincial Park near Vancouver. And now that I’ve been there, I have no idea why. I mean… this place is awesome! Many people head to Wells Gray for the lakes, but there are also over 40 named waterfalls in the park. Many of them are in remote corners of the park, but 8 of them are easy to reach from the Clearwater Valley Road! Whoa! I spent 3 days chasing waterfalls in Wells Gray and I was blown away. Ready to see some photos of awesome waterfalls? I’ve got loads!
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Getting to Wells Gray Provincial Park
As I said, the park is Huuuuge (with a capital “H”). There are a few different areas to visit with different access points, but the one I’ll focus on here is the Clearwater Valley, also known as the Wells Gray Corridor. Everything in the corridor, including the 8 waterfalls I visited is accessed off the Clearwater Valley Road near Clearwater, BC an hour north of Kamloops.
It’s a 5 hour drive to Clearwater from Vancouver. You start out on highway 1, take the Coquihalla (aka highway 5) to Kamloops, then continue through Kamloops and go north to Clearwater. Here’s Google Maps directions if you want them. Once you get to Clearwater, go left through the roundabout to get onto Clearwater Valley Road. This road runs north 70km through Wells Gray Provincial Park to it’s end at Clearwater Lake. The first 37km is surrounded by a lot of private land so you will pass numerous cabins, ranches, lodges and even a golf course. The road is paved for the first 43km, but then it turns to gravel. (The gravel part is excellent as gravel roads go and is fine for regular cars, even after it rains.)
Before you start up Clearwater Valley Road towards Wells Gray, be sure to stop at the visitor center at the roundabout. They have knowledgeable staff, free park maps and a gift shop. In this post, I’ve listed the waterfalls in Wells Gray’s corridor region in the order you’ll encounter them along your drive. Reset your odometer at the visitor center and refer to the kilometer markers in the text below to find each waterfall. (For the more popular waterfalls, there will also be giant road signs to show the way.)
How Did the Waterfalls Form?
So you might be wondering: Why are there so many waterfalls all in the same small area? How did they form? It turns out the waterfalls in Wells Gray use the same secret formula as my other favourite waterfall destination, Iceland: volcanoes + glaciers = waterfall magic. (Caution: #geologynerd talk ahead. You’ve been warned!)
The whole Wells Gray area is part of a massive volcanic complex that dumped lava over the landscape, which hardened into lava rock called basalt . During the last ice age, glaciers covered the basalt. When the volcanoes erupted underneath the glaciers, the ice melted, causing huge floods that carved deep river canyons. Now, the volcanoes are dormant and the glaciers are gone, but the river canyons remain. The waterfalls in Wells Gray continue to erode the river canyons, pushing the canyons further and further upstream. Compared to granite, basalt is relatively weak and erodes quickly, which is why it is so common to find waterfalls in volcanic areas.
The first of the park’s spectacular waterfalls is 75m high Spahats Falls. Spahats means “bear” in the local First Nations language. (Although it is humorous to imagine what a “spa hat” would look like. Maybe a towel worn turban style?) To get to the falls, turn left off the main road 10.2km from the visitor center. From the large parking area it is a short 250m walk to the canyon rim. The falls cascade down from a notch in the cliff. The best view is from the wooden viewing platform, but be sure to walk along the fence towards the falls to see it from other angles.
Pro tip: Be sure to buy some chocolate and a fresh-made-while-you-wait Belgian sugar waffle from the Helmcken Chocolates stand in the parking lot. It’s run by Belgian expats living in Clearwater and the waffles are insanely good since they are made in the proper Liege style using a yeasty dough (not a batter!) and pearl sugar. Om nom nom.
While several of Wells Gray’s most popular waterfalls can be viewed from practically next to your car, you’ll have to hike to reach Moul Falls. Thankfully this easy hike is mostly flat and only 3km each way. Give yourself about 2 hours plus time at the falls. At 35m high Moul Falls is not the tallest waterfall in Wells Gray Park, but it is one of the most spectacular since you can walk right behind it.
To find the trailhead turn left into the small parking lot 20.7km from the visitor center. The trail follows an old road for the first 1.7km before turning left onto a trail marked with an arrow and a “Moul Falls” sign. The trail heads downhill towards a creek and reaches the top of the waterfall. There’s a fenced viewing area here, but it’s hard to see much of anything. Continue on the trail as it goes left along the top of the cliff then steeply descends via switchbacks and stairs to the base of the falls. Bring a rain jacket if you choose to take the path behind the falls because you’ll definitely get wet. (So worth it though!) There’s also a cave on the left of the falls that is cool to check out. When you’re done, retrace your steps back to your car. Note that there are no toilets at the trailhead or on the trail so please follow Leave No Trace principles.
Dawson Falls has earned the nickname “Little Niagara Falls” since apparently it has the same proportions as its famous namesake. It’s 20m high and 90m across…pretty spectacular. (The real thing is 99m high and 790m wide). To visit this waterfall in Wells Gray, turn right into the parking lot 40.9km from the visitor center. A trail leads along the top of the cliff and then parallels the main road. After about 450m you’ll arrive at the first viewpoint on a bluff. From here you can see the whole falls and I think it’s actually the better view. If you want an up-close view, continue on the trail for another 250m to the second viewpoint. This one is directly over the top of the falls and gives you a great perspective on their height. Allow 10 minutes each way for the walk.
Just a little ways up the road from Dawson Falls you’ll find Helmcken Falls, the crown jewel of Wells Gray. This spectacular waterfall drops 141m, making it the 4th highest waterfall in Canada. In Wells Gray terms, it’s almost twice as high as Spahats Falls! To get to the Helmcken Falls, turn left off the main road 42.5km from the visitor center onto a side road and follow it until its end at the parking area. It’s a short walk to the cliff edge and viewing platform. Be sure to walk the full length of the fence to see Helmcken Falls and its plunge pool from a few different angles. It’s hard to get an idea of the immense scale of Helmcken Falls from photos: you just have to see it yourself. (But maybe the below aerial photo will help?)
If you want a completely different perspective with no guard rails and waaay less people, you can hike to the other side the canyon rim. The trail flat trail is 4km each way. The trailhead is at a parking lot 42.4km from the visitor center, just before the road crosses a bridge.
I’ve also seen spectacular photos of Helmcken Falls in the winter when the spray from the falls creates a huge cone of ice that can be up to 50m tall. I’d love to go back in the winter time to see it.
Bailey’s Chute, Marcus Falls and Myanth Falls
If you want to get a bit off the beaten path, check out the West Lake Loop trail. It starts at Bailey’s Chute, then passes by Marcus Falls and Myanth Falls before returning to the start via teeny, tiny West Lake. In any other park these waterfalls would be a key attraction, but after the grandeur of Helmcken, Spahats and Dawson Falls, they can feel a little… inadequate. But if you are up for a short hike, these diminutive waterfalls are worth your time. It will take you about 2 hours to hike the whole 6.5km loop.
To get to the trailhead turn right off Clearwater Valley Road 59.3km from the visitor center into a parking lot. From the parking lot, cross the road to the picnic area next to the river where trail starts on the right hand side. Follow the trail downhill for about 800m to Bailey’s Chute. Bailey’s Chute oh-so-badly wants to be a waterfall but really it’s more of a steep rapid. It is 10m high though. This is the farthest that salmon can travel up the Clearwater River so be sure to look for them jumping during the fall spawning season. There’s a small viewing platform and when the water is lower you can scramble right onto onto the waterworn rocks for a closer look.
Continue following the trail along the river to reach Marcus Falls at the 1.6km mark. Marcus Falls is only 5m high, but it’s quite wide (about 100m). There’s a small viewing area behind a fence. The next waterfall is Myanth Falls at the 3.4km point. It is 3m high and nearly as wide as Marcus Falls. Just before Myanth falls there is a large rocky beach that makes a great place for a lunch break. After Myanth Falls the trail climbs up away from the river and begins to head back south towards the start. The trail winds through forest and past tiny West Lake before rejoining the main trail near Bailey’s Chute.
The final waterfall on the Clearwater Valley Road is Osprey Falls at the south end of Clearwater Lake. The falls are the outlet of the lake. A couple dozen unfortunate boaters have been swept over the falls (and most didn’t survive). Osprey Falls is not tall at only 3m, but it is half a kilometer wide! The falls stretches across the end of the lake in a long “L” shape and is broken up by a few small islands, which makes it hard to see the whole thing at once.
If you want to get close to part of the falls, there is a small viewing platform that you can access from the Clearwater Lake campground. If you aren’t staying in the campground, park in the small pull out at the information board 65.6km from the visitor center. Walk towards the river on the grassy path across the road from the sign. Once you get to the wooden cooking shelter, turn right and walk down the campground road. Find the short trail to the viewpoint between sites 19 and 21.
Where to stay
There are three campgrounds in the main park corridor: Clearwater Lake, Falls Creek and Pyramid. The Clearwater Lake and Falls Creek campgrounds are located right next to each other at the outlet of Clearwater Lake at the far end of the corridor. Many campsites have views of the lake or the Clearwater River. These two campgrounds are a bit of a drive from the main waterfalls, but they are the nicest places to camp inside the park. They both cost $23/night. Falls Creek is 100% reservable. Clearwater Lake is 50% reservable, 50% first come, first served. Falls Creek has 41 sites and Clearwater Lake has 39. You can make reservations online via the BC Parks website.
Halfway down the corridor near Dawson Falls and the Helmcken Falls turnoff you will find Pyramid campground. I haven’t stayed there, but the campground has a reputation for being very buggy. There are 50 sites and they are all first come, first served. It’s only $20 to camp at Pyramid.
If you can’t get a site inside Wells Gray Park, you can also camp just outside the park near Clearwater. North Thompson River Provincial Park is just a 10 minute drive outside of town on (you guessed it!) the North Thompson River. It has 60 sites at $23 each, 88% of which are reservable. There are also several RV parks in and near Clearwater and lots of cabins and lodges just outside the main park entrance.
Be sure to stop in at the visitor center in Clearwater before you head into the park. Find it at the roundabout where Clearwater Valley Road leaves Highway 5. The local tourism organization also has a great website with lots of info. Check out wellsgray.ca.
The absolute best book on the area is Exploring Wells Gray Park by Roland Neave. First published in 1974, the 6th edition is now available. It’s an amazing resource for everything you ever wanted to know about Wells Gray from history to hiking. You can buy it at the park visitor center in Clearwater or on Amazon.
So there you go, 8 waterfalls on 70km of beautiful park road. As I said earlier: volcanoes + glaciers = waterfall magic, right? I can’t wait to go back and explore more in this park. Do you have questions about visiting waterfalls in Wells Gray Provincial Park? Where’s your favourite waterfall? Tell me in the comments.
- Want to visit a whole bunch of waterfalls, but closer to Vancouver? I’ve got a Fraser Valley Waterfall Road Trip itinerary for you.
- Tired of crowded Sea to Sky area waterfalls? Check out Crooked Falls in Squamish instead.
- Like your waterfalls with a side of giant old growth cedar? Hike to Kennedy Falls and the Big Cedar in North Vancouver.
- Love the waterfall magic combo of glaciers and volcanoes? Drool over some gorgeous photos of Icelandic waterfalls from my winter road trip in Iceland.
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