Located deep in the heart of British Columbia, Canada, Wells Gray Provincial Park is a sprawling and storied destination that protects the Cariboo Mountains.
Welcome to Wells Gray Provincial Park in British Columbia
Here’s everything you should know about this incredible park.
Size of Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park is 541,516 hectares, or roughly 1931 miles square. This makes it the fourth-largest park in British Columbia, and most of the park is wilderness aside from the main road heading up through the lake and into the Clearwater Lake region.
History of Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park has a relatively long history in Canada. Originally a hunting ground for the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, and the Canim Lake people, this area saw its first visitors with European ancestry in 1862 when an expedition rafted through the region, followed shortly by exploring tourists in 1863.
While the area was already known thanks to getting published in the tourists’ journal, it didn’t see many more visitors until around 1872. Three survey teams (acting as part of a larger group) visited the area to help determine the best path for the Canadian Pacific Railway. They concluded that the area was impractical for a railway and left it in 1881.
In 1913, another surveyor, Robert Lee, passing through the area found Helmcken Falls, the largest waterfall in what would become Wells Gray Provincial Park. The surveyor submitted a request to name the falls after Sir Richard McBride, then-current premier of British Columbia, but the local government instead chose to name it after physician John Helmcken.
Several settlers visited the area around the same time, clearing lands and building cabins. However, almost all residences were lost in 1926 when a lightning-sparked fire swept through the site. Only one cabin survived, but there were no human fatalities thanks to the large rivers that offered safety from the flames.
At around the same time, recommendations started coming in for establishing a park to protect Helmcken Falls and the surrounding area. The current Minister of Lands wasn’t interested, but when Arthur Gray took over the position, the idea started getting more traction. The park itself came into existence in 1939, and the borders have changed a few times since.
Wells Gray Provincial Park is quite large, and discoveries are still occurring. Among the most notable of these is the area informally dubbed the Sarlacc’s Pit, which was revealed after melting glaciers uncovered its mouth. While nicknamed after a scene from the movie Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the area has no official name just yet.
Wells Gray Provincial Park Waterfalls
We’ll cover this in more detail a little later in the guide. For now, the thing to know is that Wells Gray Provincial Park contains numerous waterfalls throughout its space, including Helmcken Falls (463 feet/141 meters) as the main attraction to the area.
None of the other falls have quite the same sort of distinctive look, but places like Spahats Falls and Moul Falls offer relatively easy-to-reach opportunities for visitors.
Lakes in Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park has several lakes, most of which are located far north of Helmcken Falls. The most notable of these is Clearwater Lake, which includes a large parking area, a campground, a picnic shelter, and other services for guests who make the drive all the way up through the area.
Outside of Clearwater, Myrtle, Mahood, Azure, and Hobson are the major lakes in the area. These lakes connect to two enormous river systems that cross the overall park. Most of these are accessible through the main park entrance to the south, but some are only available through the entrance to the east.
Wildflowers in Wells Gray Provincial Park
As a wilderness park, Wells Gray Provincial Park has countless fields where wildflowers bloom if you visit at the right time of year. Several of the best fields are accessible through the park’s trails, including the Table Mountain Trail and the Wavy Ridge Trail.
For people who don’t want to hike too far, the Foot Lake Trail is short and easy but not quite as scenic as the other trips.
Wildlife in Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park features extensive wildlife viewing opportunities, ranging from sizable creatures like bears, deer, and wolves to smaller animals like beavers and birds. The park’s attractions also include aquatic life, including adult salmon returning to spawning grounds between August and October.
Sadly, not all of the wildlife in the park is fun. Mosquitoes are a known pest in the area, so make sure you bring a repellent if you plan to visit the park. Products with high concentrations of DEET, permethrin applied to clothing, and oil of lemon eucalyptus are particularly effective.
Make sure to follow these guidelines if you’re interested in watching wildlife:
- Strictly obey all posted speed limits. Animals may suddenly dart out from the sides of the road, and following speed limits will help you avoid collisions.
- Remain on marked trails. Most animals don’t get too close to these trails, so staying on them can help you avoid startling the local wildlife.
- Take all of your trash with you. Garbage can attract animals, and they could be violent if they’re hungry and looking for food.
- Make noise as you travel. Broadcasting your location lets animals know you’re coming and will help avoid startling them.
- Do not approach animals. They may not understand your intentions.
- Do not follow animals. This can make them think they’re being hunted and provoke strong reactions.
- Do not intentionally scare animals. Just like following them, this can provoke them into fighting.
- Do not feed animals. Encouraging animals to approach humans is harmful.
- Do not leave your vehicle to get closer to animals. If you see them while driving, remain in your car with your windows up.
- Don’t watch wildlife for too long. In most cases, spending one minute or less is appropriate.
- Carry bear spray in case you meet a bear in the park.
- Do not block any animal’s line of travel.
- Do not block any animal’s escape routes.
- Stay particularly far away from any young animals.
- Only take photos with a telephoto lens.
As a general rule, it’s best to stay at least 50 meters (or 150 feet) away from bears and other wildlife. This is roughly three full-size buses. Most animals won’t be too on-guard or aggressive if you remain at this distance.
If you want to examine an animal “up close,” use binoculars or other vision-augmenting devices. Safety comes first, so watching from a distance is easily the best way to protect yourself, the park, the wildlife, and other people.
How To Get to Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park has two primary entrances. These entrances do not connect, so you’ll have to leave the park and go around if you want to visit the other area.
The primary area of the park is accessible from Clearwater, a small district municipality that helps service the area. This is an excellent place to stock up on camping supplies and other equipment before visiting the park, as few supplies are available within the park’s boundaries.
The Murtle Lake area is accessible from Highway 5 at Blue River.
Wells Gray Provincial Park Waterfalls
Wells Gray Provincial Park is a waterfall lover’s dream, with a full 41 named waterfalls throughout the area. While we’re not going to discuss every single one of them here, these are the top waterfalls to visit in the park.
As if anything else could claim the top spot! This waterfall is the reason the park exists at all, and it’s easily one of the largest waterfalls in all of Canada.
Set along the Murtle River and accessible through the southern entrance to the park, this waterfall is of the type known as plunging punchbowls. For those who aren’t familiar with types of waterfalls, this means the water moves vertically in a constricted form away from the rock, then spreads into a wider pool at the bottom.
The result is a distinctive flow of water, averaging 15 meters (49 feet) across and flowing at over 107 cubic meters (3800 cubic feet) of water every second. The cup-shaped area around the waterfall only serves to highlight its grandeur.
This waterfall is easy to see from a distance just off the main road, where a viewing platform over the canyon provides a wide look at the river.
However, if you want to get close, it’s better to take the Rim Trail. This is a five-mile trail, but despite its length, it’s suitable for all skill levels thanks to thoughtful planning and frequent use by visitors. Rim Trail is dog-friendly, although you’ll need to keep any pets on leashes for the full duration of the trail.
Unlike some waterfalls, Helmcken Falls is also a great place to visit in winter. The waterfall itself usually creates an enormous ice cone from the end of January through roughly mid-March, although some ice may linger as late as June. The park maintains access along the main road to Helmcken Falls during winter, although they don’t clear the rest of the road.
Did you know that Helmcken Falls isn’t the tallest waterfall in Wells Gray? It’s true! Dropping about 200 meters (550 feet), this waterfall is accessible after a short hike from the Silvertip Falls Recreation Site.
The main reason this waterfall isn’t quite as popular is the fact that it doesn’t have the same flow as Helmcken. Rather, it goes down over the rocks instead of dropping over an edge away from them. Even so, it’s quite tall and you can get remarkably close to it along the trails, making it a top stop for all visitors who love waterfalls.
Spahats Creek Falls
Spahats Falls isn’t quite as big as Silvertip Falls, only coming in at 75 meters (246 feet) if you count the second tier of the waterfall. It’s more exciting, though, existing as a plunging fall that drops from a narrow canyon into a much larger, deeper bowl down below.
The name comes from an indigenous term for bears, making the connected stream known as Bear Creek. However, that’s a generic and relatively widespread name, so people in the area agreed to use the older term to distinguish the creek and its associated waterfall from many other areas in Canada.
Spahats Falls is also a popular tourist destination thanks to its easy accessibility off Yellowhead Highway.
This part of the park holds the interesting distinction of originally being its own protected area known as Spahats Creek Provincial Park. However, Canadian officials decided to expand Wells Gray in 1997, moving its overall border south along the Clearwater River and enveloping Spahats. You can still see some of the old signs in the area.
The falls are accessible from a large parking lot in the area. A trail taking about five minutes to traverse goes from the parking lot to the primary viewing platform overlooking the areas.
For those who prefer longer treks, a scenic trail goes from the viewing platform along the rim of the canyon, while a shorter trail from the parking lot leads to old-growth cedar trees.
The bottom of the canyon is relatively dangerous, however, particularly around May and June. While it is technically accessible, it’s better to avoid the trip unless you’re both prepared and sufficiently experienced.
Moul Falls is much shorter than the three falls above, but it’s still one of the taller waterfalls in the park for its rise of about 35 meters (115 feet). It features a straight, unbroken drop and an average width of about 9 meters (35 feet), although the majority of the water flows down the center.
Accessing it is moderately challenging because it involves a one-hour hike from the road along a long trail. There’s a viewing platform at the top of the area, but that’s mostly just a waypoint because the real excitement of this waterfall is the path down to its base.
A long path behind Moul Falls gives a view of the rear of the waterfall, which is quite rare for this park. Between the unusual viewing opportunity and the wide, straight drop, Moul Falls is easily one of the best waterfalls to visit in Wells Gray Provincial Park after Helmcken Falls itself.
The falls are named for George Moul, an early settler in the area. He only lived there for a few years before departing to fight in World War I, after which he settled in Vancouver.
The creek that feeds this fall is also notable, having more name changes than anywhere else in the park. Surveyor Robert Lee originally named the stream Beaver Creek, but residents in the area renamed it Grouse Creek after the birds inhabiting the area.
Around the 1930s, the name was changed to honor George Moul, but locals reverted back to Grouse Creek around the 1980s, despite the official name. Eventually, the local Geographical Names Office investigated and ruled in favor of Grouse Creek as the name, but left the waterfall’s name alone.
Like Helmcken Falls, Moul Falls can build an ice cone in the winter. This can go nearly halfway up the falls, and it’s accessible mainly via snowshoes during this part of the year.
Dawson Falls is relatively short for a waterfall, with a total height of about 18 meters (59 feet). That’s about half the height of Moul Falls, but two features help this area stand out from other waterfalls in the area.
The first detail is the proximity to the surface. Dawson Falls is located relatively high along the Murtle River area, right at ground level instead of being deep in the ground. This alone makes it much easier to access the falls and see them in person.
However, the part that truly stands out here is the width. At an average of 91 meters (299 feet) across, Dawson Falls is incredibly wide and has enough spray to produce frequent rainbows. These alone make it a top destination for visitors, but it’s also quite accessible thanks to a short local trail.
Helping its popularity is Pyramid Campground, one of the main camping areas in the park. This camp is located a short distance northeast of Dawson Falls, allowing people to seek it out early in the morning or just before they go to bed.
Interestingly, Dawson Falls has about the same water flow rate as Helmcken Falls. It doesn’t look like quite as much water because it’s spread over six times the space, but water flows steadily over both falls.
This waterfall is named for George Dawson, the Surveyor-General of British Columbia at the time Robert Lee explored the area. Lee’s team frequently camped near this waterfall during their survey, which may be one of the reasons a campground is so close to it.
Canim Falls is a 23-meter waterfall along the Canim River, which goes from Canim Lake down several kilometers to Mahood Lake. Canim Falls is particularly notable for its upstream erosion, which is visible in a four-kilometer (2.5 miles) canyon that cuts directly through a lava plateau.
Although not quite as notable as the top five falls on this list, Canim Falls often splits in half before rejoining down the river, creating the opportunity for some far more complex and interesting pictures.
This waterfall is named for a type of large canoe recognized in the Chinook Jargon, a trade language previously used in the area. Despite the name, though, it’s better to avoid trying to take a canoe over the waterfall. It’s much steeper than regular boats can handle.
Baileys Chute (frequently misspelled as Bailey’s Chute, but that’s wrong) is one of the more interesting waterfalls in Wells Gray Provincial Park, although it’s not immediately obvious when you first visit the area.
This waterfall is a gradual sliding cascade, which means the water flows over a series of rocks instead of a sudden, dramatic drop. The result of this water flow is a tall standing wave that heads downstream from the falls, making for a distinctive appearance along the riverbed.
Baileys Chute is relatively wide, with an average of 46 meters (151 feet) along its total run. It’s also quite short over its one drop, with a height of just 9 meters (30 feet). While these are all interesting, two details make this waterfall a particularly good choice to visit.
The first is the water flow rate. At 122 cubic meters per second (about 4300 cubic feet per second), this waterfall has one of the biggest and fastest flows in all of British Columbia. It’s also an especially good place to see returning Salmon in late August and September, as the relatively flat surface of the area makes it quite easy to see them jumping around.
Set on Mahood River, Sylvia Falls is one of the most unique waterfalls in the park and definitely worth the trip for enthusiasts. The falls themselves are about 20 meters (66 feet) high and 90 meters (295 feet) wide, making them almost as wide as Dawson Falls and significantly taller.
What makes this waterfall distinctive is the fact that it’s eroding upstream over soft glacial deposits, which means it’s changing its appearance relatively quickly. These changes are irregular, though. The left side of the waterfall is mostly smooth, but about 80% of the waterfall measured from the right goes over rougher rocks of varying heights.
The result is a vividly distinctive waterfall that can give unique photographs, especially if you change the angle of the image.
Just downstream from Sylvia Falls is Goodwin Falls, which is about as wide but far more regular overall. Goodwin Falls is named for a Spokane, Washington dentist who worked on Arthur Gray’s teeth while Gray served as the Minister of Lands supporting the park’s creation.
Local author and photographer Chess Lyons, who named many things in the park, used Goodwin’s name as a distraction to help hide the fact that he didn’t want to use Gray’s list of friends for naming things. This makes Goodwin Falls one of the most randomly named fixtures of the park.
Majerus Falls is another waterfall located along the Murtle River, with a total width of 90 meters (295 feet). This makes it quite similar to Dawson Falls, which is further downstream. This is a relatively short waterfall at 12 meters (39 feet) high, but the rough flow creates enormous spray across the area.
Majerus Falls is harder to visit than many of the other waterfalls on this list, though. The trail to reach it is about 9.5 kilometers (5.9 miles), and many people take about three and a half hours one-way to get there. This makes getting there and back about half of a regular day in the park, although the trail starts at a campground so people can begin it first thing in the morning.
McDiarmid falls is located a few hundred feet downriver from Moul Falls, making it easy to see both of them as part of the same trip. This waterfall is about 15 meters (49 feet) wide and 10 meters (33 feet) tall, giving it a noticeably boxy shape compared to most other waterfalls in the area.
The name is surprisingly new for the area, only obtained in 2000 as a reference to one of the pioneer families. Garfield and Cecile McDiarmid owned significant property in the area, and guided tourists to the area for fishing until logging along the river ended that business.
Things to Do in Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray Provincial Park offers a wide variety of activities to enjoy. Here are some notable options.
Unsurprisingly, hiking is one of the top activities in the park. It’s necessary to reach almost any waterfall in the area, although the actual difficulty of each hike ranges from easy to challenging. Top trails in the park include:
Wells Gray Provincial Park has plenty of lakes and rivers, which means it’s also an excellent place for rafting trips. The highlight here is the routes along the Clearwater River, but local companies may offer trips through other areas as well.
Riverside Adventures is one of the top providers, with a particular focus on a three-hour whitewater trip. Side hikes to waterfalls are available during their trips. Interior Whitewater offers a competitive alternative, from family rafting trips to multi-day adventures in the park.
Murtle Lake is the largest paddle-only lake in North America, offering over 100 kilometers of shoreline from an easy 2.5-kilometer trip overland with the boat. This area is particularly good for multi-day trips, though you may struggle to find single-day activities unless you bring your own equipment.
Most paddling in this area is quiet thanks to the motor ban, although you may see bears, hear owls, or spot other wildlife during the trip. Murtle Canoes is one of the top rental companies in the area, while Blue River Campground lets you transport their boats to Murtle Lake.
Wells Gray Provincial Park is quite mountainous overall, with numerous trails of varying difficulty. The Candle Creek area is particularly good for this, with trails of varying length and difficulty. Many of these routes share hiking trails, so be on the lookout for visitors.
Liquid Lifestyles is one of the only rental companies offering mountain bikes in this area. They also offer rafting and kayaking lessons and supplies, which makes them a top choice if you want to rent several different types of equipment during your trip to the park.
This park has numerous fishing opportunities, including about 50 total fishing lakes accessible from within one hour of Clearwater (the main visiting hub just outside of the park itself). Little Fort Fly and Tackle are one of the best supply shops outside the park, though it is further away than most things.
Keep in mind that fishing in Wells Gray Provincial Park is relatively easy, but you’ll still need a local fishing license and some familiarity with the current rules. Up-to-date information is available at the Wells Gray Visitor’s station at the entrance to the park.
Yes, you can go golfing in Wells Gray Provincial Park! Specifically, you can do this at the Wells Gray Golf Resort and RV Park, which offers everything from camping opportunities to a full 9 hole, par 70 course. As the exclusive owners, this resort offers stay-and-play packages, as well as access to other entertainment within the park.
This resort is also one of the only places where you can get additional accommodations or services within Wells Gray Provincial Park. This makes it a top choice for staying, regardless of what activities you plan to do. Furthermore, this may be the closest place where you can get help in an emergency, so try to memorize its location on the map when you arrive.
Wells Gray Provincial Park Camping
Beyond the amazing BC Provincial Park Campgrounds, Wells Gray Provincial Park has numerous camping options:
Wells Gray Provincial Park Accommodations
Wells Gray has several accommodation options outside of general camping and RV parks. Some areas are outside the park itself, so keep that in mind when deciding where to stay.
These are only some of the many accommodations available in and around Wells Gray Provincial Park. Don’t hesitate to look at the official websites for more choices.
We loved visiting Wells Gray Provincial Park, it’s one of our favourite places in BC. We went there for Michelle’s birthday, before Steve got his fancy camera, or before we got our iKamper. We tented at one of the beautiful provincial parks and loved every single moment – even in the pouring rain. We will definitely be going back for more fun and photos! We hope you have as much exploring the area as we did!
For more BC Adventures, check out another one of our faves – The Best Ever Guide to Revelstoke, BC!
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