Wells Gray Provincial Park is one of British Columbia’s largest and most spectacular parks (540,000 hectares), with its area encompassing the greater part of the Clearwater River watershed. Wells Gray Park was created in 1939, and was named after the Honourable Arthur Wellesley Gray, Minister of Lands for British Columbia from 1933 to 1941.
There are five major lakes here (Murtle, Clearwater, Mahood, Azure and Hobson), as well as two large river systems, numerous small lakes, streams, waterways and a multitude of waterfalls, rapids, and cataracts.
Although boating and paddling are major attractions for campers, the area has something for everyone. In winter, there are just as many opportunities for recreation as in summer, with the advantage of no bugs! This park is as ideal as any you will find in the province, with a climate and terrain varied enough to suit the most demanding backpacker or mountaineer.
The area’s first inhabitants were the Shuswap and Chilcotin First Nations people, who used the land to hunt and fish. There are some 35 archaeological sites throughout the park uncovering evidence of these ancient native cultures. In the 1870s, surveyors from the Canadian Pacific Railway explored the area in hopes of finding a route through the rugged Cariboo Mountains to the West Coast. However such a pass was never found and hopes were abandoned when Kicking Horse Pass was discovered to the south in 1881. In the late 1800s, prospectors flocked to the area in search of gold. When the gold rush era came and went, brief attempts at logging and farming followed. Then in 1913, the stunning Helmcken Falls were discovered and pressure mounted to protect the area until it was given park status in 1939.
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It’s not surprising that in a park so huge that there are three distinct biogeoclimatic zones: the Interior cedar-hemlock zone (lowest), the sub-alpine zone (at elevations between 1,495 and 1,985 metres), and the alpine tundra zone (which cover about 65% of the total park area). Mineral springs, several waterfalls and evidence of volcanic phenomena complement the many attractions of this park. The wildlife is just as varied as the park provides habitat for many species. Some of the park’s largest inhabitants include mule deer, caribou, moose, mountain goats, black bears and grizzlies. Other small animals such as weasels, martens, minks, wolverines, beavers, coyotes and timber wolves also live in the park.
Worth special mention in Wells Gray are Dawson Falls (a short walking trail leads to the view); the Mushbowl and Devils Punch Bowl on the Myrtle River; Helmcken Falls (a short walk brings you to the 450-foot/137-m falls, the fourth highest in Canada and the park’s centrepiece); and Murtle Lake, considered one of the most beautiful wilderness lakes in BC and set aside for paddlers only. Its entrance is from the town of Blue River, and visitors must obtain a permit there, 66 miles (107 km) north of Clearwater.
There are several formal camping areas in the park at the Corridor Area, which includes Pyramid Campground and Clearwater/Falls Creek Campgrounds. Three vehicle-access campgrounds for a total of 130 sites, available first-come, first-served. And at Mahood Lake with 34 campsites available first-come, first-served. Three user-maintained sites accessible only by boat.
Wilderness, backcountry or walk-in camping is allowed, but no facilities are provided: Clearwater Lake: Access to these sites by boat only. 12 camping areas with a total of 33 tent sites.
Azure Lake: Access to these sites by boat only. Four camping areas with a total of 21 tent sites.
Mahood Lake: There are three user-maintained lakeshore sites that are accessible only by boat.
Murtle Lake: Access to these sites by canoe only. There are 69 sites. No combustible motors on this lake.
There are also 2 log cabins available to rent at the Clearwater Lake campsite. For more information, please contact the Park Facility Operator. There are canoe rentals and a water taxi service on Clearwater Lake and Azure Lake, and naturalist programs offered at Clearwater Lake campground in July and August. Most trails are located within the southern third of the Park, north of that, visitors must be adept at map-and-compass orienteering and all hikers, whether day-trip or overnight, should be completely self-sufficien.
Wells Gray Provincial Park is laced with hiking trails, ranging in length from 1 to 15 miles (1.5 to 24 km) one way. The Helmcken Falls Rim Trail (easy; 5 miles/8 km return) leads from the Rim Trail parking lot just above the Murtle River on Clearwater Valley Road and follows the rim of the falls for much of the way. The thunder of the falls grows louder as you approach them, gradually drowning out all other sounds. In winter this trail is open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing for those who wish to see the falls covered with a thick mantle of ice.
Much of the park’s topography is the result of glacial erosion and volcanic activity. One of the best hiking trails from which to observe this is the Pyramid Mountain Trail (moderate; 8 miles/13 km return), which leads to the summit of Pyramid Mountain, from where hikers enjoy spectacular views of the Premier Ranges across the north end of the park. The mountain itself exhibits fascinating volcanic characteristics. Geologists believe that Pyramid Mountain built up gradually beneath a thick glacial sheet as magma erupting beneath the ice was chilled and shattered into tiny fragments by cold water and ice. Over time, these fragments accumulated around the vent to form a mound-shaped structure.
Hikers looking for an opportunity to journey deeper into the park should follow the Horseshoe Falls Trail (strenuous; 21 miles/34 km return), which shares the Pyramid Mountain Trail and then continues beyond to Horseshoe Falls. Wilderness campsites are located at the 5-mile (8-km) point and at the top of Horseshoe Falls. The well-marked trailhead is located at the entrance to Pyramid Campground. Some of the best routes in the park feature lovely alpine hiking, with various huts to stop at along the way.
For a peaceful experience and easygoing paddling, head to Murtle Lake. This lake has over 62 miles (100 km) of shoreline. Providing visitors with a quiet wilderness experience is the goal and motorboats and combustion engines are not permitted. Access is from Blue River (on Hwy 5) along a narrow, winding, 16-mile (27-km) gravel road. A parking lot at the end of this road is the trailhead for a 1-mile (1.5-km) portage to the canoe launch.
In winter, the world-famous Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park forms a magnificent ice cone, a view of which is a reward for backcountry skiers willing to make a short trek. Another marvel here is the frozen crescent of Dawson Falls. Groomed and track-set trails lead cross-country skiers through the park past the Majerus homestead, King Meadow, and the always welcome sight of a warming hut. More challenging routes include the Corkscrew and the Roller Coaster. Hut-to-hut backcountry skiing provides an extended multiday winter adventure.
Before leaving Clearwater, visit the Wells Gray Information Centre at the junction of Hwy #5 and the Wells Gray Park Road. Visitor Centre staff offer up-to-date information on trail conditions, campsite availability, guided activities, and local accommodation for the non-camping visitor.
From Hwy 5 at Clearwater, go 25 miles (40 km) north on Clearwater Valley Road to the Hemp Creek entrance, the official entrance to the park. Hemp Valley Road is paved all the way to Helmken Falls. The section of road from the Helmken Falls turnoff to Clearwater Lake is gravelled – 14 miles (23 km).
A second approach to the east side of the park begins 69 miles (112 km) north of Clearwater on Hwy 5 at Blue River. A gravel road runs about 15 miles (24 km) west to Murtle Lake. It’s a 1-mile (1.6-km) hike from the parking lot to the wilderness sites and canoe launch here.
Mahood Lake is accessible via 40 miles (65 km) of gravel road from Hwy 24 at Sheridan Lake. For more information on Wells Gray Provincial Park, including a detailed map, contact BC Parks in Kamloops, 250-851-3000. Current information on conditions in Wells Gray Provincial Park are posted at the kiosk at the park’s Clearwater Valley Road entrance, about 23 miles (37 km) west of Hwy 5.
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