My introduction to winter in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park came a few decades ago under the leadership of a masochistic group of hikers from the Kamloops Outdoor Club. We left Kamloops long before the crack of dawn and drove the 120 kilometres to Clearwater and a coffee stop at the Wells Gray Inn. Armed with a fresh shot of caffeine, we left Yellowhead Highway 5 and made tracks on a skiff of new snow some 35 kilometres north to the park entrance.
Our destination was Helmcken Falls and our transportation was snowshoes. I was told it was one of the highest waterfalls in B.C. and, because of the cold, snowy winter; the ice cone at the base would be spectacular.
We parked at the end of the plowed road and strapped on the snowshoes. Dodging trenches made by a wallowing moose and frequently changing leaders, we trudged up the road. “Up” in this case, was not just a figure of speech. At the crest of each hill, another loomed on the horizon.
To spare the agony, suffice to say that we didn’t make it to Helmcken Falls. We had a late lunch at Dawson Falls, explored the Mush Bowl and then, sore from snowshoeing through six kilometres of deep snow, we headed back to the waiting vehicles. As true masochists, we did not give up. Three weeks later, we made the 22-kilometre round trip to Helmcken Falls. And the 50-metre-high ice cone was indeed spectacular.
While I wouldn’t recommend a 22-kilometre snowshoe hike, winter is a beautiful time to visit one of the stars of B.C.’s provincial park system.
With the junction of Clearwater Valley Road and Yellowhead Highway 5 as kilometre 0, the first major stop-of-interest is Spahats Falls near kilometre 11. Spahats Creek rises in the alpine meadows of Raft Mountain and flows west, making one final 61-metre plunge before cascading into the Clearwater River. In winter, snowshoes or touring skis are the uniform of the day for the 300-metre-hike to the fenced viewpoint. While you have the skis on, you could follow the side road north to a viewpoint of the Clearwater Valley and the colorful lava layers that form its foundation.
The access road to the Trophy Mountain alpine trails is just past Spahats. The alpine meadows are spectacular in mid-summer, but in winter they resemble an arctic landscape. On one trip to the alpine I learned that long skis and skins can be a climbing advantage, but a major disadvantage when negotiating the trail on the way back down. Modern short, wide touring skis seem to be the best of both worlds.
Space doesn’t allow me to detail all the diversions along Clearwater Valley Road, but I enjoy photographing the waterfalls at Third Canyon Creek and the first glimpse of the twin peaks of Pyramid Mountain. Pyramid Mountain was formed beneath 2000 metres of ice during the last glaciation period and is one of the more visible examples of the area’s volcanic activity.
The main road enters the park about 35 kilometres from Clearwater. The Park Warden’s cabin is no longer there, but an information kiosk marks where we started our snowshoe hikes to Dawson and Helmcken Falls. Green Mountain Road, a 3.5-km-long side road just inside the park, provides access to a viewing tower. Touring skis or snowshoes are the winter mode of transport, but from the 1067-metre summit, I was able to pick out the mist rising from Helmcken Falls, eight kilometres to the west-north-west (293°).
While the main road may be plowed, there are still plenty of trails to explore. The old road to Majerus Farm, now marked by an X-C ski warming hut, has been a family favorite ever since my first “jaunt” into the park.
On a recent winter trip to the park, we followed groomed ski trails up the Murtle River for a closer look at Pyramid Mountain. The ski trails also loop around and down to Helmcken Falls Lodge, near the park entrance.
Dawson Falls, at kilometre 40, is a short walk off the road. In winter, the trail through the trees to the top of the 20-metre-high falls may require good boots or snowshoes. I’ve found the trail downstream to an alternate viewpoint a little easier.
If you are interested in a different perspective of Helmcken Falls, there is a 3.5 kilometre trail following the south side of the Murtle River to the lip of the falls. This is no route for beginners, but the views are spectacular.
The road switchbacks down the hill to a bridge across the Murtle River at the Mushbowl. I’m not sure how it got its name. Maybe it’s because the frothing “kettle” looks like a bowl of Cream of Wheat® – or maybe mush is what you would become if you fell in. The main road climbs back up from the river, passing a side road to Pyramid campground and a trail to the summit of Pyramid Mountain.
Winter maintenance of Clearwater Valley Road ends a short drive north, where a four kilometre side road is maintained west to Helmcken Falls; named after Dr. J.S. Helmcken, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who came west in 1850.
Although the trail to the viewing platform could be shoveled clear, high boots or snowshoes are a useful addition to a wide-angle lens when searching for the best photos of this world-class waterfall.
My favorite spot is along the fence, downstream from the platform. Wherever (and whenever) you choose to view the falls, you’ll find the trip well worth the effort.
If you go
While the road is maintained to Helmcken Falls, snow tires are essential. Stock up on fuel and supplies at Clearwater. If you are planning an overnight stay, note that the park campgrounds are closed during the winter.
The Clearwater visitor centre, a wealth of information in summer, is also closed in winter. Fortunately, information is available on-line at websites such as Wells Gray Country. Guidebooks such as Nature Wells Gray, by Trevor Goward & Cathie Hickson and my Cariboo Trips & Trails are an essential part of any kit.
Wells Gray Provincial Park, with its southern boundary approximately 150 kilometres north of Kamloops, is one of British Columbia’s most accessible wilderness parks. At 540,000 hectares, it is also one of the province’s largest parks.
While it includes glacier-capped peaks, windswept lakes, wild rivers and 17 major waterfalls, it is the two dozen plus extinct volcanoes that are attracting worldwide attention. Many of these occurred before or during the last ice age, but according to Dr. Catherine Hickson, a volcanologist with Natural Resources Canada, the latest eruption took place about 400 years ago.
Pyramid Mountain is one of the more obvious reminders of the volcanic activity, but a closer look at the canyon walls near Spahats Falls or Helmcken Falls shows the ancient lava layers that form the foundation of the Clearwater Valley.
Kamloops to Clearwater = 123 km = 1 hour and 20 minutes driving time.
Clearwater to Helmcken Falls = 46 km = 40 minutes driving time.
All Photographs Are © Murphy Shewchuk
Murphy Shewchuk Photographer Bio
Murphy Shewchuk has been exploring the backroads of British Columbia and Canada since he was a teenager (which was more than half a century ago). He has also been packing a camera for most of that time. Just for a change of scenery, Murphy and his wife Katharine have explored the backroads of Scotland, France, Cuba, Costa Rica and New Zealand. To change the scenery even more, they “did” the Northwest Passage on a Russian research ship a few years ago.
He has over a dozen books to his credit with the latest three “Trips & Trails” books published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside of Markham, Ontario. 2014 also marks 40 years of writing & illustrating “Backroads” articles for BC Outdoors magazine.
Murphy’s wildlife photography extends the full range from polar bears to wood ticks and his scenics take in anything that doesn’t move. His photos illustrate his books and magazine articles as well as contribute to iStock Photo.
Murphy and his wife live in Merritt, BC, Canada where they are both active in the community.
Murphy Shewchuk is a freelance writer/photographer with a dozen books and hundreds of published articles and photographs to his credit.
Blog / Website: Murphy Shewchuk | Writer/Photographer