We heard it before we could see it. The silence of the massive forest gave way to the roaring thunder of water. And then it was in front of us: a cascade plummeting into an 80-metre canyon. This, however, was no ordinary waterfall. Halfway down, Spahats Creek Falls had frosted over, forming gravity-defying tiers of ice. It was a scene straight out of Frozen.
The semi-frozen falls is one of more than 40 within B.C.’s Wells Gray Provincial Park. The pristine Murtle River, a runoff from a Cariboo Mountains glacier, meanders for 18 kilometres through the park, spawning these thrilling waterfalls.
About 125 km north of Kamloops, Wells Gray is British Columbia’s fourth-largest provincial park. In addition to waterfalls, the 541,500-hectare park also boasts spectacular lakes and an inland temperate rainforest. In such vast surroundings, our party of six felt like we were the only people on earth.
“That’s one of the special things about this place in winter,” says Stephanie Molina, a spokesperson for Wells Gray. “You really feel like you have it to yourself.” It’s also when the waterfalls are at their most magnificent, showing off their distinct and dramatic personalities. Summer access roads are increasingly being groomed and tracked in winter, making the destination both thrilling and accessible.
TOUR DE FORCE
We journeyed to the park in mid-February, after a few days of downhill at Sun Peaks Resort (which included a few runs with Olympic legend Nancy Greene). Needless to say, our standards were pretty high by the time we set out on the 90-minute drive to Clearwater, the closest town to Wells Gray. After checking in to the Clearwater Lodge, we were eager to unpack the secrets of the falls.
You can do a self-guided driving tour of the falls (pick up a map at the park entrance), and adventurous types can hike to them. But for a more dynamic experience, consider a guided driving journey with local outfitter Clearwater Lake Tours. During our full-day tour, we stopped at five of the park’s most iconic cascades.
Our energetic guide, Ray Jones, grew up in the area and seems to know every corner of the park. A few locals tell us that he’s also well known for “doing crazy stuff around these waterfalls.” On our way to the park, Ray gleefully plays videos of himself and friends on New Year’s Day, when they tossed floaties into the river at the base of Mouls Falls, then jumped in and drifted around the caves behind the falls’ veil.
The first waterfall to reveal itself was Spahats Creek Falls, a tall, thin cataract just 10 km off the BC-5 N highway. The falls’ viewing platform is a five-minute hike from the parking lot. The mist from the hurtling water looks like fizz wafting off a glass of champagne. Even though it’s not New Year’s Eve, it sure feels like a party!
COLD AS ICE
Borne of volcanoes and carved by glaciers, Helmcken Falls is a real showstopper. The spectacular waterfall transforms the Murtle River into a thundering tower of water plunging 141 metres. At its base, in the middle of a natural icy amphitheatre, it forms a snow cone that can “grow” up to 50 m high over the course of the winter. From our perch on the north viewing platform, we watch in awe as the mighty stream runs straight down like water from a faucet into a huge round sink.
Hardcore ice climbers come from all over the globe to scale the huge icicles that form around the semi-frozen falls. On a one-to-10 scale of difficulty, our guide Ray rates the climb a 13! The 8-km Helmcken Falls South Rim Trail offers hikers a slightly less intimidating experience. Following the Murtle River, the trail takes you to the base of the waterfall and into the amphitheatre. Though we stick to the viewing platform, Ray tells us the trail is a relatively gentle hike.
We get more adventurous as we reach the final few waterfalls on our tour. At Dawson Falls—a.k.a. mini Niagara Falls—a short but wide swath of the Murtle River cascades over 200,000-year-old lava beds. Arriving in the late afternoon, we venture out onto the frozen river for a close-up view of the falls in glorious golden-hour light.
From there, we head downstream to the Mushbowl, where the river narrows and is split by a rock to form beautiful twin falls. We linger on the icy river, indulging in Game of Thrones fantasy poses in front of the falls until the quickly setting sun jolts us back from our Westeros role play.
The next day, we head back to Wells Gray for more waterfall chasing and snowshoeing, this time led by experienced Clearwater guide Warren Marshall. The company’s snowcat normally taxis visitors around the park, but on this occasion, the machine is in for repairs. Vowing to show us some waterfalls, former truck driver Marshall promptly rigs a snow machine to a passenger sled for a truly one-of-a-kind ride.
Sledding past the falls, we giddily try to name the cascades we spotted the day before, while craning our necks to see new ones. Soon, soft snow begins to fall—a real treat for a group member from Mexico who’s never seen the fluffy white stuff. Being pulled by a snow machine through lush forests covered with fresh powder makes for an incredible first.
Though the wind picks up during the ride, it can’t silence the thundering falls. That afternoon, we take in Triple Decker, a breathtaking three-tiered waterfall that tumbles down like a long bridal veil. Further along, the 168-metre-tall Silvertip Falls shows her strength by blowing fresh powder into our sled, until we’re covered in a thick blanket of snow.
En route to some snowshoeing at the old Ray Farm, we stop along the Clearwater River, where moose frequently gather. After waiting to see if a thirsty bull would stop for a drink (he didn’t), we ventured on.
From the farm, we head off into the forest, our snowshoes allowing us to float on otherwise thigh-deep snow. After a brisk one-hour trek through old-growth pine and spruce forests, we return to a welcome campfire and a special treat: fresh local trout, smoked onsite. Warmed by hot tea, we feel as high as the waterfalls surrounding us.