When I was doing my research for our West Canada road trip it amazed me that most visitors to this part of the country only include a quick trip to either Calgary and Banff National park, or Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Don’t get me wrong, those places are absolutely beautiful and highly recommended. But I can’t imagine having missed either Jasper National Park, Yoho National Park or the much less visited Wells Gray Provincial Park. Wells Gray gets only 100.000 visitors a year, whereas Banff gets 3.6 million, and Jasper gets 2.2 million. That’s quite a big difference. So what are all those people missing?
Why Wells Gray
This off the grid park is located in the eastern part of British Columbia, near Clearwater, and with a little detour a great stop between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies. So why would you want to go the extra mile to get here? Well, Wells Gray is known as “Waterfall Park”. Yes, that’s right. And who loves waterfalls? THIS GIRL. It’s a rugged and pretty inaccessible park, and combined with the low visitor numbers, you basically have the park to yourself. We had anyway. This area, bordered by the Cariboo Mountains and the Shuswap Mountain Plateau, is one of the last untamed frontiers in Western Canada. It doesn’t get more “Canada” than this.
Imagine a place where the wild things are free of crowds, with plenty of wide, open spaces.
It’s over 5200 square kilometers of wilderness, unique landscapes, rainforest, rivers, lakes and waterfalls – all formed by volcanoes and carved by glaciers. In terms of wildlife, be prepared to meet bears, moose, deer, wolves, coyotes, and eagles, among other animals. Welcome to the wild!
Wells Gray numbers
Where to stay in Wells Gray
Although there is a handful of hotels in Clearwater, and you can also camp in the park itself, we decided to go for a proper cowboy experience. I firmly believe that I should have been a cowboy, and I’ll take any chance I get to fake it till I make it. So you get my excitement when I found out we could experience life on an actual horse ranch. We booked a log cabin at the Wells Gray Guest Ranch and our stay could not have been any better.
The ranch grounds are simply stunning, with the lovely wooden structures and its own saloon. And even during a massive storm, we loved sitting on our porch to look out over the beautiful fields.
Since we arrived on the first day of the season, the friendly ranch owners were planning a BBQ dinner party with their neighbors and we were invited to join. I don’t think I ever had a steak that big. Or that smoky and juicy. One of the cowboys had been smoking those babies on the BBQ for hours, and you could definitely tell. We also stuffed our faces with jacket potatoes, baked beans and some salad, so we basically rolled back to our cabin.
What to do in Wells Gray
Our food fest was not necessarily a bad move since we needed our strength for the activities we were going to do during our stay. First up was an early morning canoe trip on Murtle Lake – the largest non-motorized, paddle-only lake in the world. There was just us, another couple and our two guides. It was a cold and cloudy morning, and when we arrived at the lake it started to rain. Of course.
We got out on the water anyway, and I have to say, it was such a calm and peaceful experience to be the only 3 canoes on this massive 30 km large lake. Well, it was peaceful once we got the hang of it. Canoeing is SO MUCH harder than kayaking. Or rowing for that matter. For real. Anyone who can master the perfect J stroke has my eternal respect.
We made our way across the lake and we pinched our eyes trying to focus on the wildlife along the shore. After a while we arrived at a small island, and we got out of our canoes on the shore of Caribou Beach. The only structure on this tiny island is a tiny wooden “shit hut”.
We made a fire to stay warm and to make cowboy coffee. Which is basically just water from the lake with ground coffee thrown into it. After it has been boiling for a few minutes, you throw in some cold water from the lake to let the grounds go to the bottom. Pour into a mug and enjoy your cowboy coffee!
This is what your into the wild dreams are made of! Mine at least. We drank our coffee while we watched the storm roll in. It was mesmerizing. Unfortunately, we got back out on the water way too late which meant we had to cross the lake in the middle of a HEAVY storm. We really had to paddle like crazy, because if you miss one stroke the current and the wind will blow you back a few meters, and you have to do those meters all over again. It was soooooo hard. Our canoe filled up with water, we were soaking wet, our arms were extremely sore, but we had to keep paddling. Oh, did I forget to mention there is a waterfall at the end of Murtle Lake? So we really had to paddle for our lives to make sure we wouldn’t go down with it! It was crazy. But we made it, and we felt pretty badass once we reached the shore and the storm died down. It really doesn’t get more “Canada” than this.
Wells Gray has over 100 km of trails, so whether you’re into a light stroll along one of the lakes or a proper hut to hut hiking trip, you’re good to go here. Since the weather was not that amazing we only did short hikes, mostly to see the 10 most beautiful waterfalls in the park. One of the most famous waterfalls is Helmcken Falls – with its 141 meters the 4th largest waterfall in Canada.
Another impressive waterfall is Dawson Falls, also known as Little Niagara Falls. It get its nickname from the fact that it’s 20 meters high and nearly 90 meters wide. (I know you want to know: Niagara Falls is 53 meters high and 323 meters wide.)
Don’t forget to make a stop at the Green Mountain Lookout. The vista from this lookout gives you a panoramic view over the mountains and the forest. Speaking of forest, there are a lot of rare tree species to be found in Wells Gray Provincial Park, like Subalpine Fir, Engelman Spruce and Western Hemlock. You can also see a lot of “Witch Hair”, some sort of lichen that grows on trees and looks like thin white hair locks.
When you’re staying at a horse ranch, you simply have to giddy up and yeehaw, am I right? We had a very cool cowgirl as our guide, and she was not only cool but also super friendly. We had a very nice ride and we also got to explore a different area of the park, since this part is horse-trail only.
And get this: my horse was actually named cowboy. Serendipity. I’m telling you. And of course I was wearing my cowboy sweater. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I. Should. Have. Been. A. Cowboy.
Where The Wild Things Are
Just make sure to sort of stick together since bears do frequent this area. Which is basically the case in all nature parks in West Canada. Just announce your arrival when hiking or riding the trails so that a bear knows you’re coming, and it doesn’t get startled. Please be informed of the rules and regulations when it comes to bears – and wildlife in general – we’ve seen so many CRAZY people later on in our trip. A grizzly will not pose for a selfie with you. It will, however, chase your ass down. And rightfully so if you ask me. We only spotted this fine looking black bear in Wells Gray, but I’m sure many other bears have spotted us.
More Ranch Life
We absolutely loved our stay at the Wells Gray Guest Ranch, and both the owners and our guides were extremely friendly and knowledgeable. We are definitely coming back here one day.
I would also like to recommend another ranch you should definitely stop by on your way to Wells Gray Provincial Park. It’s more like a museum actually, and I think it’s very entertaining – both for adults and kids. The Hat Creek Ranch is located on the junction of Highway 99 and 97 – also known as the Cariboo Highway.
You can experience life during the Gold Rush days of the 1860s. Hat Creek Ranch is a roadhouse where miners along the Cariboo Highway could spend a few days to let their horses rest, before they would travel on to seek their fortune. You can walk around the ranch, take a tour of the old roadhouse, take a ride on the stagecoach carriage, and explore the native village of the Shuswap people.
It’s super informative and interesting and we learned so much more about this part of British Columbia and its history. Oh, and bonus: they also serve a very good lunch. I honestly think you can’t skip this place on your West Canada road trip.
From Wells Gray Provincial Park we crossed over into Alberta to finally see those majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains with our own eyes. The scenery there is probably the most beautiful I have ever seen. Read more about our time in the Rockies (and swoon over the photos) here! If you’ve missed my previous Canada updates, you can read more here. And don’t forget to watch our Canada travel video!