Wells Gray Provincial Park
|Wells Gray Provincial Park|
IUCN category IV (habitat/species management area)
|Location||British Columbia, Canada|
|Visitors||21,711 overnight campers (in 2003)|
|Governing body||BC Parks|
Wells Gray Provincial Park is a large wilderness park located in east-central British Columbia, Canada. The park protects most of the southern, and highest, regions of the Cariboo Mountains and covers 5,250 square kilometres (524,990 hectares or 1.3 million acres). It is British Columbia's fourth largest park, after Tatshenshini, Spatsizi and Tweedsmuir.
The boundaries of Wells Gray Park encompass 60 percent of the drainage basin of the Clearwater River and most water that originates in the park flows into this river. The northern two-thirds of the park is extremely rugged with relief ranging from Clearwater Lake at an elevation of 680 m (2,231 ft) to 2,860 m (9,383 ft) at Garnet Peak. These summits are part of the Cariboo Mountains, and most of the east boundary of the park follows the mountain divide between drainage into the North Thompson River and into the Clearwater River. Individual mountain groups dominate the topography of the northern park region and are separated by deep glacially carved valleys, several of which contain large lakes such as Clearwater, Azure and Hobson. The ruggedness of its features has ensured that northern Wells Gray remains little known except to the hardiest of backpackers.
The southern third of Wells Gray Park is traversed by the Clearwater Valley Road, although large areas are accessible only by trail. The dominant topography features volcanic plateaus, lava flows and deep canyons which are crowned by several peaks over 2,300 m (7,546 ft) high. The waterfalls, for which Wells Gray is famous, usually result from the interaction of volcanic eruptions and glacial activity. The best known is Helmcken Falls, the fourth highest waterfall in Canada, which plunges 141 m (463 ft) over the edge of one of these volcanic plateaus.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Wells Gray area was a valued hunting ground to the Secwepemc (Shuswap), Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin) and Canim Lake aboriginal groups. This resulted in a conflict about 1875 over access to caribou herds. Geographic names like “Battle Mountain”, “Fight Lake”, “Battle Creek” and "Indian Valley" recall this period. The Overlanders expedition to the Cariboo goldfields rafted down the North Thompson River in 1862. When they arrived at the mouth of the Clearwater River, they noted its distinct clarity compared to the muddy North Thompson and named it Clear Water. In 1863, the first tourists, Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle, traveled through the North Thompson Valley and solidified the Clearwater River name by publishing it in their journal, The Northwest Passage by Land (London, 1865).
Between 1872 and 1881, about 20 survey parties fanned out across British Columbia trying to find the best route for the Canadian Pacific Railway between Yellowhead Pass in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. Three survey parties visited what is now Wells Gray Park. In 1873, Marcus Smith, searching for the ideal route to Bute Inlet, visited Hobson Lake and Mahood Lake. In 1874, the railway dispatched a survey party to explore the headwaters of the Clearwater River, under the leadership of E.W. Jarvis. The altitude of the pass was calculated at 2,130 m (6,988 ft) (actually only 1,800 m (5,906 ft)) and the route skirted an immense glacier before descending to the Raush River, a tributary of the Fraser River — “clearly impracticable for a railway line”. When the more southern Kicking Horse Pass was chosen instead in 1881, all the meticulously examined routes in what is now Wells Gray Park were abandoned. Only three place names in the park recognize those 10 wasted years of surveys: Murtle River & Lake, Mahood River & Lake, and Marcus Falls.
Helmcken Falls was discovered in 1913 by Robert Lee, a land surveyor working for the British Columbia government. He was so impressed with the waterfall that he wrote a letter from his remote camp to Sir Richard McBride, Premier of British Columbia, requesting that the falls be named "McBride Falls". Three weeks later, Lee received a reply from the Premier stating that the waterfall was instead to be called Helmcken Falls. This name honoured John Sebastian Helmcken, a physician with the Hudson's Bay Company who arrived in Victoria in 1850. He helped bring British Columbia into Canadian Confederation in 1871. Dr. Helmcken died in 1920 at the age of 95, but never actually saw the falls himself.
The first homesteaders in what is now Wells Gray Park were John Ray in 1911 at The Horseshoe and Michael Majerus in 1912 on the Murtle River near Dawson Falls. Both cleared land, built cabins and established isolated lifestyles far from other people. Other settlers who arrived between 1918 and 1925 were the Ludtke family, Lewis Rupell, Pete McDougal, Jack Zellers, Dave Anderson, Alex Fage and Herman Ordschig.
On July 16, 1926, the entire Clearwater Valley between First Canyon and the Murtle River was destroyed by a forest fire. It started from a lightning strike west of the Clearwater River, smouldered for several weeks, then was fanned by winds and moved rapidly north through the homesteads. The Ludtke family immersed themselves in Battle Creek for 8 hours, dampening some blankets to cover their heads, and their livestock and even wild animals joined them for protection. The Rupell cabin was the only one that did not burn. The fire crossed the Murtle River and burned part way up Kilpill Mountain. After its initial rampage, it burned slowly in the marshes of the Murtle Plateau until mid-August, when it was finally extinguished by a heavy rain. Over 125,000 acres (506 km2) of the Clearwater Valley were burned and most settlers lost almost everything they owned. However, there was not a single human fatality.
Soon after the discovery of Helmcken Falls, a park was suggested to preserve the waterfall. Nothing happened, so in 1925 the B.C. Auto Club started a campaign to establish a park around the falls. The Minister of Lands, Duff Pattullo, was not interested and rebuffed the club by stating that the falls were there and could not get away, so why bother setting up a park. In the mid-1930s, there were more recommendations for a park at Helmcken Falls. Finally the government began to listen, mostly because a new Minister of Lands, Arthur Wellesley Gray, was interested in parks and recognized the growing need to preserve special places in British Columbia. In 1938, Gray and his Chief Forester, Ernest Manning, created Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in the Coast Mountains near Bella Coola and Hamber Provincial Park in the Rocky Mountains. In 1939, a forest ranger near Clearwater, Bill Noble, recommended a park and on November 28, 1939, Gray passed an Order-in-Council creating a huge park around most of the drainage basin of the Clearwater River. He named the park for himself (Wells was his nickname). In 1941, he and Manning were working on establishing a new park in British Columbia's Cascade Mountains when Manning was killed in a plane crash and that park was named E.C. Manning Provincial Park. Tourists and hikers of the 21st century owe much to the vision of Gray and Manning.
Clearwater River dams
The disastrous flood of the Fraser River in 1948 nearly changed the Clearwater River and Wells Gray Park forever. In November 1947, the Federal Minister of Public Works proposed the creation of a joint federal-provincial committee to study the Fraser’s water resources. The flood made this project all the more urgent and, in late 1948, the Dominion-Provincial Board, Fraser River Basin was established to report on power generation, fisheries, flood control, water supply and recreation. Between 1949 and 1954, the committee of ten collected basic data and filled in the gaps in other government studies. No report was produced, but, in 1953, 12 detailed maps of the Clearwater River between Hemp Creek and the North Thompson River were published. These had a scale of 1 inch = 500 feet and a contour interval of 20 feet. Over 50 years later, these sheets are still the most detailed and accurate topographic maps available of the lower Clearwater, although they are out-of-date regarding human developments.
The Fraser River committee proposed two dams, one just upstream from Clearwater and one at Sabre Tooth Rapids, but nothing happened. In 1955, the federal and provincial governments replaced this committee with a smaller one, the Fraser River Board, which had only four members. It was directed to determine what development of the Fraser’s water resources would be feasible, particularly regarding flood control and hydro-electric power. The Board published two preliminary reports, one about flood control in 1956 and one about hydro-electric developments in 1958.
The idea of developing hydro power from the Clearwater River and its tributaries was not new to the Fraser River Board. In 1918, Helmcken Falls was studied as a source of power for Kamloops, although the length of the transmission lines ended that notion. In the late 1940s, the Aluminum Company of Canada examined the power potential of Helmcken Falls, but chose Kitimat instead, thereby flooding northern Tweedsmuir Park instead of Wells Gray. In 1959, a comprehensive development of the Murtle River was proposed by the British Columbia Power Commission.
All these proposals pale in comparison to the final report of the Fraser River Board, issued in 1963. Although dams were proposed elsewhere such as on the Cariboo and McGregor Rivers and at the Grand Canyon of the Fraser, the Clearwater River attracted most of the attention with seven dams and five reservoirs recommended. The dams would be located 4 km (2.5 mi) upstream from the North Thompson confluence, at the lower end of Granite Canyon, at Sabre Tooth Rapids, near Myanth Falls (upper and lower dams), at the outlet of Hobson Lake and on the low pass between Hobson and Quesnel Lakes. Together, these dams would turn the Clearwater River into a 160 km long (100-mile long) series of reservoirs extending nearly to its glacial source above Hobson Lake. Each dam would back water almost to the foot of the next one, similar to the Columbia River today which has little free-flowing water. The dam at Sabre Tooth Rapids would be the highest at 137 m (449 ft), flooding most of Helmcken Canyon, inundating Sylvia and Goodwin Falls, and submerging the bottom 10 m (33 ft) of Helmcken Falls. The plan for Bailey’s Chute envisaged two dams; the lower dam at Myanth Falls would divert the river into a 1.7 km (1.1 mi) power canal ending at Bailey’s Chute. Collectively, the proposal (including the other rivers) was called System E and the cost of construction was estimated at $398,503,500.
There was little reaction, positive or negative, to the Fraser River Board’s report. In the 1960s, there was less leisure time than today, and the public was not too concerned about losing remote preserves such as Wells Gray Park, when British Columbia had so much wilderness land. The park may have been saved because the British Columbia government was preoccupied in the 1960s with planning and building (and paying for) the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River and Mica Dam, Keenleyside Dam and Duncan Dam, all part of the Columbia River Treaty projects.
In 1971, BC Hydro, the provincial power utility, revived the Fraser River Board’s report and took a new look at the feasibility and costs of building the seven dams on the Clearwater River. Fortunately, in just a decade, the environmental movement had gained power and credibility in the province, and BC Hydro’s interest in the Clearwater quickly caught the attention of the Shuswap-Thompson River Research and Development Association (STRRADA) and the newly formed Yellowhead Ecological Association based in Clearwater, BC. One of the undertakings was to offer bus tours of Wells Gray Park during the summer of 1972. The tours stopped at viewpoints where the volunteer guides urged passengers to imagine how the valley would look when flooded by the dams. The strategy was very effective and succeeded in creating an uproar of protest about the dams. Within a year, the plan to dam the Clearwater River was quietly shelved, but BC Hydro retained its water rights until 1987 when the flooding reserve on the Clearwater was cancelled.
Wells Gray Park is bordered on every side by different types of terrain and these merge within the boundaries to give the park its great diversity. According to B.C. Parks, Wells Gray contains over 700 species of vascular plants, over 200 species of mushrooms, 56 species of mammals and 219 species of birds. There are many factors that so enrich the park and these include the 1926 forest fire, the proximity of the Fraser Plateau westward, the Cariboo Mountains northeastward, the interior wet belt eastward, and the semi-desert zone to the south. Within the Park, micro-climates, altitude, soil type, and the availability of water all have their effects and contribute to the existence of this large variety of plant and animal life. The park is densely forested with conifers and areas above 1,900 m (6,234 ft) have extensive alpine meadows. Nature Wells Gray is recommended to visitors seeking detailed information about the park’s natural history.
Winters in the Clearwater Valley are severe, with an average of 1 m (3.3 ft) of accumulated snow at lower elevations and much more higher up. Snow may linger along the low elevation roads until mid-April and never completely disappears from the north sides of the mountains. Early May and most of June are often rainy and, during the summer, storms occur about once a week. Average annual precipitation at Clearwater is 43 cm (17 in) and this increases as one travels north into the Park and closer to the mountains. Clearwater Lake receives over 60 cm (24 in) and Azure Lake about 80 cm (31 in). Summer temperatures in the Clearwater Valley are often in the mid-20s Celsius, but may reach 30 degrees, and vary considerably according to altitude. September through mid-October usually features clear warm days, cool nights and colourful fall foliage.
There are five roads that provide access to Wells Gray Park.
- Clearwater Valley Road (commonly called Wells Gray Park Road). It starts from the Yellowhead Highway in Clearwater and ends at Clearwater Lake, 68 km (42.3 mi) north. Almost all visitors to the park use this road. Three of the park's four campgrounds are along this road. The park's best known attractions are reached via Clearwater Valley Road: Spahats Falls, Clearwater Valley Overlook, Trophy Mountain, Moul Falls, Battle Mountain, The Flatiron, Green Mountain, Dawson Falls, The Mushbowl, Helmcken Falls, Ray Farm, Bailey's Chute and Clearwater Lake. The road is paved for the first 42.2 km (26.2 mi) to the Helmcken junction, then it becomes a good gravel road.
- Clearwater River Road. It starts in Clearwater and hugs the west bank of the Clearwater River north for 37.9 km (23.5 mi) to the confluence of the Mahood River. Attractions are The Kettle, Sabre Tooth Rapids, White Horse Bluff, and Sylvia and Goodwin Falls on the Mahood River. This road is used for river access by Clearwater's three rafting companies. The road is rough and maintained by its users, and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
- Mahood Lake Road. It starts from Highway 24 between 100 Mile House on Highway 97 and Little Fort on Highway 5. From the latter, it is 127.7 km (79.3 mi) to the end at Deception Point on Mahood Lake. There is a 34-unit campground at Mahood Lake. Attractions are Canim Falls, Mahood Lake beaches and Deception Falls. Most of the road is gravel.
- Murtle Lake Road. It starts at Blue River on the Yellowhead Highway and climbs for 27 km (16.8 mi) to the pass. A short trail, designed for portaging canoes or kayaks, goes the rest of the way to Murtle Lake. Murtle is North America's largest paddle-only lake. The road is rough and high-clearance vehicles are recommended but not essential.
- Flourmill Volcanoes Road. It starts at 100 Mile House on Highway 97. There is no signage to help at the many junctions; refer to Exploring Wells Gray Park for directions. The road is 97.1 km (60.3 mi) long, mostly gravel and dirt. From the end of the road, it is a hike of 3.1 km (1.9 mi) to the cone.
The park is popular from mid-May through mid-October. Campgrounds are open and serviced from late May to mid-September. The park is open year-round, but in winter the Clearwater Valley Road is plowed only as far as Helmcken Falls. Following are the park's major attractions:
- Helmcken Falls is the park’s main tourist draw. The waterfall is Canada’s fourth highest with a vertical drop of 141 m (463 ft). There are several trails that lead to other viewpoints such as the brink and the bottom of the falls. In winter, an ice cone forms which grows halfway up the falls if it is very cold and snowy.
- Spahats Falls is a 60 m (197 ft) tall waterfall on Spahats Creek where it drops into the Granite Canyon of the Clearwater River.
- Trophy Mountains are on the south edge of Wells Gray Park and consist of nine summits. The meadows bloom in late June and again in late July to early August. There are many hiking trails and routes in the meadows and on the peaks.
- Third Canyon has sidewalks on both sides of the road bridge for safe viewing of two waterfalls on the upstream side and a 80 m (262 ft) deep gorge on the downstream side.
- Moul Falls on Grouse Creek is 35 m (115 ft) high. It is one of the park's most popular short hikes and it is the only waterfall that hikers can go behind.
- Green Mountain has a road to the top. A viewing tower provides a panorama of southern Wells Gray Park.
- Dawson Falls is on the Murtle River 5 km (3.1 mi) upstream from Helmcken Falls. It is 20 m (66 ft) high and 90 m (295 ft) wide.
- The Mushbowl is a narrow canyon downstream from Dawson Falls. The Clearwater Valley Road bridges the Murtle River here. Some of Wells Gray Park's oldest rocks are seen here.
- Ray Farm is an abandoned homestead. John Ray lived here from 1911 to 1947. He married Alice Ludtke in 1932 and they raised three children in the wilderness.
- Bailey's Chute is a low waterfall on the Clearwater River. In late summer and fall, salmon can be seen trying to jump the falls. A continuation of this trail goes to Marcus Falls, Myanth Falls and West Lake.
- Clearwater Lake is the end of the Clearwater Valley Road. Two large campgrounds are located here. Osprey Falls is a low waterfall that the lake empties over to become the Clearwater River. Boat tours, boat rentals and a public boat launching are available here and allow access deeper into Wells Gray Park via Clearwater Lake and Azure Lake.
- Murtle Lake is a wilderness lake in the southeast part of the park. See access section above.
- Canim Falls is in the far western end of the park, reached by Mahood Lake Road. The Canim River flows over a lava cliff that is 25 m (82 ft) high.
- Mahood Lake is reached from the west via Mahood Lake Road. A campground and beach are at the west end of the lake. The lake is 21 km (13.0 mi) long.
Wells Gray Park bears the nickname "Canada's Waterfalls Park" because 39 waterfalls are found within its boundaries. There are actually many more, if you count the numerous creeks that cascade down the mountainsides, but the following table lists the named waterfalls.
|Waterfall Name||Height in metres||Location|
|Allison||15||Philip Creek below Philip Lake|
|Are||15||Philip Creek above confluence with Trout Creek|
|Bailey's Chute||10||Clearwater River above The Horseshoe|
|Candle Creek||10||Candle Creek near Clearwater River|
|Canim||25||Canim River between Canim and Mahood Lakes|
|Coal Creek||40||Coal Creek in the Hemp Canyonlands|
|Cougar||20||Cougar Creek falling into Helmcken Canyon|
|Crystal||30||Unnamed creek flowing into north side of Azure Lake|
|Deception||50||Deception Creek above Mahood Lake|
|Fage||30||Fage Creek near Clearwater River|
|Falls Creek||4||Confluence of Falls Creek and Clearwater River|
|Garnet||30||Garnet Creek above Azure Lake|
|Goodwin||10||Mahood River below Sylvia Falls|
|Hemp||8||Hemp Creek west of The Flatiron|
|Horseshoe||6 and 10||Murtle River|
|Ida||20||Third Canyon Creek near Buck Hill|
|Lifely||10||Unnamed creek flowing into east side of Clearwater Lake|
|Mahood||20||Unnamed creek, part of Canim River outflow from Canim Lake|
|Marcus||5||Clearwater River above Bailey's Chute|
|McDiarmid||10||Grouse Creek near confluence with Clearwater River|
|McDougall||14||Murtle River below Murtle Lake|
|Meadow||8||Murtle River below McDougall Falls|
|Moul||35||Grouse Creek above confluence with Clearwater River|
|Mushbowl||5||Murtle River at Clearwater Valley Road bridge|
|Myanth||3||Clearwater River above Marcus Falls|
|Osprey||3||Clearwater River at mouth of Clearwater Lake|
|Rainbow||20||Angus Horne Creek above Azure Lake|
|Roostertail||10||Unnamed creek flowing into south side of Azure Lake|
|Second Canyon||15||Second Canyon Creek below Clearwater Valley Road|
|Silvertip||200||Silvertip Creek above Spahats Creek Road|
|Spahats||75||Spahats Creek near confluence with Clearwater River|
|Sticta||10||Falls Creek 1 km upstream from Clearwater River|
|Sundt||25||Lickskillet Creek near Hobson Lake|
|Sylvia||20||Mahood River 3.5 km above Clearwater River|
|Third Canyon||8 and 10||Third Canyon Creek above Clearwater Valley Road|
|Triple Decker||60||Candle Creek below Clearwater Valley Road|
|Campground name||# of sites||Comments|
|Clearwater Lake||39||Km 65 Clearwater Valley Road; RV dump, showers, outhouses, running water, small store, naturalist talks; very popular in July and August but reservations taken|
|Falls Creek||41||Km 64.7 Clearwater Valley Road; shares Clearwater Lake's facilities/services; outhouses, running water; very popular in July and August but reservations taken|
|Pyramid||50||Km 42 Clearwater Valley Road; outhouses, hand-pump for water; seldom full as mosquitoes are abundant|
|Mahood Lake||34||Near end of Mahood Lake Road; outhouses, running water, playground, boat launching ramp, sandy beach; reservations taken|
|North Thompson||61||On Yellowhead Highway, 5 km south of Clearwater (not in Wells Gray Park); RV dump, outhouses, running water, playground; reservations taken|
Mount Hugh Neave (centre) from Hobson Glacier
West Arm of Murtle Lake
Osprey Falls on Clearwater River
Hikers behind Moul Falls
Pyramid Mountain from Green Mountain
Sylvia Falls on Mahood River
- "Wells Gray Park". BC Geographical Names. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/20119.html.
- Neave, Roland (2004). Exploring Wells Gray Park, 5th edition. Wells Gray Tours, Kamloops, BC. ISBN 0-9681932-1-8.
- Goward, Trevor and Hickson, Cathie (1995). Nature Wells Gray, 2nd edition. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB. ISBN 1-55105-065-X.
- Damming the Clearwater River in Neave, Roland (2004). Exploring Wells Gray Park, 5th edition, pages 105-107 (consolidated). Wells Gray Tours, Kamloops, BC. ISBN 0-9681932-1-8.
- Mathews, Bill; Monger, Jim (2005). Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia. Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87842-503-9.
- Zuehlke, Mark (1995). The B.C. Fact Book. Vancouver/Toronto: Whitecap Books. ISBN 1-55110-277-3