“Better late than never” goes the old saying, which seems to have been our motto for camping this year. After our trip to Port Hardy at the end of the August, my mom suggested a trip to Wells Gray Provincial Park. We spent most of last week hiking and canoeing there with her.
As the aquatic supervisor at her local pool, my mom finds it hard to take holidays unless the pool is in shutdown. She’s come out to visit us in the past during shutdown but this year suggested a camping trip together. Wells Gray Provincial Park is roughly halfway between us and presented a great meeting spot with plenty to explore. Both of us had heard great things about this provincial park, so we were excited to visit.
Wells Gray Provincial Park
The girls and I drove north-east from Vancouver on Monday morning, while my mom and her dog Frodo drove south-west from Alberta. She got an earlier start, but had a slightly longer drive. By some chance, we both managed to arrive at the small town of Clearwater (an hour north of Kamloops) at 3:30 in the afternoon. Mom had already stopped at the Visitor Centre to pick up maps and ask about day hikes. After I ran the girls through the washrooms, we continued into the park.
Wells Gray Provincial Park offers a wealth of accommodation options, from B&Bs to campgrounds. We picked Clearwater Campground, about an hour off the highway, for its location on Clearwater Lake. The first half of the road was paved (and being repaved as we drove it); the second half was gravel. The girls’ comment as we started onto the gravel was that it wasn’t as bad as the road to Cape Scott Provincial Park!
We reached our campsite and set up our tents and kitchen area. My mom had reserved a double site for us, so we had plenty of space and two picnic tables. Lily had fun finding big rocks to help stake down the tent, as the ground was too hard to get all the tent pegs in. My mom set up a tarp over the picnic table, in case of rain. Her paddles came in handy there.
Then we went for a wander around the campground. I was surprised that, even in mid-September, the campground was roughly half-full. There were also a lot of other people dayhiking like us, or boating on the lake. Wells Gray Provincial Park is, with good reason, a popular destination for nature lovers in BC.
For the next two days, we spent our mornings hiking and our afternoons canoeing. Other than a bit of rain, we had wonderful weather. Evenings found us cooking supper over my camp stove and taking another walk around the campground (because the dog and the girls somehow still had extra energy to burn at that time). Then we crawled into the tents and I read Doctor Dolittle to the girls until they fell asleep.
On Tuesday morning, we drove back to Helmcken Falls. Located at the end of the pavement, this is probably the most accessible—and most popular—waterfall in the park. The top was shrouded in mist as we walked up, but even so, it was spectacular.
There’s a fenced viewing area at Helmcken Falls, with plenty of signs giving more information. At the end of the fence, the trail continues in the same direction as the river. A sign said “Gatling Gorge” but gave no indication how far the hike was. Pearl wanted to walk, but because the trail was narrow and close to the edge of the canyon, I made her ride in the baby carrier.
We had great views of the volcanic layers of the canyon walls on the far side, and occasional glimpses of the river far below as it meandered along the bottom of the canyon. Then the river and the canyon formed a Y with another river. There, we turned back to Helmcken Falls (still wondering where the trail ended).
Ray Farm Trail
Next, we stopped at Ray Farm. Much of the hiking trail around the farm was closed due to the recent forest fires in BC. We were still able to follow the short trail (about 10 minutes) to what remains of the farm. The Ray Family lived here for a decade in the mid-1900s. They cleared a large section of land and built a house, barn and other outbuildings.
The remains of the house are still standing but the barn and other outbuildings were just piles of logs. (Or maybe it’s the barn that’s still standing, and the house has fallen down.) There’s also a mineral spring located not far from the house. The girls were fascinated by the orange colour around the stream, while Frodo was quite surprised by the taste of the water.
Canoeing on Clearwater Lake
After lunch, we drove the canoes up to the boat launch and prepared to go paddling. My mom had brought two of her three canoes. She took the red solo canoe with Frodo and one of the girls, while I took the larger green canoe with the other three girls. They happily played in the sand at the boat launch while Mom packed paddles, bailers, and other gear into the canoes.
Paddling is something I’ve done only sporadically through my life. My parents had canoes and kayaks during my childhood, and we occasionally took them to the nearby lake. We did one weekend canoe trip when I was about Sunshine’s age. After that, we got busy with our hobby farm and did more hiking than canoeing. In recent years, I’ve canoed with the girls at homeschool camp. My husband and I also bought a folding kayak back when we first moved to the Island, but as our family has grown, the kayak hasn’t been unfolded very often.
So I was looking forward to trying canoeing again, and getting some tips from my mom. She’s a certified canoe instructor who volunteers with her local canoe club and spends her summers paddling the lakes and rivers around Alberta. For this trip, she picked up two kids’ paddles for the girls. They had fun “helping” as we explored the lake. (I’m not sure they made much difference, except when they tried back-paddling or making bubbles…)
On our first afternoon, we hugged the right-hand shore of the lake (where we’d launched). Lily (age 7) has a big imagination (she’ll be a good writer someday) and didn’t like the deep water. And Clearwater Lake is deep. We met a guide on our second day who told us it’s 670 meters deep. The bottom of the lake mirrors the mountains on either side of it. Despite that, the lake earned its name; the water was a beautiful greenish blue colour and we could, near the shore, see the bottom plunging downwards.
On our second afternoon, we paddled across the lake to the left-hand shore and then fought a harsh headwind towards a picnic area on the other side. Again, Lily didn’t like the waves bouncing the canoe , or the fact that the wind pushed us in circles a few times. I was getting a bit frustrated with my limited paddling skills, but managed to keep the canoe going forwards until we got into the lee of the point. Mom pointed out that the bow of my canoe was very light, so we found a rock to put in it for the return. The wind also died down while we ate lunch, which helped.
The older three girls were great at sitting on their benches or stools and taking turns paddling. Pearl rode right in front of me. She started each trip sitting nicely on her bum, holding onto the thwarts in front of her. She played with the bailing pump. Sooner or later, she turned around to crawl under the thwart to sit right in front of me. On our first afternoon, she trailed her fingers in the water. On the second afternoon, she bumped her head slightly on the thwart, and I ended up paddling around a howling toddler who wanted a hug and refused to sit down.
Looking at a map of Wells Gray Provincial Park later, I realized we only explored a tiny section of the lake. Clearwater Lake is 23 km long, with several campgrounds around its shores. The boat launch is several kilometers away from Clearwater Campground because the lake goes over Osprey Falls near the campground.
On our second morning, we hiked to the Osprey Viewpoint, right above the campground. The trail switch-backed up through the trees before coming out to a tiny clearing that let us look down on Osprey Falls. The girls needed a bit of encouragement to get up the trail, except for Pearl, who again wanted to walk. However, she couldn’t keep up to Frodo (or even her older sisters) so I kept putting her in the baby carrier.
At the top, my mom shared chocolate covered almonds (a family tradition). Then we started back down again, and made it to the bottom in less than half the time that it had taken us to go up. Jade skipped all the way down—I wanted to take a video, but I had to watch my own toes. Pearl gave up fighting the carrier and fell asleep on my back.
On Thursday morning, we reluctantly packed up our campground and headed for the highway. Sunshine really wanted to stay another day and do more canoeing. However, each night we’d stayed had gotten colder. I was tired after three nights in the tent (and checking the girls every time I rolled over to make sure they were warm enough). Despite all the trails and waterfalls that beckoned, we decided to call it a trip and head home. If you plan to go camping in September like we did, then heating your tent would be a good option to help everyone sleep better and have more fun during the daytime.
Hopefully, we’ll make it back again one summer to explore more of Wells Gray Provincial Park!