A Weekend in Wells Gray
Erin Miller, Senior Writer, Canada
06 January 2020
A last-minute change in plans finds us headed to Wells Gray Provincial Park for the weekend. We’ve meant to come here a million times. We drive past the turn a dozen times a year.
“It’s spectacular!” Everyone tells, and yet somehow, we’ve never actually made the turn.
Until now, that is.
Wells Gray is enormous, yet at a whopping 5,250 square kilometers (2,027 sq miles), it’s shockingly only BC’s fourth largest provincial park. Although it’s mostly known for its over forty waterfalls, crazy wild rivers, and having one of the largest “paddle only” lakes in the world, it also has a handful of extinct volcanoes and thousands of kilometers of rugged, rarely ever visited alpine terrain.
You can take a canoe up the 22-kilometer long Clearwater Lake, portage a half kilometer to Azure Lake, and paddle another 22 kilometers to the end of that lake, and still, you’ll only have seen the bottom quarter of the park.
Photograph by Erin Miller
This canoe trip has been on my bucket list for some time now; it ranks somewhere just below recreating Mel & Ethel Ross’s 1958 journey into the Headless Valley of the Nahanni, racing in the Mongol Rally, backpacking the Spatsizi Plateau, skiing across the Pemberton Icefield, and sailing around the world.
By the time we load up and drive the nearly five hours to the park, it’s getting late. We stop at the information center and inquire about backpacking, then head into the park to camp at one of four front-country campgrounds.
Friday morning, we pack up camp and get ready to go on an overnight backpack. As we pack up, we debate where.
We’d thought maybe the Chain Meadows Trail, but the guy at the Information Center in Clearwater had informed us it was closed due to downfall. We’d suggested Fight lake, but were told the trails were overgrown and vague at best because “no one backpacks in Wells Gray.”
“Majerus Falls?” I’d asked.
“You could hike into Majerus Falls,” he’d agreed, “then continue to Horseshoe Falls and Meadow Falls.” There is no trail past Majerus, and he’d warned us not to disturb the brush because that would, in turn, disturb the mosquitoes (of which there were plenty.)
“Just don’t get lost,” he’d added, “we don’t have a lot of park rangers.”
“I find myself mesmerized by the shadow and diffused light as they dance together across the expansive landscape.”
Eventually, he’d recommended Trophy Mountain and Sheila Lake, reiterating that we would likely have the area all to ourselves because “no one backpacks in Wells Gray.”
After a brief debate, we decide on Trophy Mountain, a short backpack (6 km) to Sheila Lake, where there were suppposidely tent pads, a bear cache, and a pit toilet. That was the sum of our knowledge of this trail. I like hiking trails I known nothing about; it adds an element of surprise.
When we arrive, the trailhead parking lot is full. I get out and read the sign, wondering why so many cars are there if “nobody backpacks in Wells Gray.” It turns out Trophy Mountain is also home to one of the most spectacular wildflower meadows in the province, and it is just the beginning of wildflower season.
We suit up and hit the trail. Before we know it, we are frolicking through a long green meadow; an explosion of pink, orange, yellow, white, and purple wildflowers spread out like a techno-colored carpet around us as far as the eye can see. Passed all of the day hikers who have come for the flowers, we sit down on the wooden boardwalk and watch, transfixed, as the flowers dance in the midday breeze.
At the edge of the meadow, a tiny dilapidated shepherds cabin sits forlornly under a cluster of pines. The trail passes within feet of it before leaving the meadow and slowly meandering higher into the subalpine.
The trail winds its way through the occasional patch of snow; a chill hangs in the air, reminding us that spring has only recently arrived at this elevation.
We round a corner, pop over a small rise, and are greeted by sweeping views of the bowl the holds Sheila Lake and of the seven peaks of Trophy Mountain that lay beyond.
Light and shadow dancing across the landscape at Sheila Lake.
Photograph by Erin Miller
Dark clouds hang broodily overhead, threatening rain. There isn’t rain in the forecast, but this is Wells Gray; it creates its own weather. We pick up the pace, eager to set up before the impending storm.
I find myself mesmerized by the shadow play and diffused light as they dance together across the expansive landscape.
The campsite at Sheila Lake is small but much better equipped than we are accustomed to. There are six new tent platforms, an outhouse, and a bear cache. We are alone in paradise for all of ten minutes when three other backpackers show up.
“I bet you thought you’d have this place all to yourselves,” the man says as he walks by.
“We did,” Carl responds. “We were told “no one backpacks in Wells Gray.””
“We were too,” the man laughs.
Before dark, ten more backpackers join us at Sheila Lake. A part of me is sad to share this lovely lake with anyone else, but mostly I am immensely happy to see people getting out and truly connecting with nature.
By early evening, the ominous rain clouds have dissipated nearly as fast as they’d apparated. Our tent is set up, but there isn’t much to do in camp besides slap at the swarms of mosquitoes that are trying to suck us dry, so we continue up the trail behind the lake to see what lays beyond the next rise.
Right at the treeline, we come across a small tarn in a vast expanse of talus and hardy alpine grass. Patches of snow hug the shoreline. Everywhere the light hits, tiny shoots of green grass burst forth.
The trail splits. Both paths are faint. It is obvious that most people stop hiking at Sheila Lake. Not knowing how much further we can even make it, we head left towards Trophy Mountain.
We pass another small tarn, and then another, and another. Freshly melted snow trickles and seeps out of every nook and cranny, slowly working its way into the nearest pool of fresh snowmelt.
Another rise, and we find ourselves above the treeline, the talus slopes of Trophy Mountain forming a formidable backdrop behind a sprawling sea of hardy brown grass speckled with the tiny white bell flowers of moss heather. A waterfall cascades down the steep rocky slopes and into a perfectly calm, shallow tarn. The reflection makes it hard to know where the mountain stops, and the water begins. This place is magic.
Off in the distance, a fat marmot peeps a warning to his friends that intruders have entered their little paradise. Otherwise, there is no sound, only silence.
I know that we are the intruders, but I don’t feel like one; I fell like I am home, and I never want to leave.
“There’s a Hoary Marmot!” I say to Carl and my mom as I watch one scurry across the mountainside and into its hole.
“Whorey with a “W”?” My mom asks, concerned, and mortified.
“No, Hoary with an “H,”” I reassure her, laughing.
We wander around the alpine wonderland, watching the marmots and exploring until the sun sinks behind the mountains. Back at camp, we quickly duck into our tents to escape the blood-thirsty mosquitoes.
The next morning, we start the day with a chill breakfast. By the time we are done eating, camp is empty. We pack day packs and make our way back into the alpine, to a narrow canyon we’d found the previous evening that looked out over a secret valley far below.
According to my map, if we off-roaded to the bottom of this valley, took a hard left, and climbed back above the treeline, we’d be at the rarely visited Cwemcwem Lake. I add this to our future “to do” list.
That’s the only problem with Wells Gray; one visit isn’t enough. Go once, and you’re sure to find more awesome things you want to do. If only there was more time.
Leaving the secret canyon, we decide to try climbing Trophy Mountain. All morning, we’d been watching other hikers attempting to summit one of the steeper peaks.
Just to the left of where everyone else was attempting their summit, on the far side of a rocky cliff, a gentle hill rolled right up to the top of a low pass at the base of the smallest peak. We aren’t climbers, and I have a terrible fear of heights, but the smaller peak looks completely doable, even to me. If I thought so, surely someone else had already been that way.
I was right. There is no path to speak of, but every few hundred feet, there are small rock cairns that lead right to the top of the mountain. It takes us maybe thirty minutes to summit.
The top of the low peak is a vast scree field that slopes off gently in all directions. It may be the least high and least scary (I assume) of all the peaks of Trophy, but the views are still phenomenal.
Saturday evening, we are back in one of the front-country campgrounds. We spend Sunday checking out some of the more well-known attractions the park has to offer – Helmcken Falls, Dawson Falls, Bailey’s Chute. For saying so much of the park is inaccessible by roads, a surprising amount of mindblowing beauty is still accessible by car and short hikes.
We leave for home at the absolute last minute. One weekend in Wells Gray just isn’t enough.