If you were to leap off Helmcken Falls, it’d take you a full six seconds to hit the bottom, plenty of time to appreciate the strange stratigraphy of surrounding cliffs, and the magnificent cavern dug into their basalt bowels. Maybe you’d spot the robust communities of lichen and moss nourished by Helmcken’s angry mist, maybe also a Black swift or two, bat-like birds preferring to nest on the rocks beneath waterfalls. By the time you reached the bottom, obliterated between bedrock and a river in freefall, you’d know better than anyone that Helmcken is an ecosystem, not merely water pouring off a cliff.
Wells Gray Provincial Park, 90 minutes north of Kamloops in the British Columbia Interior, is sometimes called the Waterfall Park, for its preponderance of glacially-fed, volcanically-induced, biodiversity-rich falls, 41 named, of whom Helmcken is the mightiest. This particular waterfall occurs where the Murtle River plummets 141 metres, one moment a wide, shallow, babbling stream, the next a tumbling torrent, flowing as if from the mouth of a dragon.
I saw this monster mid-September, when the bugs were gone and wildfires contained, day-tripping up the Clearwater Valley Road in the park’s southwest, along which the finest waterfalls in Canada can be had for a song. Helmcken, like most others, has its very own driveway and parking lot, adjacent to which is a generous viewing platform where visitors crowd, smartphones raised. All of these conveniences were built on the north side of the Murtle River, hugging the stream until it falls, but I elected to walk, following a footpath along this river’s south, through titanic Western hemlock, Western redcedar, and chubby Douglas fir.
Walking is the best way to Helmcken – quiet, verdant, cardiovascular – soothing the senses before stuffing them full. 45 minutes down this trail is a rumble, then the Murtle River dips, once, twice, before disappearing entirely into a chasm of open air. Then, whether you mean to or not, you step over the edge.
I’ll never forget the animal terror of looking at my feet and seeing empty space. Like holes punched in a piece of paper, the web of rocks and roots on which I stood contained gaps, showing plain as day the 141-metre drop previously described. I was no longer on terra firma, but rather on a spongy, organic diving board, held up by tension and stubborn trees. This is true of the entire rim of Helmken Falls, such that even the most reassuring perch is a fragile illusion. If you choose to walk, and see these falls closer up than any motorist, bring your courage.
Depending on where you stand on the rim, you can peer directly down the length of the falls – as if down the barrel of a world-ending cannon – or take in the entirety of the falls and its enveloping amphitheatre of rock, burrowed into surrounding cliffs by its relentless humid hammering.
The waterfalls of Wells Gray were birthed by fire as much as water. A succession of volcanic eruptions over the last half million years filled the river valleys of Wells Gray to their brim, only to have them carved back out by the comings and goings of glaciers. But lava is a funny thing. Rather than cooling into a single, solid mass, it instead forms vertical, polygonal, basalt columns, fitted together as tightly as roofing tile. The volcanic plateaus beneath much of Wells Gray support the park like a succession of Roman pillars, on which have grown forests and rivers. When these plateaus erode, and basalt columns collapse, they do so in massive, vertical segments, creating impossibly sheer cliffs which lose ground, but never height. So, at the edge of each plateau, cliffs can descend at right angles 100 metres or more, giving rivers and creeks an unparalleled opportunity to jump.
Most of these cliffs, like those beneath the relatively tame Spahats Falls (a 73-metre drop), farther south on the Clearwater Valley Road, are startlingly sheer as if carved with the aide of a protractor. But Helmcken is the exception. With brute force, it dissolves the base of surrounding cliffs so quickly their crowns are left standing, Roman pillars with tops and no bottoms. This process is exacerbated in winter, when Helmcken cakes its cliffs with ice, freezing into cracks and loosening rock. Hiking to the rim means stepping onto land with no foundation, land which can, and does, fall at the slightest provocation. To quote a German I chatted with on the rim, “We’re standing on…air?”
While doing so, it’s hard not to contemplate those six seconds between you and the bottom, a quagmire from which water and air are being perpetually flung, just to make room for more of the Murtle River. It’s also hard to believe this wonderful waterfall – an agent of destruction if ever there was one – might outlive the remainder of the park.
In his 1989 book, Nature Wells Gray, naturalist Trevor Goward described this park as a “climatic Eldorado.” Sheltered from extremes of hot and cold by the Columbia Mountains to the east and Coastal Mountains to the west, Wells Gray has remained cool, moist and temperate in defiance of the hot, dry BC Interior, but that’s no longer true. Warming at twice the global average, BC’s Interior is tugging Wells Gray out of its delicate equilibrium, allowing for things like record flooding, persistent drought, and more aggressive wildfires.
“This is not the same valley I settled many years ago,” said Goward in the autumn of 2023. “The weather is all over the place, and the climate is difficult even to describe any longer. There will be fires like we’ve ever heard of or even imagined in the years to come.”
Eldorado is crumbling, and the ecosystems it shelters are being pushed beyond their limits. In some forests, said Goward, especially in middle and high elevations, as many as half of all trees have withered and dead, ready to burn with the next big wildfire. But as the park transforms, its contracting biodiversity will have at least one safe haven – waterfalls.
Inside their cool, misty envelopes, the waterfalls of Wells Gray are already sheltering the sensitive and dispossessed. Exactly how many species are being packed into these havens is difficult to say, and research is forthcoming, but an examination of one – Dawson Falls, up the Murtle River from Helmcken, accessible via the Clearwater Valley Road – revealed 400 species of lichen alone clinging to its margins, many of whom couldn’t survive the dry conditions upriver or down.
Moul Falls (also on the Clearwater Valley Road) is another promising haven, said Goward, and all who visit can see why. These relatively modest falls – descending only 35 metres – have carved surrounding rock rather strangely, blazing not only a path through the basalt but also a deep, swooping cavern on its north side. Into this cavern flows the waterfall’s moisture, hanging suspended in the air like snowflakes. Visitors can walk beneath Moul Falls, have their clothes and glasses soaked by its dense humidity, and rest in the cool embrace of the lichenized cavern, where researchers have yet to count its refugees. My wife and I played chess on ridges of rock immediately next to Moul, eating cliff bars and staring more at the water than we did at the board.
Helmcken is probably too ferocious to shelter all the species in need of help. Its moisture is precious during dry summers, but in winter, when lichens especially prefer things dry, Helmcken doesn’t slow down. It keeps hammering away, forming a massive cone of ice at its base taller than most buildings, into which it pours like a volcano in reverse. Unlike Moul, Dawson or Spahats, who settle down in winter, Helmcken rages on, throwing off a cloud of moisture 300 metres high, “The Bookmark,” as it’s called, signalling its location several dozen kilometres away.
It’s ironic that each of these waterfalls – agents of change – will soon become luddites, preserving an older version of Wells Gray Provincial Park inside their drenched spheres of influence. Even in bitterly dry summers, when the park burns for lack of rain, these waterfalls will tumble on, fed chiefly by glaciers which, if anything, will supply them more water as the climate warms. Until entirely gone, these glaciers will preserve the Waterfall Park.
Staring at Helmcken, mingling its mist with the smoke of wildfires upstream, one cannot help wishing it flowed in the opposite direction, soaking a parched landscape and extinguishing it infernos, but maybe it’s enough that these waterfalls flow at all, defying the decline of Eldorado for as long as there are glaciers left to bleed, and people left to do something about it.
As you can see, Wells Gray Provincial Park is one of the most scenic places in British Columbia. But there’s also so much more to Canada’s most scenic province, so for more things to do, check out these BC travel guides below.