If you’re looking to get outside for Independence Day but would rather avoid being elbow-to-elbow with campers burning their holiday weekend at both ends, here’s an alternative to crowded fireworks viewing and packed beaches: Spend the Fourth in British Columbia.
While parks like Jasper and Banff get heavy foot traffic, Wells Gray Provincial Park is significantly quieter — and just a six-hour drive from Seattle. It also offers some of the most accessible wilderness in the Northwest. (Spotting bears and moose is not unusual.)
Since Canada doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July (they get their patriotism out three days earlier on July 1, Canada Day), you’ll only need to put up with the typical volume of fellow travelers. Plus, the exchange rate means getting a 30% discount just for crossing the border. Whether you prefer a roadside campground, luxury hotel or middle-of-nowhere getaway, this is how you can get the most out of the park — and your long weekend.
Hit the road for waterfalls
Wells Gray Provincial Park is home to 41 waterfalls, and you can see eight in just a day trip thanks to the scenic road running through the park.
The first is Spahats Creek Falls, accessible by a 10-minute drive and an easy five-minute walk from the viewpoint parking area. The spray travels through a small opening in volcanic rock and falls 240 feet.
Beyond Spahats, a short, steep hike gets you to the 100-foot tiered Triple Decker Falls. The hike takes less than an hour round-trip. Once you’re back at the car, drive a few more miles and turn right onto the Spahats Creek forest service road. A 4-mile drive puts you within an hour’s walk of Silvertip Falls, which makes its way through narrow rockfaces into a whitewater plume.
Farther up the main road, a 3.5-mile hike takes you into the cave behind Moul Falls. This hike is a little over an hourlong, but it’s a refreshing reward on a hot summer day. If you’re up for a short adventure, there’s an overlooked waterfall here called McDiarmid Falls that’s well worth the trip. Signs along the way make navigation easy. You can knock out both waterfalls in about two hours.
Next up: Wide, short, and mighty Dawson Falls. Take a 10-minute walk from the parking area for the best view. You’ll pass right over Mushbowl Falls on a one-lane bridge as you drive farther north, but a pullout just up the road is a great spot if you want to get out for pictures.
The crown jewel of the park is Helmcken Falls. At an impressive 462 feet, it’s the fourth-highest waterfall in Canada. (For reference, local favorite Snoqualmie Falls bottoms out at 269 feet). A five-minute stroll takes you to a viewpoint, or hit the flat Rim Trail for a different perspective (5 miles round-trip).
Vistas, wildflowers and lakes
When you’re through waterfall hunting, look for signs for Green Mountain Tower between Moul Falls and Dawson Falls. Take the quick walk up a set of stairs to the top for the best vista views you can get without summiting a peak.
You can also get your fill of alpine blooms on a half-mile hike up to the Trophy Mountain Meadows. For a full-day hike, push on to Sheila Lake (just under 8 miles round-trip).
If you’d rather be on the water than the trail, you can rent canoes or kayaks for the day at Clearwater Lake, where the park road ends. Nearly 15 miles long, the lake is well-suited to multiday camping trips by boat, and links up with Azure Lake, which runs for another 15 miles. You’ll have your pick of 11 wilderness campsites along the way.
And if you’re not up for doing the boating yourself, water taxis are available through Clearwater Lake Tours (clearwaterlaketours.com). They’ll drop you off at the campsite of your choosing, pick you up at a prearranged time, and even rent you camping gear.
Where to stay — from rustic tents to hotel amenities
For campers, Falls Creek and Clearwater Lake campgrounds offer tent and RV camping (by advance or walk-up reservation). Sites have access to potable water, toilets and a small cafe. Pyramid Campground has spots for RVs and tents as well, but you’ll have to rely on pit toilets and pump water.
For those who want to experience the wilderness during the day but the comfort of a hotel room by night, brick-and-mortar lodging options are available in small towns surrounding the park. Clearwater Lodge (clearwaterlodge.ca) is attached to one of the best restaurants in town, Gateway Grill, and rents casual, comfortable rooms. Equipped with kitchenettes, they’re spacious enough for families.
And though July and August tend to fill up, you may still be able to squeeze into a room at Helmcken Falls Lodge (helmckenfalls.com), located at the entrance of the park. If you’re looking for more amenities, Sun Peaks Resort (sunpeaksresort.com) is an hour-and-a-half southeast of the park. As an offseason ski resort, it tends to have vacancies during the summer and offer mountain biking and access to hiking trails in the warmer months.
If you go
Wells Gray Provincial Park: wellsgray.ca
Waterfall guide: wellsgray.ca/site/activities/waterfalls.html
Trophy Meadows to Sheila Lake trail information: trailpeak.com/trail-Trophy-Meadows-to-Sheila-Lake-Wells-Gray-Provincial-Park-near-Kamloops-BC-729