You know that saying, the one about how a great trip is all about the journey rather than the destination? Going to Della Falls is one of those experiences where this would be almost true if it wasn’t for the destination being Canada’s highest waterfall. It’s hard to beat that, even with the awesome two part paddling/hiking journey we took to get there. The whole adventure therefore wraps up to being one of the coolest trips we’ve done in Canada so far.
Canada’s highest waterfall
Hidden in the deep green valleys of Vancouver Island’s Strathcona Park is Della Falls, Canada’s highest waterfall. With a vertical drop of 444m, it is often cited as being in the world’s top 20. JR and I have been wanting to see Della Falls for a long time – it was originally going to be our last adventure on Vancouver Island after we left our Comox Valley home in 2014. The timing however did not work out due to the late and heavy snow pack that would have caused difficult early season trail conditions.
Two years later, we still had Della Falls on our minds despite now living in BC’s interior. Accompanied by two adventurous friends from the Island, we finally made it 19th-22nd June this year.
A very long first day
The Della Falls trailhead is not one you can just drive to. Being located at the western end of Great Central Lake, it is only accessible by water. This means that anyone who wants to see Della Falls has to make a fair amount of effort to go and see it – either hop in a helicopter, hire a boat or paddle across the lake. Having more time than money (plus a huge sense of adventure), we chose to paddle our canoes the required 25km to the trailhead.
As lake paddles go, it was actually one of the most successful we have ever done. I am going to claim our friends to be good luck charms as usually we battle headwinds the whole time. It was nice to be able to appreciate the quiet of the lake, the early morning mist hanging about the hills and the steady approach through the valley. Turning the final corner and spotting the trailhead sign in the distance was exciting; the adventure was not over.
Arriving around lunchtime, it didn’t make sense not to start hiking. Most of the trail is treed, but there was still lots to look at, starting with a snake less than 500m from the trailhead campground. There was so much colour everywhere from the lush greens of the trees to the rich brown mushrooms, vibrant wildflowers and aquamarine river. Although the trail is not particularly challenging, getting up at 5am took its toll on all of us and we eventually stopped for the night at the cable car crossing 10km in.
Arriving at the falls
The cable car crossing was one of the highlights of the hike. I’d never seen anything like this before on a hike. We all ended up using it four times due to failed scouting attempts to find a ‘proper’ campground the first night. The first time, I was honestly scared. The steel cable cable car itself is clearly quite solid, but there’s something about having to physically pull yourself across a narrow gorge with white water rushing through below….the best part though, was the distant view of Della Falls (the first time we saw it!) right in the middle of the crossing. Even though we were still 6km away, it was impressive.
The rest of the trail, minus a short section over and around some large boulders, was fairly straightforward. The sun was out, the ever closer views of Della Falls were enticing and the too-blue river looked more surreal than ever. It was very tempting to go for a swim, but luckily JR tested it for all of us and confirmed that the glacial water was cold enough to numb limbs within seconds.
Della Falls up close was an amazing experience. The noise was deafening, the turquoise water fast and wild, the mist thick and cool. Such power, seemingly falling from the sky. The bridge viewpoint provided a larger perspective to this magnificent sight. We came back for breakfast with a view the next morning before heading back down to Great Central Lake. Hiking down felt faster and was a little more eventful with the sighting of a black bear about 30m from the trail (the first one JR and I have ever seen outside of a vehicle). It was my birthday that day, so what a gift from Mother Nature I got that year!
All the details
The Della Falls trailhead is found at the eastern side of Great Central Lake, Vancouver Island’s second largest lake. It is the southeastern access point to Strathcona Park, BC’s oldest provincial park.
Most hikers going to Della Falls take a water taxi from Ark Resort, 32km east from the trailhead. The cost depends on the size of the group starting with $135 return per person for a party of two. The journey takes around 40 minutes.
The two main departure points for paddlers are Ark Resort or Scout Beach Recreational Site, approximately 8km further west along the lake. Ark Resort has a $5 launching fee and a charge for parking. We parked and launched at Scout Beach for free without any issues (though this was before the busy summer season). Scout Beach has 12 campsites, some on the lake front. Condition of the access road was good at the time of writing – mostly flat, gravel, some large rocks.
Paddling Great Central Lake should be approached with some caution. Surrounded by mountains, the long and thin lake (like so many others on Vancouver Island) acts as a wind tunnel and as such, big waves can whip up fast. We started paddling before 7am on each day in the hopes of being off the water before the winds picked up in the afternoon. As it was, we had the wind behind us on the way there and against us for only a short time on the way back. The outgoing journey took just over 5 hours, the return 4.5. Surprisingly (against all advice I read before the trip), there are a couple of places to pull off and camp on the northern side of the lake if needed.
The trail to Della Falls is 16km one way and is a relatively easy hike. It was well marked with orange flagging. The first four kilometres follow an old railway grade and is fairly wide and flat. The trail then narrows, crosses a few rivers (bridges all intact during our visit) and takes on a very small amount of elevation before the first campground. There is then a fairly steady incline until the cable car. After the cable car, the trail descends to the river, over some large boulders (the flagging was useful here) and then regains steady elevation again to the main Della Falls campground.
The trail takes around 5-7 hours to hike.
The best time of year to hike would be July, when the snow at Love Lake is most likely to have melted and the run-off is still plentiful. In August, the waterfall dries up a little and apparently is generally less impressive.
The trail was in generally great condition. One of the bridges had a middle slat that I almost fell into (don’t walk backwards!) and there were a few fallen trees.
There are no camping fees on the Della Falls trail, making this a completely free trip if you paddle from Scout Beach Rec Site as we did.
Water is easily found throughout the hike as the trail stays close to Drinkwater Creek for almost the full length. There are a number of river crossings, all of which either have a bridge or rocks to cross.
There is a great day hiking opportunity from Della Falls base area to Love Lake, a 7km round trip with 760m elevation gain. It takes around 4-5 hours return, but it offers different perspectives of Della Falls and a chance to swim in the crystal clear subalpine Love Lake. We did not do this side trip as most of the trail was still under 4-5 feet of snow (which we were not prepared for), as reported by other hikers.
Despite early spring temperatures being exceptionally warm, it snowed at around 900m elevation the week before we headed out on this trip. Other years, it has been possible to hike to Love Lake snow-free as early as the middle of June, as seen in MBGuiding’s 2015 trip report.
There is a large campground at the trailhead, with at least 8 accessible sites complete with tent pads and small benches. The important word is accessible as the rest (16 sites) are clearly not regularly used and hence overgrown. I would doubt many people stay here at all, with the majority of guests arriving by the water taxi and do not have the need to stay overnight. There is a BC Parks fire pit here, plus a bear cache, two outhouses and a canoe rack.
The first on-trail campground is found around 7.5km into the trail, close to the river. There is a bear cache, a ‘throne’ outhouse plus an informal fire pit. There is some flat areas suitable for tents, practically on the trail.
The second on-trail camp spot is just before the cable car (approx. 10km) It’s not really a campground as it does not have an outhouse or bear cache. There’s an informal fire pit and a couple of flat areas suitable for tents right on the trail. We camped here our first night on the trail.
The third place to camp is on a river beach, 3km in. There is a sign on the rock stating no campfires – no sign of any informal campfires when we were there. No outhouse or bear cache.
At 15km, there is the main Della Falls campground. There is old logging equipment (saws blades) nailed on the trees. This is a large, flat treed area with space for 4/5 tents. 20 metres further on, there is another small camp area next to the river with distant views of Della Falls. Both sites share a bear cache and a ‘throne’ outhouse. We camped at the smaller area our second night though if we had known there was another campground closer to the falls, we would probably had stayed there instead.
The fifth and final campground is called Della Falls View and is located 700m further up the trail. Located a very short walk from the bottom of the falls, there is a bear cache and ‘throne’ outhouse plus space for 2/3 tents.
There are black bears in this area – we saw scat, claw marks on trees and also on the bear caches. And most obviously, we spotted one on the last day. If you stay at one of the camping areas without a bear cache, make sure to hang your food high in the trees away from camp. The cable car came in handy for us the first night as we were able to secure all of our food in the car and then pull it out to the middle of the river.
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