Hidden in the deep green valleys of Vancouver Island is Canada’s highest waterfall, Della Falls. With a vertical drop of 444m, it is also often cited as being one of the top ten highest waterfalls in the world. To see this epic sight, waterfall chasers must first cross 45km long Great Central Lake and then hike the 16km Della Falls Trail.
For this adventure, the journey AND the destination are equally spectacular. Indeed, our four day paddling and hiking adventure to see Della Falls is one of the coolest outdoor adventures we’ve done in Canada so far.
Read on for the full story of our experience, followed by a complete Della Falls trail guide.
This post was first published in 2016, updated 2020. This post includes affiliate links. If you click one of these links and make a qualifying purchase, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
Della Falls: Canada’s highest waterfall
Located in Strathcona Provincial Park, Della Falls may be Canada’s highest waterfall but it’s not particularly well known. This is likely because the trailhead is only accessible by air or water. The choice is limited to helicopter, float plane, water-taxi, canoe or kayak.
For us, the Della Falls Trail had been on our list for a long time. We had first spotted it in our Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook, shortly after moving to the Comox Valley in 2011. Besides the height of the falls, it was the isolation and complex journey that appealed to us. The beauty of Strathcona Provincial Park was another draw.
Though our adventurous spirit was there, the timing took a while to work out for us. The ideal time to hike the Della Falls trail is quite short is late June to August. There was always something that came up. Finally, and accompanied by two adventurous friends from the Island, we finally made it.
A very long first day of adventure
Accessing the Della Falls trail is not as easy as simply driving to the trailhead. Being located at the western end of Great Central Lake in the centre of Vancouver Island, hikers have to make a fair amount of effort to even reach the trailhead.
As already mentioned, the choice is to hop in a helicopter, hire a floatplane, pay for the water taxi 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. It was surprising, especially since Great Central Lake is reowned for high winds and big waves.
At 7am this day though, the lake’s surface was as still as glass. Alone on the water, we enjoyed the silence and stillness, as well as the early morning mist hanging around the hills and the steady approach through the valley. We hadn’t even reached the Della Falls Trail yet and this was shaping up to be a beautiful adventure.
Turning the final corner and spotting the trailhead sign in the distance was exciting. With the sides of the lake rising hundreds of metres into the sky, the scenery reminded me of Jurassic Park.
Starting the Della Falls Trail
Arriving at the wharf and trailhead around lunchtime, it didn’t make sense to set up camp. After a quick lunch in the lakeside campground, we started the Della Falls Trail.
Starting the hike, the trail travels through thick temperate rainforest. Though the sky may be hard to see through the trees, there’s still plenty to look at. Indeed, we almost walked on a snake less than 500m from the trailhead.
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, about 10km along the Della Falls Trail.
The Della Falls trail cable car
I have to say, the cable car crossing was one of the highlights of the hike. I’d never seen anything like this before on a hike. The first time we used the cable car, I was a little apprehensive!
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 distant view of Della Falls right in the middle of the crossing was, by far, the best part of the crossing. It was the first time we’d caught a glimpse of the waterfall itself and even though we were still 6km away, it was incredibly impressive.
Arriving at the magnificent Della Falls
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.
Seeing 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 just falling from the sky. The bridge viewpoint provided a larger perspective to this magnificent sight.
Della Falls camping
Before heading to the base of Della Falls, we had set up our tents in the main campground. Historical artifiacts (including one of the largest saws I’ve ever seen!) are scattered around the fairly large camping area, providing a fleeting glimpse of the past.
Being the only hikers along the trail, we had only Della Falls for company that night. I wished we’d camped a little closer to be able to hear the white noise of the cascading water from our tents, but the solitude of the main campground was relaxing enough.
Next morning, we returned to the bottom of the falls for breakfast with a view. It was sad to leave Della Falls behind. It’s the kind of place I could sit and mediate all day.
The hike back down the Della Falls Trail was fast and a little more eventful with the sighting of a black bear about 30m from the trail. This was the first one JR and I had ever seen outside of a vehicle! It was my birthday that day too, so I like to think it was a bonus gift from nature.
Already this adventure had proved to be an excellent present, with dry weather, calm lake conditions, an exceptionally quiet trail and, of course, the spectacular falls. The return paddle across the lake the next day at 7am was no different, with serene stillness almost all the way back to our vehicles.
Della Falls Trail Guide
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.
The nearest supply town to the trailhead is Port Alberni, which is about 30 minutes drive south of the edge of Great Central Lake.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Port Alberni before or after the Della Falls hike?
Redford Motel – Great value
Cedar Wood Lodge Bed and Breakfast – Highly rated on Booking.com
How to get to the Della Falls Trail
- Most hikers heading to the Della Falls Trail take a water taxi from Ark Resort, 32km east from the trailhead. The cost depends on the size of the group starting with $160 return per person for a party of two. The journey takes around 40 minutes
- Alternatively, you can also paddle to the Della Falls trailhead by canoe or kayak. 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 our canoe at Scout Beach for free without any issues (though this was before the busier summer season). Scout Beach has 12 campsites, some on the lake front
- Condition of the access road to Scout Beach was good at the time of writing – mostly flat, gravel, some large rocks
Paddling advice for Great Central Lake
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. As such, big waves can whip up fast.
We started paddling before 7am both to and from the Della Falls Trailhead 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 and a half hours.
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.
Hiking difficulty and trail condition
The Della Falls Trail is 32km return and is a relatively easy hike. Most of the trail is in the forest, which provides shade on sunny days.
The elevation gain is fairly gradual (350m overall), with a few prolonged steeper (but nothing intense) sections.
The Della Falls Trail stays in fairly close contact with turquoise Drinkwater Creek almost the whole way to Della Falls itself. While beautiful, this creek has VERY cold water so caution should be taken when close to it.
The path is established and well marked with orange flagging.
Della Falls Trail description
The first four kilometres follow an old railway grade and is consequently 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.
A fairly steady incline follows until the cable car.
After the cable car, the Della Falls trail descends to the river and over some large boulders (the flagging was useful here). Finally, it regains steady elevation again until the main Della Falls campground.
- The trail takes around 5-7 hours to hike, one-way.
- 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 a little 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. But we were hiking relatively early in the season (mid-June)
- There are no camping or registration fees required to hike the Della Falls trail, making this a completely free trip if you paddle to the trailhead as we did.
- Water is easily found throughout the hike as the Della Falls trail stays close to pretty 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.
Hiking from the base of Della Falls
From the Della Falls base area, it is possible to day hike to Love Lake. It is a 7km round trip with 760m elevation gain.
The hike takes around 4-5 hours return, but it offers spectacular elevated perspectives of Della Falls and a chance to swim in the crystal clear sub alpine Love Lake.
Despite early spring temperatures being exceptionally warm, it snowed at around 900m elevation the week before we headed out on this trip.
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). Other years, it has been possible to hike to Love Lake snow-free as early as the middle of June.
Camping on the Della Falls Trail
The Della Falls Trail has a number of different campsites, none of which require reservations.
- The Della Falls trailhead campground has at least 8 accessible sites (plus a number of overgrown sites) complete with tent pads and small benches. 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
- The second on-trail camp spot is just before the cable car (approx. 10km) It is 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
- The third place to camp is on a river beach, 3km in. There is a sign on the rock stating no campfires. 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
- 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. Had we known about this campground, we probably would have stayed there instead of the ‘main’ one
Wildlife on the Della Falls Trail
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. We removed it all early next morning before any hikers came through.
Essential Della Falls Trail advice
- We lost phone signal shortly after leaving Port Alberni and did not pick it up again until we returned
- While the Della Falls Trail is not a hugely popular trail (less than 650 people hike it every summer), weekends and holidays are definitely the busiest days
- The Della Falls water taxi summer schedule runs 15th May to 15th September, with special arrangements required before or after these dates. For long weekends, book early (January!)
- The cable car crossing has had a major rework for the 2020 season, with new pulley wheels and pull rope
- Campfires are not allowed in backcountry areas of Strathcona Provincial Park, which includes the Della Falls Trail
- As mentioned, there are no registration or camping fees for the Della Falls Trail
- The Della Fails Trail is included in the Hiking Trails 3: Northern Vancouver Island book