- Meg Cuthbert
Della Falls - Canoe, Hike, Canoe
This is one of my 12 Vancouver Island bucket list hikes for 2019. Checkout the full list here.
Surrounded by four of Vancouver Island’s tallest peaks (Big Interior Mountain, Mount Rosseau, Mount Septimus and Nine Peaks), Della Falls is Canada’s tallest waterfall. The falls are now a part of Strathcona Provincial Park, but were ‘discovered’ in 1899 by prospector Joe Drinkwater who named them after his wife Della. Of course, with Indigenous peoples living on Vancouver Island for thousands of years, I doubt Joe was the first to lay eyes on the falls.
Designated in 1911, Strathcona is British Columbia’s first provincial park with a massive area of more than 250,000 hectares.
Today, the falls are a destination for hikers and waterfall chasers. Our group of four (Holly, Eric Daniel and myself) completed the trek over the Canada Day long weekend in 2019.
Where: Della Falls is located in Strathcona Provincial Park.
Access: Boat access only, from the far end of Grand Central Lake near Port Alberni.
Canoe Distance: The canoe from Scout Beach Recreation Site is about 20 kilometres, the lake is tip-to-tip 35 kilometres long.
Hike Distance: 16 kilometres one-way from the trail head to Della Falls.
Canoe Difficulty: The wind on the lake tends to pick up in the afternoon, so at times the paddle was quite difficult. Be prepared to lock it in.
Hike Difficulty: The hike is a moderate difficulty, mostly due to the pack on your back. The elevation gain over the 16 kilometres is only 350 metres.
Highlights: Della Falls is Canada’s tallest waterfall, but the paddle on Great Central Lake really steals the show.
Great Central Lake is 35 kilometres long, and the trailhead for Della Falls is at the very far reaches of it. The Della Falls entrance to Strathcona Provincial Park is boat access only, so trekkers either have to paddle their own way or catch a ride on the Della Falls Water Taxi. Paddlers can put in a canoe or kayak (or rowboat, why not?) at The Great Central Lake Resort (call ahead there is a fee) to complete the full 35 kilometres. Or, you can put in at the Scout Beach Recreation Site to cut about 15 kilometres off your trek . . . like we did. I guess that makes us medium level adventurers (if the high level is the full canoe and the low level is the water taxi — it’s not a competition).
In early July, the trail is fairly dry with lots of greenery. The hike is a nice 16 kilometres one way to the falls. Over the course of the hike the elevation slowly raises 350 metres — it’s not too bad but the gradualness of the incline can make it feel like you’ve been going up ‘forever.’
Day one was really day one and a half as we had driven all the way out to the Scout Beach Recreation Site the night before. We’d read that the wind tends to pick up on Great Central Lake in the afternoon and were determined to set out first thing in the morning to enjoy the calm waters.
However, like all well laid plans it did not work out that way. It poured rain all night and all morning long. We decided that no one was going to enjoy paddling in the pouring rain, so we systematically tarped our picnic table to create a dry haven to play dice. At 2pm with just a light mist in the air, we decided it was a do-or-die situation and we launched.
Great Central Lake just outside of Port Alberni is long, narrow, and sheltered on both sides by steep mountains. With a mist raining and low-lying clouds, the lake felt very snug and quiet. We paddled about 10 to 15 kilometres toward the trail head that afternoon. The wind picked up (just as we thought it would) and was pushing against us, so after four hours of paddling we started looking for somewhere to camp.
The steep mountain sides of the lake offer very little flat land for camping. This is why Great Central remains fairly undeveloped. Most cottages are set up on floats and moored to land, this is also because of the dam that controls the level of the lake. Luckily, just as we were crapping out on the canoeing we found what affectionately became named “Party Point” — a small point with enough flat area to pitch a couple of tents. There was evidence of a couple of fire pits (note that this spot is not within Strathcona Park where fires are banned) and a cooking platform. We set up camp, made dinner, hung our food in a tree and went to bed.
Storm clouds rolling in, but never reaching us at Party Point.
The start of day two at Party Point was a dream. There was no rain, no wind, just a peak of sun and we were already over halfway to our destination. We hopped back in the boats and made great time on the calm waters to the trailhead.
Because of our slow start the day before we were about half a day off of our original itinerary. However we booked six full days for the trip, so we had some room to play with incase something went wrong (like the weather). When we entered Strathcona Park it was just shy of noon, so we racked the canoes (on the designated racks), checked the well-worn trail map and decided to hike to the halfway point.
The first couple of kilometres from the dock are flat and easy. After the first campground the path starts to climb, it’s not overly steep but with heavy packs it was still a slog in some places. We camped at the site next to the river crossing. By now we were totally bagged from the canoe and the climb so we setup our tents and wasted no time in making dinner.
I was more than happy to pull out the Micky of gin and two cans of tonic I’d been hauling all day to surprise the group with sneaky G&Ts. Holly brought a backpacking Creme Brûlée and we feasted like the fanciest hikers on the trail. I’m sure Joe Drinkwater would have something to say about our trail luxury.
Day three started with the river crossing. The little basket that the spans the river snugly fits two people and their packs. I will say, the basket was very hard to move, and all four of us pulled on the rope to get across. It would take a solo hiker or a duo quite a lot of stink to move the cart all the way. On our way back we waited for a pair of hikers so we could help haul them across.
The last half of the hike to the falls were my favourite of the trail. We crossed the rivers again on several different bridges and got our first look at the mighty Della. As it was Canada Day long weekend there were quite a few people camped in the falls campgound. This main campground is about 700 metres from Della. We were pretty beat when we got there, but I’d heard that there’s one last camp site right at the base of the falls. Holly and I struck out to see if we could find this secret site (hopefully vacant) and left the boys at the river sites with a walkie talkie.
This extra 700 metres to the last site was worth it times 1000. We camped right at the base of the falls which allowed us to spend more time taking it all in and hangout at its base. Other hikers would make the trek up to the falls and head back to camp but we were able to spend significant time at the falls. The sound of the water became a soothing white noise soundtrack to our day.
From the bottom you’re only seeing a portion of Della. The total height is 440 metres — which you can see from the lookout at Love Lake. We forewent the hike up to the lake — so maybe we are on the adventure-lite plan after all. It’s an impressive amount of water to say the least.
It took us three days to get to the falls (although if you take the taxi in the morning you could get there in one). Putting in the effort and taking our time made the end feel more exciting. These moments of self-propulsion always give me a strong sense of pride. It’s amazing what we can do and where we can go with the power of our soft little human bodies.
DAYS FOUR . . . FIVE . . . SIX
We strapped miniature Canada flags to our packs and hiked the whole trail from the falls to the lake in one day. It was Canada Day and we were being the most Canadian — wishing everyone we came across a “Happy Canada Day,” helping the duo cross the river in the kart, talking about our feet and sock-boot combinations. The hike back was fast, our packs were lighter, the path was downhill, our feet were sore but we had a good momentum, so we just plowed down to the lake.
The sun was shining in all its July glory, so we did a quick costume change into our bathing suits and dove off the dock. The water was sweet on our skin and washed away some of our well-earned stink.
The next morning, we canoed back to Party Point. We gave ourselves six days to complete the full trip so we decided to make the most of them and spend another night at the point. We had a huge meal (combining random packages of leftover food to create a deluxe mac and cheese) and swam in the lake and lounged like we were on a tropical vacation and not still wearing the same stinking clothes for a week in the woods.
On the last day we finished the canoe back to Scout Beach. In the last two hours the lake turned to glass and we cruised. We could hear everything, which was taken advantage of by tossing jokes and taunts to each others' canoes. What a life.
Other Vancouver Island Hikes