The Hidden Waterfalls of Nanaimo
Story and photos by Spenser Smith
In 2013, I moved to Nanaimo, British Columbia, a city full of winding streams and rivers. It was a big change from my home province of Saskatchewan, which has its own beauty, but not generally of the wet kind.
In fact, all of Vancouver Island was a revelation. One of my first ventures was to Little Qualicum Falls, 58 km. north of Nanaimo, and for the first time I witnessed the strange phenomenon of water flowing over a vertical drop. (Vertical drops are also not a common geological feature in Saskatchewan.) I became infatuated with everything about waterfalls, from the sheets of mist that sprinkled my face, to the peaceful strum of flowing water. And fortunately, it turned out that I didn’t have to travel far to enjoy them — Nanaimo has its own small collection of these hidden gems.
Bowen Park, a 36-hectare paradise nestled in the heart of the city, is home to the Millstone River, and offers two easily accessible waterfalls. (See one of them above.) The main entrance to the park is at 500 Bowen Road, although the quickest access point to the falls is through the Wall Street entrance (across the street from Nanaimo Curling Centre, beside the beach volleyball pitches).
That’s the one I take. I park my little Mazda in the shoddy parking lot, and make for the entrance to the park, as the rays from the forest sun rush my glasses.
I follow the river west-ward, through a tangle of wooden bridges and well-trodden tails that eventually lead me to a pond buzzing with what must be more than 50 ducks. A father hands his young son a small chunk of bread, and I smile as the toddler feeds the flock. I continue walking the trail, following the roar of the Millstone, until the first waterfall is in front of me. This is where I once, after hours of researching online, successfully shot a long-exposure waterfall photo for the first time. I carry on along the trail, which is now made up of knotted tree roots, until I reach the second waterfall. This one is not so nostalgic for me. It’s where my $800 Canon DSLR slipped from my hands and plunked its way down to the bottom of the river. Now, I always make sure to use the neck strap. Even so, I can’t help but soak up the sublime peacefulness of the scenery.
Beach Estates Park
Nanaimo’s most secret waterfall is to be found at Beach Estates Park. The entrance to the park is beside the Church of the Nazarene parking lot (2140 Departure Bay Road), directly behind Brooks Landing. As I leave behind the dull grey city street and trek down the winding, wooden stairs, the sun is blocked by the lush surrounding forest. The hustle and bustle of Departure Bay Road fades away, and soon the soothing stream of Northfield Creek is all I hear. The air is damp, and my eyes fill with bursting greens. It feels like I’ve passed through a portal.
I reach the bottom of the stairs, and a tall waterfall rises and rushes about 40-feet in front of me. Out of all the falls I have seen in and around Nanaimo, this is the most unique.
It is two-streamed, thin, and closely follows the rock that it falls from. I sit down on a mossy log, spell-struck and mesmerized, not only by the flow of falling water, but by the simplicity of the happiness the experience brings me. The falls suck me away from a life half-spent with my neck cranked in awkward positions so I can scroll Facebook on my iPhone. Here, I can relax by soaking in Mother Nature’s calm. I continue along the trail, climbing stairs that crisscross Northfield Creek, until I reach the mouth of the ocean at Departure Bay Beach. I have arrived at the other end of the portal.
Ammonite Falls is Nanaimo’s most stunning waterfall. To get to the start of the trail, I drive down Jameson Road and park in the Creekside Place Community Park parking lot. I walk back up the hill, in the same direction from which I just came. At its peak, a city sign to my right marks the start of the trail.
It’s mellow enough to begin with, but after five minutes or so turns into sharp, bumpy, downward terrain, with no stairs to help navigate the steepness. I can hear Benson Creek gushing in the distance. After 15 minutes, I reach the first rope, which is the only safe way to climb down the canyon in order to reach the foot of the falls. The rope is tied around a thick tree, and lies across a slippery mixture of rock and mud, so a good pair of hiking shoes is advisable. I pick up the rope, and twist my body around so I am facing the bluff, tightening the slack. I take slow, measured, downhill steps, allowing my hands to catch the knots weaved every two feet or so into the rope. I reach the second rope, and repeat the process, until my feet touch flat ground.
The streaming waterfall is tall and thick, and, even from 30 feet away, spits drizzle all over me. Minutes turn into hours as I snap photo after photo. In-between, I have to wipe droplets of water from my lens with tissue. But I don’t care. I’m in photographer’s heaven.
These three Nanaimo falls, embedded in the city like secret treasures, are my favourite. Others await you nearby, though: Christie Falls near Ladysmith, Bonnell Creek Falls near Nanoose Bay, Triple Falls in Errington, and Englishman River Falls near Parksville.