Yes – Saskatchewan has waterfalls! But they’re not always the easiest to reach due to their locations in the north. But Nistowiak Falls is one of the most accessible.
It’s also one of the highest waterfalls in the province. With a 10 metre drop, Nistowiak Falls is an iconic bucket list destination for travellers to visit in any season.
**All COVID-19 restrictions and regulations were followed in the creation of this content.
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About the Region
Saskatchewan’s north is a rugged landscape dominated by jack pine, spruce and larch clinging to the edges of rocky outcrops on the Canadian Shield. It’s also home to 100,000 lakes and rivers with majestic falls, pockets of white water and dramatic gorges along the way.
This region has been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia. It also defined the lives of voyagers and traders in the 19th-century. Today, the area is still home to First Nations communities and is also popular with recreationists – beckoning boaters, canoers, fishers, cross-country skiers, fat bikers and snowmobilers to play on the waterways and in the Boreal forest.
**Check access to the community of Stanley Mission prior to your visit for any COVID closures or regulations.
Where is Nistowiak Falls and Why is it So Cool?
Nistowiak Falls, which means “meeting of the waters,” is along the very short Rapid River in northern Saskatchewan east of Stanley Mission. The river is a narrow gorge that drops a total of 17 metres along its length and drains Lac La Ronge and the north shore of Iswatikan Lake into the southern shore of Nistowiak Lake – a widening of the Churchill River. (For context, the Churchill is a 1600 kilometre-long series of lakes. It’s joined by rapids, narrows or falls that cross Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and drains into Hudson Bay at Churchill, Manitoba. It’s one of the most popular rivers for paddlers to canoe trip on in Saskatchewan.)
You’ll likely spot a sign of the falls miles before you can properly see them or hear their thundering roar. The waterfall sprays mist well above the treeline into the sky and is most noticeable on a blue-bird sky day. Because of the mist, you can usually see rainbows arcing across the falls which makes for a great photo opportunity. In the wintertime, there is often a giant ice formation on the eastern edge below the falls. It’s not uncommon for snow to last well into late May or early June.
While the falls are the most impressive part of the Rapid River, the entire one-kilometre length is neat to explore. There is a portage/hiking route through the forest. It offers views from different vantage points with a signed trail that leads directly down to the falls. There are no railings or safety chains so it’s important to be careful. When the water is low, it’s possible to walk out onto the rocks to get close to the water. During spring or in a season when the water levels are high, the rocks may be covered.
How to Get to Nistowiak Falls
**There is limited – if any – cell service on the way to the falls as well as at the falls. This area is truly remote. Leave a trip plan behind with someone and carry a satellite communicator. Make sure to have extra food, supplies and gear in the event you’re delayed on your trip.
Nistowiak Falls is truly remote and there is no road that leads to the falls. The closest access point is from the First Nations community of Stanley Mission. You’ll have to drive nearly five hours north from Saskatoon (7.5 hours from Regina or 3.5 hours from Prince Albert) to start your journey.
Once passed La Ronge, paved Highway 102 turns to gravel within a few kilometres. At the 43 kilometre mark, you’ll turn onto Highway 915 which will take you directly to Stanley Mission. From there, depending on the season, you’ll have an additional trip by boat, canoe, snowmobile, fat bike or on cross-country skis to access the waterfall.
Travelling to Nistowiak Falls in Winter
Nistowiak Falls is most easily accessible in winter if you have a snowmobile. I’ve snowmobiled twice from La Ronge. However, the quickest access is from Stanley Mission which is less than 20 kilometres away. The recommended route is similar to the trail marked by BORA for their annual fat biking expedition, linked here.
Depending on the route you take, it’s roughly an 80-85 kilometre ride from La Ronge across Lac La Ronge. The trip will take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours due to rough snow conditions. However, there are plowed trails for a good portion of the trip before travelling off onto ungroomed snow to Nistowiak Falls.
*It’s important to note that while much of Lac La Ronge freezes in the wintertime, there are sections that don’t. Be aware of open water as well as slush beneath the snow. It can be very difficult (not to mention wet and freezing cold) to maneuver your snowmobile once it’s stuck in slush. Touch base with locals familiar with the area before heading out.
On Fat Bike
In 2018 and 2019, the La Ronge Boreal Outdoor Recreation Association (BORA) community organization planned a group fat bike ride called “Nistowiak and Back.” (The 2020 and 2021 trips were cancelled due to COVID).
The 40-kilometre round trip expedition started from Stanley Mission and looped out to the falls. Participants overnighted at Jim’s Camp and had their gear transported for them and meals provided. They rode back on a different groomed trail the next day.
READ MORE: Where to Winter Camp in Saskatchewan
There is a Trailforks map that includes the northern and southern route taken by the Nistowiak and Back expedition in 2018. You can find it online here. The route was groomed specifically for the event. If you plan to fat bike to Nistowiak Falls, be prepared to bike on ungroomed snow and carry all your gear (including extra food and layers) with you.
It’s possible to cross-country ski into Nistowiak Falls. In fact, on my second snowmobile trip to the falls, we set up camp 10 kilometres away and skied in one afternoon. We skied from the Dale Peninsula, across the lake, and left our skis at the portage/snowmobile trail entrance. We carried pulks with extra gear and hiked in on the packed trail in winter boots. This isn’t the main route to access the falls – we approached from the south as the community of Stanley Mission was closed to the public due to COVID.
It’s also possible (and most recommended) to ski into the falls from Stanley Mission. The total distance one-way is about 18 kilometres. While it can be done in one day, it is easiest to carry gear in, camp overnight and ski out the next day. It’s possible to camp anywhere but you may be able to overnight at Jim’s Camp if you reach out and make arrangements in advance. There are no ski trails groomed to the falls but there are often snowmobile tracks to follow that make skiing more convenient.
How to Get to Nistowiak Falls in Summer
While part of Nistowiak Falls is in Lac La Ronge Provincial Park, Jim’s Camp is a tourist fishing camp located on the west side of the Rapid River and is part of Lac La Ronge Indian Band. There is a hiking trail accessible to the falls from the camp. I recommend asking for permission in advance if you are paddling or boating and plan to walk through Jim’s Camp to get to the falls.
By Motor Boat
In 2015, my mom and I paid $250 and chartered a boat and guide for an afternoon to visit Nistowiak Falls. We booked the boat through Jim’s Camp and the tour took about 3.5 to 4 hours in total.
We followed a Google maps pin to a home in Stanley Mission. There, we were met by our boat driver. It was a very casual experience and there was no official office. Our guide took us to visit the Holy Trinity Church, to see rock paintings and we boated over Stanley Rapids on our way to the falls. We had about an hour to explore at the falls before we headed back.
By Float Plane
If driving and then boating (or canoeing or snowmobiling) isn’t on your radar, you can also charter a plane out of Missinipe to not only fly over but fly to Nistowiak Falls. While you’ll land on the water, you’ll still need to be capable of hiking about a kilometre to see the falls.
By Canoe or Kayak
The most popular way to reach Nistowiak Falls in the summertime is by canoe. While there are several multiday trip options to reach the falls, the most popular and quickest route is to paddle 20 kilometres one-way from Stanley Mission with an overnight on Drope Island.
Make sure to stop midway and check out the red ochre pictographs on the rock face. You can find them on the north side near Stanley Rapids where the river narrows. There are several markings including bison, moose, elk and human figures. They were painted by ancestors of the Woodland Cree who live in the area today. The pictographs will be just above the water level.
There is one portage you’ll have to make (skilled paddlers may be able to run the rapids depending on water levels). The short portage at Little Stanley Rapids has a boardwalk ramp with rollers to slide your canoe and gear along so you won’t need to unload and haul it all.
From the portage, there are several spots to camp on Drope Lake including on one of the islands in the lake or on the downstream side of the portage. Be aware of wind on this lake as it can create big waves that make it more challenging to cross. From Drope Lake, cross into Frog Narrows and then on to Nistowiak Lake.
If you’re looking for a guided canoe trip, Ric at Churchill River Canoe Outfitters can hook you up with a multi-day guided tour based out of Missinipe.
What Else to Do While Visiting Nistowiak Falls
Stanley Mission Church
If you travelled through Stanley Mission, make a point of stopping in at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. It’s a Gothic Revival church that took six years to build from 1854-1860. It is now the oldest building in Saskatchewan as well as a Provincial Heritage Property. You’ll need a boat to access the site.
*Interesting fact: The first shipment of hardware and glass for the church was lost when canoes capsized on the last leg of their journey from a factory in England, delaying the completion of the church.