Fb Tw Ig Pinterest RSS

Road To Bella Coola – Wilderness Town in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest

(“The Road to Bella Coola” was first published in the November 2018 publication of Globerovers Magazine. I have travelled Highway 20 again since then and updated the blog)

Venturing to Bella Coola, the little town at the end of the road. is a journey like no other. The unique town can be reached by sea on a British Columbia (BC) ferry vessel, skipping along the spectacular mountainous coastline of BC, or by air cruising above and around the highest mountains in BC.

I chose to drive 457 km (284 miles) on Highway 20 from Williams Lake. This is the only road leading to the Bella Coola Valley. The highway is paved for the first 319 km (198.2 miles) to Anahim Lake, through the Chilcotin plateau, along prosperous farms and forests. At Anahim Lake, the paved road changes to an all-season gravel road, and that is where the true adventure begins.

Gravel Road to Bella Coola
Highway 20 takes you to another ‘end of the road’

Glimpse into the past

The Bella Coola Valley was first known as the valley of Nuxalk, meaning “becoming one” and was inhabited by the Nuxalk Nation. Nestled in the heart of the Coast Mountains the valley is a remote, natural paradise, rich with First Nation history and culture and abundant wildlife. Here you experience authentic wilderness, natural wonders, glacier-fed rivers, unique flora and plenty of adventures.

When I approached the eastern boundary of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park I looked north. I tried to detect the mountain pass where Alexander Mackenzie, one of North America’s first great adventurers, entered the history books in 1793. He was known for his overland journey across North America to the mouth of the Bella Coola River.

Map of Bella Coola and Highway 20

Approaching “The Hill”

The road to Bella Coola
The start of the famous Hill

Tweedsmuir Park is the largest Provincial Park in British Columbia. When I reached the top of The Hill at the Heckman Pass Summit, I took a couple of deep breaths while looking at the narrow stretch of road ahead, where Highway 20 begins its traumatic descent to the sea.

Bella Coola’s famous Hill is legendary for its steep descent. The actual Hill is a 15 km (9.3 miles) gravel road dropping 5,000 feet from the Chilcotin Plateau into the Bella Coola Valley near sea level. The road is cut into the hills with steep switch-backs and grades of up to 18 % with narrow one-line sections, unprotected drop-offs, and no shoulders on the side of the road. No guard rails are preventing me from going over the edge.

While the stretch of road is commonly known as “The Hill” it is also called the Freedom Road. This is what residents christened the road after a persistent, tough group of locals built it in the 1950s. This was after the highway engineers said that it couldn’t be done, that this road couldn’t be built.

Driving “The Hill”

The Hill Bella Coola
Check your breaks before heading down

Driving in low gears and fully concentrating on the road is necessary when traversing the hair-pinned killer curves. I knew that leaning on the brakes too much could make the wheels slip under me. Fortunately, along the way, there are many pullouts to yield to oncoming traffic, photo opportunities, as well as run-offs, in case of brake failure.

Being used to the backcountry and mountain roads I didn’t find The Hill intimidating. I geared into low, was cautious, kept my eyes perched on the road, and prayed that no big rig or truck would want to pass on the narrow stretches.

For drivers accustomed to city roads, The Hill can be scary. According to locals, it’s not uncommon for travellers to leave their rental car or RV behind and depart by plane or ferry to not have to drive back up The Hill.

Once I got to the valley floor I pulled over for a while and felt a sense of accomplishment.

The grizzly bears at Belarko

Grizzly Bears in Canada on the road to Bella Coola
The grizzly bears at Belarko

A short drive down the road, I stopped at the bear viewing station at Belarko. There I had the opportunity to watch the bears dive and splash in the river and catch salmon from the rocky shore.

From here, another hour of relatively flat driving took me through Hagensborg, 16 km (9.94 miles) east of Bella Coola. Hagensborg is where the Norwegian-speaking colonists settled between 1894 and 1910.

Welcome to Bella Coola

Welcome to Bella Coola
Welcome to Bella Coola

It was a late afternoon in early September when I arrived in the Bella Coola wilderness village. The fog hung low and it started to drizzle. The Bella Coola Museum and other historic buildings were shut down for the season.

Fortunately, I found other treasures to explore. At the harbour, I strolled around the Government Wharf surrounded by fishing boats, walked between giant trees at Snootli Creek, found the trail to Clayton Falls and visited the House of Numst’ with its totem pole entry.

Bella Coola’s Petroglyphs and the kayaking tour have to wait until I return.

Bella Coola Harbour
Bella Coola Harbour

Tips before you go

Other Road Trips in the Cariboo

Sign up for my Newsletter, LIKE me on Facebook, Follow me on Instagram to get notified of new posts, and follow me on my journey.


Yrene Dee

Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.

10 Comments

  1. Gail

    That is helpful.
    We are trying to decide the type of vehicle to hire to drive from Vancouver to Bella Coola.
    Have looked at 4 x 4’s which have very limited kilometers included in teh cost.
    Do you think we need a 4×4?

    • Yrene Dee

      Hello Gail, I don’t think a 4×4 is necessary as long as the car has good quality tires and is not too low to the ground and the roads are dry.
      Myself, I just feel safer with a 4×4 and don’t have to worry in any weather. Enjoy! Let us know how it goes.

  2. Cinthia St-germain

    I would love to move in bella coola but i was wondering if the road on ferrie’s side is ok to travel with an RV ?
    I enjoyed the reading, thank you !

    • Yrene Dee

      The road is steep and narrow in places, with no barrier on the downside. There are several places to pull over. Big trucks and buses use the road, so be aware when you get to a sharp curve. I have seen RVs and everything from trucks and campers to 5th-wheel trailers and class-A motorhomes.
      All of Highway 20 from Bella Coola to Williams Lake is paved, except for The Hill which is usually well-maintained gravel or seal coated.
      Drive slowly and enjoy!

  3. Bob Tait

    The Hill was a great experience. Absolutely beautiful, and breathtaking as well. Along the way we stopped to photograph the fire that did indeed close the hwy in both directions. The drive down had its moments of grandeur, but the bottom was equally breathtaking as well. Can’t wait the drive back up and see it from a other perspective

    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Eric, you definitely can and you will find some great videos online. To have some gravel road experience might be a good idea for when you get to the gravel section of the highway approaching Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Take it slow down The Hill and you will be fine and enjoy a great riding experience.

  4. Stan Swartz

    I drive a 24 foot RV on a Mercedes Benz 3500 Sprinter chassis. It a low range or ascent and descent of steep roads. I have taken it on gravel all through out to.north woods of Maine. Can I safely navigate Highway 20 with my rig? Any advice would be helpful.

    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Stan, I drove the road with my RAV4 which of course is a totally different experience. There are definitely large vehicles and trailer on this road and with your experience, I can’t see any problems. It’s extremely steep wit narrow switchbacks, but there are quite a few pullouts. Go slow, gear down and drive in dry weather.
      Bella Coola Tourism says the following: “It is important to note that the road to Bella Coola is a challenging mountain road, and it includes sections with steep grades, sharp curves, and narrow lanes. Therefore, it is recommended to have experience driving on mountain roads, especially if you plan to drive an RV or a larger vehicle.”
      I hope that helps. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.