The Bella Coola Road (Highway 20) runs for 282 miles (451 km) from Bella Coola to Williams Lake, linking the Central Coast with the Central Interior as it crosses the Coast Mountains and the Chilcotin Plateau, including Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and Farwell Canyon.
Highway 20, also known as the Bella Coola Road, passes through diverse landscapes ranging from grassy plateaus and rolling meadows to picturesque canyons and high mountain peaks. The portion of the highway over Heckman Pass was completed only in August 1953 – by the residents of Bella Coola themselves. They gained road access to the Chilcotin Plateau and Williams Lake and a newfound freedom; hence, the route’s other nickname, the Freedom Highway.
Bella Coola (population 2,500) marks the western terminus of Alexander Mackenzie’s trek across Canada in 1793, the first crossing of the country by land.
Long the home of the Nuxalk people, the Bella Coola Valley became a route to the Cariboo gold fields in 1858, the location of a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post in 1867, and a home for Norwegian colonists from Minnesota, who settled in nearby Hagensborg, in 1894. The colonists chose the area because the landscape reminded them of their homeland. Farming, lumber, and fishing industries began shortly after.
The Bella Coola Valley is of archaeological and historical significance in that it was a trade corridor between coastal and interior Native groups. The river had several villages along its length. Furs and leather were exchanged for salmon and eulachon grease, and were transported along what were called the ‘grease’ trails. (You can still see, though you might not want to smell, the herring-sized eulachon being rendered into oil by the local Nuxalks at the right time of year.) Remnants of precontact Native culture include the site of Friendly Village, visited by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1793, pictographs near Big Rock, a burial ground and smokehouse near Stuie, and aboriginal trade trails. There are also obsidian quarries on Tsitsutl Peak.
Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, through which the Bella Coola Road passes, at over 2.2 million acres (895,000 ha) one of British Columbia’s biggest parks, is most easily accessed from Highway 20, which bisects the southern half of the park east of Bella Coola. Established in 1938 and since enlarged, it is named for the 15th Governor-General of Canada, John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, who travelled extensively throughout the park in 1937 and was greatly impressed by its magnificence.
Roughly triangular in shape, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park is bounded on the north and northwest by the Ootsa-Whitesail Lakes Reservoir, on the west and southwest by the Coast Mountains, and on the east by the Interior Plateau. The park encompasses an astounding diversity of landscapes and conditions. Because access, facilities, and activities differ from north to south, the park is divided into two sections, with the Dean River acting as a natural boundary between the north and south. For information about the northern section of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, see Fraser Plateau chapter.
Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park comprises many natural history features, as well as some incredibly diverse landscapes in the Coast Mountains and Interior Plateau regions. The Interior Plateau (which includes the Fraser, Chilcotin, and Nechako Plateaus), in the eastern portion of the park, is a rolling and hilly landscape. Within the park, the plateau is warped sharply upward to more than 6,560 feet (2000 m) and is largely covered with glacial drift. East of the park near Anahim Lake, the Interior Plateau abruptly gives way, at an elevation of about 4,430 feet (1350 m), to peaks of the Rainbow Range. The peaks of the Rainbow Range – Tsitsutl in the local dialect, meaning “painted mountains” – form an enormous dome of eroded lava and fragmented rock that presents an astonishing spectrum of reds, oranges, yellows, and lavenders. Contrasting with the vivid colouration and gentler slopes of the Rainbow Range are the higher and more rugged Coast Mountains. Vast glaciers sculpted these granite giants, leaving behind serrated peaks that are still being eroded by the alpine ice. A special feature in the upper Atnarko watershed is the magnificent Hunlen Falls, with its 853-foot (260-m) single drop over a sheer rock face. It is one of the highest waterfalls in Canada.
Four biogeoclimatic zones lie within the southern half of Tweedsmuir: alpine tundra, Engelmann spruce/subalpine fir, sub-boreal spruce, and coastal western hemlock. From the east, travellers on Highway 20 pass through the lower reaches of the Englemann spruce/subalpine fir zone in Heckman Pass (elevation 5,000 feet/1525 m) at the park’s eastern boundary, about 223 miles (360 km) west of Williams Lake. The road drops quickly down the Bella Coola Hill, passing through dry lodgepole pine stands on Young Creek Hill to reach the Atnarko Valley, with its fir and cedar forests.
The low-lying Atnarko and Bella Coola Valleys have a more coastal climate and vegetation. Towering specimens of coastal hemlock, western red cedar, and some remnant Douglas fir, as well as a great deal of black cottonwood on the valley floors, thrive in forests carpeted with giant sword ferns and tangles of huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild roses, thimbleberries, salmonberries, wild lilies, and orchids, to name but a few of the many plant species found here.
With all those berries, it’s no wonder there are many bears. Both grizzly and black bears occupy the Atnarko and Bella Coola Valleys. In autumn they congregate along riverbanks to feast during the annual salmon spawning migrations.
Although you’ll find cowboy boots and Stetson hats to be standard issue in many parts of the province, from Surrey in the Lower Mainland to Dawson Creek in the Northeast, the Chilcotin Plateau east of the Bella Coola Valley can rightfully claim to be the true bastion of the range rider in British Columbia. Very few of the roads are paved, restricting access to only the most adventuresome and savvy map readers. Vast expanses of the Chilcotin are worked by large outfits such as the Gang Ranch, at one time the largest ranch in North America with over 1 million acres (400,000 ha). The ranch epitomizes the spirit of this isolated region. Wherever you stop along the Bella Coola Road, there’s always a pot of (mostly free) coffee brewing.
Circle Tours: See the best of the Cariboo, Chilcotin and BC Coast on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour. Cross to Vancouver Island from Vancouver and head north, boarding the Queen of Chilliwack in Port Hardy. Return to the mainland at Bella Coola, and enjoy the grassy plateaus, rolling meadows, picturesque canyons and high mountain peaks of the Chilcotin. The old Cariboo Wagon Road will lead you back to Vancouver through the heart of the Cariboo region.
Circle Tours in British Columbia.
Location: The Bella Coola Road (Highway 20) runs from Bella Coola to Williams Lake, linking the Central Coast with the Central Interior. BC Ferries’ Discovery Coast Passage route from Port Hardy on the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island deposits and picks up travellers at Bella Coola. If you are trying to decide which approach to take, common wisdom has it that the north-south ferry route is preferable. The Queen of Chilliwack sails from Bella Coola in the early morning, offering daylight views of the picturesque Dean Channel and a stop at Ocean Falls.
Highway 97 links with Highway 20 at Williams Lake, which is 151 miles (241 km) south of Prince George and 127 miles (203 km) north of Cache Creek and Highway 1. Highway 20 is paved in sections, and good gravel in others. The notorious stretch east of Bella Coola, known locally as the Hill, is 27 miles (43 km) of steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns and two major switchbacks as the highway descends from the Chilcotin Plateau. Definitely not for drivers who suffer from a fear of heights, the Hill has a 5.6-mile (9-km) stretch of up to 18 percent grade. Westbound drivers towing heavy loads may wish to leave their trailers in the parking lot at the top of the Hill. Safety measures include using low gear on steep sections and stopping several times to allow your vehicle’s brakes to cool. Information on highway conditions is available 24 hours a day from the BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways 604-660-9770.
The following towns are located on or near the Bella Coola Road (west to east):