Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and Recreation Area, at over 2.2 million acres (895,000 hectares) and 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.
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 (2,000m) 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 (1,350 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-metre) 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/1,525 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.
The Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail runs through Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, but it’s not the only trail of length in this park. West of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park’s headquarters on Hwy 20 (just west of the sani-station at Mosher Creek) is the start of the Tweedsmuir Trail, which leads north about 22 miles (35 km) to the Rainbow Cabin on the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail. The Tweedsmuir Trail can also lead you to the Rainbow Range.
The Hunlen Falls/Turner Lakes Trail (strenuous; 36 miles/58 km return) along the Atnarko River begins at the Young Creek picnic site east of park headquarters. This trail passes through prime grizzly bear habitat, and hikers should use caution at all times. Hiking alone is not recommended. As always, be bear aware and avoid confrontations with these wild creatures. Hikers should allow 10 to 12 hours to reach the north end of Turner Lake, where there is a primitive campground.
West of Hunlen Falls, there is good alpine hiking along the Ptarmigan Lake Trail (moderate; 15 miles/24 km return), which ascends to Panorama Ridge. Magnificent trumpeter swans winter at Lonesome Lake, (19 miles/31 km from Young Creek), made famous by writer Ralph Edwards, who homesteaded here in 1912. His descendants still live in the area and operate the nearby Hunlen Wilderness Camp. The Junker Lake Trail (moderate; 13 miles/21 km return) starts at the north end of Turner Lake. Rolling pine flats and forest meadows make for an easy hike that leads to a delightful sandy beach on Junker Lake.
The Rainbow Range Trail (easy; 10 miles/16 km return) heads north from Hwy 20 near the park’s eastern boundary, leading to an alpine environment. The trail starts in a lodgepole pine forest and climbs through stands of whitebark pine and alpine fir to a small alpine lake, offering an excellent viewpoint of the multihued Rainbow Range. Other trails in the area include the Octopus Lake Trail (moderate; 20 miles/32 km return), the Crystal Lake Trail (moderate; 31 miles/50 km return), and the Capoose Trail (moderate; 17.5 miles/28 km return).
Within Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, the chain of lakes connected by Hunlen Creek provides the opportunity for an enjoyable canoe trip of three to five days. Leading from Turner Lake to Sunshine Lake, a distance of about 17 miles (27.5 km) one way, this route enjoys calm water, beautiful scenery, good cutthroat trout fishing, sandy beaches, and wilderness camping. With the exception of 7-mile (11-km) Turner Lake, the lakes are small. There are six easy, short portages, the longest taking 30 minutes. Although the canoe season begins in June, the best time to enjoy this delightful corner of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park is in September, once the first frost has brought an end to insect season. Canoes can be airlifted in or rented from Tweedsmuir Wilderness Camp on Turner Lake, June 15-September 15.
Campgrounds in Tweedsmuir Park (South) are located on the Atnarko River near park headquarters, at the bottom of the Hill and farther west at Fisheries Pool, near Stuie. The Atnarko Campground (28 vehicle/tent sites, including double sites and sani-station) is situated in a grove of old-growth Douglas fir and is popular with anglers, as is Fisheries Pool Campground (14 vehicle/tent sites). Most trailers and RVs can be accommodated, although no hookups are provided.
Tweedsmuir Park abounds with recreational opportunities for those who desire – and are prepared for – a wilderness experience. The Rainbow Range north of Highway 20 offers a network of excellent backpacking and horsepacking trails and wilderness campsites. There are incredible views of the surrounding Coast Range Mountains from the open, sub-alpine meadows. There are a lot of primitive campsites dotted throughout the park. The park is open year-round with full services and fees: Arnarko campground: June 1 – September 1 and Fisheries campground: June 1 – September 30.
Picnic sites along Highway 20 in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park include, from east to west, Rainbow Range, just inside the park’s east entrance; Young Creek, a good place to take a break while driving the Hill; Big Rock, almost 7 miles (11 km) west of park headquarters; Fisheries Pool, in the middle of the Highway 20 corridor through the park, where there is a covered picnic shelter; and Burnt Bridge, 16 miles (26 km) west of park headquarters near the park’s western entrance.
There are approximately 15 km of set cross country skiing trails at the Rainbow Range Trailhead and there is also downhill skiing opportunities in this park; The snowmobile area is accessed through the Rainbow Range trailhead, located about 40 kilometers west of Anahim Lake on Highway 20. The Rainbow Range is very remote and is subject to sever winter weather. Snowmobilers should prepare for emergencies such as breakdowns and injuries by carrying tools, spare parts, extra gas and oil, a first aid kit and survival gear including a portable stove.
The Tweedsmuir Ski Club operates a cabin close to the downhill ski area. Overnight stays can be reserved by calling the club at 250-982-2231. The Rainbow Cabin, located in the Mackenzie Valley, is for emergency use only. Free winter camping is permitted in the Rainbow Range parking lot. There is an outhouse, but you must either bring your own drinking water or melt snow. You can obtain fuel, basic supplies, and motel accommodation in Anahim Lake or Nimpo Lake. The nearest RCMP office is in Anahim Lake, where there is also a 24-hour medical clinic. The closest hospital is in Bella Coola, over an hour’s drive from the parking lot.
Tweedsmuir (South) Provincial Park is located 38 miles (60 km) east of Bella Coola on Highway 20. Highway 20 is paved in sections, with good gravel in other portions. 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.
Highway 97 links with Highway 20 at Williams Lake, which is 148 miles (238 km) south of Prince George and 126 miles (203 km) north of Cache Creek and Highway 1.
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.
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