Bella Coola lies in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest on the Central Coast of British Columbia, and for outdoor enthusiasts especially, it is a stunning place to explore.
A Bit of History
The towering mountains, lush forests, and glacier-fed waters of the Bella Coola valley is where the Nuxalk people have called home for over 10,000 years. The valley saw its first European encounter in 1793 when Alexander Mackenzie, his voyageurs, and Native guides completed the first recorded land trek across Canada. In 1858, the valley became a busy port and supply centre for the interior when gold fields were discovered in the Cariboo Region. The Hudson’s Bay Company then established a trading post in 1867. However, significant growth didn’t happen until 1894, when homesteads were granted to a large group of Norwegian colonists from Minnesota. The area now called Hagensborg is where many settled because the landscape reminded them of home. Farming, lumber, and fishing industries began shortly after their settlement.
Bella Coola Highlights
Tweedsmuir Provincial Park
In 1938, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park was established, and at 989,714 hectares, it is one of British Columbia’s largest parks. The northern section of this park is almost entirely pristine wilderness, which means wildlife is widespread and fairly prevalent throughout the park. Woodland caribou frequent the mountainous slopes, while other areas see mountain goats, mule deer, moose, black bears, grizzly bears and wolves.
The southern portion of the park provides a multitude of walking trails leading to some of its most spectacular features. These include, but are not limited to, grizzly bear viewing, shield volcanoes, a suspension bridge, a canoe chain, and Hunlen Falls (Canada’s highest free-falling waterfall).
View this trail guide for a complete list of amazing hikes in the Provincial Park and the entire Bella Coola Valley.
Drive through the glacier-topped mountainous Bella Coola Valley, and spectacular sights will greet you at every turn. Spot the many beautiful waterfalls, gorgeous turquoise-coloured bodies of water (including the ocean inlet itself), lush green foliage and pretty wildflowers absolutely everywhere (even in August!). It’s truly a photographer’s paradise.
For an amazing backcountry drive that gives you the whole shebang, including a close-up view of a large glacier, head to the Purgatory Lookout. This route winds through alpine meadows with pretty roadside ponds, steep rocky slopes with jagged peaks, and dense high-elevation forested areas. The many deciduous trees in the area would make it an even more gorgeous drive in the fall!
Worthy stops include Odegaard Falls (an easy to moderate 2 km walking trail) and/or Hammer Lake (a moderate 4 km walk to the lake).
The forest road to Purgatory Lookout is steep and does require a 4×4. If you only plan to go to Odegaard Falls, then a 2-wheel drive vehicle is fine. Just make sure you go slow, are prepared for anything, and have a spare tire…just in case. There is no cell service in the area!
To access this area, you are looking for the West Nusatsum Forest Service Road near Hagensborg. Head east from Hagensborg towards the Nusatsum River bridge, which crosses a short but dramatic vertical canyon. The forest road is located on the west side of the bridge.
Follow this steep, winding gravel road for approximately 25 km to the first stop (Odegaard Falls). Hammer Lake trailhead is another 3 km past this stop, with Purgatory Lookout another 5 km again. The further you go, the rougher and narrower the terrain gets. For the adventurer, the long and challenging drive to the final attraction is more than worth the effort!
The Bella Coola Valley is said to be one of the best places to view grizzly bears in the world. Prime viewing times are during the late summer and fall when the rivers are teeming with salmon.
Tweedsmuir Park offers a self-guided wildlife viewing area called Belarko. It’s a raised platform with electric fencing and is fully staffed to provide a safe way to see and photograph the bears. The platform is operated by both BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation. There is no charge to visit the viewing area. It is, however, only open for the month of September.
If you visit Bella Coola during September, watch for signs along Highway 20 to guide you to this viewing area.
Bella Coola is known for its craftsmanship in woodcarving, painting and ceremonial dress. In fact, museums all over the world house Nuxalk art. Sign up for a guided tour with Copper Sun Journeys to see 5000-year-old petroglyphs and/or an immersive totem walk. (Neither can be done without booking a tour).
A quick boat ride on a guided tour across the inlet will get you to the old Tallheo Cannery. Built in 1916, the buildings have remained relatively unchanged since the cannery was in operation. While on tour, you can explore the general store, complete with stocked shelves of merchandise left behind, as well as inspect the office and look through cannery records and newspapers from long ago. A Bed and Breakfast operates out of a restored 1920s guesthouse if you want to stay on the property.
Located near the marina, Clayton Falls is the most accessible waterfall to get to, but no less beautiful than the rest. And the Clayton Falls recreation day-use area is the only ocean-front park in Bella Coola. Follow the gravel road approximately 1.8 km west and downhill from the government wharf. The parking area will be on your left-hand side, just past the BC Hydro generating station. The trail to the waterfall is along the fence on the upper side of the generating station. It’s a short 200-metre walk. Across the road from the parking area, you will find the beach trail.
To this day, the quaint village of Hagensborg has a Norwegian influence. And one can still experience what life was like long ago by visiting the Norwegian Heritage House -a time capsule furnished in traditional Norwegian fashion and displaying the household tools of the late 1800s.
For a tasty treat, I highly recommend stopping at Cafe Bella! They specialize in fresh pastries, desserts, specialty coffee, tea and smoothies. They also have an assortment of yummy sandwiches to go.
Bella Coola and Hagensborg both have a small grocery store, as well as several options for accommodations. Restaurants are extremely limited, so it’s best to prepare your own meals.
We had a lovely stay at the Nasatsum River Guest House, located 10 minutes east of Hagensborg.
Getting to Bella Coola
Getting to Bella Coola is a highlight of its own. Whether you do the circle route through Williams Lake/Chilcotin/Whistler/Vancouver or the Discovery Coast route by road and ferry to or from Port Hardy, you are in for a scenic treat. Either way, it’s a very long road trip. The fact that Bella Coola isn’t an overly easy place to get to gives it added charm.
And let’s not forget about the famous ‘Freedom Road,’ or ‘The Hill’ as it’s now known.
Pure determination by the citizens of Bella Coola was the main reason ‘The Hill‘ finally came to fruition. It was several decades, if not a century, in the making. The road drops over 4000 feet in just over 19 km, with a grade of up to 18%. So it’s steep! Also, most of the hairpin turns are without guardrails, and there are a few short one-lane sections too. So while it’s not for the faint of heart, I’d consider it a good gravel road. Let’s just say there are far worse roads out there (the roads to Cape Scott or Bamfield come to mind!).
For our recent trip to Bella Coola, we didn’t realize how far in advance you have to plan the ferry to Port Hardy to partake in the Discovery Coast Route. (Last-minute planning like we often do doesn’t always work!). So we opted for the following itinerary.
On the way there:
- Duke Point (south Nanaimo) – Tsawwassen
- Drive Hwy 1 to Cache Creek
- Take Hwy 97 to 150 Mile House
- Hwy 20 to Bella Coola
The open cattle and horse pastures along Hwy 20 keep the drive interesting. We had to stop or slow down to a crawl a few times to let livestock cross the road!
On the way back:
- Retrace our steps back to Cache Creek
- Then take Hwy 99 through Lillooet, Pemberton, and Whistler right through to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, where we boarded a ferry to come home.
Hwy 99 from Cache Creek to Whistler is absolutely gorgeous! (I highly recommend this drive even if you don’t go all the way to Bella Coola!).
I hope I’ve convinced you to plan a trip to Bella Coola in the near future! If it’s something you are contemplating, feel free to save this article on Pinterest.