Driving the treacherous road to Bella Coola in BC

Bella Coola Road is the name of a very exciting yet scenic drive located in British Columbia, Canada. The road links the community of Bella Coola and the city of Williams Lake.

Bella Coola Road

How long is Bella Coola Road?

Bella Coola Road (Highway 20) is 454km (282 miles) long, running east-west from Williams Lake (in the Central Interior of British Columbia) to Bella Coola (in the Bella Coola Valley, in British Columbia). It's an amazingly scenic trip, but be ready for lots of gravel roads and steep grades. The road, also known as the Chilcotin Highway, links the Central Coast with the Central Interior as it crosses the Coast Mountains and the Chilcotin Plateau. Highway 20 cuts through a rugged land of lakes and mountains on its way to Bella Coola, a Native village on a Pacific inlet. This journey takes the adventurous driver from Williams Lake and the desert canyons of the Fraser River to glaciated peaks and finally to the shores of a narrow ocean fjord.

Is Bella Coola Highway 20 paved?

The drive can be a nerve-wracking experience and features paved and unpaved parts. It’s paved for the first 319 km to Anahim Lake. Then, the road changes to an all-season gravel road. The road is not for the faint of heart. Driving in low gears and fully concentrating on the road is necessary when traversing the hair-pinned killer curves. It is such a white-knuckle gravel road that on occasion tourists who have ventured down it have refused to return on it. The road handles all traffic year-round, including semi-trailer trucks & large recreational vehicles.

How is the road to Bella Coola?

The road is very challenging. It includes 11km of switchbacks on the way up to Heckman Pass, nicknamed as The Hill, at 1.524m (5.000ft) above the sea level. The road descends 43 km (27 mi) of steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns and two major switchbacks to the Bella Coola Valley. The descent includes a 9 km (5.6 mi) section with grades of up to 18% (about 1 in 6). During steep sections, it’s best to put your vehicle in first gear & just go slow. Remember, uphill traffic has the right-of-way. Some sections are single lane. Tourists who have driven to Bella Coola from Williams Lake have been known to refuse to drive back and have had to be taken out by boat or float plane.

Can you drive to Bella Coola?

Driving into Bella Coola is a spectacular experience. Due its unique location and passing through remote areas, it is important when driving in these conditions to be prepared. There aren't a lot of facilities along the way, so start out with a full tank of gas. You can easily make this trip in a day, especially in summer, but leave plenty of time to stop and explore.

When was the road to Bella Coola built?

The road was completed in 1953. With only two bulldozers starting from opposite ends, supplies bought on credit, and a labour force that only had the promise of being paid, they clawed their own way up and out of the valley. The work took one year and two weeks to complete. Today the road is officially known as Highway 20, but is still referred to locally as the "Freedom Road" to commemorate the earlier years of isolation.
Pic: George S