Rainforest meets the ocean, and the rounded peaks of the Rainbow Mountains meet the spiky Coast Mountains, in the Bella Coola Valley. Located in British Columbia’s rugged central coast region, it’s a place of old growth forests, deep valleys, glacier-fed rivers and magnificent wildlife. Bella Coola — the name of both the valley and its small town — is at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, revered as one of the world’s most pristine grizzly bear habitats, yet remains one of British Columbia’s best-kept secrets for adventurous spirits.
Heli-skiers and snowboarders revel in alpine terrain during the winter months, but to truly enjoy Bella Coola’s natural beauty, cultural heritage and wildlife, there’s nothing like a visit in summer or fall. Here’s how to do it:
Getting to Bella Coola
Whether by boat, road or plane, getting to Bella Coola is sure to be a memorable journey. The quickest way is by Pacific Coastal Airlines, which operates daily flights to Bella Coola Airport from Vancouver. The flight takes around 80 minutes and the epic mountain views include British Columbia’s highest peak, Mount Waddington. Fans of slow travel can take the ferry from Port Hardy — though you’ll need to get to the northern tip of Vancouver Island first. The journey through the Inside Passage takes around 10 hours, often includes whale sightings, and stops at a few small communities along the way.
The most adventurous option is driving to Bella Coola, a 14-16-hour road trip from Vancouver that takes you through some of British Columbia’s wildest scenery and includes an infamous stretch of Highway 20 known as “the Hill,” a winding gravel mountain pass of nerve-shattering switchbacks, grades as steep as 18%, blind corners and a descent of more than 5,000 feet — and no, there are no guard rails. It’s a wild ride and not the best choice for nervous drivers, but the road is held in affection by locals who call it the “Freedom Road” because, before it was built in the 1950s, the only way in and out was by pack horse, boat or plane.
Where to Stay in Bella Coola
It may be the end of the road, but Bella Coola boasts one of Canada’s best places to stay. Located in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, Tweedsmuir Park Lodge is a founding member of the exclusive Magnificent 7 Luxury Wilderness Lodges alliance, a group of lodges selected for their commitment to sustainability, seclusion and access to wilderness experiences. With just 10 roomy timber-framed chalets generously spaced out below the 8,000 foot, earnestly named Stupendous Mountain, the lodge is both a luxurious retreat and an adventure traveler’s paradise. The lodge also offers a front-row seat to the region’s wildlife wonders — bears can often be spotted taking a nap on the expansive lawn overlooking the Atnarko River. A stay at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge is an all-inclusive experience and packages include return transfers to and from the airport or ferry terminal, meals with drinks and two half-day or one full-day guided activity on each full day of the package — from guided nature walks to river drifts and via ferrata climbing adventures. Optional add-ons include heli-hiking and fishing.
At the other end of the scale, historic cannery-turned-guesthouse, Tallheo Cannery Guest House offers 10 cozy rooms in a restored 1920s guesthouse, originally used as female-worker lodging during the cannery’s operation. Located two miles across the harbor from Bella Coola, the guest house is only accessible by float plane, boat or helicopter, but boat transfers from the ferry terminal are included (airport pickup incurs a small fee).
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What to Do in Bella Coola
Bella Coola is home to a large population of grizzly bears, and you can observe these majestic animals in their natural habitat from late spring to early fall. Your best options are to book a river drift with your lodging or a local outfitter, or to go to the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Located on the Atnarko River, the platform provides a safe viewing area to watch bears feeding on the salmon that spawn in the river during the fall.
Visitors staying at the Tweedsmuir Park Lodge can further connect with the area’s natural history through included small-group experiences led by local wilderness guides, from lengthy guided hikes along the Rainbow Ridge to easy-going interpretive forest walks highlighting the local flora and fauna. Assisted climbing experiences on a via ferrata of 360 metal rungs, ladders and wires lead guests high above the valley.
In 1793, when Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie arrived in Bella Coola, he became the first European to cross the continent north of Mexico. But human roots run much deeper in Bella Coola, the traditional and unceded ancestral territories of the Nuxalk Nation. Indigenous guides helped lead Mackenzie on his historic expedition and today continue a tradition of guiding visitors through their territory. Copper Sun Journeys, a tour company run by members of the Nuxalk Nation, leads visitors to ancient, sacred stone-carved petroglyphs and towering totem poles and to a workshop where they can observe world-renowned woodcarvers in action.
Other activities on offer include a catamaran cruise through the fjords, which includes a stop for a soak in a natural hot spring and a short hike to Big Cedar Tree, which, at 16 feet in diameter, is one of British Columbia’s largest Western Red Cedar trees.
Where to Eat and Drink in Bella
If you’re staying at a wilderness lodge, you’ll be taking your included meals there. Dinner at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge is a set menu but that’s no hardship as the food served is excellent with all meals incorporating locally grown, fresh organic produce, and herbs from the kitchen garden, and often include seafood caught wild in the waters off Bella Coola. The wine list is focused on British Columbia vineyards.
Dining options are otherwise somewhat limited, but the Bella Coola Valley Inn is a solid option. Close to Bella Coola’s ferry dock, the inn’s restaurant serves Korean and Japanese dishes with an emphasis on local seafood (as well as burgers, sandwiches and the like) and also has a cozy pub where you can get to know the locals around the pool table and during its occasional karaoke nights.
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