By Jonny Bierman
There are few places in the world where glaciers, rainforest and ocean meet, and there are even fewer places where those very destinations are accessible as the Bella Coola Valley in the Great Bear Rainforest. Nearly every mode of transportation can get you there whether it’s via car, ferry, or plane, and each one characterizes the journey in the rarest of beauty. Bordered by British Columbia’s largest provincial park and Pacific Ocean, you’ll quickly realize why this is a place of preservation, largely protected for generations to come.
The Bella Coola Valley is in the traditional territory of the Nuxalk (nu-hawk) people and is one of the gateways to the largest coastal temperate rainforest on earth – the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a place that has historically attracted visitors from around the globe and is often sold out by international guests during its peak season of spring to fall. And while this place has always been on British Columbians’ doorstep, it may have not been on their radar to visit until now, and this year is a perfect time.
We’ll explore the ins and outs of where to go, how to get there, what to do, and where to stay. We discover where wildflower-lined trails lead hikers to alpine treasures atop the remote Coast Mountains. Sailing trips through turquoise-blue glacial fjords that could easily be confused with Norway or New Zealand promise soothing hot springs and unparalleled coastal wildlife viewing. And where Indigenous art and storytelling thrive in a narrative that is very much being reclaimed through transformational experiences, inviting all those who are willing to listen.
The Bella Coola Valley combines British Columbia’s best natural attractions and cultural experiences into one action-packed destination, and that destination is inviting British Columbians to safely and responsibly explore it this summer.
How to get to Bella Coola
If you’re arriving by boat, that also means you’ll likely be arriving by car. This is the most scenic land and sea journey British Columbia has to offer as the new Northern Sea Wolf ferry navigates the Inside Passage. Whether you disembark from Port Hardy or drive up through the Cariboo and along Highway 20 into Bella Coola Valley, including a ferry trip to complete your full Great Bear Rainforest Circle Route, this is one of BC’s most iconic and scenically diverse road trips. Booking the Northern Sea Wolf is done through BC Ferries’ telephone reservation system only and should be the first planning element of your Bella Coola vacation. This ensures not only availability but also planning timing for your trip and pre-booking accommodations as this ferry route does not run every day and is often full.
Tip: Check out our Road Trips page for itineraries that lead to and from Bella Coola.
The second option for getting to Bella Coola is with a very scenic trip on Pacific Coastal Airlines from Vancouver. Arriving and departing the Bella Coola Airport is one of the most beautiful airplane trips you’ll ever have as you descend and ascend next to glacier-capped granite mountains with waterfalls cascading down in every direction. From here, some accommodations include pickup and transfers to activities, or you can choose to rent a vehicle with Bella Coola Vehicle Rentals.
Things to do in the Bella Coola Valley
In addition to gliding through the air, activities out here take advantage of all the geological elements BC has to offer: ocean, land, lakes and snow. From high in the alpine to low valley bottom and out into the fjords, unique and pathfinding adventures are not hard to come by.
Adventures in the air
Flightseeing by helicopter or floatplane is the best way to gain a birds-eye view of the stunning glaciers, alpine lakes, waterfalls, and mountainscapes. Floatplane adventures with Tweedsmuir Air disembark from Nimpo Lake (about 2 hours drive from the valley) and take visitors to the famous Hunlen Falls and Monarch Icefield while landing on glacial lakes such as Jacobson Lake.
Bella Coola is an award-winning, world-class heli-skiing destination that ranks second to none – so it serves as no surprise that when the snow melts, endless alpine adventures and beauty emerge. These mountainscapes are painted with colourful wildflowers and ancient glaciers whose true size and dramatic beauty are best seen up close on a heli-sightseeing or heli-hiking trip with Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and West Coast Helicopters.
Adventures on the ocean
‘Bella Coola blues’ are a real thing (as named by the locals), and it refers to the turquoise-blue colour in the fjords as a result of glacial runoff. These fjords and coastline are where the rainforest meets the ocean, the glaciers meet the sky, and where visitors find a connection with a British Columbia they never knew. These waters are a powerful place, and no visit to Bella Coola is complete without exploring them.
Itineraries for exploring the waters from the Bella Coola Marina consist of trips to hot springs, waterfalls, ancient old-growth forests, fresh seafood lunches, and if you’re lucky, visits by Pacific white-side dolphin, porpoises, seals or maybe even whales. Bella Coola Grizzly Tours offers single and three-day trips on their 42-foot MV Nekhani and Great Bear Sailing Adventures use their 39-foot SV Seawolf Cooper sailboat to do single-day trips, two-day trips, and up to six days taking guests out to the most remote parts of the Great Bear Rainforest. For eco-luxury sailing trips throughout the entire Great Bear Rainforest, check out Maple Leaf Adventures.
Another adventure that is quite literally on the ocean and just across the harbour is the historic Tallheo Cannery Guesthouse. This former cannery offers guided tours, events, and the only oceanfront guesthouse in Bella Coola while also catering to events and scenic, remote retreats. All stays and accommodations come with transportation from the marina.
Guided adventures on the ground
Among the top reasons people come to Bella Coola is to view wildlife. Why? Because some of the best bear viewing opportunities in the world are found here in the Great Bear Rainforest. Grizzlies are protected throughout British Columbia and thanks to years of conservation work, wildlife viewing here can feel like a safari of the north. Guided wildlife and bear viewing tours along with guided hiking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, and even a via ferrata bring visitors face-to-face with some of the best that Bella Coola has to offer.
Photo safaris, eco-rafting trips, bear viewing, bird watching, fishing trips, guided hiking and other guided tours can all be found locally with Kynoch Adventures, Great Bear Chalet Adventures, Copper Sun Rafting, and Tweedsmuir Park Lodge. The valley’s new and only via ferrata can be booked exclusively through Tweedsmuir Park Lodge.
The roads around Bella Coola are made up of networks of forest service roads (FSR’s) that allow visitors to explore very off-the-beaten-path destinations such as waterfalls, viewpoints, lakes, and more. Over the Top Adventures offers safe 4×4 adventures to otherwise hard-to-reach (or find) parts of the region.
Guided Indigenous experience
The Nuxalk people have inhabited the Bella Coola Valley for thousands of years and they are one of more than 20 First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest. Understanding the Indigenous story is a powerful and grounding way to truly connect with nature and this destination, and a Copper Sun Journeys‘ ‘Petroglyph and Totem Tour’ will do just that. Learn about culture, sense of place, customs, traditions, language, and history in an experience that can be found nowhere else. For more information about Indigenous communities and cultural respect, visit our guide.
Places to stay in the Bella Coola Valley
The small communities of Stuie, Firvale, Hagensborg and of course Bella Coola make up the Bella Coola Valley and each has unique places to stay. From glamping resorts to unique log cabins and A-frames, lodges, hotels, B&B’s, and campgrounds, the accommodations that serve guests here are the most ‘British Columbia’ you can get. For a complete list of places to stay, see the listings below this article.
While journeying through the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast on your way to or through Bella Coola, be mindful of others, practice safe and responsible travel, and adhere to any COVID-19 health regulations and guidelines.