Surviving Eleven Kilometers of Terror on Highway 20

One of the scariest sections of Highway 20
One of the scariest sections of Highway 20

I have a confession to make. I am terrified of driving on roads with severe drop-offs. I am a terrible back seat driver under these circumstances, though John would say that’s not the only time. Sometimes I think it would be best if I was blindfolded. So it was with great trepidation that I agreed to drive from Atnarko Lodge on beautiful Charlotte Lake to Bella Coola – a distance of about 105 kilometres as the crow flies.

A pretty start as Highway 20 dirt to a dirt road
A pretty start as Highway 20 becomes a dirt road
One of the scariest sections of Highway 20
One of the scariest sections of Highway 20
Closer view of the steep section of Highway 20
Closer view of the steep section of Highway 20
The road (bottom of the photo) takes you through an area big mountains
The road (bottom of the photo) takes you through an area of big elevation changes

The actual Highway 20 takes you 452 kilometres from Williams Lake in the Cariboo region of BC to Bella Coola on the coast. Once in Bella Coola you can catch a ferry to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.

The gnarly bit of highway in question is the dirt portion west of Anahim Lake. In total there are about 60 kilometres of hard packed dirt highway. Not all of it is bad or even scary.

But there are 11 kilometres of terror where any driving mistake would be most unfortunate.

Near the start of the descent to Bella Coola
Near the start of the descent to Bella Coola
Narrow roads on the road to Bella Coola
Narrow roads on the road to Bella Coola
Lots of rock fall in places
Lots of rock fall in places
More tight bends with big drop offs
More tight bends with big drop offs

Highway 20 in BC has an interesting history

For years the residents of Bella Coola wanted a road. They were cut off from the rest of BC except by boat. The government hummed and hawed and did nothing.

By 1952 the locals were beyond fed up. A number of them got together, raised a small amount of money, donated dynamite, loaned equipment and with the help of volunteers and a fellow named Elijah Gurr blazed the best route through.

Before they started they sent a telegram to the Department of Public Works in Victoria saying:

This is to advise you that we are going to immediately start building the road from Anahim Lake to Bella Coola.

The Freedom Road to Bella Coola
The Freedom Road to Bella Coola

The Hill on Highway 20

The major obstacle to the road building is what is referred to as The Hill. It descends 1,666 metres (5,465 feet) from Heckman Pass to the ocean.

Unbelievably in just one year the two cats (earth moving equipment) operating from opposite sides were less than a mile apart. And on September 26, 1953 the road was completed and called The Freedom Road.

We don't meet many vehicles fortunately
We don’t meet many vehicles fortunately

In places – though I’m not sure if it still holds true today, the grade was 18%. There were single lane sections and gravel switchbacks. The government stepped in shortly after completion and helped with improvements. I can’t even imagine how nasty the road would have been earlier on.

It’s my vivid imagination and fear of going over the cliffs or being struck by a loose boulder that causes me great terror.

The sign says it all
The sign says it all
You'd be an idiot not to carry chains in the winter and shoulder season
You’d be an idiot not to carry chains in the winter and shoulder season

You too will survive 11 kilometres of terror

But in the end I survived. I will never say that I enjoyed it but I can say that I’m VERY GLAD I did it. In hindsight I wish we’d had an extra day to explore the Bella Coola area.

There’s a big change in the climate and vegetation from top to bottom and it would have been fun to see some of the monster big trees at the lower elevation. Plus I understand you can go on float trips out of Bella Coola – or grizzly bear watching during the salmon run.

Back to the easy driving en route to Bella Coola
Back to the easy driving on route to Bella Coola
Some really pretty farm country as you get close to Bella Coola
Some really pretty farm country as you get close to Bella Coola

Of course what goes down must go up, so I did think about the return drive whilst still trying to enjoy the Bella Coola Valley.

Surprisingly I found it to be much easier though perhaps that was because we had the road to ourselves. We didn’t have to hug the corners and pull over beside a drop off as a transport truck came around the corner.

And heading back on the return - but a little calmer going up
And heading back on the return – but a little calmer going up

How many of you are fearful drivers or passengers on roads like this?

I can say that John loved every minute of it.

Map of Highway 20 to Bella Coola
Map of Highway 20 to Bella Coola

Further reading about things to do in BC

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

11 km of terror + 49 km of beauty along Hwy 20 in BC's Chilcotin area

  1. yikes. about 15 years ago my (then very new) partner and i followed my dad (who loves roads like this) down the apache trail in arizona. my stress almost ended the relationship then and there. haha. but seriously the worst road i have ever driven. unpaved, no guardrails, almost single lane at points with trucks and rec vehicles blasting by at high speeds. the highlight was the midpoint rest stop where you could look down into the canyon and see the remains of wrecked 1920s-vintage vehicles. never again!

  2. I came across this post while doing some research for a potential camping trip this summer. My youngest asked if we could visit the Great Bear Rainforest. I appreciate the photos as my husband thought we could take the trailer for camping when I had suggested tent camping. I am terrible on these types of roads when my husband is driving. We did a similar road in Argentina that was pretty much single lane all of the way, but with pull offs when I was pregnant with our first so he is now used to my backseat driving on these types of roads!

  3. I’ve always had a fear of driving in the mountains, especially cliffside. There was a hill in Taylor near Fort St John, BC that I didn’t like driving. It wasn’t anything as bad as The Hill. I’m not used to gravel roads either. I was actually invited for an interview for a position located in Bella Coola today, and learned about The Hill. I’d be driving solo; and I honestly am frightened enough from just seeing photos and reading the stories, that I am reconsidering relocation there from Alberta!! I honestly think I’d have a panic attack while driving or at the very least, be extremely anxious and tense. I recently drove the mountain up and down at Miette Hot Springs in Jasper alone and that was a nice paved road. Even that road had lots of tight turns, felt narrow, and I noticed it took total concentration. When I was coming around a tight curve there wss a car coming up that was almost over the centre line that surprised me; thankfully we didn’t collide! I drive a 2005 Accent Sport hatchback, standard transmission. Not sure I’d feel safe doing The Hill in it and would absolutely not attempt in the winter!!

    Thanks for sharing your story and awesome photos! You and your husband were brave to do the drive and I’m glad you got to see Bella Coola!

    1. @Crystal I think it’s one of those roads that if you drove all the time you’d become an expert but there would be a learning curve and on the nasty weather days it wouldn’t be fun.

  4. I posted just before. Here is a longer one from a book I wrote.

    Many stories have been written about this “hill”. For those who haven’t heard of the way out of Bella Coola I will put in my little history. Apparently the first Norwegian settlers had been promised a road out to civilization. The government was very slow to act. A road was built to Anahim Lake from Williams Lake. Then nothing for years. No amount of letter writing to the government did any good. A citizen’s group was formed, led by Leslie Kopas’ dad, Cliff. All previous surveys showed a road to be too expensive. Another way was proposed to come in down mud and gravel hills. A road could be built in this location for far less money. Two cat groups started. One was from Anahim Lake and one from Bella Coola. These cats met in 1953. Finally in 1956 a passable road was completed.
    Well now we can start on our journey. Mom was in the front seat of the 49 Plymouth. Brian was in the back. We reached the hill and started up. The roadway was very rough and dusty. Rocks were bouncing down on us from above which meant that another car was above us on a switch back. Our engine heated up. There was nothing to do but hope that our engine didn’t quit.

    We finally reached a level spot and stopped and talked with another car for awhile. Apparently we weren’t all the way up. Still more hill to climb. On reaching the top mom started singing a song. “We rode the old hill. We got to the top. Now we’re going to Anahim to see the Chinaman!”

    This seems like a good place for a little story about the hill. It seems a Bella Coola family was traveling out for the first time, Mom, Dad, Grandma and a young boy and girl.

    “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.” Car stops and the girl does what she has to do. The car starts again.

    “Daddy, Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom too.” Car stops and the boy does what he has to do. The car is on its way again.

    “Daddy, I don’t feel good. I’m going to be sick”…. By this time Daddy is losing his patience. The car is on its way again and this time is climbing the hill.

    “Daddy, I don’t feel good”

    Dad stops the car and angrily yells, “Listen kids that’s enough!” I don’t want to hear anything until we get to the top! This is a dangerous climb! Understand! No nothing! NO STOPPING!”

    The car was bouncing badly over the rough rocks. The engine radiator was boiling over!

    “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

    “No nothing!” hollers Dad.

    Finally the car gets to the top. “Now! What is it?”

    “Grandma fell out!”

    The above story was told to by Larry Levelton.

  5. Lived in Bella Coola when way out was being built. Drove out in 1956. On the way back in brakes got hot and didn’t hold well. Made it to the bottom rather quickly and actually stayed on the road.

  6. I lived in Bella Coola for 8 years 95-02. Drove that hill many times in every season, even at night. Never had a problem. Only part that got me was photo 5 because it narrows to one land and you can’t see what is coming.

    One of those things you should try if you get a chance.

      1. was there this fall, my wife even kept her eyes open most of the way, not sure if I would like the drive in the winter.

  7. That is one AWESOME looking road. Usually I’m really cool on those roads as either the driver or the passenger (ok, I look for these kind of roads and can guarantee you that this one will go on my travel list), but in the Seychelles we did slide off the edge of one of their steep, scary hairpin turns in the dark – luckily it was in a spot where there wasn’t a very big drop and, once we got enough people to stop, we just picked up the car and put it back up on the road. . . but I was a horrible backseat driver after that!

    Great post.

    1. @Cindy That sounds like one heck of an experience in the Seychelles. I’ve almost skidded off an icy road where there was a large drop and I’m definitely more nervous ever since then.

  8. I’m not too bad when I’m driving but when I’m a passenger, I’m a nightmare. your photos really capture the drops on this road. I would be terrified if I was in the passenger seat. Amazing scenery, though.

    1. Julia – I am a terrible back street driver and I would say my husband and I have more arguments in the car while driving than at any other time. I am a terrible passenger too. Trust me the return trip up the hill was not nearly so bad.

  9. super dangerous!! I’d only let my hubby drive.. LOL, and i’d keep my eyes closed! The nice people demanded for road, and they got that! Poor folks! haha

    1. @Ciki There seems to be quite a divide among who would drive it and who wouldn’t. Fortunately I think it gets easier with experience BUT I would never want to do it in the winter.

  10. Oh its not THAT bad! Granted, the steep edges are enough to make your skin crawl the first time you do it but trust me, you get used to it after you do it 100s of times 😉

  11. The ‘Hill’ into the Bella Coola is spectacular. It is not a road for idiots. If you drive theroad with respect you will have a wonderful trip. After the first trip, the unknown is known and makes the trip easier. It is well maintained and driven twice a week by three different transport companies. As long as you drive sensibly you will not have a problem on this road. Besides, at the end you get to see the Bella Coola Valley. That is woth it!

  12. I drive that road often with my boyfriend. It’s best if I’m drunk or sleeping, because The Hill is TERRIFYING. I much prefer to fly out of the valley.

    1. @Kat There have been so many comments – with seemingly a lot of the women terrified by the road and the guys mostly loving it. Of course there are some females who think it sounds fun too.

  13. I don’t love these roads, mostly because I travel alone and afraid of getting caught up in the scenery instead of concentrating on the driving.

    I’d say at least half of the roads I drove on in New Zealand were like this- steep, winding, single-lane (but most were paved).

  14. Hi Leigh,
    I hope you don’t mind but I found your story on the ‘Hill’ and posted a link to it on my blog. If it’s any consolation, you are not the only person that has been terrified of the Hill. Some RV drivers have been known to hire someone to bring their rig back up the Hill after going down and flying out of the Bella Coola Valley and one friend I know came back up on the passenger floor of her truck with her head under a blanket.
    I can’t say I love the Hill but my husband does and I admit that you do get used to it after traveling it a number of times. His favorite thing to do was to drop the back wheels of his tandem truck and trailer over the edge into thin air while turning around on the Hill when he and some other truck drivers gravelled the Hill a few years ago. They all loved seeing the reaction of the tourists sitting just beyond the flag girl waiting for the truckers to get turned around.
    I have posted a number of stories about the Hill including about one fellow years ago that used to have to chop ruts in the ice going down with his family to keep from sliding over as the ice would form slanting toward the edge. If you would like to read more about the Hill just do a search at the bottom of the blog at
    Thank you again for your great stories, Leigh!

    1. Hi Jane,

      I’m thrilled you posted a link to it – no problem at all. I’ve been getting some truly fascinating stories out of it – and obviously hit a nerve! I can’t say that I blame some of those RV drivers. WE did see one broken down at the side of the road.

      Watching your husband’s truck would scare me half to death! Thanks for sharing your stories.

  15. Those are some amazing views, but I imagine you had a few terrifying moments. I’m with you, I’m a terrible backseat driver but I have to admit that I’m not sure I would want to be the one behind the wheel on that route. My husband on the other hand would probably have loved every minute. You’re right, it must be a male-female thing.

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