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Surviving Eleven Kilometers of Terror on 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.

"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 takes you through gorgeous mountain country"

The road (bottom of the photo) takes you through an area of extreme beauty

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 eleven kilometres where any driving mistake would be most unfortunate.

"Near the start of the descent"

Near the start of the descent

"Narrow side along the highway"

"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. So 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.

"A sign saying Freedom Road"

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.

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.

"14% grade on the hill"

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

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"

Back to the easy driving en route 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.

So my question to you – how many of you are fearful drivers or passengers on roads like this? I can say that John loved every minute of it. 

Leigh McAdam

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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure – & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project – a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 65 Comments

  • Gillian @OneGiantStep says:

    I would be a white knuckle passenger too! Not only is it steep and with a drop off but it’s of gravel, which I don’t like at all. Thank goodness it was your husband at the wheel and you weren’t on a bus! Sounds like you are having an amazing summer Leigh!!

    • @Gillian It has been such a busy summer – with so many new sights, yet within driving distance from Calgary – at least for a 2 week trip. Now I have two weeks to catch up while you count down to Japan. So glad to hear I’m not the only white knuckle passenger.

  • Susan Scheid says:

    Wow, that looks even worse than a road we were on in Crete! And you really bring it up close and personal here!

  • Steve says:

    That’s a really scary road to be sure, but you should come back and try it again in the winter. You’ll never drive a car again.

  • Wow – Don’t think I could hold my breath that long. Looks scary.

  • Jackie Smith says:

    I am a squeeze-my-eyes-shut-start-humming-to-myself such passenger on these types of roads. And Joel is the sainted driver who approaches them without a whimper (that’s my role to the right of him). I have such vivid memories of similar roads: one along Crete’s southern coast where an oncoming car or too close to the edge would have put us in the sea after a significant drop off a cliff, another also on the southern coast that stressed me so badly that I had a headache at the end, and in our own state, Hart’s Pass in the Methow. Glad I’ve done them all but in no rush to return.

    • @Jackie Interesting how we all handle dangerous roads so differently. There are places on this road where I would have a hard time not shaking from fright. But then John wondered what my problem was!

  • Diane says:

    Wow, I would have been a nervous wreck! Your pics remind me of driving on the South Island of New Zealand. No guardrails, narrow roads, stick shift that you shift with your left hand AND driving on the left side right next to the huge cliffs. So nerve wracking but looks like we both made it out alive!

  • Roberta Loufek says:

    Terrifying! You are brave. What beautiful photos.

  • fink says:

    Let me at that road !!!

  • Marlys says:

    Oh, man… I’d rather be blindfolded too in these roads. Aaargh! No way will Michael and our son let me on the wheel of the car for this ride ;-D

  • Arti says:

    Awesome shots! I am glad that you made it, so that I could enjoy every moment of it. I love to back seat and enjoy the views during such trips though I am sure I would make a very bad driver for the same!

  • Nancie says:

    Good heavens! To think that I thought driving up over Foley Mountain in Nova Scotia was bad. There is no way I would have been the driver, and if I had been in the passenger seat I would have been blindfolded! The scenery is spectacular, though.

    You’re becoming a TV star? :)

  • Lisa says:

    The photos are stunning and probably worth the agony of the drive! I am a horrible passenger on roads like that – just ask my husband! :) Hope you’re enjoying your climb at Lake O’Hara!

  • I was smiling as I read your post because it sounded so much like me! I think my husband was a race car driver in another life :) At least the drive was beautiful.

  • jade says:

    Wow- this drive looks terrifying! I get freaked out at small declines, I can’t imagine doing this!! you are brave!

  • Kudos for making through the drive, Leigh! I will never drive on a scary looking road that like that. I’m a bad backseat driver which drives my husband mad. I would be holding on for dear life and pressing my imaginary brakes which would be a shame since I’d miss the views. Hope you’re having a wonderful time on your adventure.

  • Sophie says:

    Completely understand what you mean. The only driver I trust on roads like that is myself!

  • jan says:

    Hi, I am nervous being a car passenger at heights, especially on those big bridges in Italy that span whole valleys, and then the trucks and other cars are all driving like maniacs. Whenever a truck tore past us I would have to close my eyes – thank goodness I wasn’t driving. Also driving up and up behind San Remo into the Ligurian Hills with steep drop offs and hair pin blind corners left my hands sweating. But I would not give up doing these things.

    These photos are beautiful – Both Budget Hubby and I just love Canada. We took a huge RV (the hugeness was not our choice – it was a cheap take what you get deal)from Vancouver along the USA border then up to Banff to Jasper, over to Vancouver Island and back to Vancouver. It took three weeks and we have never seen such beautiful scenery on such a grand scale anywhere.

    Your photos bring it all back – but I have not been on those particular roads.

  • What a fascinating story – I would be terrified to make the road – probably not to drive on it now though – it sounds (and looks) beautiful!

    Have a great weekend!

  • John says:

    Dear @ Debbie:

    The too close too fast is Leigh not me!

    Hubby of HikeBikeTravel lady with sunglasses

  • Alouise says:

    Oh wow I don’t think I could do that road. I’m such a prairie girl, any mountain road seems intimidating. I did drive my grandparents to Kelowna to visit family this summer. They brought me along to drive because my grandmother hates driving in the mountains – she had her eyes closed for most of the trip. I actually did okay, but I think that’s because we stuck to the major highways (Yellowhead on the way there, TransCanada coming home). I definitely couldn’t do anything like Highway 20, just seeing that scary section in pictures is making me nervous.

  • That must have been quite a relief to be back on level pavement. Those photos of the road look terrifying. My dad always liked taking us on road like that. As a kid, I was excited (and a little afraid) — it’s all a lot scarier now. Well worth the terror, however.

  • 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.

  • Jane says:

    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 http://www.resortsbc.com/Wilderness-Adventures.html
    Thank you again for your great stories, Leigh!

    • 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.

  • Erik says:

    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).

  • Kat says:

    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.

    • @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.

  • Kathy Moore says:

    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!

  • J says:

    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 ;)

  • ciki says:

    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

  • Turkey's For Life says:

    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.
    Julia

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • Dave says:

    Okay I’m getting dizzy just looking at the photos. Can’t imagine actually being there.

  • Steve says:

    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.

  • Monte Engelson says:

    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.

  • Monte Engelson says:

    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.

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