As with all adventures, Bella Coola came with it's own form of preparation. Last year (2020) we had tried to go to Bella Coola in the spring but everything was shut down due to COVID so we couldn't go. It was a whim of a plan last year. Bella Coola is one of those place that should be on everyone's bucket list if they love hiking, fishing, or exploring. It's also very isolated, only accessible by one road or boat (ferry), so going there is a commitment. With the nearest known-to-me town being Williams Lake we had about 6 hours of driving in unfamiliar territory. There were no options to change the plans if we didn't love Bella Coola; we couldn't just drive to the next town and check out what they had to if we got bored or the conditions weren't great.
If you've never been to Bella Coola, it's really a few communities throughout the Bella Coola Valley that make up what I am going to call Bella Coola. Once you leave Anahim Lake there is an anxiety inducing hill - Heckman's Pass. I have driven a lot of roads in a lot of conditions and this was the scariest road I've ever travelled, but honestly it is because I was taken by surprised and there are steep drop offs. It's really no worse than any coastal logging roads that people drive often. Switchbacks, some steeper grades, and it is gravel, but it is 100% doable and worth it. If you're like me and get anxious about drop offs, it's okay! You can do it. Slow and steady :)
Once you're through the pass you come to Firvale. There is no cell service here by the way, from Alexis Creek to Hagensborg if you want specifics. We didn't spend any time in Firvale, but it looked nice enough. It seems to act as the halfway point between the ocean and Heckman's Pass. Probably a great place to stay if you want to check out hikes in that area but a bit further from the coast than I wanted to stay. Next up is Hagensborg. It's a small Norwegian settled community about 15 kilometers from Bella Coola. The houses in this area span a wide range, in and out of the technical town limits of Hagensborg. Next up on the highway is the Nuxalk First Nations community. Then of course, there is the town of Bella Coola, but again it is small. There are houses, a gas station, a grocery store, a co-op grocer, a police station, and some small stores for things like baking and clothing.
We found our cabin (Nusatsum River Guest House & Cabins) just before Hagensborg. We stayed in the Red Cabin, which is pet friendly. It is a beautiful cabin, fitted with everything you need for your stay, including books on the area and history of it, which Fernando really enjoyed. Chris and Chris are the owners and our interactions were very limited due to Covid. Fernando and I had no intention of interacting with any more people than absolutely necessary. They provided us contactless check in and payment, answered our questions from a distance, and ultimately it was a great stay. There is a little trail down to the Nusatsum River through their yard so we went for an evening stroll along the river bed. The river valley is beautiful in every direction. It reminded us of a mini Squamish.
My parents had told us to make sure we checked out Clayton Falls, a rec site on the ocean just outside of Bella Coola, so we started there. The rec site itself is a day use only area with a hydro dam adjacent to it, and provides a few picnic benches for relaxing at. The tide was low so we wandered along the beach and took in the sights of the inlet.
Next we headed across the road to Clayton falls, a two minute walk. Being a hydro dam there are signs everywhere saying do not cross the fence and try to swim there. People have died doing that. Be smart people. The viewing platform provides a great lookout on the small but beautiful waterfall. On the beach there was an old boat visible with the tide low so after the falls we walked down the road and bushwhacked to it so I could photograph it. 100% worth all of the alder branches to the face.
Next up, the schoolhouse trails. I assume they are named for the fact that they start at the schools in Hagensborg. You park at the school, walk through the field and find the boardwalk to take you through the sensitive, receiving area. I imagine this would be mosquito heaven later in the spring and into summer. A few hundred meters later you start to climb. There are multiple trail options for hiking plus biking trails. There is the east falls, west falls, and the schoolhouse/Hagensborg loop. We chose the west falls based on the trail we found first, and the climb was on. The hike is about 2km with a 200m elevation gain, but most of that gain is concentrated in the last 1.5km. Overall it's about a 15% slope if you like numbers. I'm not entirely convinced we got to the top. We got to a spot which took us out to a kind of view point, but the trail turned away from the falls at that point. I'm guessing it kept climbing to go higher up the falls.
Fernando was pretty done at this point so we headed back down. We stopped for a moment and when I went to pick my pack back up, Ryley lifted a stick up while I bent down. I took a stick end to the eye and it was not comfortable at all. I had blurred vision on my eye and it stung. We called it quits on that hike and headed to the local grocery store to find first aid supplies to rinse and cover my eye. I was pretty sure I had a scratched cornea, minor, but scratched. I had plenty of experience with this from before Lasik when I refused to take my contacts out and wear my glasses.
Back to the cabin. Rest. Get Bored.
Fernando read books while I tried to relax and even nap so my eye would feel better. A couple hours later I was so restless. There was a hike about a mile down the road from our cabin - Medby Rock. There was once a fire lookout there until it burned down...the irony. Since we only had two days there I wanted to make the most of our trip and I just had this feeling that if I didn't go, I wouldn't and I would miss out. Fernando was done for the day after our earlier adventures. Keep in mind he works outside in all conditions - hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, etc. - so he also needs rest.
I needed to go. I memorized the instructions for how to get there, calculated that it would take me about 2.5 hours round trip (4km round trip from the parking lot, 500m elevation gain). It was 6pm and I would have just enough time before dark. I loaded up my gear and Ryley and we headed out. The trail was beautiful. There was a small creek running alongside it at first, and the massive trees gave it that other wordly feeling I love so much. I lost the trail a couple times and at one point only found it again because of people's tracks in the patches of snow that still remained. To my surprise I had cell service, so I shared some beauty on IG and tried to check in with Fernando to let him know I was running a bit late. It was taking longer than I thought...
Up, up, up. No response from Fernando still. Steep drop offs...Leash Ryley. Getting dark. Not there yet.
Finally, I can see the top of the cliff that I think I am supposed to be climbing to the top of (the trail loops around the cliff). It's getting dark. If you've spent time in valleys you know the mountains make the sunlight disappear sooner. I had my turn around time set in my head and I was going to push past it by 10 minutes. That was my limit. I didn't make it to the fire lookout. I found the an old sign that said lookout, but I wasn't there yet. There was no evidence of the concerte slabs that once housed the lookout and the place where the sign was simply wasn't big enough to be the lookout. But my time was up. As I looked out through the valley I could see the storm rolling in. It would definitely be a snow storm, and I was not okay with getting caught in a snow storm in the dark in grizzly territory, no matter how prepared I was. I am afraid of the dark, and I am afraid of the forest in the dark. I have no shame in admitting that.
Turning around was hard. I was so close. I could push it further, right?
I was solo hiking. Unfamiliar territory. Grizzly territory (I had bear spray). A storm was coming in. Light was fading. Fuck.
Back down we go. As much as I wanted to keep going, I knew I needed to be responsible. If I had been able to contact Fernando I may have pushed it, but he was at the cabin with instructions to look for me if I wasn't back by 8:30. We picked 8:30 based on the light from the night before. It started snowing only a moment after I decided to turn around. As I headed down the mountain I realized I had forgotten my headlamp. Yup, good thing I turned around. Coming down in the dark without a headlamp on consistent 20+% slopes sounds like a great way to wreck a knee.
Even though I didn't make it to the top, it was beautiful and rewarding and since this was only my second ever solo hike, I felt accomplished in my decision to do it, and also to turn back.
Day 2 - Fishing
There is no spring closure on the Bella Coola River, so we had prepped to fish one day and hike the other. We watched for areas on our way to the cabin and through the communities for fishing spots. There is a beautiful spot where the highway crosses the Bella Coola River, so we tried there. We didn't have any luck, but it was beautiful and relaxing. Also cold. The wind was intense and carrying the cold that had brought in the snow on my evening hike. We called it quits when the wind made it too hard to cast and retreated to the cabin for some relaxing time. Fernando read more on the history of Bella Coola and I went for my 10 mile run. #MarathonTraining
Bella Coola is incredible. There is no doubt about it and I will definitely be going back. There are hikes I didn't get to do that I really want to and it is really just a great place to destress and connect with nature.
Given the time it takes to get there, I suggest going for at least six days (including travel) so you have time to enjoy the area more extensively. All of the main hikes can be found on the Tourism Bella Coola website.
Here is the info for the Cabins and the Bella Coola Hikes if you're interested.