Canada is justifiably renowned for its national parks which introduce visitors to special ecosystems and, if Mother Nature obliges, glimpses of wildlife which call these habitats home. This year marks Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, so it’s a good year experience some of these Canadian National Parks.
Parks Canada is responsible for protecting this network of parks and marine conservation sites, and as their 150th birthday gift, all Discovery Passes are free.
But with 224 sites to choose from, how to choose where to go? As a keen, outdoorsy Canadian who loves hiking, horseback riding, paddling, snowshoeing and otherwise experiencing the wild, I’ve visited many parks across my country. Here are my 18 personal faves listed from our east to west coasts – plus two I’m looking forward to visiting.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Gros Morne National Park
From stunning views from the summit of Gros Morne Mountain to experiencing breathtaking fjord scenery while cruising Western Brook Pond, this park gives us a passage through geological time.
In fact, Gros Morne is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Tablelands expose Earth’s mantle which was pushed to the surface more than a billion years ago.
Here, Parks interpreters spin tales of the collision of tectonic plates; the erosive, grinding power of glaciers; and point out hardy plants such as Newfoundland’s floral symbol, the carnivorous Pitcher Plant, which grow here.
The park is home to the Bonne Bay Marine Station which you’ll want to see because it explains marine wildlife and the health of oceans. And don’t miss visiting Woody Point, a historic fishing village which is the site of a highly regarded annual festival, Writers at Woody Point (August 15-20, 2017).
At Gros Morne National Park camping is available in rustic cabins and oTENTiks.
Torngat Mountains National Park
Oh, how I long to visit “The Torngats” in northern Labrador. I yearn to view this park’s jagged skyline of lofty peaks, glaciers and fjords rising from the North Atlantic Ocean.
At Torngat Mountains National Park, visitors meet Inuit (meaning “the people” in the Inuktitut language), descendants of ancient peoples who have lived in this sub-arctic region for more than 4,000 years.
From listening to Inuit traditional throat-singing to learning about their connectedness to and dependence upon the land – to hiking through this windswept terrain of rugged mountains, a visit to the Torngats promises to be life-changing.
Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island National Park
Perhaps the antithesis to the rugged parks of Labrador’s Torngats, PEI is known as the gentle isle.
Imagine a pastoral landscape of red earth, green rolling hills, sandy beaches and glorious sweeps of the ultramarine ocean. Wow. I want to be there, don’t you?
Canada’s smallest province welcomes us, where its national park invites us to build sandcastles on the beach, wander a boardwalk coursing through protected dunes and lagoons, and cycle oceanfront paths.
Interpretation programs run until September 4, so be sure to visit, participate, and learn about denizens such as crabs and shellfish through to red foxes and ospreys.
Nearby? Get to know PEI’s internationally renowned redheaded heroine, Anne Shirley, by visiting Green Gables – also managed by Parks Canada. It’s a short drive west of the Park, where you’ll drive through Brackley Beach and North Rustico, two of PEI’s pretty seaside villages.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Driving the Cabot Trail is a Canadian Maritime classic allowing at minimum a two-or-three day exploration of stunning coastline where we appreciate the meeting of mountains, forests, cliffs and ocean.
Cape Breton National Park offers picturesque Highlands landscape where waterfalls await – or stroll oceanside trails. Cape Breton camping is one of the best ways to connect with nature.
Wildlife? Take binoculars because you just might spy a minke or a pilot whale, bald eagles – or perhaps a moose as you wander inland trails.
Fundy National Park
Fundy National Park is famous because it’s home to the world’s highest tides.
At low tide, the mudflat zone is fascinating to explore, where you can also wander through the “flowerpot” structures of tiny “islands” of red rock, complete with stunted-tree topknots.
Be sure to take a guided walk along the Fundy National Park trails where interpreters explain the intertidal habitat – and, when tide’s in, kayak the shoreline.
Fundy National Park camping is quite an experience. With yurts – round tent-like lodgings – and other camping options, Fundy is part of the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, a 1.5 million hectare landscape which has been home to the Mi’kmaq First Nations for more than 10,000 years.
Kouchibouguac National Park
Camp alongside a sweep of beach beneath a canopy of stars, where the ocean’s waves create their heartbeat rhythm.
Then come to Kouchibouguac National Park, one of Canada’s Dark Sky Preserves. These are areas protected from development because of the profound beauty of the night sky unadulterated by ambient, artificial light.
I’ve not been to experience this yet, and so this is the second park that’s on my must-see list.
I wouldn’t want to miss visiting the Big Wigwam at Callanders Beach, where Mi’kmaw First Nations explain their culture and history – and perhaps take a friendship necklace workshop.
Other special Kouchibouguac National Park moments? Get yourself a permit and go softshell clam fishing – park staff will give you tips on how to prepare them for eating.
Saguenay–St Lawrence Marine Park
National Parks in Quebec come in many different guises and whale watching in Quebec is an activity you probably haven’t considered. Parks Canada also manages several marine parks and the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord is one of the most spectacular. The area offers Quebec whale watching at its best.
The Saguenay Marine experience begins at Tadoussac, where you can visit the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre to see the skeleton of a 13m (40foot) sperm whale.
However, here at the Saguenay–St Lawrence Marine Park, belugas are renowned: they’re the white whale with the “smiling face.”
How to best experience this marine park? Go kayaking and experience the wild, up close and personal.
La Mauricie National Park
With its extensive mixed hardwood and softwood forests and more than 150 lakes, La Mauricie is an extraordinary Quebec National Park to explore. That’s particularly so in autumn when Eastern Canadian woodlands’ deciduous trees turn colour.
Maples can be scarlet, crimson or gold. Ash, poplar, birch all turn various shades of brilliant yellow… Imagine these hues cast against a backdrop of evergreen, and you have an amazing artist’s palette.
Come wintertime, the folds of the mountains are blanketed in snow, while waterfalls and lakes morph into blue-ice wonders
What to do? In autumn, hike or bike through woodland trails; come winter, fat-biking, snowshoe, ski and learn the art of snow-tagging.
This is creating pre-set patterns (such as a spider and its web) on snow-clad frozen lakes using snowshoes and compass.
Stay overnight in Parks Canada’s cosy oTENTiks and use the pre-cut wood to fire up either a campfire or your wood stove – or both.
Georgian Bay Islands National Park
Imagine clusters of glacier-scoured rocky islands rising from the vast sparkling blue waters of Lake Huron, most sporting stunted white or red pine trees sculpted by wind. Then imagine the sunsets, glorious bands of orange and magenta reflected in the lake.
Georgian Bay is famous for its landscape which inspired the famous Group of Seven painters.
Whether you relax in lakeside cabins or camp at Georgian Bay campgrounds, bike easy trails, kayak or hike, right here at Georgian Bay Islands, the world’s largest freshwater archipelago awaits.
Georgian Bay Islands National Park may not be one of the most well-known Canadian National Parks in Ontario but it certainly is one of the loveliest.
Bruce Peninsula National Park
If scuba diving (or snorkelling) in crystal clear turquoise waters to examine some of the area’s 22 shipwrecks appeals, then come to the Bruce Peninsula jutting into Georgian Bay.
Learn about the shipbuilding industry on Lake Huron and see interactive displays explaining First Nations culture, explore a lighthouse and more by first visiting the Parks Canada Visitors’ Centre.
Not to be missed is a cruise of the Fathom Five National Marine Park – part of the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Here, 420-million-year-old dolomite rock outcrops rise from Lake Huron, creating an otherworldly landscape.
Special tip for keen, long-haul hikers: This region is particularly splendid during autumn because of the glorious autumn colours. This is when hiking the Bruce Trail is fabulous. The trail extends 890 km from Tobermory, a village located lakeside, in Fathom Five) to the Niagara Peninsula. Smaller portions of the trail can be done, or the whole thing in 30 or so days.
Thousand Islands National Park
Yet another water-based park beckons, this time along the peaceful shores of Lake Ontario.
Cycle the connected islands on the Thousand Islands’ Parkway, a roadway that’s roughly 40 km long. En route, scenic vistas of the scattered islands will spark many a photo-op.
This is a gentle park, where kayaking and canoeing, boating through the islands, and camping allows us to kick back, relax, swim, and enjoy the outdoors.
Thousands islands camping is a perfect way to enjoy the Canadian wilderness. Check out Parks Canada oTENTiks on these islands, which make kayak-camping easy and relaxing.
Riding Mountain National Park
Want to experience Plains bison up close and personal? You can observe these amazing beasts which once roamed the plains in their millions at Riding Mountain National Park’s Lake Audy Bison Enclosure.
Want to explore remnants of fragrant fescue-grass prairie or, come autumn, hear the bugling of elk, the male’s amazing mating call?
Then head west of Winnipeg to visit Riding Mountain, where you may very well see black bear, moose, red fox and coyote in this park’s environmentally diverse habitat.
My husband and I canoed here last summer, exploring several peaceful lakes where we were fortunate to see a moose mother and calf snoozing in a splash of dappled sunlight.
At night? We opted for a Riding Mountain National Park camping experience in cozy oTENTiks.
Prince Albert National Park
Central Saskatchewan features a biodiverse habitat of aspen woodlands (called “parklands”), seemingly endless boreal forest, grasslands – all peppered with farms as well as beautiful lakes.
In Prince Albert National Park, farms give way to forested hills and grasslands where plains bison roam. Also, watch for uncommon White American Pelicans in the summertime.
What’s special here? Grey Owl’s cabin. This Canadian legend was an early conservationist and author who embraced native culture and life so totally that everyone thought he was a First Nations.
Archibald Stansfeld Belaney was born in 1888 in England, travelling as a seventeen-year-old to Canada to become a trapper.
Here, in what’s become a Park, he built a cabin overlooking Ajawaan Lake in 1931, which we can visit. It’s a 20-km hike/canoe trip, so contact parks’ staff for instructions.
Banff National Park
Banff is a magnet for tourists – and is Canada’s first national park, created in 1885. It’s no wonder it attracts international visitors: from the bustling village scene featuring the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, the wilderness beckons.
The towering, signature sloping peak of Mount Rundle, the Cascade Range of mountains, and gondola-accessible Sulphur Peak embrace the village, enticing us to explore.
For me, it’s always the backcountry that steals the show. Take a several-day horseback ride and explore the wilderness – yet sleep in comfort at beautiful lodges such as Sundance, with Banff Trail Riders.
Banff National Park hiking is pretty special too. There are trails to suit your energy levels, whether it be multi-day backcountry backpacking trips or gentler, more easily accessible Banff camping.
Part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff’s glowing-turquoise lakes and tumbling rivers will capture your heart. They did mine… and I’m always keen to return.
Jasper National Park
One of my all-time favourite Canadian Parks, Jasper continues your exploration of UNESCO’s Canadian (really wild) Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.
Drive north from Banff along the Icefields Parkway and into Jasper – else take the VIA train west from Edmonton. Either way, it’s a spectacular trip revealing moment after moment of the Canadian wilderness.
Watch for bighorn sheep, elk, deer and even grizzly and black bear on highways – and please, remain in your car.
Wild animals are unpredictable, so take photos from the safety of your vehicle and never, ever feed them.
Another reason I love Jasper? The Dark Sky Festival (October 13-22, 2017). Come to view the night sky in this DSP (Dark Sky Preserve) designated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2011.
The festival always includes scientists who chat to us all about the wonders of the heavens. Plus there are lots of opportunities to gaze through telescopes with astronomers at your side who are keen to explain what you’re seeing. Go, and adjust your sensibilities to an appreciation of dark skies.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The secret’s out: I’m a horsewoman and I love nothing better than exploring backcountry on horseback.
So when my husband Eric and I got the opportunity to explore Waterton Lakes National Park with Alpine Stables’ sure-footed steeds, we leapt at the chance (you must book in advance for any overnight horseback expeditions).
Of course, if riding isn’t your thing, there’s awesome hiking and a good First Nations set of talks where elders share their wisdom about native culture.
What to see here in Waterton Lakes National Park? First, come because it, along with the American Glacier Park, is the other half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of their adjacent land mass, mountain landscape, glaciology, and abundant wildlife.
Think ridge after ridge of towering peaks surrounding Upper Waterton Lake. Located at its northern tip on a high promontory of land, the Prince of Wales Hotel is a national historic site unto itself, being a romantic wooden structure, one of the famous railway hotels in Canada’s west.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site
Mystical, magical, Gwaii Haanas. Come to explore Haida First Nations at Louise Island’s community of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans).
Now guarded by Watchmen, Haida guardians who manage each of the ancient village sites, K’uuna Llnagaay is the easiest to reach by boat with Moresby Explorers (just beyond Park boundaries).
The Moresby guide explains marine life and sets the context for the village, but when you step ashore onto the beach, the Watchmen take over.
I found seeing the community profoundly moving because the structural bones of this community – poles, homes – are disappearing under Mother Nature’s erosive hands.
I am keenly interested in First Nations culture and fascinated by the artwork of Emily Carr.
Born in 1871 in Victoria, Vancouver Island, she travelled to Haida Gwaii and many other native communities to paint First Nations people, poles, and way of life.
With binoculars, you may spy Killer Whales (Orcas) and bald eagles while you camp on-island, in informal beach-site campsites where (with a permit) you can dig for clams, or fish. Haida Gwaii is an extraordinary otherworldly if not mystical experience: make it a destination and fall in love with the wild.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Wild ’n woolly is a great descriptor for Pacific Rim which sprawls along the western coast of Vancouver Island.
Here stroll “endless” beaches where looking west you gaze upon the Pacific Ocean, while the dark rainforest has your back.
Long Beach is famous – and what a stretch it is, where wild ocean breezes can toss the spray into your face – while awesome swells are magnets to surfers.
Here too, hike the gruelling 75-km West Coast Trail, hear interpreters explain Nuu-chah-nulth culture, or sea kayak the Broken Group Islands.
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
Explore 15 islands located between Vancouver Island and the mainland by kayak or by boat.
Sail or cruise the group of islands located in the Salish Sea. Spot Bald Eagles; paddle amid sheltered islands where you’ll likely spy seals, and possibly (if you’re very fortunate), sea otters, whales (Orcas are relatively common) and porpoises.
Meanwhile, on terra firma, bicycle, or hike island trails ascending to lookouts where you’ll want to pause, have a snack lunch and appreciate the sweep of ocean, glimpse lighthouses, and breathe deeply of fresh seaside air.
Kluane National Park and Reserve
Ahhhh. Kluane. Its name echoes wilderness to me and, in a country of fantastical wilderness, the Yukon remains special. Perhaps it’s because of the “largest and tallest” array of destinations here.
Mount Logan is Canada’s highest mountain towering 5,959-metres. There’s also the worlds’ largest ice field – and when I flew over it with Kluane Glacier Air Tours,
I was wowed with the lateral and terminal moraines, the blueness of the ice – and the way glaciers flow, just like water.
Here, too, I saw lynx, grizzlies, black (and cinnamon) bears, moose (and calves), red fox and other wildlife while driving along the highway, one glorious summertime evening, just before dusk.
Come for the paddling on clear mountain lakes. Come for the camping, lakeside, when a full moon rises over the peaks. Just come, and immerse yourself in Kluane. You’ll never regret it.
Come to think of it? I don’t think you’ll have a moment’s regret visiting any of these Parks Canada national parks… Now, if only I can get to the Torngats and Kouchibouguac….
Katharine Fletcher lives near Ottawa and is the author of three companion guides to the National Capital Region.
Camp accommodations, you quite reasonably ask? Parks Canada variously offers tent sites, cabins, oTENTiks ( a hybrid between a cabin and tent), yurts – and more. Check each park’s website for details.
Find out more about the 2017 Discovery Pass for free entry to national parks, national marine conservation areas and national historic sites.
Visit Canada during the country’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. From coast to coast, Vancouver to Ottawa to Halifax, Canadian cities are alive with festivities. For more go to Destination Canada’s website.
Air Canada has direct flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver and will be starting direct flights from Melbourne to Vancouver in December 2017.