Early morning, New Year’s Eve day. I’m hiking across a clearing in Alberta’s Banff National Park. In summer it’s a campground. Right now, it belongs to me. High on the wall of a valley just east, I stare out at a view that would make a stoic cry. A curious coyote approaches from behind, wags his tail, disappears. Off to my left, caribou forage in the snow. It becomes a memory for me, a birthright of sorts.
James B. Harkin, the first commissioner of Parks Canada Agency (then known as the Dominion Parks Branch) once said that “each citizen of Canada is the owner of a share.” For visitors, as the title of an iconic Canadian Geographic documentary suggests, these are “Sacred Places.”
Canada’s parks are big enough, numerous enough, to be both—and masterpieces in a gallery without equal. Welcome to the tour.
Old and new
You’re poised atop a black-diamond ski hill, adrenalin pumping. You push off, plummeting in the face of gravity. Welcome to Banff National Park, AB, Canada’s oldest and most famous preserve, designated in 1885. Soak in a hot springs high over a picture-postcard village. Hike along the shores of two lakes that are iconic images of Canada: Lake Louise with its turquoise waters and Moraine Lake, boasting a vista that once graced the Canadian twenty-dollar bill. Banff is the dowager queen of our parks.
Then you’ve got Nunavut’s Sirmilik National Park in, Nunavut, so designated in 2001 and a mere infant. But don’t get cocky. You have to fly all the way to Iqaluit—2,342 km (1,455 mi) north of downtown Toronto—to even begin your voyage; for much of the year the park is inaccessible; for other times park documents recommend some sort of polar bear deterrents. Get here, though, and you get a close-up of another Canadian birthright: the North.
Big and small
The St. Lawrence River, one of North America’s biggest waterways and gateway to the east side of Canada, shelters St. Lawrence Islands National Park. Just nine sq km (3.5 sq mi) located in the middle of one of Ontario’s most popular summer playgrounds, the 1000 Islands, it’s the smallest national park. Spread across 21 islands in an archipelago of nearly 2,000 members, the park is only accessible by boat. But once here, you’ll find oases of pine and rugged granite outcroppings hard by massive seagoing vessels plying the adjacent international waterway.
Not impressed? Try Wood Buffalo National Park; its 44,800 sq km (17,297 sq mi), straddle the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories and shelter one of the world’s largest free-roaming and self-regulating herd of wood bison. Wood Buffalo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Big and Small (the sequel)
This tale of parks turns out to be a story of superlatives. Nowhere is that more evident than comparing Kluane National Park and Reserve in the Yukon, with Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. Riding Mountain is situated at the highest part of the Manitoba Escarpment and home to five different campgrounds. That’s a great part of its appeal—think campfire songs beside the mirrored waters of Clear Lake, wood smoke at twilight wafting through boreal forest, white spruce, aspen, birch and oak shading your campsite. The town of Wasagaming is one of the more charming resort towns in the country. This is where city dwellers from nearby Winnipeg commune with nature.
To trulyIf you really want to commune with nature, head to Kluane National Park and Reserve. This is no park for the faint of heart. Kluane’s Mount Logan soars 5,959 m (19,551 ft)—the highest mountain in Canada. This is no park for the faint of heart; if you’re an adventurer, you’ll love the place. Rafting the Alsek River is a popular activity, with outfitters offering excursions lasting almost two weeks. The park is a must-do for serious hikers, too, but beware—it’s home to Canada’s largest stable grizzly population. Kluane is also known worldwide as a mountaineering destination, including glacier treks to the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. Not quite so intrepid? Try fishing—Kluane means “place of many fish.”
North and south
Go to California, then head due east. Keep going until you get to Point Pelee National Park, ON, a spit that juts south into Lake Erie at Canada’s most southerly point. You might be confused; come July, it feels like the Caribbean—and a place that can’t decide if it’s land or water. Extensive marshlands with boardwalks are hallmarks of this park, located on two major migration paths—a birdwatcher’s haven—and a pit stop on the migration route of monarch butterflies.
Can’t take the heat? Try Quttinirpaaq National Park in Nunavut: about 800 km (500 mi) south of the North Pole, this park on Ellesmere Island features massive ice fields and hundreds of glaciers. There’s no trees—and no night during the days of summer.
Pelee’s more accessible: just a four-hour drive from Toronto, ON. You’ll need a plane to get to Quttinirpaaq, whose name is Inuktitut for “top of the world.” Round-trip airfare from Ottawa: about $5,500.
Tame and wild
If you find Quttinirpaaq hard to say and the cost to get there daunting, cross the bridge and make for PEI. This gentle island hosts Prince Edward Island National Park—home to undulating dunes, somnolent beaches and a Canadian icon: Anne of Green Gables. While on the island, check out Charlottetown. This is where Canada really began, where Confederation was forged. It’s a perfect family outing.
Too tame for your blood? How about Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories? For sheer drama, adrenalin-shooting rivers and mile-high canyons, it’s ideal for the testosterone-laden guys’ week away. Nahanni is recognized as a premier wilderness river park (it was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites) for good reason. It boasts natural hot springs, and Virginia Falls has twice the vertical of Niagara. But really, it’s all about the wilds—and the water.
Water and wood
Water—along with wood—is also key to discovering Quebec’s parks. No surprise here—resources and natural elements are key to understanding Canada. Consider Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve: 30 limestone islands and 1,000 islets scattered like jewels across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, past some of the most spectacular scenery in the country—from the fjords of the Saguenay area to the whales at Tadoussac to the surreal sandstone and limestone monolith sculptures etched by wind and water.
Quebec also offers up a winning entry in the wood category. At La Mauricie National Park, the hardwood forests of southern Quebec meet the boreal forests of the north. It’s dominated by rolling hills, valleys, a multitude of lakes and 30 species of trees. La Mauricie offers camping and hiking, but the best way to see it is by canoe. Immerse yourself in nature and a bit of Canadian culture at the same time, for much of this country was forged by paddling. Set in the Laurentians, La Mauricie offers prime Canadian Shield scenery and is roughly equidistant from Québec City and Montréal (around 200 km or 124 mi from both).
Wet and dry
While Quebec offers up its share of aquatic delights, it is by no means your only chance to get wet. Seems like Fundy National Park, NB, shares some of Pelee’s personality disorders. With the biggest tidal variations in the world (four stories from low to high), it’s a fascinating look at the power of the sea—and the moon, for that matter.
New Brunswick also is home to Kouchibouguac National Park, a patchwork of salt marshes, bogs and tidal rivers. And you can drive Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park on switchback roads that offer sea views that would shame California’s Big Sur Coast Highway.
Ontario’s Fathom Five National Marine Park is entirely under water, a dive destination without equal, sporting crystal waters and a wealth of wrecks for exploring.
If dry is your thing, consider Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. Visit a colony of prairie dogs, lounge on the grass near where Sitting Bull once did, arriving here after escaping from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Coast to coast
Approach from the sea at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador and book a ringside seat at the dawn of creation. Or approach by land, hiking to a vast plateau and staring down at true fjords that wouldn’t be out of place in Norway.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in British Columbia hugs the southwest coast of Vancouver Island more than 7,242 km (4,500 mi) west of the east coast. It boasts an almost-11-km-long (7-mi) white sand beach nuzzled by the Pacific Ocean, and a wealth of ecosystems that include tidal pools and rainforest. Try hiking the challenging West Coast Trail (limited to 8,000 visitors a year), a trek that can take up to seven days. It comprises the last few kilometres of a park system that boasts nearly 302,300 sq km (116,700 sq mi) of land, an area roughly the size of Italy.
It’s the last stop on a voyage that runs, like the railroad that gave inspiration for both a country and a vast array of parks, from coast to coast to coast.
More on Canada’s national parks:
For an overview on the entire Canadian National Parks System—42 parks, 167 National Historic Sites and three National Marine Conservation Areas—see www.parkscanada.gc.ca. You’ll find the details of the specific parks mentioned here—plus the rest.
Nahanni National Reserve
Riding Mountain National Park
Gros-Morne National Park