Canada has vast swathes of unspoiled nature, from coasts to mountains to tundra and frozen Arctic deserts. While some of these spectacular landscapes are in legendary national parks, such as the Rocky Mountains’ Banff and Jasper, the Pacific coast’s Gwaii Haanas and the remote whitewater paddling heaven of the Northwest Territories’ Nahanni, a host of less famous gems await the adventurous.
This year, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, visitors can gain free admission to the parks with a special pass which must be pre-ordered. Camping spots fill up early, so reservations are recommended. It’s also good to take advice on bear and cougar safety. For much of the accommodation mentioned, it’s worth hunting for online deals.
The stunning turquoise waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron give way to steep cliffs and thick stands of cedar and other ancient trees in this park, a four-hour drive north-west from Toronto. It’s the start of the 550-mile trek along the Bruce Trail, which meanders from the park to the vineyards of the Niagara region further south. There are also shorter cliffside walks along the lake, and paddling or kayaking across smaller lakes. Visitors can rent a canoe from Thorncrest Outfitters in Tobermory, test their mettle by boulder-climbing in more remote spots, or scramble through caves along the lakeshores. Another wonderful thing to do is to take a ferry from Tobermory to Fathom Five national marine park and swim to one of the many underwater wrecks. Some of the shallow ones are close to shore and easy to see while snorkelling. For deeper wrecks further from shore, boats and scuba gear can be hired from Divers Den in Tobermory (diversden.ca) or G&S Watersports. B&Bs, hotels, inns and campsites are in Tobermory, the closest town, at a range of prices. Try the Blue Bay Motel for £74pn .
Tip: Instead of driving, take a ParkBus from Toronto to Bruce Peninsula park (adult £54 return).
Endless beaches, fog-shrouded rainforests and rugged trails alongside the ferocious open waters of the Pacific Ocean make up this 500 sq km coastal park on the southern edge of Vancouver Island, a five-hour drive from Victoria. Whale-watching – mostly greys but, at certain times of the year, humpbacks and killer whales as well – is a time-honoured pastime here, and can be done from the beach. Ambling along Long Beach, south of Tofino, exploring treasures in tidal pools can easily absorb days. But braving the breathtaking 45-mile West Coast Trail, following paths of ancient First Nation traders, will take training – it is not for beginners, and requires map and tide-table reading skills for some stretches. Reservations are vital as numbers are limited during the season. There are only three entrances and exits, but a two- or three-day hike can be started at the midpoint of Nitinat, avoiding the most difficult parts. The trail begins at Pachena Bay and ends at Gordon River six gruelling days later. Limited camping is available in the park, but the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet, also offer B&Bs, cabins, hotels, resorts and dining at a range of prices. Try Jamie’s Rainforest Inn in Tofino (from £80, room only).
Tip: The best chance of seeing whales is in May, June, September and October.
The heights of the Rocky mountains meet the flat prairies in this park. Aspen forests and wildflower meadows pepper the landscape. The woods are home to grizzlies, black bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes, so it’s important to keep to the 191 miles of trails in the park – which range in difficulty from short strolls to steep treks of several days’ duration – and to make a noise while walking to scare off any bears. The park nestles in the unusually diverse Crown of the Continent ecosystem, which includes the headwaters of rivers running across North America to the Pacific and Atlantic, and north to Hudson’s Bay.
Often seen as an antidote to the bustle of Banff and Jasper, Waterton Lakes is a three-hour car trip south of Calgary. Visitors can drive to three campsites in the park, including one in the Waterton Lakes Townsite, or hike to nine others throughout the backcountry, such as the one at Goat Lake). Hotels include Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort (doubles from £80 room only).
Tip: A small herd of bison grazing the grasslands in the park’s northern end can be seen for free from the Bison Paddock Loop Road, but make sure to stay in the car.
Scoured long ago by retreating glaciers, this region is so flat and treeless that old-timers say if a dog runs away, it’s still possible to see it three days later. Golden knee-high grasses sway in the winds. Bison roam, white-rumped pronghorn antelope dash past in swift-footed herds, and black-tailed prairie dogs poke curious heads out of the ground.
In the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, the park is a four-hour drive from provincial capital Regina, or seven hours from Calgary to the town of Val Marie at the park’s western entrance. Seasoned hikers can head to the Valley of the 1,000 Devils, with its hoodoo rock formations and dinosaur fossils. Camping is allowed anywhere, but check with the visitor centre at Rock Creek campground for safety information. There’s lots of organised camping on flat expanses of the park for RVs and tents, plus tipis for hire. Tent-cabins sleeping up to six cost £55 a night in Frenchman Valley campground, pitches £10, reservations necessary.
Tips: Grasslands is one of Canada’s darkest and largest dark sky preserves, perfect for stargazing. Some fossil-digging events are scheduled each year.
It’s birds, birds, birds at this tiny park, a four-hour drive south-west from Toronto. Point Pelee, a marshy spit jutting into Lake Erie, is an international mecca for birdwatchers. The song-filled northward migration in mid-May has evolved into a famous birder festival. Among the rareties: ivory gull, sharp-tailed sandpiper, lark sparrow and warblers from every corner of the western hemisphere. Check for accommodation at all prices at tourismleamington.com. Typical is the Days Inn at £80 B&B. Or go a little further for the delights of the Niagara-on-the-Lake wine region, staying at the Colonel Butler Inn from £110 B&B.
Tip: Paddle the marshes in a 10-person canoe on a guided trip through the bulrushes for about £12 for a family of four (see national parks website).
Breathtaking Laurentian forests of evergreens and hardwoods and 150 crystal-clear lakes make this the quintessential Canadian park experience. There’s snowshoeing and crosscountry skiing in winter, and canoeing, hiking, swimming, fishing and mountain biking when the snow vanishes. It’s a two-hour drive from either Montreal or Quebec City. Three campsites offer more than 500 pitches for tents, tent-trailers and RVs at less than £18 a night. All-year tent-cabins sleeping five are £70 a night.
Tip: A brilliant place for autumn colour.
Feel the salt wind and marvel at the sculpted red sand dunes, while lounging on one of the seven beaches that make up this strip of park along the northern edge of Prince Edward Island. Two of the most popular beaches are Brackley and Stanhope. The park is about half an hour’s drive from the province’s historic capital, Charlottetown, where Canada’s Confederation was born 150 years ago. A family-friendly, leisurely stay can include strolling boardwalks, easy hiking and spotting blue herons in the ocean.
The park has two campsites, Stanhope and Cavendish, with pitches from £12 a night, and the historic Dalvay-by-the-Sea hotel, once an oil tycoon’s summer home, with 25 antiques-filled rooms and cottages from £120 room only.
Tip: Toward the western end of the park is Green Gables Heritage Place, inspiration for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novels.
Forested highland hills meet steep cliffs rising from the ocean in this island gem. Famous Cape Breton hospitality, sensational ocean landscapes, and access to the fabled Cabot Trail make it tough to find a more congenial spot in Canada. A five-hour drive from Halifax, this is the home of the Acadians, descendants of French settlers. Visitors can learn how to boil a lobster (£26pp) at La Bloc in Chéticamp, then drive down the iconic switchback road along the coast where there are six campsites next to the road and one in the backcountry. A tent-cabin for six costs £60 a night. Some campsites in this park come already equipped with tents; all you need is a sleeping bag, a reservation and £40 a night (up to six people).
Tips: Hook a mackerel and fry it for dinner just off the Cabot Trail, and learn to make Acadian potato pancakes for $22pp while savouring the cultural lore of Cape Breton. For dates and details, see cbisland.com. Or be a lumberjack for the day with world champion Darren Hudson, who runs Wild Axe camps teaching skills like logrolling, tree climbing and axe throwing (adults $90, youths $25-$50).
Jagged mountain faces, waterfalls, fjords and gorges make this one of the most geologically exciting parks in Canada. A Unesco world heritage site, the park provides a rare chance to see “deep ocean crust and the rocks of the earth’s mantle exposed”. A special treat is a guided day hike to the top of the Western Brook Pond gorge, to where ponds on the plateau feed waterfalls that fill the lake (from £35 an adult with Bontours. From the summit, hikers gaze across a lush green valley guarded by towering cliffs. A seven-hour drive from the capital, St John’s, or half an hour from the airport in Deer Lake, the park has moose and caribou, dwarf trees, bogs, glacial lakes, tundra and heath all in the same world-class site.
There are more than 200 conventional campsites, most with electricity, and four “primitive” ones, with wooden tent pads, bear-proof food lockers or poles, and pit toilets. Four sites offer tent-cabins for five at £70 a night, firewood included. The less hardy can stay in cabins, hotels and B&Bs such as Bottom Brook Cottages, £76 a night for a two-bedroom cottage.
Tip: Take a guided tour to the Lobster Cove Head lighthouse and learn how its beacon led sailors home, then end the day with an outdoor fire circle and the best sunset on the island.
Vast plains run between rugged, glacier-clad mountains on the Arctic Circle. Rivers run so fast and cold that they can claim lives. Polar bears pad silently – at a safe distance – along the cliffs. For the truly wild-spirited, nothing will challenge the stamina like this park on Baffin Island, reached by flying to Iqaluit and then to Pangnirtung or Qikiqtarjuaq community, each a few miles from the park. Visitors have to register with a parks team and take safety training, then a guide leads groups to the park boundary by boat or dog team, skis or snowmobile, depending on the weather. Extreme climbers can brave Mount Thor, a sheer 1,675-metre face. Guides and outfitters can lead the less experienced.
There are no campsites. Backcountry camping is permitted, but watch for polar bears! Hotels include the Auyuittuq Lodge in Pangnirtung for £147 pp full-board.
Tip: The hamlet of Pangnirtung is home to the renowned Uqqurmiut arts and crafts centre of Inuit art, with print shop and tapestry studio.
The Montreal-based MTL blog has handily put together a map linking Canada’s 38 national parks in a single 14,500-mile road trip, using Google maps