I said before, and I’m proud to say it again: I love Canada. There is hardly a country so vast and diverse that holds a bigger space in my heart. Vancouver and the Rocky Mountains were the destination of my first big solo backpacking adventure after I had finished my undergrad, and just a few months ago I returned to discover Ontario and Toronto. 2017 is a very special year for Canada as the country celebrates its 150th birthday. And to let everybody enjoy a piece of the cake, Parks Canada – the national organisation maintaining and managing all national parks, marine conversation areas, historic sites and landmarks – decided to offer unlimited FREE Discovery Passes to anybody who wants to visit these parks.
Yes, you read that correctly – all throughout 2017 it will be free to visit the national parks of Canada. While cities like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal might be great places to visit and spend some time in, the natural beauty of Canada and its vast wilderness are what really attracts the crowds. Could you imagine traveling through Canada without hiking the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, canoeing in the pristine waters of the Great Lakes or exploring the untouched shorelines of the east and west coasts?
Free access to the 40+ national parks Canada has to offer in all of its provinces, might just be the best reason to visit Canada in the coming year – but you better be quick making your plans! Just a day after the passes were made available on the Parks Canada website, CBC reported that the administration team and web server were struggling to keep up with the demand. Although the free Discovery Passes are an unlimited offer, the best campsites & spots in huts inside the national parks have to be booked well in advance!
To make planning a little easier for you, here are some of Canada’s national parks that deserve a spot on your bucket list.
1) Yoho National Park, British Columbia
The national parks of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and Alberta are on everybody’s bucket list who plans a trip to Western Canada. While Jasper and Banff have a lot of natural beauty to offer, their smaller neighbour Yoho hardly gets the credit it deserves. Four years ago, I followed an insider tip I received at the hostel in lake Louise, and found myself in the most gorgeous scenery I had ever experienced. Lucky enough to find an open spot in one of the huts by Lake O’Hara, I set out for perfect autumn hikes in the Rocky Mountains.
photo by Kathi Kamleitner
2) Ukkusiksalik National Park, Nunavut
If you ever wondered where might be a good national park to go on a polar bear safari, Ukkusuksalik just south of the Arctic Circle might be your best bet. It is one of four national parks in the province of Nunavut, and one of Canada’s youngest as well – it was declared a NP in 2003. The park is uninhabited which really only adds to the wide emptiness of the Arctic tundra vegetation. The park surrounds Wager Bay, an inlet from Hudson Bay, and can only be visited for a few short weeks during the summer- at any other time there is too much ice to access Wager Bay by boat. There are several trekking routes criss-crossing the park, but a guided tour is probably the safest way to go, considering that this is polar bear land!
3) Thousand Islands National Park, Ontario
At the other side of the country lies Thousand Islands National Park, which deserves a spot on our bucket list just for its name to begin with. The promise of one thousand islands is simply one we can’t resist. As the name suggests, much of the park is only accessible by boat – the perfect excuse for a canoe-camping trip (I got my first taste of this in another Ontario park, Killarney Provincial Park). Instead of camping though, we’d like to try the park’s oTENTik accommodations – a cross between a tent and a rustic cabin.
photo via 1000 Islands
4) Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia
Cape Breton Highlands was the first national park in the Atlantic provinces of Canada and is known for its serene beaches, the freshwater lakes, steep cliffs and deep river canyons. You see, there is a little bit of everything. You might be able to spot whales off the shore, or moose in the forest. One of the most beautiful hikes in all of Canada might be the Skyline Sunset Trail which leads you through forest, bog and grasslands to where wave-battered cliffs plunge into the ocean and the sun sets on the Atlantic horizon.
photo by Katie Bordner
5) Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, British Columbia
Gwaii Hanaas, or Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site as it is actually called, lies on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii just off the northern BC coast. It covers 138 of the 150+ islands belonging to Haida Gwaii, formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands. The archipelago is famous for its lush rain forests, but also for the skillfully carved poles of the Haida culture. Gwaii Haanas is not just a place to relax outdoors and immerse yourself in nature, but also offers a one-of-a-kind cultural experience with the Haida people.
photo by Island Conservation
6) Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta & Northwest Territories
Wood Buffalo National Park is the second largest national park in the world and covers an area larger than Switzerland. And all that space is needed because this park was created to protect the world’s largest herd of free roaming wood bison. The park is also home to one of Canada’s dark-sky preserves, so whether you come to observe animals or the twinkling stars, there is definitely something for you to do here. There is even a Dark Sky Festival happening every August to celebrate the incredible stargazing experience in Wood Buffalo NP.
7) Prince Edward Island National Park
You don’t have to travel to the desert for sand dunes – you could also head to Prince Edward Island. The national park here is particularly famous for protecting an extensive sand dune system as well as wetlands and salt marshes. The park is a a Canadian Important Bird Area, which means that some endangered bird species rely on the conservation of this area. Birdwatchers will love it here! The park is classified as one of Canada’s most endangered, not only because of its fragile coastline and erosion from winter storms, but sadly also due to human impact. Visiting and learning more about this beautiful place (and how to protect it) is therefore even more important.
photo by Christine Riggle
8) Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
Not many travelers make their way to Saskatchewan – and even if they do, they often pass right through it. The province is covered by prairie, and a friend of mine who drove through it by bus once, described it to me as ‘one big flat nothing’. But it is this vast emptiness and flatness that makes the Grasslands National Park so interesting. The park is home to many endangered species such as bison or prairie dogs, but it is also where Canada’s first dinosaur was discovered!
photo by Marshall Drummond
9) Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
As if you really need more convincing than this photo… OK, here we go. Bruce Peninsula National Park is one of many protected areas around the Georgian Bay. It is famous for its steep cliffs and turquoise water, and is known to be one of Canada’s most pristine waters for canoeing and kayaking. And then there are the coves and swimming bays… The park is located on Bruce Peninsula, just a four-hour drive from Toronto. Thus, it does get busy here during the summer months and planning ahead well in advance is highly advised!
photo by Jackman Chiu
10) Pacific Rim National Park, British Columbia
Last, but certainly not least, comes Pacific Rim National Park on Victoria Island. This one has been on my bucket list ever since I set foot in British Columbia and realized that for certain trails you need to get permits well in advance… I’m talking of course about the West Coast Trail, a 75km trail along the west coast of Vancouver Island, which makes up one of three regions within the national park. Supposedly it is one of the hardest and most beautiful trails out there, as is still extremely rugged and requires a high level of fitness, knowledge and skill to complete. Most people take around 7 days to complete the trek, and I will not rest until I have achieved the same!
photo by Paula Reedyk
Know before your go…
Before you set out though, remember that the national parks of Canada will be busier than ever, and it is increasingly important that you stick to the rules in place to protect and sustain their natural beauty. Bigger visitor numbers carry the risk of damaging the fragile environment of the national parks, and every visitor should make the effort to contribute to a community of nature-lovers and protectors. Check the Parks Canada website to find out more about rules, guidelines and conservation missions to keep in mind!