National parks may be “America’s best idea,” but that idea — and the vast swaths of epic nature it preserves — doesn’t stop at the border. Just a little north of places like Acadia, Yellowstone, or North Cascades, Canada’s expanse of land is equally vast and breathtaking.
You have white-capped mountains over turquoise lakes, moose-laden forests, rugged coastlines, turquoise waters, ancient glaciers and fjords. The Great White North’s 48 national parks are epic in proportion, spanning 174,000 square miles and easy to drive to from the United States.
The UNESCO-recognized Canadian Rockies may have the best density of jaw-dropping nature, but there are some epic places to see from coast to coast, either one at a time or on a day trip. a Great Canadian Road Trip with a $55 Parks Canada Discovery Pass. Here’s your guide to the best.
If you google “nature Canada” you’ll see pictures of Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains, and for good reason. Canada’s oldest and most popular national park is Mother Earth at its sexiest. Everywhere you look there are jagged peaks dusted with fluffy powder, bluer-than-blue glacial lakes, and majestic wildlife including bears (black and grizzly bears), moose, wolves, and foxes.
Although busy year-round, Banff is big enough that you can find something to do without being neck and neck with tourists (well, unless you’re expecting this photo of Lake Louise). Some options include hiking nearly 1,000 miles of trails, scuba diving in Lake Minnewanka, skiing at Sunshine Village, or sipping tea at the chic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Ontario is known for a few things: cities, truck convoys and Drake. But turquoise water, wrecks, rock pillars and underwater caves? No. As an Ontarian myself, I certainly wouldn’t say that, and yet they’re all on display at the Bruce Peninsula National Park, located a few hours from Toronto, five from Detroit and 11 from New York.
At the north end of the park, visit Fathom Five National Marine Park, which has 20 shipwrecks you can snorkel in, including the City of Grand Rapids double-decker steamer that sank in 1907. Fathom Five also has a bizarre sea stacks on Flowerpot Island and a central town of Tobermory worth the drive. From the city, hike the legendary Bruce Trail, where you’ll see ancient cedars and limestone cliffs aplenty.
Quebec’s southeastern Gaspé Peninsula, high above Maine, it’s as if the rocky-shore Maritimes province and green-forested Quebec had a baby – and Forillon National Park jutting out to sea , it’s like this baby has the most beautiful pacifier ever. With powerful waves crashing against epic cliffs and seabirds flapping in the mist, Forillon makes you feel like you’re at the end of the world.
Have a picnic or take a walk on the pebble beach while gazing at the cliffs (they look like wrinkled faces if you look really close). The park offers more than four hours of hiking trails, guided sea kayak tours, and paddleboards for rent. Keep an eye out for the water where you might spot the puffs of fin whales, humpback whales and maybe even a blue whale, the world’s largest mammal. At the southern end of the park, you can visit Fort Peninsula, a naval battery where Allied forces sank German U-boats during World War II.
Saskatchewan may be Canada’s most underrated province, and the Prairies north of Montana may be its least-known national park, but it shouldn’t be. Hiking across the prairie plains or driving its 50-mile scenic route will make you feel so, so small in the vastness of this country.
Before sunset, set up camp wherever you like under the twinkling stars. The Prairies are Canada’s darkest dark sky reserve. But the best part of Grasslands is its herds of fur bison, which were reintroduced to the park in 2005.
Home to Canada’s friendliest locals and perhaps its harshest climate, Newfoundland is also where you’ll find Gros Morne, one of the country’s most beautiful and rugged national parks. With numerous trails and waterfalls, some of which drop 2,000 feet, Gros Morne is a hiker’s paradise. It is also a great place to learn about the history of our planet.
1,200 million years ago, when the supercontinent Pangea collapsed, magma from seeping land fractures cooled into the rocks we can see today in Grose’s Western Brook and Ten Mile Ponds Morne. The park as we see it today was formed over the past two million years of repeated glaciations, deglaciations and associated sea level changes. stop at a restaurant in the park town and try a moose burger.
After visiting Banff, take the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic routes in the world with over 100 ancient glaciers, to Jasper. One of Canada’s most beautiful and wildest national parks, Jasper spans 4,247 square miles, making it the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. And it’s a great place to watch wildlife.
You’ll have an even better chance of seeing bears and elk here than in Banff, especially if you’re off the grid and staying at a backcountry hiking or skiing lodge or lodge. Don’t miss the Jasper SkyTram to Whistlers Peak and soak in a natural hot spring.
With its lush green hills and sparkling blue waters teeming with lobsters, fin whales, minke whales, humpbacks and pilot whales, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a Canadian treasure.
Ride the 185-mile Cabot Trail around the island for spectacular views (brownie points if you do it by bike), or hop in a kayak and learn about the marine life. The Skyline Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Canada and will give you a good chance of spotting a moose.
In Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost and newest territory, Auyuittuq National Park is for adventurous explorers. Covering a remote region of more than 8,000 miles, Auyuittuq is a land of rugged granite cliffs, glaciers, tundra valleys and steep-sided fjords populated by amazing creatures like polar bears and arctic foxes.
Dress warmly and embrace your inner Thor for an ascent to the 4,000-foot summit of Mount Asgard, or go on a cross-country skiing adventure up to 1,500 feet to Summit Lake. Unfortunately, vanlifers will have to leave their car behind for this one, as the only way to enter Nunavut is by air.
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