Top 10: Things to Do in Canada’s National Parks
Canada is chock-full of national parks, marine reserves, and other protected places. Here are our picks for the top ten don't-miss spots.
Spot Polar Bears in Wapusk
This Manitoba park’s name means “white bear” in the Cree language, and for good reason—the remote realm on the shores of Hudson Bay is one of the world’s biggest polar bear denning sites.
The bears can be seen by visitors on organized “tundra buggy” tours that originate in nearby Churchill but often fill up well ahead of time. Bears congregate near the shoreline and prepare to take to the ice in October and November, while in late February and March Wapusk is one of the few places where people can get close enough to observe young cubs with their mothers.
Hardy winter visitors to this subarctic spot can also see the Cape Churchill caribou herd and have an excellent chance to enjoy one of nature’s best sky shows, the aurora borealis.
Drive the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands
The Cabot Trail rambles for 185 miles around Cape Breton, stretching along some of Canada’s most scenic shoreline and clinging to precipitous cliffs before plunging through the thick forests that cover the island’s mountainous interior. Much of this journey is through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a fantastic Nova Scotia landscape of windswept heights and barrens, beaches, bogs, lakes, and forests. The ride may well result in a rare opportunity to spot both whales and moose.
Cape Breton also offers a chance to experience the Gaelic culture of Atlantic coast communities like Ingonish and, across the island, French-speaking Acadian culture in Gulf of St. Lawrence towns like Chéticamp. When driving the trail between the two a counterclockwise direction enhances the dramatic coastline views—but the faint of heart often reverse the route. Cycling the trail is also popular for those who prefer to stretch their legs.
This jewel of the Canadian Rockies is a paradise for powder lovers, who have their choice of three major resorts within the park’s boundaries: Lake Louise Ski Area, Sunshine Village, and Mount Norquay.
Away from the lifts, miles of snowy trails tempt cross-country skiers and snowshoers, and backcountry adventure options are limited only by the imagination. Skating, horse-drawn sleighs, and even dogsled rides are also on offer for those who enjoy the stark beauty and chill air of a Banff winter. All cold-weather pursuits are best followed by a relaxing soak in the warm waters of famous spring-fed pools, such as Upper Hot Springs.
Go Backcountry in Jasper
The largest national park in the Canadian Rockies features some stunning scenic drives, but its real essence is a vast roadless realm where grizzlies, moose, and elk are more numerous than people. The park’s superlative mountain scenery of towering peaks, glaciers, flower-filled meadows, and roaring rivers can be explored on 620 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Eighty-two established backcountry campsites invite extended exploration—and you won’t be in a hurry to leave.
For those seeking a bit more comfort, Jasper also has a network of backcountry lodges that cater to everyone from horse packers to skiers, and the Alpine Club of Canada maintains four alpine huts for climbers who test themselves on the park’s peaks.
Go Birding at Point Pelee
This park is tiny by Canadian standards and perhaps the country’s least “wild,” but Point Pelee offers at least one sight none other can match—an absolutely world-class birder’s haven.
In mid-May, when the spring birding season is in full swing (and so are the crowds), 386 migrating species of warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, and other birds use the park as a stopover. Birds flock during the fall months as well, and in mid-September monarch butterflies depart en masse for winter in Mexico.
Not all of Point Pelee’s avian species are transients. The park’s freshwater marshes and Carolinian forest host fine breeding habitat for species not commonly seen in Canada. Park visitors hoping to spot species can stroll on boardwalks across the marshes, stretch their legs on hiking and biking trails, or take to the park’s waters in a canoe.
The park’s 37 miles of dedicated bikeways make Kouchibouguac a favorite cycling destination in Atlantic Canada. Family-friendly, flat gravel paths make it easy to explore a number of scenic cycling loops from 9 to 17 miles long. Cyclists can mix and match rides to take in a full share of Kouchibouguac’s beautiful coastal landscape, which includes bogs, salt marshes, tidal rivers, dunes, fields, and forests. Cool off afterwards with a swim on one of the park’s many outstanding beaches and relax at night under spectacular stars—the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has designated Kouchibouguac as a Dark Sky Preserve.
Spot Whales in Forillon
Forillon sits at the tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, where the continental Appalachian Mountains terminate in a dramatic display of limestone cliffs that tower over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Hiking trails here wander along the dizzying heights of those seaside cliffs and highlands, looking down on coves, beaches, and fishing villages and out to waters teeming with wildlife, including six different species of whales and porpoises.
Sea kayaking in park waters is also spectacular and offers prime views of cliffs hosting sea bird colonies. Inshore, most of Forillon is heavily forested, and walkers may find moose, bears, foxes, or lynx on the trail—as well as some 700 plant species, including flora typically found only in arctic or alpine environments.
Get Wet at Gwaii Haanas
Gwaii Haanas is a unique patchwork of protected areas that stretches from the seafloor to the top of the archipelago’s highest peaks. Diving here is for experts but offers great rewards; snorkeling allows everyone to explore the incredible underwater realm of the National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.
Kayakers can paddle around the islands for weeks, alone (if suitably experienced) or as part of organized tours. Larger boats also ply these waters—and from their decks passengers can observe whales, dolphins, orcas, and even colonies of sea lions. Don’t forget to spend some time on dry land as well. The islands are rich in indigenous flora and fauna, some of which can’t be found on the mainland, and are home to the unique 12,000-year-old culture of the Haida people, who host visitors here.
Tackling Nahanni’s wild rivers is the trip of a lifetime for canoeists, kayakers, and whitewater rafters. The Northern Territories park reserve has a smorgasbord of epic river trips that last from several days to several weeks. (Yes, Nahanni is that big.)
Potential paddlers take heed—the South Nahanni River isn’t for the inexperienced. The remote river is wild in every sense of the word, and its course is lined with canyons, waterfalls, whirlpools, and raging rapids. But a wide selection of guided outfitters can make runs on the park’s rivers safely accessible for most people, and some mellower options exist to tailor trips for tamer tastes. And while running Virginia Falls is not an option, few visitors will want to leave Nahanni without taking the time to visit the cataract. It towers twice the height of Niagara.
See How the Earth Moves at Gros Morne
The dynamic forces of Earth are on display in this Newfoundland park, which protects land shaped 450 million years ago by tectonic processes.
At the Tablelands, visitors can walk a near lunar landscape of peridotite, a rock more commonly found 7.5 miles or more below the Earth. Glaciers too have done their work here over the eons, creating valleys, lakes, an alpine plateau, and fjords like the famed Western Brook Pond. That dramatic waterway is framed by towering walls of rock that was once magma in the Earth’s crust before welling up when Europe and North America separated some 600 million years ago.
- Nat Geo Expeditions