Paging all American national park junkies: you need to know that north of the border, more than 117,200 square miles of land is protected in 45 different national parks and reserves, spanning across all of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories. In other words, the adventure potential is pretty much endless.
From mountain expeditions to coastal hikes, from polar bear viewing to dinosaur bone digging, Canadian National Parks are seriously incredible for many different reasons. We’ve put together a sample of some of the best in the country, stretching from east to west and all the way up north. Your challenge? Visit them all in this lifetime.
Cape Breton Highlands, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island is the stuff postcards are made of: vast expanses of blue ocean, rolling mountains covered in thick forest and jaw-dropping cliffs. Cape Breton Highlands National Park captures the magic of the island in one majestic park.
There are plenty of camping options ranging from frontcountry to backcountry. Check out Corney Brook, a small, low-frills campsite that lets you pitch your tent on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Wake up early for a hike on the Skyline Trail at dawn, and you’re all but guaranteed to catch a glimpse of a moose.
Wood Buffalo, Alberta
Explore Canada’s Northern Boreal Plains at Wood Buffalo, the country’s largest national park. Originally established to protect herds of buffalo, hence its name, Wood Buffalo offers plenty of outdoor activities, but it’s perhaps best known as being the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. You’ve never seen the stars shine quite so bright, and you may just be spoiled with a dazzling display of Aurora Borealis.
How awesome is Wapusk National Park? So awesome that you can’t get there by car; there are no roads that lead to the park. Instead, you’ll have to arrive by tundra buggy or via helicopter. Needless to say, you won’t need to contend with crowds here.
However, that’s not to say you’ll be alone out there. There is plenty of wildlife that calls Wapusk home, including nearly a thousand polar bears. Watch them from afar, and don’t get too close. This might be a good time to brush up on your polar bear safety skills.
Pacific Rim, British Columbia
Head west—far west—to experience Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The park’s star hike is the infamous West Coast Trail, a typically week-long backpacking trail that winds through lush rainforest and jagged coastline. The park reserve also encompasses Long Beach, home to what is arguably the best surfing in Canada. Just don’t forget to pack a wet suit, even in the summer.
Nahanni, Northwest Territories
If you’re looking to experience true Canadian wilderness, head north to Nahanni National Park Reserve in Northwest Territories. Pack your canoe and experience some of the best paddling in the world along the Nahanni River, or get ready for the mountaineering adventure of a lifetime through the Mackenzie Mountains’ Ragged Range. The park is on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and it’s as rich in Native Canadian culture as it is in wildlife.
Canada’s oldest National Park, established in 1885, offers endless activities through Canada’s rugged Rocky Mountains, no matter what time of year you visit.
Summer is the time to hit the challenging trails that climb up to the alpine, passing impossibly blue glacial lakes along the way. Pick your poison: there are 64 hiking trails and 33 bike trails.
Wintertime calls for skis and snowshoes to take advantage of that deliciously fluffy Rockies snow. Choose between resort skiing, ski touring or cross-country skiing—or aim for the triple threat and do all three.
Fall and spring offer a little bit of everything, and they’re the best time to avoid the crowds, as Banff is definitely one of Canada’s most popular parks.
If you’re looking for some true solitude, Yukon’s Vuntut National Park could be just what you’re after. The park offers no official services, facilities, or designated trails, but those who seek it out are rewarded with some truly rugged arctic terrain, perfect for a choose-your-own-adventure.
If you spot another person, say hello; though nobody lives in the park year-round, Vuntut Gwitchin citizens are frequent users of the park and can teach you a thing or two about Vuntut’s extensive history. Vuntut isn’t your typical National Park experience, but that’s what makes it special.
There’s no better place to get acquainted with Canada’s prairies than Grasslands National Park. The park is home to a number of family-friendly hikes, but backcountry enthusiasts will happily head out on a multi-day journey through the backlands, where you’ll truly feel like you’re alone out there.
You can even join a paleontologist tour to dig for fossils; thousands of dinosaur bones have been found within the park.
Be sure to take a moment to appreciate the expansive sky, preferably catching the sunset on a crisp, clear night to experience some of that prairie magic.