15 national parks to visit in Canada’s 150th year

by Steinar Cramer

To help you celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, Parks Canada is issuing a free Discovery Pass to anyone who wants one. The pass provides free access to every National Park, National Marine Conservation Area and National Historic Site across the country – that’s more than 200 places to explore! Unless you’ve got the whole year off, you’ll need to narrow this down to a manageable number. Here are our picks to get you started. [Image credit: iStock.com/pac9012]

15 national parks to visit in Canada’s 150th year

1. Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

We start our list with the wild, imposing glacial landscapes of the northwest coast of Newfoundland, where Gros Morne National Park offers up hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, boat tours and much more. You can spot moose and caribou, explore the unique culture of hardy seaside villages, and wonder at the steep-walled fjords and awe-inspiring mountains throughout the park.

2. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, British Columbia

Jumping across the country, our next pick is Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This is a land of temperate rainforests, rugged coastlines and epic hiking. Split into three sections that include a 16km-long beach, hundreds of islands perfect for coastal kayaking, and the world-renown West Coast Trail, the park is a playground for adventurers of all stripes.

3. Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta

We couldn't really keep Banff and Jasper off this list, now could we? These two adjoining parks are at the heart of Canada’s love affair with the Rocky Mountains. Glorious alpine views await around every turn in the road or trail, accompanied by picture-perfect aquamarine lakes and endless forests. Banff is Canada’s oldest national park (established in 1885) and is the more developed of the two, with the likes of its namesake town and Lake Louise drawing skiers, hikers and tour groups all year round. Jasper is arguably the more rugged destination – less developed and more of a draw for hard-core adventurers looking to get into untracked backcountry for hiking, biking, skiing and more.

4. Nahanni National Park Reserve, Northwest Territories

Here’s where things get seriously epic and adventurous. If you have to pick one highlight of Nahanni National Park it’s the South Nahanni River, which plunges down four canyons on its way through the surrounding Mackenzie Mountains. It’s a draw for paddlers from around the world, and rightfully so. Other features include the thundering Virginia Falls, sulphur hot springs, vast tundra and abundant wildlife.

5. Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

At about 30 square kilometres, Point Pelee National Park is easily the smallest on this list, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. With relatively easy access from the GTA and surrounding communities, it's a popular destination for urbanites looking to enjoy the outdoors for a day. The big attraction here is the park’s airborne visitors – some 350 different species of migratory birds make a stop here throughout the year alongside an epic migration of monarch butterflies every fall. The park is also the southern-most point in Canada (excluding two small islands just to is southwest).

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6. Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Quebec

Running along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are the approximately 30 limestone islands and a further 1,000 granitic islands and reefs that make up the Mingan Archipelago. A remote area of spectacular natural rock formations and abundant coastal and marine wildlife, the park is a great place to view seabirds, seals, dolphins, whales and more.

7. Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut

Ok, so it’s not likely many of you will make it to this park, but it’s a fun one to put on the list, not least because it would truly be an amazing experience to go there. Quttinirpaaq National Park is at the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far north. In fact, this is the second-most-northerly park in the world after one in northern Greenland. The harsh environment means there’s not a lot of vegetation or wildlife beyond small numbers of arctic hares, muskoxen, lemmings and arctic hares.

8. Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

You know that little area between the Rockies and the Canadian Shield? Yep, that’s the prairies, and there’s no better showcase for the beauty of this region than Grasslands National Park. It’s got the wide-open plains, the big prairie skies, and a herd of bison. It has also been declared a dark-sky preserve, which means it’s an amazing place for stargazing at night.

9. Torngat Mountains National Park, Newfoundland

Scenery doesn’t get much more stunning than the peaks, valleys and fjords of Torngat Mountains National Park, located at the northeastern tip of Labrador. There are two separate herds of caribou in the park, as well as polar bears, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and much more. Hiking and kayaking are two of the best ways to see the park, though you’ll likely need a boat or small plane to drop you off at your starting point.

10. Fundy National Park, New Brunswick

Oh yes, you know what this one is all about. Located on its namesake bay, Fundy National Park features the world’s highest tides. You can paddle on waters that rise up to 12 metres at high tide, and then walk the sea floor at low tide, exploring unique rock formations. Inland, there are plenty of hiking trails through the Acadian forests, some leading to picturesque waterfalls.

11. Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

The rugged terrain of Cape Breton Highlands National Park provides an inspiring backdrop for discovering the history and natural beauty of the area. A mountainous plateau that plunges down to the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the other, the park offers epic seaside hiking trails that run along cliffs and through steep, forested canyons. Wildlife abounds, including the opportunity to see whales as you walk along the shore.

12. Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta and Northwest Territories

At 44,807 square kilometres, Wood Buffalo is larger than Switzerland and is Canada’s largest national park, spanning from northeastern Alberta into the Northwest Territories. This vast area is home to the world’s largest herd of free-roaming wood bison, estimated to be about 5,000 strong. The Peace River is a major feature of the park, and attracts a wide range of wildlife to its banks, from bears to moose, wolves and whooping cranes.

13. Wapusk National Park, Manitoba

“Wapusk” means “white bear” in the Cree language, making it a fitting name for a park that is arguably the best place in the world to view wild polar bears. Running along the southwest coast of Hudson’s Bay, Wapusk National Park offers a window into the wilds of Canada’s coastal subarctic.

14. Gwaii Haanas National Park, British Columbia

Located 130 km off the central coast of B.C., at the southern end of Haida Gwaii, Gwaii Haanas National Park is a unique destination for a number of reasons. It’s a paddler’s paradise, with countless islands, inlets and fjords to explore. The park is also home to a former Haida village, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

15. Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Majestic mountains meet the prairies in this park in the extreme southwest corner of Alberta, where it shares a national and park border with Glacier National Park in Montana. It’s all about incredible scenery, challenging hikes and the full range of alpine wildlife – from bighorn sheep and mountain goats, to elk, moose, wolverines, beavers, lynxes, grizzly bears and more.

Everyone will have their own favourites, but these are the parks that are on our bucket list. See if any of them match with your idea of the perfect outdoor adventure. Happy exploring and happy birthday, Canada!

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