Where to use your free Parks Canada Discovery Pass near Toronto

By Jeff Cottrill

What country has ten provinces, loves poutine and turns a hundred and fifty years old this year? That’s right, Canada is celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2017. To commemorate, Parks Canada is offering a free Discovery Pass – which gives you and your family free admission to more than two hundred historical sites, national parks and marine conservation areas across the nation. Now that spring is here and summer is on its way, you may be itching for a road trip away from the concrete jungle of Hogtown. Here are some of the places near (ish) Toronto where the Discovery Pass can get you in for free!

Where to use your free Parks Canada Discovery Pass near Toronto

The HMCS Haida

Only an hour or so away by the QEW, this seventy-five-year-old navy warship served her country in World War II and the Korean War, sinking enemy ships in important battles and earning the moniker, “Canada’s most fightingest ship.” Today, you can walk aboard the Haida in Hamilton’s Bayfront Park and learn what it was like to serve on a genuine Tribal-class destroyer.

Peterborough Lift Lock

More than a century old, this famous hydraulic boat lift can raise boats nearly twenty metres. Today, you can take part in interactive simulations of going over the lift in a boat at the visitors’ centre, which also includes an exhibition about the construction of the lift lock and its history. You can even skate on the canal below the lift lock when the water’s frozen.

Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower

This memorial is an 18.9-metre tower on the banks of Kitchener’s Grand River, built in 1926 to commemorate the contributions and sacrifices of the Pennsylvania-German pioneer farmers who settled in what is now the Waterloo Regional Municipality in the early nineteenth century. While it doesn’t have quite the view or commanding presence of the CN Tower, its Swiss-style copper roof can be seen for miles around.

Woodside National Historic Site

This large Victorian forest house was the childhood home of Canada’s tenth Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who led our country during the Great Depression and WWII. (You may recognize him as the dude on our $50 bill). Woodside offers a journey into history with genuine King family heirlooms and a restoration of what the house may have looked like in the 1800s.

Bethune Memorial House

If you’re willing to drive significantly further to explore the life of a Canuck hero, you can visit the birthplace of Dr. Norman Bethune, who brought modern medicine to rural China’s villagers and soldiers in the 1930s. Originally a church manse, the house now provides tours and a visitors’ centre teaching about Bethune’s accomplishments and legacy.

Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site

To go back even further in history, visit this archaeological site containing the remains of a village inhabited by Attiwandaron First Nations (also known as the Neutral Iroquois), who lived here in the sixteenth century. Today, trees grow out of an oval ring of earthwork hills, but underneath are more than twenty longhouses and palisade walls which once housed around eight hundred people.

Battle of Cook’s Mills National Historic Site

The Niagara Horseshoe is loaded with reminders of the War of 1812 – the war in which we, of course, burned down the original White House. This semi-rural landscape near the Welland Canal was the site of the Battle of Cook’s Mills, where British and Canadian soldiers held the invading American forces back on October 19, 1814.

Queenston Heights National Historic Site

This park marks the site of the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, another victory for Upper Canada against the Americans despite the death of General Isaac Brock. The park includes General Brock’s grave and a monument to Laura Secord, and you can climb to the top of the 56-metre Brock’s Monument or take a tour with a guide in period costume.

Fort George

If you’re heading to a Shaw Festival play, why not stop here too? Many War of 1812 battles took place at Fort George, one of the province’s most famous forts. Today, visitors can take tours by guides in redcoat uniforms and step into soldiers’ blockhouses, officers’ quarters and a powder magazine, sample authentic nineteenth-century cuisine and even feel what it’s like to fire a musket.

Butler’s Barracks

Not too far from Fort George is this historic military complex, which replaced the original Butler’s Barracks that saw action in the War of 1812 – and that one replaced the home of Loyalist officer John Butler, who played a role in the American Revolution. Butler’s now contains the Lincoln and Welland Regimental Museum and more info on Canadian military history.

Fort Mississauga

Another military fort from the 1810s, this one was originally intended as a replacement for Fort George, but wasn’t finished until after the War of 1812 ended. Today, it’s the only fort left in Canada designed with a square tower within a star-shaped earthwork, and the blockhouse is the only building of the original fort that has survived. It’s also the former site of the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes.

Georgian Bay Islands National Park

If you’re looking to explore further north, Georgian Bay Islands National Park is billed as the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, and it also served as an inspiration for the legendary landscape painters in the Group of Seven. Beausoleil Island is rife with hiking and walking trails, and there are also plenty of opportunities for wildlife and nature watching.

Bruce Peninsula National Park

Right on the tip of the peninsula after which it’s named, this park is the core of UNESCO’s Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve. It’s an ideal place for hiking, camping and bird watching, while the wildlife ranges from birds and snakes to black bears.

Fathom Five National Marine Park

Not far from Bruce Peninsula National Park, this marine conservation area offers ample history, both natural and artificial: the area contains dolomite, cliffs and rock formations that are hundreds of millions of years old, but also man-made lighthouses and multiple shipwrecks. Scuba diving and tours in glass-bottomed boats are popular here for getting a closer look at the old wrecked boats.

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