Travel Story Visit Canada's best national parks — for free

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, Parks Canada is giving visitors free access to 148 national parks, marine conservation areas and historic sites across the country.

With so many special places to choose from, how do you decide? For most overseas visitors, it depends what else you plan to see and do. 

For many, visiting a national park is a nice add-on but it’s not the focus of your trip. For others, visiting a park will be the main event. Here are ideas for both.

National parks close (or close enough) to the gateway cities of Vancouver and Toronto

Let’s begin with Banff: it’s Canada’s oldest park and one of the most prized. Starting from Vancouver, the drive to Banff is nine hours but well worth it. 

The new Commonwealth Walkway connects downtown Banff with the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, where it all started. Continue driving on the spectacular Icefields Parkway, past Lake Louise to Jasper National Park. 

This Rocky Mountain corridor is famous for wildlife including grizzly and black bears, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

Closer to Vancouver is Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island. Ferry to the island, then drive to Tofino in 3-5 hours (depending which ferry you take). The beaches are breathtaking (even by Australian standards). Here on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find long sandy shores with waves crashing at your feet and gulls whirling overhead. 

A surfer’s paradise, Pacific Rim is also loved by beachcombers and the hardiest of hikers. The 75km West Coast Trail offers multi-day backpacking challenges involving ladders and bridges. New for 2017 is a shorter (two or three-day) option. 

If Toronto is in your plans, then visiting Rouge National Urban Park is a no-brainer.

Canada’s first and only national urban park will be 22 times larger than New York’s Central Park when it’s complete. Despite being within an hour’s reach of seven million people, the park’s forests, farmland, ravines, meadows and marshes offer surprising biological diversity. Beavers, snapping turtles, and cliff swallows are among the 1700 species of plants and animals.

Walk one of eight trails (some wheelchair accessible) or paddle the Rouge River or one of the wetlands for a close-up view of amphibians and birds.

Less accessible national parks

Most, if not all, of Canada’s national parks are big enough to deserve more than a day or two. Others are so remote they demand it. Here are three you won’t regret making extra time to visit.   

In the south-west corner of the Northwest Territories, Nahanni National Park is one of the world’s largest parks, similar in size to Switzerland.

Mountains, canyons, and rivers form a pristine landscape that’s accessible by float plane or helicopter. Most visitors paddle or raft a section of the South Nahanni River, stopping for half a day or more to gape at the wonder of Virginia Falls, which are nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. Private operators including Nahanni River Adventures offer guided multi-day trips (nahanni.com).

One of Canada’s newest parks, Torngat Mountains National Park sits on the northern tip of Newfoundland and Labrador on the country’s subarctic east coast. Fly by scheduled charter 600km from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to an airstrip in the park, then motor by boat to Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station. 

The season is short — from late July until early September — but the scenery is spectacular and you’ll be with Inuit guides.

Hike across tundra, look for caribou and polar bears, feast on fresh-caught arctic char. You’ll need to plan this trip a year or more in advance.

The prairies are beguiling in their gentle beauty and not the flat, boring terrain you might think. The two large blocks that make up Grasslands National Park represent only a tiny fraction of an area that once supported great herds of bison and aboriginal people living in harmony with nature. But the West block alone is big enough that plains bison — reintroduced in 2005 — now number more than 300. Black-tailed prairie dogs also abound. 

You need a vehicle to get around the park.

(At top: Aerial view of the South Nahanni River, Nahanni National Park Reserve. Picture: Parks Canada / Rob Stimpson)

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