The 8 Best National Parks in Canada
When you’ve exhausted Zion and Yosemite, it’s time to go north.
National parks might be “America’s best idea,” but that idea—and the vast swaths of epic nature it preserves—doesn’t end at the border. Just a bit north of places like Acadia, Yellowstone, or North Cascades, Canada’s stretch of land is just as vast and mindblowing.
You’ve got white-capped mountains over turquoise lakes, moose-laden forests, rugged coastlines, turquoise waters, ancient glaciers, and fjords. The 48 national parks of the Great White North are epic in proportion, spanning 174,000 square miles—and they’re easy to drive to from the US.
The UNESCO-recognized Canadian Rockies might have the best density of jaw-dropping nature, but there are epic spots to see coast-to-coast either one at a time or on a Great Canadian Road Trip with a $55 Parks Canada Discovery Pass. Here’s your guide to the very best.
If you Google “Canada nature,” you’ll see pictures of Banff National Park in the Rockies—and for good reason. Canada’s oldest and most popular national park is Mother Earth at its damn-girl-you-lookin-fine sexiest. Anywhere you look, there are jagged peaks sprinkled with fluffy powder, bluer than blue glacial lakes, and majestic wildlife including bears (black and grizzly), elk, wolves, and foxes.
Despite being busy year-round, Banff is big enough that you can find something to do without being shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists (well, except perhaps if you’re waiting for that photo of Lake Louise). Some options include hiking nearly 1,000 miles of trails, scuba diving in Lake Minnewanka, skiing at Sunshine Village, or sipping tea at the swanky Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Ontario is known for a few things: cities, trucker convoys, and Drake. But turquoise water, shipwrecks, rock pillars, and underwater caves? Nah. As an Ontarian myself, I definitely wouldn’t say so, and yet those are all on display at Bruce Peninsula National Park, located a few hours from Toronto, five from Detroit, and 11 from New York.
At the northern tip of the park, check out Fathom Five National Marine Park, which has 20 shipwrecks that you can dive to, including the double-decked passenger steamer City of Grand Rapids that sank in 1907. Fathom Five also has bizarre-looking sea stacks on Flowerpot Island and a central town of Tobermory worth meandering around. From town, walk the legendary Bruce Trail, where you’ll see cedars a millennium old and limestone cliffs galore.
Quebec’s southeastern Gaspesie peninsula above Maine is like if the rocky-shorelined Maritimes province and green-forested Quebec had a baby—and Forillon National Park jutting out into the sea is like if that baby had the prettiest pacifier ever. With powerful waves crashing into epic cliffs and seabirds flapping through the mist, Forillon feels like you’re at the edge of the world.
Have a picnic or stroll on the pebble beach while staring at the cliffs (they kind of look like wrinkly faces if you look real closely). The park has over four hours worth of hiking trails, guided sea kayaking tours, and paddle boards for rent. Keep an eye on the water where you might be able to spot the blows of fin whales, humpbacks, and perhaps even a blue whale—the world’s largest mammal. At the south end of the park, you can visit Fort Péninsule, a naval battery where Allied forces sunk German U-boats during World War II.
Saskatchewan is perhaps Canada’s most underrated province, and Grasslands north of Montana is perhaps its lesser-known national park—but it shouldn’t be. Hiking across Grasslands’ plains or driving its 50-mile scenic drive will make you feel so, so small in the vastness of this country.
Before sunset, set up camp wherever you want under flickering stars—Grasslands is Canada’s darkest dark-sky preserve. But the best part about Grasslands is its furry bison herds, which were reintroduced to the park in 2005.
Home to Canada’s friendliest people and perhaps its harshest climate, Newfoundland is also where you’ll find Gros Morne, one of the country’s finest and most rugged national parks. With plenty of trails and waterfalls, some of which drop 2,000 feet, Gros Morne is a hiker’s paradise. It’s also a great place to learn about the history of our planet.
Back 1,200 million years ago when the Pangea supercontinent broke apart, magma from oozing earth fractures cooled into the rocks that we can see today in Grose Morne’s Western Brook and Ten Mile ponds. The park as we see it today formed over the last two-million years of repeated glaciation, deglaciation, and associated sea-level changes. After your hike, meat eaters can stop by a restaurant in the park’s town and give a moose burger a try.
After visiting Banff, take the Icefields Parkway—one of the world’s most scenic drives with more than 100 ancient glaciers—up to Jasper. One of Canada’s prettiest and wildest national parks, Jasper is massive at 4,247 square miles, making it the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. And it’s a great place to spot wildlife.
Here, you’ll get an even better chance of seeing bears and elk than in Banff, especially if you go off-grid and stay in a hike- or ski-in backcountry lodge or hostel. Don’t miss the Jasper SkyTram up Whistlers Peak and taking a dip in a natural hot spring.
With rolling green hills and shimmering blue water teeming with lobsters, fin, minke, humpback, and pilot whales, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a Canadian treasure.
Take the 185-mile Cabot Trail around the island for some spectacular views (brownie points if you do it by bike), or hop in a kayak and get personal with the marine life. The Skyline trail is one of Canada’s most popular hikes and will give you a good chance at spotting a moose.
Up in Nunavut, Canada’s most northern and newest territory, Auyuittuq National Park is for the adventurous explorers out there. Covering a remote area of more than 8,000 miles, Auyuittuq is a land of craggy granite cliffs, glaciers, tundra valleys, and steep-walled fjords populated by amazing creatures like polar bears and arctic foxes.
Dress warmly and embrace your inner Thor for a climb up the 4,000-foot peak of Mount Asgard, or go on a cross-country skiing adventure up 1,500 feet to Summit Lake. Unfortunately, vanlifers will have to leave their cars behind for this one, as the only way to get into Nunavut is by air.