Canadian National Parks
August 10, 2009 8:06 AM   Subscribe

This is for our Canuck MeFites (or those with knowledge or experience). Please tell me about the Canadian National Park System.

For the past 25 years I have spent a great deal of my leisure time exploring the U.S. National Parks. I am interested in doing the same north of the border. I especially love hiking in the mountains, so I'm looking for national park recommendations in the Purcell Mountains or Canadian Rockies. If you have familiarity with specific trails or off-road exploring that would be great.

But I don't want to exclude the easterners. What would you recommend on your side of the country? My previous Canadian experiences have been limited to Montreal and Toronto. I'd like to get out of the cities and into the wild. Thanks in advance for your assistance.
posted by netbros to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Gros Morne in Newfoundland, takes an effort to get there, but it is a world heritage site, and well worth it.
posted by edgeways at 8:17 AM on August 10, 2009

It's Provincial rather than National but Algonquin Park is not too far from Toronto. It's a camping/canoeing type of place, best visited in early fall. It's pretty deeply embedded in the national psyche, I'd say.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:22 AM on August 10, 2009

Friends just got pack from an extended canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park (Northwestern Ontario) and they had nothing but good things to say about it.
posted by davey_darling at 8:27 AM on August 10, 2009

yeah, I should say a thing or two about the Quetico being as it is almost in my backyard.

1. It is a fantastic place
2. It is a place where you have to plan carefully. You don't have to be hardcore or anything, just prudent, and yeah if your tastes run that way and your rugged enough you can reach places where you won't see anyone for days.
posted by edgeways at 8:38 AM on August 10, 2009

Thirding the Quetico. If you are in to canoeing at all, this is pretty much Heaven.
posted by thebrokedown at 9:08 AM on August 10, 2009

++Gros Morne. July or August if you want to hike to the top of Gros Morne mountian (it is closed before then), but there are great hikes throughout the park. I went in spring and very much liked Green Gardens trail; tremendously varied landscape -- from barren to forest to volcanic shoreline. Also awesome kayaking.
posted by dzot at 9:21 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Next to the west from the Purcells are the Monashees, and it doesn't come much better than Valhalla Provincial Park, which is in the amazing Slocan Valley. Easily driveable, and close to the best of the west Kootenay funky hanging-out towns such as Nelson (of course) but also Kaslo and New Denver. You can range North from there via Nakusp and the Galena Bay ferry to Revelstoke and Revelstoke National Park, and also NW via Cherryville to Monashee Provincial Park, which is seriously under-visited in my experience, a stiff hike up to Peters Lake and it is all alpine meadow from there.

In general, the National Park system and the Provincial Park system are comparable -- both can be large slabs of remote wilderness with few facilities. So. I'd suggest looking into both.

Wells Gray Park in BC (Cariboo Range, basically a northern extension of the Selkirks) is another large park with relatively fewer visitors than the big "Mountain parks" (i.e., Jasper-Banff-Yoho).

For something a little different, consider the western Chilcotin in BC - the dry eastern slopes of the coast ranges -- Taseko Park area, Nemaiah Valley, etc.
posted by Rumple at 9:34 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

My favourite park anywhere is Lac La Ronge, which is a provincial park in northern Saskatchewan. No mountains, but it is a giant lake with >1000 islands in it, and not many people around. To get to most of the things in the park, you need a boat (easy to rent in La Ronge). Apparently it is a good place to begin if you are hardcore and want to portage to somewhere else; the park office has a bunch of maps and pamphlets about places you can go in Saskatchewan or Alberta or Manitoba and routes to them, ranging from a couple of days' travel to a couple of weeks.
posted by bewilderbeast at 9:40 AM on August 10, 2009

I grew up in British Columbia and did some hiking/trekking while I was a teenager there. Strathcona, on Vancouver Island, will always be my first love, especially if you want mountains mixed with temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

Also on VanIsle, MacMillan Park is worth visiting mostly for Cathedral Grove, which is probably the most spectacular example of rainforest along the entire coast.

I've never hiked in the Rockies themselves, but have very fond memories of driving through Glacier National Park and Banff in Alberta. Spectacular scenery out that way.
posted by bl1nk at 9:45 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just to chime in, you can see from others' responses here that there are many provincial parks worth considering. Be sure not to artificially limit yourself to national parks.
posted by onshi at 9:46 AM on August 10, 2009

I really love Killarney Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Huron. Absolutely beautiful.

We stayed outside the park to the north and canoed or hiked in. Memail for details.
posted by readery at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2009

Rumple nails it.

I think one of the more delightful things about the Purcells is that they're in a region of British Columbia that has a varied and interesting landscape in a relatively small area. In other words, by visiting the Purcells and Valhalla you can also visit some interesting landscapes along the way. Coming from Vancouver Island as I do, the rough, primordial landscapes of the Trail and Rossland areas are like visiting Mars (the Teck smelter helps to add to this atmosphere). Drive north and you reach Castlegar, which is a sage/savannah microclimate. Follow the Kootenay River north and you're in fir rainforests. Added to the mix is Nelson itself, a lovely little town that's fun to spend time in.

My list of places to visit in the province include Monkman park, in the Northern Rockies - the town of Tumbler Ridge is home to an excellent little paleontology museum. You'll never, ever get a better chance to speak one-on-one with world-class dinosaur experts than at that museum.

In the Northwest, I hope to visit Babine Lakes someday soon. The entire drive along Highway 16 is just incredible.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:51 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hi, I live in Banff National Park and was raised on Parks Canada.

If I've learned anything living in the Rockies its how in tune with the seasons you become, and how different locations vary within a few short weeks of time. And by season I don't just mean fall/winter/spring/summer I mean last two weeks of July for the flowering of alpine meadows at Healy Pass versus first two weeks of October when the larches turn golden yellow in Larch Valley, or scrambling up Mount Temple on the first week of July versus the last week of August.

As for crowds, we all know Banff is a tourist trap in the summer, you'll face less crowds in Jasper, but if you go early in the season (June) and avoid long weekends you can avoid most crowds. Even during the peak there are a lot of tails that the tourists avoid and you can have to yourself if you go on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. As soon as September hits you have the whole park to yourself, everyone's gone, it won't snow yet but it will be cooler (which can make for more enjoyable hikes).

Alpine seasons are so short and specific that each park, each trail is best recommended for very specific times of year. Wapta Traverse (sample link, doesn't have to be done with them) has epic ski touring all winter long, but you're less likely to fall into a crevasse in March than in May, but if you want to climb peaks you'll want to toss the skis and bring crampons in July.

All this to say it's hard to make recommendations without knowing first what you want to do, and wen you want to do it.

Hut to Hut ski touring of the Wapta Travese will rank as the greatest adventure I've undertaken so far. Four days on a glacier ice field crossing ranges of mountains, provincial borders, epic skiing and not a soul in sight for miles.

Plain of Six Glaciers is both the most accessible and most awe inspiring hike you'll ever do, and there's a Tea House at the end of it!

Yoho National Park in BC (borders Banff at Lake Louise) gets less traffic than Banff or Jasper, and there's a great circuit you can do that involves Takakkaw Falls (second highest in Canada), Laughing Falls, Twin Falls and most importantly, the Iceline.

Glacier National Park in BC is a climbers paradise, and in the winter there's the epic Rogers Pass. It's also got some amazing 800 year old cedars.

Waterton National Park is good because the latitude means the season starts a bit earlier, although I've heard its specific geography means it gets a lot of heavy wind.

Outside of the Rockies, the parks I'd recommend are:
  • Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island... it's a temperate rain forest on the pacific cost, with amazing tidal pools, giant trees and more! I just got back from there and am already planning to hike the 75km long West Coast Trail next year.
  • La Mauricie National Park in Quebec, north of Trois Rivieres. This is a canoe camping mecca. I've had a beaver swim by my canoe and slap his tail only feet away. There's also a hiking loop up there.
  • Gaspésie/Forillon National Park a lovely east coast park, I've seen plenty of fossils there and salted fish never tasted so good.
Let me know what specific activities you'd like to partake in and I'd be happy to suggest some ideas.
posted by furtive at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2009 [11 favorites]

I had a comment and deleted it after I saw furtive's amazing comment. He covers almost everything imaginable. the only things I can add are:
-If you do any sort of guide service I highly reccommend Yamnuska (from furtive's Wapta Traverse link). I've gone with them 3 times now - the best guiding service I've had the pleasure to work with.
-you should also look at the Alpine Club of Canada for accomidations if you are looking for in-depth multi day trips out of remote locations. (Iceline trail is awesome - head up to the Stanley Mitchell Hut and you have great access to the Whaleback - which has a great view of the President and Vice President).
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:10 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're going to tour the parks, pick up a Parks Canada Pass to save some money. Interesting trivia: If you pay for entry in to any of those parks without a pass, keep you receipts and show them when you buy a pass, they'll take the amount spent in the current year off the cost of the pass.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:15 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing Gros Morne National Park - I'm a Newfoundlander and I'm speaking on behalf of the tons of people who have berated me for not having been there yet.

As for crowds, we all know Banff is a tourist trap in the summer, you'll face less crowds in Jasper, but if you go early in the season (June) and avoid long weekends you can avoid most crowds.

I lived in Jasper for 4.5 years and furtive is right on the money here.

Heck, the drive from Jasper to Calgary via the Icefields Parkway is worth the trip.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:01 PM on August 10, 2009

Or vice versa, the drive from Calgary to Jasper (via Banff) has to be the best drive in Canada and one of the best in the world.

The parks pass is definitely worth it, I think it comes to about $85 for a vehicle/year, but don't forget you'll need a separate pass for certain backcountry activities.

Something else worth mentioning, although you can now book Parks Canada campsites online they only list a fraction of the campgrounds available in parks, and lets just say they attract a certain type of camper (RV, family car campers, etc.).

Backcountry and most campgrounds in Parks Canada are only available on a first come first serve basis the day of (often 11am, but sometimes they take names starting at 8am and give them out in order to those present at 11am) or day before through the parks info office. So if you want to camp on a Fri/Sat/Sun, call on Wed to confirm that you can reserve it on a Thur and you should be good to go.

Also, walk in campsites (not to be confused with backcountry) are usually 100ft or less from where your vehicle is parked, but often offer more privacy, so I tend to chose those first when I'm just car camping.
posted by furtive at 12:17 PM on August 10, 2009

A few more tidbits:

A big difference between Parks Canada and say Yosemite in the USA: the use of ATV, snowmobiles, dirtbikes, motorboats, etc. are restricted in Parks Canada properties (no guns either).

Fishing is an option in many national parks, with the proper license.

You might also be interested in British Columbia Forestry Roads, which are mostly free and offer great camping/trails. Unfortunately they don't offer comprehensive maps anymore, but each local tourism office should have a regional map of sites, although you might want to skip them if you don't like gravel roads, potholes or lack four-wheel drive.
posted by furtive at 12:25 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

BC Ministry of Forests manages (sort of) a series of free (sort of) campsites which are often near outstanding scenery (and clear cuts). I believe Alberta does the same, I camped in some gorgeous drive-in, basically free, ones in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, e.g., at Ram Falls. There are some excellent drive-BC and camp and hike books available.

KokuRyu is right on about the varied scenery looping Vancouver through the southern interior then northwards through the Columbia ecozone - a surprising mosaic of interior rainforest and near-desert. And second furtive on everything. I work a lot in Gwaii Haanas NPR and while it is gorgeous, it is a kayaking place not a hiking place. One of the best beach hikes anywhere is the ca. 100 km on sandy beach hike around Naikoon
- you can go from Tlell to Agate Beach basically uninterrupted. Do it before the windfarm is assembled!
posted by Rumple at 12:27 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd like to suggest that you check out the Bugaboo provincial park.
I've been a number of times and it's always been stunning. You can do it
as a day trip if you want, get right up into the alpine then get back down.
Access is seasonal to the park so check ahead. You can also stay in the
Conrad Cain hut if you get reservations.

Here is a bit on you tube showing the road to the parking lot the hut is up on
the right side and has a crazy view. The hike is a real one but if you go light
it's not so bad.

If you want to explore some back roads down the street from Radium go
to town of Canal Flats and turn left up the White swan road. Keep your
wits about you driving along the canyon but past there one can continue
up a number of back roads. Nice camping, swimming and a few hot springs
are up there along with a bunch of back roads, mountain sheep oh and a few
posted by jade east at 4:21 PM on August 10, 2009

Whiteswan lake (what jade east) mentioned is nice, the hot springs are actually bubbling out of the ground and not one of those fancy spa resorts.
posted by furtive at 8:08 PM on August 10, 2009

Conrad Kain Hut, part of Boogaboo Provincial Park in the Purcells seems to fit your bill nicely. 45km (30 mile) dirt road to get to the parking lot, then a 4.5km hike with a 700m gain. Beautiful glaciers, glacial waterfalls and flowers. I have a friend who just posted photos of it and I must say it looks fantastic.

They even provide chicken wire to protect your vehicle from becoming an animal nest.
posted by furtive at 8:17 PM on August 10, 2009

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