Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park (Dreamstime)
List 12 July

Ultimate guide to Canada's National Parks - 21 of the country's wildest places

From trawling the Arctic’s ice floes to hiking in dramatic scenery, Canada’s National Parks are truly wild. With free entry in 2017 to celebrate the country's 150th 'birthday', here are the best ones to sample

1: Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland & Labrador

Wetland pond and mountains in Gros Morne National Park (Dreamstime)

Best for: Mountain trails, caribou, geological wonders

Visitors: 207,075 (2015-16)

Why go: Sheer physical drama is the lure here.

Established in 1973, the park gets its name from the 806m mountain that rises up outside Rocky Harbour. Trails to its summit weave herds of caribou until you reach a plateau of tundra. Here, views stretch out over Ten Mile Pond. To the south, the barren sprawl of the Tablelands reveals an exposed part of the Earth’s mantle; treks lead you out across peridotite rock, forced up from the planet’s depths hundreds of millions of years ago.

This vast freshwater Western Brook Pond is clipped by 600m-high rock and fed by the pragmatically named Pissing Mare – one of North America’s tallest waterfalls. It’s also the start-point for the North Rim Traverse, a 27km off-trail trek that leads into the park’s lesser-seen wilderness.

When to go: The park is open year-round. Icebergs can be seen from May-June; minke whales are spotted in Bonne Bay as late as September. Wildflowers tend to bloom in June and July.

Plan your trip: The southern boundary of Gros Morne NP is 35km from Deer Lake Regional Airport, with connecting flights to Toronto and beyond. Combine with a trip east across Newfoundland along the Trans-Canada Highway, finishing up in North America’s oldest city, St John’s, a base for exploring the capes and wildlife reserves beyond.

 

2: Gwaii Haanas NP Reserve, British Columbia


Ocean view at Gwaii Haanas NP Reserve (Dreamstime)

Best for: Haida ruins, hot springs, whales

Visitors: 2,123 (2015-16)

Why go: Wandering the ruins of the indigenous Haida people is just part of the appeal of this UNESCO-listed reserve off Canada’s western coast (created in 1988). More than 500 sites dot the park’s 138 islands, as you explore the lush lower third of the Haida Gwaii archipelago.

Spy longhouses and wind-blasted totem poles in the company of a native guide; Anthony and Hotspring islands are home to the best of these, with the latter coastline pocked with scorching intertidal pools.

Nearby Naikoon Provincial Park meanwhile has marked trails that pass shipwrecks, blowholes and dunes. Offshore, the archipelago serves up some fine paddling, and its waters bubble with orcas and grey and humpback whales during their summer migration.

The rest of the time, Steller’s sea lions and porpoises are commonly seen as you skim islets prickled with towering sitka spruce, red cedar and old-growth rainforest.

When to go: The park is open year-round. Whalewatching season runs May-September.

Plan your trip: Daily flights go from Sandspit (Moresby Island) to Vancouver with Air Canada. For a more scenic journey, BC Ferries run from Vancouver Island’s Port Hardy up to Prince Rupert, then boat across to Skidegate (Graham Island); a 20-min ferry connects to Moresby Island. All visitors must make reservations in advance and attend an orientation session.

 

3: Bruce Peninsula NP, Ontario

Indian Head Cove in Bruce Peninsula National Park (Dreamstime)

Best for: Rocky walks, grottos, kayaking

Visitors: 320,287 (2015-16)

Why go: Jutting out into Georgian Bay, the Niagara escarpment runs right through Bruce Peninsula, lending the park (created 1987) its rocky identity. It also means some rather good bouldering, as you scrabble the edge of the coast or wander trails along its limestone spine through 1,000-year-old cedar forests and down to secluded grottos and coves.

Plenty of the park’s hiking routes follow snatches of the Bruce Trail, an 885km walk that edges the saw-tooth escarpment and continues south to the iconic falls. Combine walking sections with a visit to neighbouring Fathom Five Marine Park, where wrecks and islets offer up some interesting snorkelling and kayaking; or trek the rock pillars of its Flowerpot Island (6.5km by boat from Tobermory) – a peaceful retreat from the crowds of the mainland.

When to go: The park is open year-round. It is best visited in early summer (around June) when the wildflowers are in bloom.

Plan your trip: Bruce Peninsula NP is a 300km drive from Toronto. Explore the waters of Georgian Bay beyond the park, boating the pink granite islands of Benjamin as well as Manitoulin, the largest freshwater island in the world and home to a rich First Nations heritage.

 

4: Banff NP & Jasper NP, Alberta

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park (Dreamstime)

Best for: The Rockies, road trips, glaciers

Visitors: 6,160,404 (combined; 2015-16)

Why go: Created in 1885 and 1907 respectively, Banff and Jasper are, for many, the crown jewels of the Canadian parks system. Thanks to the Icefields Parkway, a road trip that barrels through both, they’re some of the most popular too.

Part of the appeal is their ecosystem, with nearly 70 mammal species roaming their rugged peaks, glassy lakes, frigid glaciers and alpine meadows. Jasper’s annual elk rut is especially worth seeing, as a shivering chorus of bugle calls echo out over the Athabasca River between August and October.

Until then, there are big sights aplenty. Follow the Parkway north, stopping at the sapphire blue water of Peyto Lake or kayak 3.5km of backcountry to a new campsite at Maligne Lake’s Hidden Cove.

Hike and cycle mine trails, glaciers and hot springs, but save your awe for the Columbia Icefield and the mighty Athabasca Glacier (though it has retreated in recent times), with ice-walks taking in the history of an area that was the birthplace of Canada’s parks.

When to go: The parks are open year-round. Outside of winter sports season (Dec-Mar), go between April and September for warmer weather, wildlife watching and hikes, though the summer months will be busy.

Plan your trip: Jasper NP and Banff NP are reached by the Icefields Parkway, which runs 268km from Calgary. Extend to a week or beyond with a road trip along the Cowboy Trail (735km) between Calgary and Pekisko, which takes in ranches, horseback trails, provincial parks and local distilleries.

 

5: Rouge National Urban Park, Ontario


Trumpeter swan (Dreamstime)

Best for: Urban wildlife, birdlife, a city escape

Visitors: Not measured

Why go: Sliding between the cities of Toronto, Pickering and Markham, and down to Lake Ontario, Rouge NUP (created 2015) is a stirring example of community action. Years of volunteer work have gone into restoring its marshland and forests, with 261 species of birdlife making the park’s wetlands and oak, pine and black maple forests home. Spy Canada geese while walking its sands or watch trumpeter swans in the marshes.

To finish, combine the parks’ many short trails for a day hike, following a 200-year-old logging route, bluffs and small creeks and forest that is slowly being reclaimed from human interference.

When to go: The park is open year-round, though there is no winter maintenance on trails. Spring and autumn see its migratory birds return.

Plan your trip: Rouge NUP is just a 40km drive from Toronto, so combine with a city break, before continuing on to the famous falls of the Niagara region, just an hour’s drive away.

 

6: Wapusk NP, Manitoba


Polar bears in Canada (Dreamstime)

Best for: Polar bears, birdlife, beluga whales

Visitors: 231 (2015-16)

Why go: In Wapusk NP, on the edge of the Hudson Bay, one mammal above all others dominates: the polar bear. There is even a bear ‘jail’ back in town, for when they wander too close. But it’s out on the tundra, peat bogs and sedge meadows that you’ll find sub-Arctic nirvana.

Licensed tours run buggies across the frozen Hudson Bay in early winter, with lodge stays offered for those staying in the park. In spring, the companies return to spot newborn pups. But the park (created in 1996) is also a habitat for some 250 species of waterfowl and shorebirds, including 75,000 annually migrating pairs of snow geese.

When to go: Tours to the see the polar bears run in November and Feb-March; transport to the park is provided. Birdwatching trips typically run in June.

Plan your trip: Unescorted travellers are not permitted – book early. Churchill is unreachable by road. A two-hour flight goes from Winnipeg with Kivalliq Air (kivalliqair.com); the twice-weekly VIA Rail train (44 hours) makes for a bigger adventure.

 

7: Cape Breton Highlands NP,  Nova Scotia

Rugged coastline at White Point on Cape Breton Island (Dreamstime)

Best for: Scenery, cycling the Cabot Trail, whale-snorkelling

Visitors: 246,312 (2015-16)

Why go: Edging the northern coast of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton’s landscape is some of the most dramatic in Canada. Created in 1936, its 949 sq km twists through river canyons, lush wetlands, boreal forest, taiga plateaus and even freshwater beaches.

Some visitors simply pass through while cycling the Cabot Trail, looping the island’s northern tip for 298km, yet it pays to take your time here. On foot, 26 trails vein the park’s russet-brushed highlands and old-growth lowlands.

Camp overnight at Ingonish Beach, suspended high in the branches in spherical cocoon tree beds for an early start, then wander the 7.5km hike up Franey Mountain or the 12km route down to the shores of Fishing Cove, home to an old lobster fishing community – both are worth the thigh-burn.

Many also come for what lies in Cape Breton’s waters. Boat trips are run every summer and autumn to see the minke, fin and humpback whales that migrate to the park’s coast. If you’re lucky, you can even snorkel alongside them.

When to go: The park is open all year; July and August are the warmer, drier months; temperatures really drop in the autumn. From June to October, you can snorkel alongside whales, with trips departing Chéticamp.

Plan your trip: Regular flights arrive at Sydney airport on Cape Breton, and Halifax on mainland Nova Scotia; driving to the park takes two and five hours respectively.

 

8: Kluane National Park, Yukon


Ice and snow fields in the mountains of Kluane National Park (Graeme Green)

Best for: Mountains, Gold Rush history, glaciers

Visitors: 26,981 (2015-16)

Why go: Created in 1972, Kluane NP is mountain country. Across its borders run the Saint Elias range, extending about 400km (piercing into Alaska) and sheltering the most extensive icefields outside the polar caps – some 2,000 glaciers.

Add to that Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan (5,959m), and flight-seeing trips are the way to soak it all in. For those wary of high peaks or rafting the swirling Alsek River, two feet are also a grand way to explore, with day hikes taking you through grizzly and mining country.

The 24km Shorty Creek trail follows an old gold-rush road, or try the Bullion Plateau path, which takes you past the toe of the vast (albeit shrinking) Kaskawulsh glacier. Camping (with bear-proof storage) at Lake Kathleen affords a more relaxed take on the park, with strolls and canoe trips letting you breathe in the glacial air with ease.

When to go: Visit between May-Sept, when conditions are easier for flightseeing and hiking. The Kathleen Lake area is open all year-round.

Plan your trip: Kluane NP is a 160km drive west of Whitehorse, with most visitors camping or using Haines Junction as a base for day trips. Combine with an Alaska Highway road trip, pushing north to Fairbanks before taking the Alaska Railroad on to Anchorage.

 

9: Sable Island NP Reserve, Nova Scotia


Baby seal in Canada (Dreamstime)

Best for: Feral ponies, birdlife, grey seals

Visitors: 300 (2016)

Why go: Despite being flung about 160km off Nova Scotia’s south-east coast, this crescent shaped isle has a storied past. Around 350 shipwrecks pock its shallow sandbars, earning Sable Island its reputation as the ‘graveyard of the Atlantic’. But its living residents are what draw visitors, in particular the 550 feral ponies that have survived here since the 18th century.

A concerned clergyman first introduced animals to the island, to provide food for stranded sailors, but these were mostly stolen. Some years later, an enterprising merchant noted the idea and used the land to stable horses plundered after British forces seized a nearby colony. Over 250 years on, their small, hardy descendants still survive off the tough local beach grass.

Horses aren’t the only residents here: as you wander the barren dunes and scrub, the chance to spy not just 320 birdlife species but also the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals makes this park (officially ‘created’ in 2013) a truly unique site.

When to go: Open June to October. The main breeding period for grey seals is Dec-Feb.

Plan your trip: Visits are limited to day trips, arriving either by air charter, private vessel or cruise ship anchored offshore. A seven-seat charter flight runs from Halifax (the plane must be fully chartered), with flights taking 1.5 hours one-way; Sable Aviation runs a Facebook group to help visitors coordinate and bring the cost down.

Cruises also depart Newfoundland & Labrador capital St John’s, taking in Sable and the French-owned island of St Pierre on a nine-day trip.

 

10: Nahanni NP Reserve, Northwest Territories

Kayaks on South Nahanni River, Nahanni National Park Reserve (Dreamstime)

Best for: Kayaking/canoeing, hiking, waterfalls

Visitors: 1,044 (2015-16)

Why go: Big country’ is a term often overused, but Nahanni NPR (created 1972) really is a land of the giants. It’s something all too apparent as you kayak its canyons in the shadow of the Mackenzie range. From here, the South Nahanni river extends throughout the park, but its rapids aren’t for novices so take to your boots – or skis – to explore deeper.

Heli-hiking trips to the otherwise tricky-to-reach Tlogothsho Plateau and Vampire Peaks reveal the true glory of this UNESCO-listed wild, while floatplane trips to Victoria Falls reward with a one-hour trail around its thunderous drop. Community walks with an indigenous Dene guide offer a slower take on the area and the lives of the villagers living in the shadow of Nahanni Butte.

When to go: The park is open year-round. Cold conditions can be treacherous; the safest time to visit is in summer (Jul-Aug).

Plan your trip: The only practical access is by flight; there are no roads within the park. Chartered floatplanes are available from Yellowknife and Fort Simpson, where the park office is also located. Most visitors fly in with a guide for safety reasons.

 

11: Point Pelee NP, Ontario

Monarch Butterfly taking nectar from a Canada Goldenrod (Dreamstime)

Best for: Birdlife, monarch butterflies, the Great Lakes

Visitors: 300,106 (2015-16)

Why go: Despite being diminutive, Point Pelee (created 1918) is big in other ways. Wandering its forests, grasslands and marsh is just an excuse to spot the array of birdlife that call this spit of Lake Erie home: 390 species in total. Renowned for its migrations, tread the park amid a rainbow of warblers or kayak out into its wetlands in search of herons. But it’s not just birds, the autumn return of monarch butterflies turns the park orange and black, as they cluster the trees like confetti.

When to go: The best time for watching birds is May, which sees the ‘Festival of Birds’. Monarch butterfly migration generally peaks in September.

Plan your trip: Point Pelee NP is a four-hour drive from Toronto. Combine with a visit to Niagara Falls and then Long Point National Wildlife Area, another spike of marshland on the banks of Lake Erie.

 

12: Auyuittuq NP & Sirmilik NP, Nunavut


Dwarf fireweed growing at Auyuittuq NP (Dreamstime)

Best for: Isolation, polar bears, Inuit trails, narwhals

Visitors: 502 (combined; 2015-16)

Why go: We’ve combined the Baffin Island pair of Sirmilik (created 2001) and Auyuittuq (1976) national parks because they’re quite similar in terms of their high Arctic setting. Visitors only really arrive twice a year: early spring, when the ice is solid enough to ski, snowmobile or dogsled your way in, and after the great summer thaw, when the unfrozen waters allow boat travel.

Once there, the only thing you’ll hear is the fidgeting of glacial ice, lonely fox calls and your own echoing thoughts. It’s the true wild, but emptiness means a lot of planning, and visitors will usually arrive with guides and well-equipped for camping in Arctic conditions.

In early autumn, hiking is the best way to get around, with Auyuittuq’s 97km trek along the Inuit trail of Akshayuk Pass one of the finest walks under the glare of midnight sun. Or take a floe edge tour in Sirmilik, spying narwhals, beluga whales or polar bears hunting for seals. It’s a setting like few other places on Earth – a true frozen wild.

When to go: The parks are accessible between March and early May (spring) via snowmobile or dog sled, and from late July to September (summer) by boat.

Plan your trip: Fly direct into Iqaluit via Montreal, Ottawa, Yellowknife and other cities. From there, private charter flights take you to Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq (Auyuittuq) or to Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay (Sirmilik), the gateways to both parks.

 

13: Wood Buffalo National Park, Northwest Territories & Alberta

Wood buffalo in Alberta (Dreamstime)

Best for: Stargazing, wood buffalo, birds

Visitors: 3,119 (2015-16)

Why go: Created in 1922 to encompass the breeding grounds of its 5,500 wood buffalo, the 44,807 sq km national park is not just Canada’s largest, but also the world’s biggest dark sky preserve too. To its north, you can wild swim in Pine Lake (look out for beavers) and wander the salt plains en route to Grosbeak Lake’s lunar-scape.

To the south, treks along the 12km Sweetgrass Station backcountry trail pass old corrals leading to the Peace-Athabasca Delta. From there, push out into the wetlands, backed by the honking of an incredible array of wildfowl.

When to go: The park is open year-round. A Dark Sky Festival runs in August; Dec-Feb is best for northern lights. Frontcountry camping is May-Sept.

Plan your trip: Reach the park’s Fort Smith HQ by flights from Edmonton or the hard-packed gravel Highway 5. All four North American flyways converge over the Peace-Athabasca Delta wetlands in spring and autumn.

 

14: Ivvavik NP, Yukon


Mountainous landscape of Ivvavik National Park (Dreamstime)

Best for: Isolation, caribou, flightseeing

Visitors: 120 (2015-16)

Why go: Bordering Alaska to the west and the frozen swells of the Beaufort Sea to the north, Ivvavik (created in 1984) is pure Arctic isolation. The Firth River cuts a 130km path across its tundra, but the park’s fly-in base-camp offers the best opportunities to explore: visitors soar north of the Arctic Circle, to join their Inuvialuit hosts.

From the camp at Sheep Creek, guided trails reward with sightings of golden eagles, grizzlies, wolves and porcupine caribou. By August, the tundra has burst into carpets of wildflowers. Unmarked trails splinter out from the base, crossing rocky tors, alpine plateaus and mineral licks swarming with Dall sheep. But remember: this is bear country, so tread loudly!

When to go: Five-day fly-in base-camp trips are run by the park between June-August. In July, two trips combine Ivvavik NP with a stop-off at the Inuvialuit’s traditional home at Herschel Island.

Plan your trip: Chartered flights into the park go from Inuvik; to get there, either brave the 18-hour Dempster Highway from Whitehorse, or just fly in.

 

15: Pacific Rim NP Reserve, British Columbia

Beach view at Tofino, Pacific Rim National Park (Dreamstime)

Best for: Beaches, epic trails, scenic paddling

Visitors: 943,856 (2015-16)

Why go: Nothing good stays hidden for long. Back in the 1960s, Pacific Rim’s Long Beach was a counter culture hideaway and its rainforest-backed shore sheltered drop-outs and draft-dodgers alike. These days, the coast is the biggest draw here. To the park’s north, sandy stretches dwindle into old-growth forests of sitka spruce and red cedar scattered with short trails (and populated by huge banana slugs).

Below these, and to the east of Ucluelet, the rocky Broken Islands of Barkley Sound draw kayakers to skim among its grey whales and far-flung isles, with island campsites during the summer allowing for multi-day paddles. The big draw, however, is the 75km West Coast Trail, which stretches south from Pachena Bay to Gordon River.

The trail was created in 1907 as a rescue path for shipwrecked sailors stranded by the reef. Today, hikers ford vast canyons, wild coast and rugged beaches on five-to-seven-day treks, though a new entrance at Nitinat recently opened to allow a shorter three-day version, ending with a stay at the Ditidaht First Nation’s campsite at Tsuquadra Point.

When to go: The park is open year-round. The West Coast Trail opens May-late September.

Plan your trip: Pacific Rim NP Reserve (created 1970) is a 3.5-hour drive from Nanimo, the nearest port if travelling from Vancouver. Combine with a visit to the mainland before heading north to kayak the orca- and humpback-rich waters of Johnstone Strait.

 

16: Glacier NP, British Columbia


Summit of Rogers Pass, BC (Dreamstime)

Best for: Mountain trails, caving, climbing

Visitors: 759,218 (incl. Mount Revelstoke NP; 2015-16)

Why go: Glacier National Park (est 1886) wasn’t named on a whim. Some 400 glaciers crack the ground here beneath the saw-tooth skyline of the Columbia range, making for a truly stunning landscape. Outside winter sports season, it’s rich pickings for climbers, cavers and hikers, with dramatic day treks twisting its glacial valleys, subalpine meadows and the world’s only temperate inland cedar rainforest.

Be sure to walk the old railbed of Rogers Pass, the railway that first opened up this region of Canada in 1885. Avalanches later claimed the line (and the lives of many of its engineers), but the Trans-Canada Highway picked up the slack in the 1950s, and the Meadows-in-the-Sky Parkway that leads off it today is a fine way to explore neighbouring Mount Revelstoke NP.

The reality of the park’s wilds is best captured by the Abbot Trail, which takes you past Glacier House, the ruins of a once-glamorous 19th-century resort that was abandoned when dreams of a railway collapsed along with the mountainside.

When to go: The park is open year-round. May and June are best for birdwatching. Try to visit either side of the summer crowds (Jul–Aug).

Plan your trip: Glacier NP is a 320km drive from Calgary. Combine with visits to the nearby icefields of Yoho, Banff and Jasper national parks, or continue travelling east on the Trans-Canada Highway to Vancouver (640km) and the wild Canadian coast.

 

17: Grasslands NP, Saskatchewan


Landscape of Grasslands NP (Dreamstime)

Best for: Rocks, prairie dogs, stargazing

Visitors: 11,597 (2015-16)

Why go: Eroded buttes, cacti-ridden plains, river valleys and colonies of playful black-tailed prairie dogs sketch a savage, breathtaking landscape – and the misleadingly named 70 Mile Butte trail (it’s only 5km) affords fine views. But this dark sky preserve finds a new life after dusk, with the Milky Way and northern lights shining overhead.

To the east, the adventurous head into the wild Valley of 1,000 Devils, side-stepping hoodoos (rock spires), rattlesnakes and quicksand. Head to the park’s west for Frenchman River Valley, with kayaking on its waters a good way to spot plains bison slaking their thirst on the shore.

When to go: Created in 1981, the park is open year-round. The climate is milder early summer and late autumn. The prairies are covered in wildflowers from May; the golden eagles return in September.

Plan your trip: Grasslands NP is 330km from province capital Regina. For an extended trip, cross the US-Canadian border and head for the big country of Montana and Glacier NP (USA).

 

18: Torngat Mountains NP,  Newfoundland & Labrador


Fox Point Lighthouse in Newfoundland (Dreamstime)

Best for: Inuit culture, ancient geology, icebergs

Visitors: 565 (2005)

Why go: Long before Moravian settlers brought the Bible to the Torngat’s slopes in the early 1800s, Inuit shaman would venture up into the northern Labrador peaks in search of enlightenment. But even their history dwindles in the face of the 3.9 million-year-old Torngats.

From the native community-run base camp, day trips by Zodiac take you out past the ’bergs of Saglek Fjord, the whales in the Silluak waters or to see the Inuit sod houses of Sallikuluk Island. Backcountry guided trails can also take you atop a section of the Earth’s mantle or to spend a night under the northern lights listening to Inuit tales.

When to go: Created in 2008, the park is open year-round; base camp operates late July-late Aug.

Plan your trip: Regular air charters fly from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Saglek on the park’s southern boundary, with connecting flights from St John’s, Halifax, Montreal and other cities.

 

19: SaguenaySt Lawrence Marine Park, Québec


Beluga whale mother with calf (Dreamstime)

Best for: Beluga, blue whales, coastline hikes

Visitors: 1,131,712 (2015-16)

Why go: It’s no coincidence that Tadoussac is whale-watching central. The village lies at the confluence of St Lawrence River and a fjord-sheltered waterway that cuts from St Jean Lake. As the warm lake waters combine with the estuary’s cold saltwater, it creates a rich breeding ground for krill, drawing beluga, minke and blue whales to feed during the summer.

The adjoining marine park (created 1998) is the best way to get close to the action, whether strolling the 3km hike to the lookout at Sainte-Marguerite or simply kayaking out to see them. Campsites dot the edges of the park, allowing for multi-day paddles alongside breaching whales.

Alternatively, combine a visit with neighbouring Fjord Saguenay Provincial Park, a nest of trails stretching 100km, with plenty of whale-spotting opportunities en route.

When to go: Park is open year round; facilities and whale watching trips operate May-October; blue whales tend to arrive from August.

Plan your trip: The park has four areas, each reached via different highways from Québec City, (220km west). To explore further, take a river cruise along the St Lawrence, with trips from Québec City heading east to the Gaspé Peninsula and Newfoundland or south to the Great Lakes.

 

20: Tuktut Nogait National Park, Northwest Territories

Arctic tundra in the valleys near Inuvik, Northwest Territories (Dreamstime)

Best for: Isolation, adventure… frostbite

Visitors: 4 (2015-16)

Why go: Spun out some 170km north of the Arctic Circle, just four visitors set foot on Tuktut Nogait’s frozen tundra last year. Yet with that desolate isolation comes something special: pure adventure. The only way in or out is by floatplane. There’s no shelter and ‘base-camp’ is where you pitch your tent (and bear-exclusion fence).

But in summer the park runs five-day trips where you join an Inuvialuit host to explore. As spring ends, wildflowers blanket the tundra under the gaze of the midnight sun, while hikes to track the bluenose-west caribou that migrate here are not to be missed.

River trips through the full 185km of the little-seen Hornaday River require a skillset beyond mere bravery, though the upper reaches are gentle enough for beginners. But hikes and helicopter trips offer a less hazardous route to the La Roncière Falls that lie at the river’s finale.

When to go: The park is open year-round, though base-camp trips are only run between late July and early August.

Plan your trip: Chartered flights into Tuktut Nogait NP (Paulatuk Airport) go from Inuvik thriceweekly with Aklak Air; connecting flights to Inuvik go from Edmonton, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and other cities. All visitors must make reservations in advance and attend an orientation session.

 

21: Georgian Bay Islands NP, Ontario


Georgian Bay Islands (Dreamstime)

Best for: Kayaking, island exploration, camping

Visitors: 32,887 (2015-16)

Why go: As the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, Georgian Bay is a paddler’s paradise. Some 30,000 isles speckle the bay like some vast lily-strewn pond – the scenery that inspired Canada’s famed Group of Seven painters.

Just 63 islands fall within the park’s boundaries, between Honey Harbour and Twelve Mile Bay, though campsites are only offered on the largest, Beausoleil.

Here, a dozen trails and cycle routes slither the land, as you wander through beech maple forest and a glacial ridge. To the island’s south are also the remains of an Ojibwa village, abandoned in the 19th century. Away from Beausoleil, you’re on your own, cursing out the large cruisers as you kayak around wakes and weave islets, choosing where to pull ashore and when to drift. Just remember to bring your navigation charts.

When to go: The park (created 1929) is open year-round; visit between May-June and in September, when the leaves turn russet, for warm weather and fewer crowds/motorboats.

Plan your trip: Georgian Bay Islands NP is two hours’ drive north of Toronto, with its gateway across from Honey Harbour (it is accessible only by boat). Combine with touring Canada’s Great Lakes (Huron, Superior and Erie).

 

Before you go...

Forward planning is essential when visiting these wild Canadian landscapes. Most parks are open year-round but the official facilities will not be and the off-seasons will likely have challenging weather conditions. 

While the parks are free to enter in 2017, as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of the country, you’ll still mostly likely need to make reservations and certainly need to pay fees for facilities, tours, guides, accommodation, etc. 

Check the Parcs Canada website for more information, as well as crucial safety advice – this is bear country after all.

 

Main image: Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park (Dreamstime)