Canada

5 of the Best Canadian National Parks for Adventurers of All Ages

Posted by
Emily Pennington
February 02, 2023
Updated September 04, 2023

best national parks in canada
Cabot Trail Scenic Travelway. Photo: Shutterstock

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Canada is home to a whopping 48 national parks. Not only does this figure rival our congress-designated 63, but many of these nature preserves boast scenery that’s every bit as striking as our own.

Sure, there will always be the social media darlings like Banff and Jasper, but Canada is a massive country with a huge variety of different landscapes and ecosystems to explore.

From the craggy Northern Rockies to swoon-worthy coastal drives and even tundra dotted with elusive polar bears, these are our top picks for national park fans who want to head north.

1. Jasper National Park, Alberta

jasper national park
Photo: Pavel Brodsky

Sure, Banff gets the lion’s share of media attention when it comes to Canada’s national parks, but Jasper, Banff’s neighbor to the north, is larger, less visited, and just as beautiful. This massive 4,247-square-mile park is situated just above Banff, via the 280km Icefields Parkway, one of the prettiest stretches of road on the planet.

Home to much of the same jaw-droppingly gorgeous Canadian Rockies scenery as its more famous cousin, Jasper is a locals’ favorite for wildlife viewing (think big game like elk, wolves, and grizzlies), waterfall chasing, hiking, night sky viewing, and some seriously stellar hike- and ski-in backcountry lodges.

Things to Do

With its wealth of camping, hiking trails, and backcountry huts, Jasper is an excellent park for adventurous and DIY-minded travelers looking to get off the beaten path. In summer, backpackers and hikers should make a beeline for Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge, which sits near the postcard-worthy Rampart Mountains.

Unlike many parks in the U.S., winter is pretty darn exciting here as well. In addition to a wealth of epic ski-in mountain huts, guided Maligne Canyon Ice Walks (safety gear included) showcase a striking array of frozen waterfalls and naturally occurring ice sculptures.

If you’re keeping your visit leisurely, there’s plenty to explore, too. Jasper boasts a pretty incredible natural hot spring, as well as the scenic Jasper SkyTram up Whistlers Peak. There are also incredible winding mountain drives to be had (apart from the aforementioned Icefields Parkway). Take the 46km Maligne Lake Road through iconic peaks and the mighty Athabasca River, ending at the brilliant blue waters of Maligne Lake.

Related Read: Yellowstone National Park in Winter: Things to Do & Where to Stay

Where to Stay

Yes, there’s loads of car camping in and around Jasper National Park, and you’ll need to book it a couple of months in advance if you plan on visiting during busy summer weekends. But there are ways to explore the great outdoors in comfort and style, too. Here are a few of our favorite spots.

Forest Park Hotel

This is the first new hotel that’s been opened in Jasper since 1983, and the locals are buzzing about it. Nestled in the idyllic mountain town of Jasper, this resort-style escape is connected to the former Sawridge Inn and offers spacious, zen-inducing rooms bedecked in clean neutrals, with kitchenettes, cozy fireplaces, and expanded patios, ensuring the nature you came for is never far.

Pyramid Lake Resort

One of the most fun things about park-hopping in Canada is indulging in the more Euro-style chalet-chic accommodations, and Pyramid Lake Resort embodies that aesthetic perfectly.

This log cabin-inspired timber-frame hotel offers phenomenal lake and mountain views, plus an on-site adventure hub for renting bikes, snowshoes, and other outdoor equipment. Guests can also enjoy complimentary s’mores while warming themselves by a crackling fire each night.

Miette Mountain Cabins

What’s not to love about a woodland cottage? At Miette Mountain Cabins, guests are greeted by classic stone fireplaces, lovely wood interiors, sleek modern bathrooms, and majestic mountain vistas. This stay also boasts one of the most enviable locations in the park – right smack in the middle of Jasper’s historic Miette Hot Springs area.

Related read: 11 Backpacking Trips in the U.S. That Should be on Your Bucket List

2. Wapusk National Park, Manitoba

Wapusk National Park
Photo: Andre Anita

I’m gonna be honest with you – Wapusk National Park is not one that normally tops most travelers’ bucket lists, and that needs to change.

For starters, it’s the best place in the world to see the region’s most notorious resident, the polar bear, in October and November when they are waiting patiently for the northern sea ice to fully form for the winter. (Hint: The park is even named for the Cree word meaning “white bear.”)

It’s also an excellent spot if you’re hoping to see those miraculous northern lights, too. Plus, Wapusk is home to rare birds, sprawling tundra landscapes, and the huge Cape Churchill caribou herd.

Things to Do

Due to the, ahem, intense wildlife roaming around, you’ll need a licensed, guided tour operator to enter the park, like Prairie Helicopters or Wat’chee Expeditions. Guided snowshoe hikes, sampling traditional Indigenous foods (like caribou and ptarmigan), and, of course, looking out for spectacular wildlife are the most popular activities.

If you’re a canine lover, check out indigenous-owned and operated Wapusk Adventures, which also offers guided dog sledding in the area.

Where to Stay

 

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Some tour operators, like Wapusk Adventures, offer glamping-type accommodations for northern lights viewing, but most travelers here will want to stay in Churchill, Manitoba.

Wat’chee Lodge is one of the best-rated hotels in the region, offering guided hikes and wildlife expeditions. Polar Inn & Suites is another great option, full of clean lines, simple yet chic décor, and complimentary breakfast for guests.

Related read: 12 Amazingly Secluded Cabin Rentals in Ontario, Canada

3. Banff National Park, British Columbia

Banff National Park
Photo: Elise Zimmerman

As the world’s third-oldest national park (and one of its most Instagrammed), Banff has a lot of hype to live up to. But luckily, with its sparkling cobalt lakes, craggy Rocky Mountain peaks, and sincerely stunning in-park lodging options, it more than lives up to its reputation.

Things to Do

Banff is a perfect national park for outdoorsy people of all ages and experience levels, partially because of its accessibility from Canada’s urban hub of Calgary. Auto cruisers can enjoy the spectacular scenery along the Bow Valley Parkway, then hunker down in the storybook-style Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which serves as an adventure hub for much of the park (think ice skating and cross-country skiing in the winter and tea house treks in the summer).

Outdoor lovers who don’t mind working up a sweat will want to seek out the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata, which is sure to get your heart rate up. Then, set aside a day to hike to the impressive Bow Glacier Falls and canoe or kayak around the shimmering waters of Lake Minnewanka.

And, of course, if you’d prefer a mellower stroll, why not book an expert-led, mindfully guided forest bathing session or a trip up the scenic Banff Gondola (spoiler alert: the views are mind-blowing) before hitting the newly revamped spa at Fairmont Banff Springs.

Where to Stay

Unlike most of the U.S. national parks, Canadian parks often have adorable townships and luxe lodging options inside the parks themselves. The aforementioned Fairmont Banff Springs is a haven for spa lovers, while Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the perfect adventure base camp for hikers, skiers, paddlers, and equestrians of all ages.

Of course, you’ll likely travel through Calgary on your way into and out of the park, and it’s home to some detour-worthy spots as well. The Dorian is a fabulous new hotel (launched in mid-2022), and sushi addicts won’t want to miss dinner at uber-hip Shokunin.

Related read: When is the Best Time to Visit Banff National Park?

4. Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

Gros Morne national park
Photo: Christopher Heil

Exploring Canada’s barren “tablelands” formations (an exposed portion of the earth’s mantle) is one of the main items on the menu at Gros Morne National Park, a striking area in far-east Newfoundland that’s home to sky-high waterfalls, deep fjords, chilly beaches, and marshy bogs.

Things to Do

One of the most popular hikes in Gros Morne is the strenuous journey up a trail that overlooks Western Brook Pond Fjord, but travelers who’d prefer to stay seaside can take a guided boat tour that explores the famous site. Prefer paddling the fjords to hiking around them? Wild Gros Morne offers some pretty stellar paddle and picnic tours.

Wildlife lovers will want to book a whale-watching tour for a chance to spot breaching humpbacks (and high-flying puffins), and anglers will adore the region’s unparalleled fishing opportunities.

Where to Stay

Though remote, this area hosts a variety of lodging options for nature and solitude-seeking parkgoers. The adorable Sea Spray Cottages, just outside the park, are one of our favorites if you’re looking for a rental with a full kitchen. For a more amenity-rich hotel-style stay, check out the quaint Wildflowers Country Inn and colorful Neddies Harbour Inn.

Related read: 8 Spectacular Glamping Spots Near Acadia National Park, Maine

5. Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Cabot Trail Scenic Travelway
Photo: Ken Felepchuk

An absolute paradise for lovers of scenic drives, Cape Breton Highlands is home to the 298km Cabot Trail Scenic Travelway, which winds through stunning emerald hillsides and peekaboo coastal views. Here, travelers can immerse themselves in warm-hued sunset vistas, local artisan shops, and some of the best hiking and biking in the country.

Things to Do

If you prefer a more active holiday, check out Freewheeling Adventures and their guided cycling tours along Cabot Trail. Cape Breton Highlands also hosts a wealth of unforgettable hiking trails, like the leg-burning ascent along the Acadian Trail, which ends with a panoramic vista of the Acadian coastline, and the dramatic headland cliffs of the Skyline Trail.

As we mentioned before, the Cabot Trail Scenic Travelway is one of the main attractions at Cape Breton, but the park is also a great spot for wildlife viewing, with a healthy moose population and opportunities to view cormorants and bald eagles in their native habitat.

Where to Stay

For woodsy cabin types, check out Knotty Pine Cottages, but if you’d prefer a more old-school bed and breakfast (complete with fresh coffee, juices, and scones), head over to 20 Acre Woods Bed and Breakfast.

There are also plenty of peaceful, northern beachy vibes to soak up at The Markland (try to stay when they host live music events), or you could revel in landscaped flowerbeds and serene seclusion at Seaside Coastal Retreat.

Related read: 12 Epic Hiking Camps & Summer Backpacking Trips

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