Six months before leaving for Canada from Goa, India, I downloaded a picture of the North American night sky as seen from Alberta’s Lake Louise on my phone.
This was my motivation to do the necessary day-to-day chores that one needs to do if they want to get to another country. On my evening walks at the beach, I gazed at Goa’s tropical night sky and compared it to the Canadian one on my phone. And when I really looked at that picture, I looked at it with unapologetic awe. I let my fantasies run wild and imagined camping somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere—watching polar bears in the daytime and staring at the Auroras at night.
I was well aware that my thoughts then were naive and full of youthful folly, but if you really think about it, isn’t this how every big adventure begins—with innocent dreams stripped of practical reality?
I arrived in Canada in September 2016, and have since constantly looked at potential parks I could visit to fulfill the promise of that picture. Canada has well over a thousand national and provincial parks to choose from. Everything from the super-famous Banff, Wood Buffalo, and Jasper to the lesser known Ivvavick and Wapusk, to Toronto’s nearby Algonquin and Thousand Islands, all featured on my list at one point or another.
These parks are spread across the country, and I gasped at their astronomical and overwhelming size more than once. Making this list was not an easy task. I started with many names, dropped a few, then put some back in before finalizing it. And after careful consideration and much difficulty, these are the 10 Canadian parks I’ve put on my got-to-see dream list.
Banff National Park, Alberta
This is an obvious choice, and is, along with Jasper, one of the most famous in North America. I tried my best to beat the beaten path and not select this, but I failed. Banff is just too alluring. The geologically stunning park is the most visited in Canada, and has an infrastructure that accommodates and welcomes a range of diverse activities. Whether it is swimming, hiking, trekking, skiing or even boating, easy access to all possible outdoor activities makes Banff the park most likely to provide a complete Canadian experience. It is easy(ish) to get to and affordable(ish) for a budget traveller like me.
Of course, none of this discounts the sweep-you-off-your-feet beauty of the landscape. Lake Louise, Bow Lake and Johnston Creek have a very non-invasive tranquility about them, and I can imagine them as excellent companions when enjoying a few moments of solitude. Morraine Lake, a few kilometres from the town of Banff, is hauntingly beautiful—I have yet to see a bad picture of it, if there even is one. Then there are the Banff Upper Hot Springs, which are one of the last remaining hot springs open to the public for bathing. So, like I said, I really wanted to cross this of my list, but you see my predicament?
Wapusk National Park, Manitoba
It doesn’t get more polar bear than Wapusk National Park. My thin tropical skin isn’t keen on putting a third snow-white landscape on the list, but polar bears are pretty much the only thing missing at this point, and Wapusk sufficiently covers that. It is home to one of the largest polar bear maternity denning areas in the world, and features more than 1,000 of these nurturing snow caves at peak season. November seems to be the magical time to view the bears, provided you have a vehicle that can handle the tundra. And apart from the bears, you also have the snowy owl, Artic fox and about 200 different species of birds and 38 different species of mammals.
Forillon National Park, Quebec
With a shoreline of more than 20 kilometres, Forillon National Park was not a hard sell. Being the beach bum that I am, resisting a shoreline in any part of the world is not an easy thing for me to do, and the more I read about Forillon the more convinced I am. Firstly, being at the shore here doesn’t just mean I get to dip my toes in the water, I get to literally go into the water and do “water activities” like scuba diving or whale-watching—something I’ve never seen advertised in India.
Aside from the shore and the sea, its wildlife, plant life and history are plenty fascinating: it is home to the largest colony of Atlantic kittiwakes, as well as red foxes, black bears, beavers, moose and aquatic fauna that’s unique to the region; Aboriginals have a long history here, and have visited it for thousands of years; and much of the plant life is diverse and exclusive to this region and the Arctic. Realistically speaking, it will probably be as close to the Arctic as I could ever get—a great reason to add it on my list.
Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut
If I thought reaching Ivvavik National Park was a dream, then this is a dream within that dream. In 2015–16, only 17 people visited this park. That’s right, 17! That’s less than one-fifth of how many visit Ivvavik every year. With numbers as low as this, Quittinirpaaq National Park is ironically the second biggest park in Canada—the biggest being, as you may know, Wood Buffalo National Park that straddles the Alberta NWT border.
Located in the northeast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, it is also the second most-northern park in the entire world, only 800 kilometres from the North Pole (talk about wishful thinking). (Here’s what trekking in Quttinirpaaq National Park looks like, courtesy of Google Street View.)
My first idea of Quttinirapaaq was a little deceptive, though—it’s not the cold, barren wasteland I imagined it to be. In fact, temperatures here can rise to as much as 32 degrees Celsius and sunlight can linger for as long as 150 days without setting. The landscape is breathtaking and unlike anything else on the planet; Lake Hazen and Tanquary Fiord are perfect representations of that. Gull Glacier at Tanquary Fiord is entrancing, and with its poised stillness, godly.
In the spirit of imagination and dreaming big, I can imagine myself here, pitching a tent on the lake, doing short treks in the day, taking pictures of native Arctic hares, drinking hot soup and reading infinite books through the night in my tent. You dig?
Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
Fundy National Park and its natural phenomena are as baffling as they are interesting. The Bay of Fundy has some of the highest tidal waves possible anywhere on the planet, and within a span of a few short hours you can witness a dry sea floor during low tide transform into tidal waves (well, they seem like ones to me!) almost 12 metres high during high tide. To put this in perspective, boats anchored to the dock rest on the dry sea floor during low tide and comfortably sit on the water when it rises.
A phenomenon this unique is, for me, a must-see. And to make the trip worthwhile, you have many other options such as whale watching, trails for hiking and backpacking, tours of vineyards and wineries, and bird watching.
- READ The Fossils of Fundy: Exploring the Ancient Coast of Nova Scotia
- READ Wood Buffalo National Park by Stand-Up Paddleboard: an Outpost Expedition
Grasslands National Park
Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan is one of the few remaining natural grasslands in North America that is still untouched. This is a rare and relatively unhindered landscape to see and explore, and hence lands on my list. Also it is the only prairie park on my list and an excellent excuse for me to explore a different side of the country. There are endless views here in all directions. Hiking here must be done independently, as there are no marked trails or routes to follow.
This means that all you need to do is arm yourself with a compass or GPS, then wander into the open, seemingly endless territory. Given its relatively comfortable weather (by Canadian standards, anyway, not Indian) and relative proximity to my current home of Toronto, maybe one day I’ll be at the French Valley camping grounds pitching a tent, watching some bison graze on the rolling hills, and enjoying that heavenly night sky view like it’s no big deal.
Ivvavik National Park, Yukon
Ivvavik is a big, bold and potentially life threatening fantasy of mine which I strictly want to do just to claim bragging rights. It’s in the freaking Arctic! Who will I ever meet in my life who would out-brag me on this? Only a mere 100 souls on average make it here every year, and with no marked hiking trails, commercial flights, commercial camping options or affordable travel costs, I totally understand why.
Jokes aside, its characteristics are genuinely intriguing, like continuous sunlight for two months in the summer and relentless night for a month in winter. Also the wildlife here is as native to the Arctic as it gets, and the chances to spot a black bear, Arctic fox, Alaskan moose or lemming are fairly high. Nevertheless, if I am being honest with myself, it’s very unlikely that I will ever reach Ivvavik, due to the very over-whelming reasons I first mentioned.
Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, Nova Scotia
I have been curious about the deeply fascinating and mysterious history of Canada’s First Nations for a long time now. Kejimkujik National Park, or Keji, is the perfect place to bring that curiosity. It has integrated its Aboriginal history with the Canadian park experience; many of the rock-art illustrations are remaining examples of its Mi’kmaq history and heritage.
Many guided tours of those rock-art works are organized. Keji also offers some of the darkest night skies in North America (and a viewing space for it—the Dark Sky Preserve fascinates me personally, and has an onsite telescope and gift shop where you can buy a “night sky kit” for $5 a day), as well as kayaking, canoeing, camping, hiking and trekking. My only entry on the list from Nova Scotia, the park is also host to native wildlife, and a dazzling showcase of the province’s flora and fauna.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, B.C.
This West Coast park is integral to the culture and heritage of the Nuu-chah-nulth people, who have long inhabited this region. The shoreline has been their livelihood for centuries and guided tours highlighting their cultural history are offered here. Again, the Native-history buff in me can see myself wandering, pondering and exploring this park for hours on end—and ending up with my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
The Nuu-chah-nulth trail is a moderate trail of just more than three kilometres, which starts at the South Beach Trail and winds through the dense rainforest, before ending at Florence Beach. The West Coast Trail, on the other hand, is more difficult, stretches 75 kilometres and is best suited to seasoned hikers and backpackers. Just to be clear, I am the type of traveller who prefers the former, followed up with a nice nap on the beach.
Prince Edward Island National Park
Known for sandy beaches, swimming and surfing, hanging out on a beach bed and cycling along the seashore of PEI seems like a perfect way to spend a vacation. Everything about this park embodies the word “chill.” A very popular concept where I come from is the siesta (Goa is an erstwhile Latin colony), so despite being situated in cold Canada, Prince Edward Island National Park couldn’t embody the concept of “siesta” any better, even if it wanted to. This one’s more for the beach than any other entry on my list.
All travellers begin with a picture like the one I had, somewhere in their lives. It may not be on their phones or computer screens, but it fuels their fire. I feel much closer to that ideal now than I did when I was in India. And considering how far I have already come, I feel confident in saying that I am willing to go even further.
For more info on these and all of Canada’s incredible national parks, click here for Parks Canada. Parks Canada teamed up with Google to document some of its most remote national parks. You can click here to see some of these spectacular places via Google Street View!