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Canada is the second largest country in the world and 42 per cent of Canada’s land is covered by forest. As someone who grew up in downtown Toronto, I didn’t discover Canada’s nature until a few years ago when I started going hiking and camping. Since then I regularly visit national parks across Canada.

If you’ve ever been curious about what Canada looks like outside of the city, you’re in luck. In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, Parks Canada (www.pc.gc.ca) is offering a free “Discovery Pass” in 2017 that provides free admission to over 40 national parks across Canada.

If you’re unsure of how you feel about the great outdoors, adding a side trip during a visit to a city you’re planning to explore is a great way to get a taste of what nature has to offer in Canada. You can also take a day or weekend trips from your home city, as there’s a national park within a few hours’ drive from most major cities.

Here are three national parks worth visiting from Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario

Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario

Bruce Peninsula is one of the largest protected areas in Southern Ontario and is famous for its tall cliffs and emerald blue waters.

Located 300 km north of Toronto, or about a 2.5-hour drive, it’s perfect for a day, weekend or longer visit. A must-do at this national park is the 45-minute hike to the picturesque Grotto along the Georgian Bay shoreline. On my first visit, I was shocked by the colour of the turquoise blue waters; the hue could have easily passed for tropical water.

Entrance to the park is free with your Discovery Pass, but camping costs an additional $23.50 per camp site per night. Staying in a lodge, hotel or Airbnb in the nearby town of Tobermory is also an option if you prefer more comfortable accommodations.

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, BC

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, BC
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, BC

Located on Vancouver Island, the Pacific Rim National Park is unlike other parks in Canada. Not only does it contain a temperate rainforest, visitors can often see marine animals like seals, sea lions and whales from the shoreline.

From West Vancouver, this park requires a two-hour boat ride to Nanaimo, followed by a three-hour drive. Alternatively, from Victoria, it’s a four-hour drive. For accommodations, camping starts at $23.50 per campsite per night, or you can stay in lodges or book a small private bungalow/cabin right inside the park.

Banff National Park, Alberta

Banff National Park, Alberta
Banff National Park, Alberta

Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park and is often associated with the iconic Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise. However, this park has more to offer than one beautiful lake – it has over 6,000 sq. km of mountains, glaciers, icefields and alpine, plus hundreds of hiking trails to suit different outdoor enthusiasm levels.

The drive to Banff National Park is only about 1.5 hours from Calgary, making it the perfect destination for a day, weekend or weeklong trip.

For a one-day visit, the famous Fairmont Chateau is a must-see. It overlooks Lake Louise and from there, you can take an easy 3-hour (6.8 km) hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse to explore the park. For a bigger adventure, plan a multiday camping trip and tackle some of moderate or hard hiking trails.

Entrance to the park is free with the Discovery Pass and fees for overnight camping start at $21.50 per campsite per night. If you prefer to sleep under a regular roof, there are lodges and hotels in Canmore, the closest town to Banff National Park.

As an avid traveler, I’ve been to more than 40 countries around the world. It’s easy to forget you can also have wonderful adventures while exploring the backyard of your own home, especially in a vast and beautiful country like Canada.

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Lily Leung
Lily Leung took a 13 month, solo adventure around the world, travelling 84,000 km through 3 continents during a career break. Based in Toronto, she continues to explore both the world and Canada through short and long trips. You can follow her on Twitter @lilyleung or read about her adventures at exploreforayear.com.