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The chilly night air slowly warms as the sun rises. Tat-tat-a-tat. A woodpecker’s hammering shatters the stillness and sleepy heads emerge from the tent’s opening. Yawning and stretching, the campers breathe in the forest’s fresh, pine scent and look around in awe. Waking up in the Canadian wilderness of a national park, no matter how often you have done it, strikes deep. The beauty of our country is unparalleled.
Sparkling lakes, rushing waterfalls, deep woods, waving grasslands and majestic mountains are but a few examples of Canada’s natural treasures. Our preserved historical places that tell the tales of our people, starting from the first indigenous inhabitants, are other gems to cherish. One of the best ways to experience this time-honoured bounty is to visit a national park, historic site or marine conservation area. All have free admission this year to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Banff National Park is where the park system was born. In 1885, 26 square km on the northern slope of Sulphur Mountain, as well as the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, were set aside for public use. Two years earlier, the hot springs had been discovered by three workers on the first transcontinental railway through the Rocky Mountains. In a bold move, the government decided the hot springs would not be sold to a private interest, but instead would be preserved for the benefit of all Canadians.
According to Parks Canada’s website (pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np), Dominion Parks Branch was the world’s first national parks administration and was formed in Canada in 1911. By 1930, the National Parks Act was approved by Parliament and set the guiding philosophy for preserving and protecting our precious natural spaces. Since then, the Act has been updated and is now titled the Canada National Parks Act.
Today there are more than 40 national parks and national park reserves (unresolved land claims designated to become parks). The total area of Canada’s national parks is 300,000 sq. km, 53 times the size of Prince Edward Island. Parks Canada manages 171 historic sites, as well as heritage canals, heritage rivers and national marine conservation areas. One Canadian landmark is under their jurisdiction, the Pingo, Ibyuk, near Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Pingos are geological formations also known as Arctic ice domes).
Exploring the parks is a rite of passage for many Canadians, myself included. When I was a teenager, I held my breath as a mother bear and her cubs appeared roadside near our parked car in Alberta’s Banff National Park then waddled back off into the woods, nonplussed. Running towards a glacier that same summer at the park, I got my shoe stuck in the mud of the Columbia Ice field – my foot turned to ice when I finally rinsed it off in glacial runoff. Ouch! On a family trip to New Brunswick, I gasped at the highest tides in the world rising along the rugged coastline at Bay of Fundy National Park. As a young adult, I paddled (and tipped) a canoe in the cool, clear waters of Georgian Bay Islands National Park. Cottaging with my parents and brother near Bruce Peninsula National Park in Ontario, there was nothing as refreshing as a quick dip in Georgian Bay. Another summer our family travelled in a camper van, taking in the stunning ocean views from Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. These memories are not just of the land, but of growing up and coming of age. Did I value what I experienced? Not enough. I took it all for granted.
Now when I visit a national park, however, the vast splendor of this country knocks me over. Breathing in clean, crisp air, I am able to slow down. My monkey brain quiets and my soul is refreshed. As the Parks Canada website states, “Each national park is a haven for the human spirit.” These spaces are precious. As an adult, I understand the importance of preservation and protection. I no longer take our parks for granted.
The land reflects who we are as people. It nurtures us and makes us whole. This summer, get out and see what makes Canada so special.
Here are a few iconic places that should not be missed:
YOHO NATIONAL PARK, British Columbia
Home to one of Canada’s highest waterfalls, Takakkaw Falls (254 m) this park can be found on the western slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The name comes from the Cree expression for awe and wonder, and rightly so. Vertical rock walls, falling water and dizzying peaks draw visitors from around the world. After a day of hiking (there are 400 km of trails), you can relax by the rushing waterfall at Takakkaw Falls campground, or cozy up around the campfire at Kicking Horse campground. Emerald Lake, which gets its rich turquoise colour from the silt of melting glaciers, is one of the park’s most scenic and popular destinations. If you want to get away from it all, try one of the unmaintained trails in the Amiskwi Valley or Ice River.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK, Alberta
When I first went to Jasper, I could not believe it was real. I thought I was looking at a movie backdrop. Extending over 11,000 sq. km, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies is part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. Campers can set up their own gear while nature newbies might want to reserve a oTENTik, a cross between cabin and tent. An extensive trail network provides endless hiking opportunities. Soak up the mountain views while relaxing in a “red chair” location (Parks Canada has placed Adirondack chairs in beauty spots throughout all the parks). Paddlers enjoy dipping into the waters of Hidden Cove and families can participate in one of the many programs and events.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Alberta
Luxurious pelts of beaver, fox and mink were in high favour in Britain when Canada was in its infancy. Fur trade with indigenous trappers helped shape our nation. At this national historic site you can walk through archaeological remains of four fur trading forts, and take part in indigenous programs including drumming, dance and horse skills. Events this summer include Canada 150 Voyageurs Rendezvous, a canoe race down the North Saskatchewan River that celebrates our waterways as a means of exploration, transportation and national development.
GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Saskatchewan
Located in southwest Saskatchewan, this park evokes memories of the thousands of wild buffalo that once grazed on the plains. Big sky country, it makes humans seem small and insignificant. Look across the land and you’ll see grasses rippling like waves. Ride a traditional wagon, sit before a crackling campfire or spend the night beneath a canopy of brilliant stars. Ancient life is evident in the dinosaur bones you can discover. Early tipi rings can also be found and there’s even tipi accommodation available at some of the campgrounds. Brave backcountry hikers can get permits to camp in the Valley of 1000 Devils were dinosaurs once walked.
GEORGIAN BAY ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Ontario
A playground for many Ontario city and town dwellers, this is the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. Members of the Group of Seven were inspired to paint their evocative landscapes in this rugged environment where windswept white pines and granite shores of the Canadian Shield turn to dense deciduous woodland. Cycle along wooded trails, stay overnight at secluded campsites or waterfront cabins and hike to viewpoints along the shoreline. Plan to board a day-tripper boat and head to Beausoleil Island where you can hike through the woods, cycle along the coast, or sunbath on a sandy beach.
KOUCHIBOUGUAC NATIONAL PARK, New Brunswick
You’ll find some of the warmest salt water on Canada’s east coast along this stretch of the Acadian Coastal Drive. Lush mixed-wood forests lead to colourful salt marshes and gentle ocean beaches. Offshore, golden sand dunes foster calm seas. A Dark Sky Preserve, the park dazzles at night with an unbeatable celestial lightshow. Visitors can explore local indigenous and Acadian cultures with various programs including an immersive Mi’kmaq wigwam gathering. Another experience not to miss is paddling a voyageur canoe to see a colony of grey seals.
HALIFAX CITADEL NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Nova Scotia
Step back in time with a little military history at the citadel that overlooks Halifax Harbour. The strategic location was chosen in 1749 by the British to protect the city. Halifax Citadel is noted for its star shaped architecture. You can experience what it was like for the soldiers and their families to live and work within its walls. Programs take visitors through drills to drums and you can even learn to shoot a Snider-Enfield rifle. Other options are spying on the enemy or taking in ghost stories about chilling apparitions and unexplained happenings.