But Canada – the second largest country in the world – has vast areas of spectacular mountains, wilderness forests and freshwater lakes. It boasts 48 national parks and reserves covering some 3% of the country.
These wild pristine places preserve and protect our natural landscapes. If you’re crazy about nature, knock-your-socks-off scenery and wildlife (hello bears!), these Canadian national parks are the places to escape to. What’s more, in many of these parks, you may only encounter a handful of other souls.
Here are the 15 most beautiful and best national parks in Canada – the ones you really must visit.
We’ve explored all the national parks in western Canada, but the others are still calling. Maybe this summer?
1) Wapusk National Park
Want to see polar bears in the wild? This Canadian national park is one of the best places in the world to see them.
Where: Chuchill, Manitoba
No roads lead into Wapusk National Park, and you need to go with a guide or tour company to visit.
About 1,000 polar bears call Wapusk home (“Wapusk” is the Cree word for “white bear”). Other wildlife also roam the park, including 3,000 Cape Churchill caribou. Depending on when you go, you might travel by boat, snowmobile or dog sled.
Also be sure to watch the skies at night for the northern lights! Churchill is one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis.
2) Banff National Park
Located in the Canadian Rockies, Canada’s first national park – Banff National Park – was established in 1885. It’s one of the most visited national parks in Canada, luring over 3 million visitors a year.
This park is a stunner!
Where: Banff, Alberta
Just over an hour’s drive from Calgary, Banff National Park is an easy place for Calgarians to escape to.
Gawk at the stunning Rocky Mountains. Swim in natural hot springs (like Banff Upper Hot Springs). Hike. Ski at Lake Louise and Sunshine. Go fly fishing. And marvel at glacial lakes so impossibly turquoise you won’t believe your eyes – hello Moraine Lake!
Don’t miss: The famous Icefields Parkway heads north from Banff to the Columbia Icefield, the largest ice field in the Rockies, and then continues on to Jasper (see #3 below).
3) Jasper National Park
At 4,200 square miles (11,000 sq. km.), Jasper National Park is almost double the size of Banff National Park. But its town, Jasper, is much smaller and less touristy than Banff town.
Because it’s not as accessible as Banff National Park, Jasper also feels wilder and more primordial. Check out these things to see in Jasper National Park, and you’ll get a better idea of its raw majestic beauty.
Where: Jasper, Alberta
Jasper National Park is just north of Banff National Park, connected by the famous Icefields Parkway.
You’ll see lots of wildlife, including elk (we couldn’t believe how many we saw!), bears, bighorn sheep – and if you’re really lucky, moose.
4) Georgian Bay Islands National Park
Set in the blue waters of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay Islands National Park is made up of 63 islands. Back in the 1920s, the famous Group of Seven painters were drawn to the area, capturing scenes in now-famous art works.
Row, row, row your boat! The only way to access the islands is by boat, canoe, kayak or water taxi.
You can enjoy wilderness camping on Beausoleil Island, the park’s largest island. And in autumn, the fiery red and burnt-orange leaf colors are gob-smacking.
5) Sable Island National Park Reserve
One of Canada’s newest national parks, Sable Island National Park Reserve is home to hundreds of untamed horses that have lived on the island since the 1700s.
The island itself is long and skinny, made up of windswept sand dunes and two centuries-old lighthouses.
Where: Atlantic Ocean, off Nova Scotia
Sable Island is extremely remote, about 180 miles (290 km) off the coast of Halifax. The only way to visit is by chartered plane for a day trip or on an expedition cruise. This park is for the bucket list.
Watch the fabled Sable Island horses run wild and free, their matted manes flying in the wind. And feel lucky that you’re one of only 400 people a year who leave footprints on this very special island.
6) Gros Morne National Park
Ancient fjords and sea caves. Bogs and beaches. Towering cliffs and glacial valleys. Say hello to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Where: Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador
Gros Morne is, hands down, one of the best national parks in Eastern Canada.
Take a boat ride up into Western Brook Pond (which is a massive fjord). See the wreck of the S.S. Ethie on the rocky beach at Martin’s Point. Explore the Tablelands, an eerie moon-like landscape.
And keep an eye out for moose! The park is home to 7,000 to 8,000 moose, perhaps the world’s largest concentration of moose.
7) Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Crashing waves. Miles of deserted mist-cloaked beaches. Thick cedar forests.
This is Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Where: Vancouver Island, BC
The park is made up of three separate units: Broken Group Island, Long Beach and West Coast Trail. (It’s almost like three separate parks, offering three distinctly different experiences.)
Kayakers will want to paddle the sheltered Broken Group Islands, home to seals and eagles.
We love walking the wild and empty 10-mile (16-km) stretch of Long Beach, watching surfers in wetsuits brave the waves – and, of course, soaking up the sun.
Up for a real challenge? Backpack the 47-mile (75-km) West Coast Trail on a 5- to 7-day trip – climbing more than 100 ladders, wading across rivers and trekking through unspoilt rainforest (reservations required about a year ahead). You might see migrating whales too!
Another great place to visit on Vancouver Island? Check out the fun things to do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach! Read next…
8) Thousand Islands National Park
There are said to be more than 1,800 islands in the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Brockville. But the Thousand Islands National Park is made up of some 20 granite islands with whispering pines and secluded bays.
Much of the park is boat access only – great for super scenic kayaking. And you don’t have to worry about dangerous wildlife, like bears, in this park. Critters you might see are less fearsome – foxes, deer, porcupines, osprey and blue herons.
You can paddle to McDonald Island and sleep overnight by the water in oTenTik accommodations. It’s like basic glamping – the units are a cross between a tent and a cabin, with solar-powered lighting, cell phone charging station, fire pit and picnic table.
9) Fundy National Park
Walk on the Atlantic! Well, sort of.
Fundy National Park is home to the highest tides in the world. Here, the Atlantic rises and falls up to 40 feet (12 meters) each day. When the tide recedes, you can walk on the bare ocean floor – more than half a mile (1 km) out to the edge of the water – and examine all the periwinkles and other fascinating little marine critters left behind.
Where: New Brunswick
At low tide, you’ll also see towering tree-topped rock pillars. At high tide, these pillars, now surrounded by sea, look like mini islets. And in the nearby town of Alma, boats that rest on the sea floor, far below the docks, will be bobbing on the water a few hours later.
Apart from tide watching, you can hike some 60 miles of trails (100 km), see more than 25 cascading waterfalls, camp in a yurt and snorkel with salmon with Parks Canada biologists.
10) Kluane National Park & Reserve
One of the world’s largest protected wilderness areas – 38,00 square miles (98,000 sq. km.) – this Canadian national park is big, bold and wildly beautiful. Think soaring mountains (17 of Canada’s tallest mountains), glaciers, rushing rivers and wildlife galore (especially grizzlies).
Kluane National Park is found high in the mountains, near the Alaska border. As there are no roads in most of the park, you have to fly in (or hike in).
Rafting the glacial-fed Alsek River is a true adventure. Or perhaps take a flightseeing excursion around Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak – just shy of 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). Even driving the Alaska Highway and Haines Highway alongside the park, you may see grizzly bears and Dall sheep. Be sure to stop at the very interesting Sheep Mountain Visitor Center.
11) Waterton Lakes National Park
It may be the smallest national park in the Canadian Rockies. But Waterton Lakes National Park packs a powerful punch with superlative mountain scenery, a cute little village (population about 40 in winter) and wildlife galore. (In fact, you have be careful of the grizzlies when hiking.)
Tucked into the southwestern corner of Alberta, the park borders Glacier National Park (to the south in Montana).
National Geographic twice called Waterton’s 5.3 mile (8.6 km) trail to Crypt Lake one of the world’s most thrilling hikes (in 2014 and again in 2017). After taking a short boat ride, you pass three waterfalls on the hike, climb a bolted steel ladder and crawl through a long dark tunnel before reaching the crystal-clear lake.
Boat cruises of beautiful Waterton Lake are also popular. And it’s fun to bicycle through grasslands and valleys along the car-free Red Rock Parkway to Red Rock Canyon.
12) Elk Island National Park
Helping to conserve bison for over 100 years, Elk Island is Canada’s only completely enclosed national park.
And it’s enclosed for a reason – some 700 bison (about 300 wood bison and 400 plains bison, which are a little smaller) make their home here. Bison are North America’s largest land mammal (wood bison weigh about 2,000 lbs/907 kg), and the bison population is managed. Many bison have been sent to Russia and other countries over the years to help repopulate bison herds around the world.
Elk Island National Park is 15 miles (25 km) east of Edmonton.
Bison traffic jams are no joke! Don’t be surprised when driving through the park to spot a herd of the massive furry creatures on the road, blocking traffic. Have your camera ready!
13) Yoho National Park
You might have gathered from seeing Banff, Jasper and Waterton above that many of the best national parks of Canada are in the Rockies. Yoho National Park is another one in the Rocky Mountains. “Yoho” means “awe and wonder” in the Cree First Nation language – and that’s exactly what you’ll feel when you gaze upon its powerful waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests!
Where: Southeast corner of British Columbia
Drive up the steep switchback road to Canada’s third highest waterfall, Takakkaw Falls. The main drop is an awesome 1,224 feet (373 meters). Also check out the natural rock bridge over the Kicking Horse River.
And take in Emerald Lake, one of the prettiest lakes you’ll ever see. The color is? You guessed it – a brilliant emerald. We’ve stayed at the lakeside Emerald Lake Lodge, a charming timber lodge in one of the most gorgeous remote locations in the world – a very special place.
14) Forillon National Park
Love the sea? Then you’ll love Forillon National Park with its miles of coastline, fishing villages, sand dunes, hiking trails and rolling green seaside meadows.
Where: Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula
One of the best hikes in the park is Les Graves trail, which follows the coast. Meander through fields of wildflowers and wooded forests atop soaring cliffs and alongside pebble beaches. And breathe in the salt air as you spot eagles, cormorants and great blue herons.
15) Cape Breton Highlands National Park
“Where the mountains meet the sea” is how Cape Breton Highlands National Park is often described.
One-third of the Cabot Trail – one of the of the most scenic drives in the world – winds through the park. Allow 3 to 5 days to experience this great Canadian road trip. Stay at charming B&Bs along the way, and gobble up all the lobster you want (lobster is a specialty in this part of Canada).
Where: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Be sure to hike the spectacular Skyline Trail. This easy 4.5 mile (7.5 km) loop has a boardwalk in the middle section offering stunning ocean views. If you’re lucky, you might see moose; offshore, whales are often spotted.
List of national parks in Canada
Want to check out more of the top national parks in Canada?
Here’s a list of all Canadian national parks.
Best guides on Canada’s national parks
The following National Geographic paperback – “National Parks of Canada” – is one of the best illustrated guides.
More on Canada
Being Canadians who’ve lived in Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria, we’ve written tons on Canada. Here are just a couple of posts you might like:
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