Canada is a very big country, and not all of it is worth seeing. The country is composed of ten provinces, from east to west: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island (our maritime provinces, all bordering the Atlantic Ocean); Quebec (French speaking), Ontario (the biggest province, home to the capital of the country, Ottawa, and its biggest city, Toronto); Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (the three prairie provinces); and British Columbia (the most westerly province bordering the Pacific Ocean). There are also three territories in the north, from east to west: Nunavut, North West Territories, and the Yukon.
From my point of view, if I had 2-3 months, I would only visit Newfoundland, Quebec, possibly southern Ontario to see Niagra Falls, and British Columbia (including the Rocky Mountain part of Alberta). Most of the rest is missable. What you see is of course dependent on time and money. If I one only had a month, I would only go to British Columbia. This discussion gives a strong emphasis on hiking and other outdoor pursuits, while talks minimally of shopping or spending time in big cities.
Newfoundland. This is an island on the far east coast, and the last province to join the country in 1949. The people are very special, have their own distinctive accent, a wry sense of humor, and a warm personality. The capital, St John’s has great character and stunning ocean scenery. That scenery extends all around the island with a marvelous coast. The prime places to visit are around St John’s where the East Coast Trail is and Gros Morne NP.
The East Coast Trail follows the coast of the Avalon Peninsula. The developed trail is 265km long – 45 km is north of St John’s and 220km is south of St John’s to Cappahaydon. The trail is divided into 24 sections with links to 32 communities where lodging, mostly Bed and Breakfasts, and supplies can be obtained. This is the developed part of the trail, there is also 275km of undeveloped trail north and south of the developed part. The scenery is magnificent and icebergs and whales are common sightings.
Quebec. Primarily French speaking, the prime reason to go here is Quebec City, the only walled city in North America. Montreal, the second largest French speaking city in the world after Paris, is brimming with culture and good dining. Rural Quebec is charming.
British Columbia. I have lived here most of my life and know it the best. If one is interested in the ocean, mountains, rivers, lakes and wildlife with resulting great hiking, backpacking, and sea kayaking, this is the place to concentrate your journey. It is also home to Vancouver, perennially voted one of the top cities in the world, and Vancouver Island whose west coast sits on the Pacific Ocean.
Public transport is sparse and the only practical way to have any mobility is to rent a small car. Fly into either Calgary, Alberta or Vancouver and start your adventure from there. For the purposes of this discussion, I will start in Calgary, which is about 150kms east of the Rocky Mountains. It is a big city with an international airport.
The border between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia is the watershed of the Rocky Mountains: all water falling to the east ends up in either Hudsons Bay, the Arctic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. All water falling to the west ends up in the Pacific Ocean. Plan your trip for July, August and possibly early September, by far the best months for hiking.
Purchase the Trail Guide to the Rocky Mountains and possibly Scrambles in the Rockies by Sean Dougherty and a road map of Alberta and BC.
Waterton Lakes National Park. In the far southwest corner of the province, Waterton forms an International Peace Park with Glacier National Park in Montana, USA in the Rocky Mountains. I spent part of 17 summers here as we had a cabin in the park and I know it best. Refer to my Hiking>Hiking in Canada>Waterton Lakes post for a complete list of hikes. Note that these are not the traditional trail hikes done by most people, but almost always involve climbing mountains, all non-technical. Route finding skills are essential.
My favorites are Mount Forum (great views down to Forum Lake and south into Glacier NP), Mount Blakiston/Lineham Lakes (Blakiston is the highest mountain in the park and Lineham Lakes is rarely visited because of a cliff, but it is easy to navigate on either side, and wildlife around the lakes is always there), and Mount Crandell (marvelous views down to the townsite and the prairie to the east). The best trail hiking is on the Alderson-Carthew trail that starts at Forum Lake and ends in the townsite. These hikes see the best of the park and all have stunning views.
From Waterton, drive north to Pincher Creek, turn west on Highway 3, and at Coleman, turn north on the Forestry Trunk Road #40, a gravel road in the foothills to the east of the Rockies. It meets Hwy 541 just north of Don Getty Wilderness Provincial Park and continues as a paved road that goes through Kananaskis Country and great mountain scenery. This drive gives a chance to see a wide range of wildlife from your car.
Banff National Park. This is the jewell of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Park system. Stay at the Alpine Club of Canada hostel in Lake Louise. Book ahead as it is always busy in the summer months. Some suggested hikes are:
1. Moraine Lake and Mount Temple. This gorgeous glacial blue lake is bordered on the east by the Ten Peaks that once were on the Canadian $10 bill. On the east is Mount Temple (the lower picture on my front page is of the lake), the easiest 11,000 foot mountain in the Rockies to climb.
2. Lake Louise. Easily the most visited and best known place in the Canadian Rockies, the lake is a spectacular milky blue color. Hike up to Lake Agnes and climb the Beehive for the best views down to the lake. Then continue on to the Plain of the Six Glaciers Tea House, far above and past the lake. The apple pie eaten on the outside deck is not to be missed.
3. Castle Mountain. The name was once Mt Eisenhower but after many complaints was changed back to Castle. The hike goes up to a lake west of the mountain and then climbs to the highest point of the mountain for great views.
Banff-Jasper Parkway. Drive one of the premier road trips in the world, Highway 93 along the Banff-Jasper Parkway. The mountains, glaciers and lakes along the road are second to none. If you are a photographer (or to get the best guide to this area), buy Darwin Wiggetts “How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies”, a good guide to the entire drive. There are many great hikes along the parkway.
Mount Robson Provincial Park. Instead of going into Jasper, go west on Highway 16 into British Columbia to Mount Robson Provincial Park, Mt Robson is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. The backpacking trip up to Berg Lake is possibly the best overnight backpacking trip in Canada. It is necessary to book campsites here before hand, so when you know your itinerary, phone the park and reserve your sites. Refer to my post detailing the trip. Return down the Banff-Jasper Parkway, and turn west at the Trans Canada Highway.
Yoho National Park. On the west side of the continental divide in British Columbia, the park has a north and south sides. Organize a day trip to the Burgess Shale, one of the best fossil sites in the world. Drive into the park, visit Takkaka Falls. It is possible to do a very long, 27km loop dayhike to Twin Falls, visit the Stanley Mitchell Hut, and return via the Iceline Trail.
Lake O’Hara. South of the highway is the another jewel of the Rockies, Lake O’Hara. It is not possible to drive the 17km up to the lake and you must book the bus. There are 3 places to stay here: Lake O’Hara Lodge (very expensive and must be booked months or years in advance), the ACC Elizabeth Parker Hut (a lottery is held in November for spots in this the most popular hut in the ACC system, but cancellations occur, so call the ACC regularly), and the NP campground (this books out very early in the season). As you can see staying overnight is difficult without advance planning but is highly recommended as several days are necessary to do the area justice.
There are several dayhikes: the Alpine Circuit ascends steeply and passes Lake Oesa. From here it is possible to climb up to the Abbot Pass Hut, a stone hut built in 19?, and atmospherically located on the continental divide above Lake Louise. Bookings are easier here. Continue on the Alpine Circuit to the Opabin Plateau. Climb Mt. Yukness, an easy ascent on a trail. Continue on the high trail to below Mt Schaffer, and descend to the Elizabeth Parker hut. Other good day hikes are to Lake McArthur or to the Odaray Plateau.
Kootenay National Park. Return to the TC HIghway, go east and turn south past Lake Lousie on Highway 93 to drive through the park. Dayhike to the Stanley Glacier. Another of the best treks in the Rockies is the four day, 54km Rockwall Trail which follows a sheer limestone cliff for 30km. Campsites must be booked. Start at either end, in the north at Helmet Falls or the south at Floe Lake. It is easy to hitchhike along the highway back to your car. It is possible to extend thee hike on the north end by hiking another 12km to Lake O’Hara. Drive south to Radium Hot Springs, a touristry town, that is missable unless you want to soak in a swimming pool.
Bugaboo Provincial Park. Turn north along Highway 95 towards Golden, and turn west past Brisco to drive the good gravel road 58km to Bugaboo Provincial Park, one of the premier alpine climbing areas in the world. There are also marvelous dayhikes. The area is characterized by soaring granite spires set in glaciers. The easiest day hike is up the trail to the Conrad Kain Hut. However there is another day hike, which I believe is the best hike in Canada (or maybe the world!), but involves crossing a small glacier and then off trail hiking , but the route is obvious, with a restricted choice. It can be walked in about eight hours or can easily be converted to a 2-4 day backpack. A topographical map is highly recommended.
Park at the regular parking lot (a lot of chickenwire is available to protect your brake lines from being chewed by porcupines which actively roam the lot) or near the CMH Bugaboo Lodge and take the signed Cobalt Lake Trail. Once on the ridge above the lake, leave the meandering trail, and descend taking the easiest route heading for the waterfall below the lake. If staying overnite, consider climbing North Post Spire to the NW of the lake. This is a wonderful place to camp and you will most likely be alone. Continue along the south side of the lake scrambling over the boulders, and climb up to the west of the small glacier SW and above the lake. The glacier can be mostly avoided on the west. You end up on the Brenta Spire (a rockclimb)/Cobalt Lake Spire col. Look east and slightly south to map out the route which turns south (right) up a rocky valley. The valley climbs up to the neve above the main group of spires in the park including Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch. Descent slightly to reach Appleby campsite, a great second camp if backpacking. Continue down a trail past Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch to the Conrad Kain Hut, full of smelly climbers from all over the world. One could camp here in the good campsites for a third night. Descend the wonderful trail down ladders and constructed steps through the cliffs and back down to the parking lot, or the lodge and your car.
Drive back to Brisco and the highway and turn left on Highway 95 heading NW toward Golden, an attractive small city. Kicking Horse Ski Resort, mountain biking and hiking are available here. Go west on the Trans Canada through Rogers Pass passing the spiral tunnels, an engineering marvel on the railway, to Revelstoke. If in early August, the alpine wildflower display in Mt Revelstoke NP, can be one of the best in the world. Turn south on Highway 23 heading towards the Galena Bay Ferry crossing Arrow Lakes and Nakusp.
You are now in the West Kootenay of British Columbia, a mecca of lakes, rivers and mountains. Because of the high Purcell Mountains to the east, this area is one of the few temperate rainforests in the world. The forest is a mix of many species – fir, hemlock, western red cedar, and larch with a lush moss forest floor. I lived and worked in the West Kootenay for 35 years and know it well. Half way between Calgary and Vancouver and traversed in the south by Highway #3, it is off the radar of most tourists. I will describe many things to do here. I believe, that after the Rocky Mountains and the Bugaboos, it is the best place in BC to spend time. You will be one of the few tourists. Go to my post Kayaking the West Kootenay of BC for detailed trip advice on all the water adventures.
Canoe Arrow Lakes. This would be difficult to arrange but is a nice kayaking/canoe trip on Upper Arrow Lakes, then Lower Arrow Lakes and possibly all the way to Castlegar where the Hugh Keenlyside Dam is responsible for forming the lakes. The lakes are actually the Columbia River, one of the highest flow rivers in the world. The level of the lake varies up to 40 feet between low water in April and high water in July after the spring freshet. At high water, there are few beaches and camping, but at all lower levels, many sand beaches appear. The lake has many nice waterfalls emptying into it including Pingston and Fostall with good camping. Most of the lake south of Farqurier/Edgewood and Castlegar is roadless and true wilderness. Besides a few motorboats, you will be alone. This would be an adentursome trip and requires a canoe or kayaks, full camping equipment, topographical maps and some common sense.
Buy the hiking guide for the West Kootenay, “Don’t Waste Your Time in the West Kootenay” for good road access and hiking info. The locals hate this opinionated book but it is the only one available.
Cross the ferry and head south to Nakusp, a small town with one of the best wild mushroom harvests anywhere. South of town, cross the Arrow Ferry and climb Saddle Mountain, for wonderful views down to the lake and the mountains around. Return to Nakusp for a fast food fix at the legendary Burger Hut. Continue on Highway 6 to the Slocan Valley. New Denver and Silverton are wonderful small towns on the east side of the lake. Cycle the Galena Trail that runs between Nakusp and past New Denver to Sandon, a ghost town from the silver mining days at the turn of the century. Drive to the top of Idaho Peak and take the short easy half hour trail to the top and the fire lookout. Idaho Peak has a spectacular wildflower show that peaks in early August. For even better flowers hike up to Dennis Creek ridge, along the Wilson Creek FSR, then the Hicks Creek FSR.
Canoe Slocan Lake. Slocan Lake is one of the best canoeing lakes in the world. About 55km long, the west shore is roadless and is bounded by Valhalla Provincial Park. There are 9 primitive campsites along the lake, some with trails. Nice beaches and many spectacular waterfalls accent the trip. I usually take 4 days for the trip camping at Wragge Creek, Nemo Creek and Beatrice Creek. Nemo would be a highlight anywhere in the world with stunning waterfalls, a good beach, and an hour long trail up to the some big rocks. A canoe can be rented from Smiling Otter in Slocan City at the south end of the lake. Returning to your vehicle at the end is easy as hitchhiking in the West Kootenay is a normal way of life.
Valhalla Provincial Park. Road access to Valhalla PP and its many spectacular dayhikes is along the LIttle Slocan Lakes FSR that is accessed from Slocan City. One of the best hikes is to Gimli Ridge and Mulvey Lakes via Bannock Burn FSR (climb Gimli via the east ridge, class IV, this is a tremendous granite spire, vertical on all sides). For a special trip, desend into Mulvey Basin to camp and climb Asgard and/or Midgard, easy scrambles. There is a small glacier that must be descended and late in the season, it can be very icy and requires crampons. Dag can be ascended from the basin or from above the Gimli trailhead.
Drive up Hoder Creek FSR to hike to Drinnon Lakes and Gwillim Lakes Basin, at the west end of the Devils Range, a line of 10 granite spires. From the basin, you can climb the 5 most westerly of the peaks, Black Prince, Lucifer, Trident, Rosemary’s Baby and Mephistopheles.
Further down the Little Slocan Lakes road, one can turn up Koch Creek FSR to access McKean Lakes, just outside of the park.
Nelson. BC is one of the neatest small cities in the world. With a laid-back hippy vibe, it is located in a magical setting on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. It is known for its good restaurants and shopping for local handicrafts. Hike up Pulpit Rock on the north shore for great views of the town. Go to www.kootenaymountaineering.bc.ca, look up the clubs summer trips schedule, contact the leaders of the regular trips, and visitors are welcome to join. Be forwarned that virtually every trip involves nontechnical ascents of a mountain and you must be in good shape. The leaders have the right to refuse you, and dogs are generally not welcome.
Kokanee Glacier PP, NE of Nelson, has some of the best hiking in the West Kootenay. The Kokanee Glacier Trail and Silverspray Trail are especially popular. The West Kootenay has many hot springs. The best is Ainsworth Hot Springs on the west side of Kootenay Lake.
For a mountain bike fix, drive to Rossland, another past mining town near the US border.
Once you have had your fill of glorious mountains and lakes, continue west on Highway 3 to the Okanagan Valley, its lakes, dry climate, wineries, and larger cities. For my tastes, I would skip this area as it is crammed with tourists in the summer, and has few natural adventures. One of the best bicycle trips anywhere follows the historic Kettle Valley Railway. The rails have been removed and one can spend 2-3 weeks cycling from Castlegar in the West Kootenay to Hope, 120kms east of Vancouver. The Myra Canyon section with many great trestles is above the city of Kelowna. Rock climb outside of Penticton at Skaha.
Further on past the Okanagan, stop at Hedley and take the tour up to the Mascot Mine, high above the town. Continue past Manning PP and Hope to rejoin the Trans Canada Highway and on to Vancouver.
Vancouver is perpetually rated in the top three cities in the world. Its natural setting with beaches and mountains sheathed in snow 20 minutes from downtown is magnificent. Built as a modern city should be, with a large population living downtown, it is not necessary to have a car and it is replete with bicycle paths. There are two iconic things to do. Walk the Grouse Grind, a trail up Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver for good views of the city. Then walk the Sea Wall around Stanley Park, a big park in the west end of downtown. To walk it all takes the majority of a day. Go out to the University of British Columbia and visit the excellent museum showcasing the indigenous Native culture of the west coast of the province. Vancouver restaurants present one of the best cuisines in the world. My favorite is Vij’s, fusion west coast/Indian food (order the lamb popsicles and buy his cook book). Of course there are many other things to do, but these are my favorites.
Many tourists would also visit Whistler, the largest ski hill in North America and a mecca for hiking and mountain biking in the summer. Personally I would miss it, and instead rock climb or hike at Squamish or hike to Black Tusk in Garibaldi Provincial Park.
Vancouver Island, home to Victoria, the capital of the province, should be added to your adventure. It is a 1 1/2 hour ferry ride from Vancouver across the Stait of Georgia (Tawassen to Swartz Bay north of Victoria, or Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo).
One of the premier backpacking trips in the world is the West Coast Trail between Bamfield and Port Renfrew. I did it first in 1976, when there were big bogs and blow downs that you had to walk across, and no board walk or ladders. It has totally changed now and is well suited to a 6-7 day trip. One usually has a choice of walking in the forest (this is second growth and not that special) or next to the water either on the sand or preferably the wide rock shelf that appears at lower tides, a much better choice. As it is a one-way trail, you must shuttle back to your car. In 2006, when I last did the trail, it was possible to take a boat from Port Renfrew to Bamfield in the morning, and then walk back to your car. During the 4 hour trip, one can see the trail from the water and usually see whales. A permit for the trail is required, which might be best booked in advance, but some spaces are available daily.
Still on the exposed west coast are the towns of Ucluet and Tofino. Long Beach is between, and Clayquot Sound north. The area is extremely popular in the summer. Besides kayaking, one of the best things to do is fly or boat from Tofino to Hot Springs Cove, one of the most spectacular natural hot springs anywhere. The hot water goes over a waterfall and flows through several small completely natural pools that are slowly engulfed by the rising tides. At night, the stars, steam and bioluminesense is magical. It is possible to stay at a bed and breakfast boat in the harbour or at a campground, rather than arrive, have one soak and leave the same day as most visitors do. It is then a 45 minute walk on boardwalk through a nice forest to reach the springs. The hot springs themselves are not a commercial operation, are a provincial park and are free.
Vancouve Island has some of the best sea kayaking in the world. If you can afford it, go on a guided trip at Johnston Strait. The resident killer whales are here in the summer feeding on the salmon.
Obviously, if you did everything on the above list, it would take a long time. Most tourists have a month or less, and then, if hiking is your passion, I would restrict myself to the Rocky Mountains, the Bugaboos, and the West Kootenay. You might miss Vancouver, but let’s face it, it really is just another big, expensive city. Canada’s attraction is its nature and wildlife. Make seeing that the goal.