Canada’s mountains, lakes, rivers and forests offer the opportunity to indulge in a vast range of outdoor pursuits. We’ve concentrated on fishing, hiking, skiing and canoeing – four of Canada’s most popular activities – and on the national parks, which have been established to preserve and make accessible the best of the Canadian landscape.
Other popular activities such as whale-watching, riding and rafting are covered in some detail in the main text. Once in Canada you can rely on finding outfitters, equipment rental, charters, tours and guides to help you in most areas; tourist offices invariably carry full details or contact numbers.
The national parks
Canada’s 42 national parks are administered by Parks Canada (w pc.gc.ca), and local staff based at park information centres. Visit these to pick up special permits if you intend to fish or camp in the backcountry, and for information and audiovisual displays on flora, fauna and outdoor activities. Many offer talks and nature walks presented by park naturalists, as well as reports on snow, weather and recent bear sightings. The national parks system also administers 167 National Historic Sites – important historical sites dotted around the country.
Supplementing the national parks is a network of provincial parks in every province in the country. Entry to these parks is sometimes free, though often you’ll have to pay a small fee of around $5. You’ll also have to pay for fishing and hunting permits as well as campgrounds on top of this; specifics vary from province to province.
National park permits
All those entering Canada’s national sites and parks require a park permit, regardless of their mode of transport, though permits are most commonly sold to cover all those entering in a particular vehicle from a roadside booth on the park boundary. This costs around $7.80 to $9.80 per person per day with concessions for the young and old. If you intend to visit a number of national parks and sites, it might be worth investing in an annual Discovery Pass, which provides one adult unlimited admission to all parks and national historic sites for $67.70; family or group passes, covering a whole car-load of people, cost around double.
Additional permits are also required to fish (see Bears, cougars and snakes) and backcountry camp in national parks: both are generally available from park information centres.
Canada boasts some of North America’s finest hiking, and whatever your ability or ambition you’ll find a walk to suit almost anywhere in the country. All the national and many provincial parks have well-marked and well-maintained trails, and a visit to any park centre or local tourist office will furnish you with adequate maps of the usually very easily followed local paths. If you’re venturing into the backcountry try to obtain the appropriate 1:50,000 sheet from the Canadian Topographical Series. For key hiking areas we’ve given a brief summary of the best trails in the appropriate parts of the Guide, though with over 1500km of paths in Banff National Park alone, these recommendations only scratch the surface. Park staff can advise on other good walks, and detailed trail guides are widely available for most popular regions.
Before setting off on anything more than a short stroll be properly informed of local conditions and be properly equipped. Hiking at lower elevations should present few problems, though swarms of blackflies in the spring and mosquitoes near water can drive you crazy; anything containing DEET should be a fairly reliable repellent. For more on specific health problems.
Main hiking areas
The most extensive and rewarding hiking-trail networks are in the Rockies national parks of Alberta and BC. Thousands of kilometres of well-kept and well-tramped paths crisscross the four main parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay – as well as the smaller enclaves of Glacier, Revelstoke and Waterton Lakes. Scope for hiking of all descriptions is almost limitless. More modest areas dotted all over BC boast walking possibilities out of all proportion to their size: we pay less attention to these, but by most relative standards hiking here is still among the best in North America.
In Manitoba, the Riding Mountain National Park offers about thirty hiking trails, but though there’s plenty of upland walking to be had in the prairie provinces, you have to move east to Québec’s Mauricie, Forillon and Gatineau parks for a taste of mountains comparable to the western provinces. In Ontario, Lake Superior Provincial Park and Algonquin Park are the most challenging terrains. New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park offers coastal walks, while Newfoundland’s hiking centres on its two national parks: Terra Nova on the east coast, and the high plateau and fjords of the west coast’s Gros Morne. For the truly bold, however, nothing can match the Arctic extremes of Baffin Island, whose principal trail lies over an icecap that never melts.
In areas with highly developed trail networks, seasoned backpackers can blaze their own long-distance walking routes by stringing together several longer trails. Recognized long-haul paths are relatively rare, though more are being designated yearly. One of the best is the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea in Alaska to Bennett in BC, a 53km hike that closely follows the path of prospectors en route to the Yukon during the 1898 gold rush. The most popular is probably Vancouver Island’s demanding West Coast Trail, which runs for 75km along the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park.
More far-reaching walks include the Rideau Trail, which follows paths and minor roads for 386km from Kingston to Ottawa (w rideautrail.org); the 690km Bruce Trail from Queenston, on the Niagara River, to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula (w brucetrail.org); and the Voyageur Trail along the north shores of lakes Superior and Huron, which is the longest and most rugged route in the province (w voyageurtrail.ca). In the Maritimes, the Confederation Trail cuts a bucolic path across PEI, while the Fundy Trail in New Brunswick and, in particular, the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland offer a more rugged experience.
Wherever there’s good hiking in Canada, there’s also usually skiing. The increasingly popular resorts of the Rockies and BC are the main areas and the country’s leading resorts are at Whistler, Banff and Lake Louise. But there’s also great skiing in Québec, and a few good runs at the minor day resorts that dot the other provinces. Most cities are also close to excellent cross-country trail networks.
Canadian ski packages are available from travel agents worldwide, but it’s perfectly feasible to organize your own trips, as long as you book well ahead if you’re hoping to stay in some of the better-known resorts. Costs for food, accommodation and ski passes are still fairly modest by US and European standards: expect to pay $50–75 per day (depending on the quality and popularity of the resort) for lift passes, plus another $30 or more per day to rent equipment.
Canada is fishing nirvana. While each region has its specialities, from the Arctic char of the Northwest Territories to the Pacific salmon of BC, excellent fishing can be found in most of the country’s abundant lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Many towns have a fishing shop for equipment, and any spot with fishing possibilities is likely to have companies running boats and charters. Most provinces publish detailed booklets on everything that swims within the area of their jurisdiction.
Fishing is governed by a range of regulations that vary between provinces and are usually baffling at first glance, but usually boil down to the need for a non-resident permit for freshwater fishing, and another for saltwater fishing. These are increasingly available online (search the provincial government websites) or from most local fishing or sports shops for $60 and up, and are valid for a year. Short-term (one- or six-day) licences are also available in some provinces ($15–30). For non-residents, fishing in Ontario requires an Outdoors Card for $9.68 (valid for 3 years), plus a fishing licence: one year is $78.18, while one day is $21.31 (call t 1 800 387 7011). Alberta fishing licences are $70.90 (one year) and $26.63 (one day); Northwest Territories charges $40 per season and $30 per day; while BC charges a whopping $80 annually ($20 for one day). Additional permits are required to fish in national parks; available from park administration centres, these cost around $34.30 annually or $9.80 daily. There may well be quotas on the types and numbers of fish you can catch, which you can find out when you buy a permit.
Opportunities for canoeing are limited only by problems of access and expertise: some of the rapids and portages on the country’s more challenging routes are for real pros only. The most straightforward regions to canoe are in Ontario, with its estimated 250,000 lakes and 35,000km of waterways, some 25,000km of which have been documented as practical canoe routes. The key areas are the Algonquin, Killarney and Quetico provincial parks, though the single most popular run is the 190km Rideau Canal, a tame run from Kingston to Ottawa.
The rivers of BC offer generally more demanding whitewater routes, though the lake canoeing – in Wells Gray Provincial Park, for example – is among the country’s most beautiful. One of the province’s other recognized classics is the 120km trip near Barkerville on the Cariboo River and the lakes of the Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. More challenging still are the immense backcountry lakes and rivers of the Mackenzie River system and the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories, where you can find one of the continent’s ultimate river challenges – the 300km stretch of the South Nahanni River near Fort Simpson. Growing in popularity, partly because of improved road access, are trips on and around the Yukon River system, particularly the South Macmillan River east of Pelly Crossing. Other areas that will test the resources of any canoeist are to be found in Manitoba and Labrador – all detailed in this guide.
Once you’ve decided on an area, provincial tourist offices can provide full lists of outfitters. These will rent out equipment, organize boat and plane drop-offs, and arrange provisions for longer trips. Costs range from $150 to $250 for weekly canoe rental.