Road trip Canada: 5 of the best routes

written by Stuart Forster
updated 4/19/2021
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Rugged and vast, Canada is a road-tripper's dream. Driving gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace – pull over and take in the scenery along the way or break up the journey with hiking and kayaking.

Whether you’re into mountains, beaches or urban heritage, here are five of our favourite routes, to take with your own car or a rental car.

1. The Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

The Cabot Trail loops 298km around the north of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The route winds along the coast for much of its length with viewpoints overlooking the North Atlantic.

Locals tout fall as the best time to travel, but the dramatic landscapes of Cape Breton Highlands National Park look good throughout the year. Moose roam the park, where walking trails give you the opportunity to stretch your legs and breathe in the crisp sea air.

Islanders here are proud of their French-influenced Acadian heritage and Celtic ancestry, and love to celebrate it with loud live music in local pubs. Experience it in Chéticamp, a fishing village where you can tuck into locally landed lobster and seasonal seafood.

Be sure to park up in Pleasant Bay and join a cruise to spot whales and seals, and don’t miss the chance to kick off your shoes on the sand close to Ingonish.

Best for: dramatic coastal scenery

How long: 5 days

Not to miss: Discover Cape Breton from Sydney on a small group tour, particularly for those that don't want to drive themselves but still explore the park.

Our favourite accommodation: Ocean View Motel & Chalets - There are around twenty motels and B&Bs in and around Chéticamp with this being one of the best: well-maintained and spacious shingle-clad chalets right by the seashore, opposite Les Trois Pignons.

The Cabot Trail © Cindy Creighton/Shutterstock

2. Vancouver to Tofino, British Colombia

This road trip starts with a ferry crossing: board the boat in Horseshoe Bay, Vancouver, and relax for a couple of hours while crossing the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island.

The following 207km drive from Nanaimo to Tofino gives you an opportunity to stop in MacMillan Provincial Park and walk between the mossy trunks of enormous Douglas fir trees, some of which are up to 800 years old. The twisting course of the Pacific Rim Highway makes this a thrilling woodland drive – Kennedy Lake Provincial Park is a popular spot to break for a picnic.

Finally, unwind at Tofino, which is making a name as a surfing destination. Nearby Long Beach stretches for 16km and at Esowista you can meet members of the local First Nations community.

Best for: surfing and woodland walks

How long: 2 days

Your alternative to driving: There's another way to get to Vancouver Island - taking a seaplane! Incredible views are almost guaranteed, first of the city of Vancouver during takeoff and then the Pacific Rim National Park during the journey and descent.

Our favourite accommodation: Pacific Sands Beach Resort - Designer beach houses and suites sandwiched between tall evergreens and the persistent surf of Cox Bay beach. Guest quarters come with full kitchens and gas fireplaces, and there are thoughtful extras like in-room raincoats and community “s’more roasts” of fire-toasted marshmallows sandwiched between chocolate biscuits (July and Aug). It’s pricey, but breathtaking – worth it if you’re looking to splurge.

MacMillan Provincial Park © Chase Clausen/Shutterstock

3. Regina to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan has the reputation for being a flat, prairie province as many drivers experience it only from the Trans-Canada Highway.

Start in Regina, where you can visit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Centre and, on Tuesdays from July to mid-August, view Mounties on parade in the Sunset-Retreat Ceremony.

Then, head to Moose Jaw to learn about bootlegging during the Prohibition era, when mobsters ran booze into the USA from the small town.

Continue west, past colourful barns, to Swift Current then up to Lake Diefenbaker for sport fishing and sailing. Spend a couple of days at La Reata Ranch if you like the idea of horse riding on a working cattle ranch.

Arriving into Saskatoon on a weekend means being able to sample the city’s nightlife at its best.

Best for: mounties and western riding

How long: 5 days

Our favourite accommodation: Delta Hotels by Marriott Bessborough - Built for the CNR in 1931, the Bessborough is an enormous turreted and gabled affair, set in Kiwanis Memorial Park, beside the river. It’s been tastefully refurbished in a French château style, which makes it the city’s most striking building; some claim it’s haunted.

4. Icefields Parkway, Alberta

You can motor along the 232km route of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta in just four hours, but that wouldn’t do justice to the magnificence of the woodland wilderness, waterfalls and jagged mountains either side of the highway.

This route runs between Banff and Jasper, cutting through the Rocky Mountains and skirting through two national treasures, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. They are the home to the vast Columbia Icefield. Learn about the region’s geology during guided hikes on the Athabasca and Saskatchewan glaciers.

Overnighting at one of Jasper National Park’s campsites means being able to stare at constellations in one of the world’s biggest dark sky reserves.

On sunny days, the sight of snow-capped mountains and blue skies reflecting on the surfaces of the Peyto and Waterfowl will have any keen photographer stopping every five minutes.

Best for: stargazing and glacier walks

How long: 3 days

Not to miss: It's a once in a lifetime experience to see the Canadian Rockies from high up a helicopter. These impressive views will remain with you for a long time.

Our favourite accommodation: The Juniper Hotel & Bistro - Boutique hotel that breaks the predictable mould of most mid-range Banff offerings with its chic, simple and contemporary interiors in a series of chalets (the larger two- and three-bedroom ones offer kitchenettes). The mountain views are among the best from any Banff hotel, but at 2km from the town centre at the foot of Mount Norquay, it’s not central.

Icefields Parkway © outdoorimages/Shutterstock

continued below

5. Montréal to the Gaspé Peninsula, Québec

Montréal celebrated 375 years since foundation in 2017. The signposted Chemin du Roy tourist route follows the north shore of the St Lawrence River, via heritage sites in villages such as Deschambault and Neuville, to Québec City. It’s easy to spend a couple of days exploring the old town and fortifications, including the Citadelle of Québec.

Gaspé overlooks the Gulf of St Lawrence, at the tip of the peninsula, almost 700km north-east of the provincial capital. Québec’s residents flock here to escape the city and often relax at fishing camps.

Whale-watching trips run from Gaspé and nearby Percé, where a sheer-sided rock juts from the water. If you’re into birdwatching, take a boat to Bonaventure Island to see the vast gannet colonies and almost 300 other seabird species.

Best for: heritage sites and whale-watching

How long: 7 days

Not to miss: The best way to discover Montréal is with a local, like on this small group tour of Montreal's historic city center.

Our favourite accommodation: Auberge William Wakeham - Set in a historic stone house overlooking the bay, this good-looking inn has plenty of charm and exceedingly helpful owners. The rooms vary in size and furnishings, but all have a/c and queen or king beds; the more expensive choices have fantastic views. Breakfast is included, and the elegant dining room is easily the best spot around to sample regional cuisine, made with local ingredients.

Percé © Pinkcandy/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Canada

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written by Stuart Forster
created 12/5/2016
updated 4/19/2021
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