Written by: Mikaela Ferguson; This post is part two of the series The Great Canadian Road Trip.
If you’re reading this, I hope it’s because you enjoyed part 1! I have less experience with this next section of Canada, so it’s mostly ideas of where I would stop when I do my Great Canadian Road Trip.
We left off in Thunder Bay, after having travelled the coast of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. It’s now time to cross the prairies. Many people look at the prairies as a painfully long and boring drive to power through without stopping. I’ll admit, it is very flat and I did not particularly enjoy it when I did it as a kid. But if we’re trying to maximize national parks while minimizing costs, we need the prairies! Note: I did only part of this section when I was younger, so the photos have been taken from various external sources (included in the caption).
Thunder Bay to Banff National Park (15-20 nights)
First is the drive from Thunder Bay (A) to Winnipeg (B), which takes a little under 8 hours. I included a link to the Winnipeg Tourism website; I haven’t been there since I was 10 or 12 so I wouldn’t know what to recommend (I’d probably just keep driving the additional 3 hours to Riding Mountain National Park (C) without really making a stop). I’ve done some day hikes around Clear Lake, and I remember all of them being lovely. You can camp in the park and I’d recommend staying 2-3 nights (there’s a lot driving on either side so it’s nice to have two days of hiking day trails as a break from driving).
From Riding Mountain, it’s another 8 hours to Grasslands National Park (D). This is a national park I have not been to, and to be honest, I didn’t think much of it because I still held the idea that Saskatchewan was a boring province. I checked out the park’s website and it’s actually pretty cool, and definitely a place I would not miss.
There’s this assumption that something has to have jagged mountains and coastal views to be beautiful, but the grasslands look beautiful in a different way. I’d give it 2 or 3 nights.
Speaking of jagged mountains, at this point we leave the prairies and enter Alberta. The temptation would be to go northwest upon reaching the town of Medicine Hat, but then you’d miss out on Waterton Lakes National Park (E) – and it’s only a 6 hour drive from Grasslands National Park. See the images below and you’ll understand why it is not a place to be missed!
You can camp, paddle, hike, bike. There are lakes and mountains and grasslands and that pretty house. Honestly, I’d personally plan to stay for at least 3 nights. Plus this section of the trip has a lot of driving, so I would like a break.
After Waterton, you can drive a short 2.5 hours north to Calgary (F). Even though this trip is focused on national parks, I think it’d be worth it to stop in Calgary for a night or two, especially if you’ll be there during the Calgary Stampede. I’ve never been to the stampede, but my friends who have say it’s a crazy kind of party. In Calgary, you can take a nice shower, do some shopping, check out the olympic monuments or just take a breather.
Next, I would drive three hours north of Calgary, through Edmonton and to Elk Island National Park (G). It looks out of the way on the map, but it’s only a six hour return trip so I think it’s totally worth it. Out of all the parks I’ve included thus far, this one gives you the best chance at spotting the Northern Lights, though this might still be a challenge in the summer. Also, there’s a ton of wildlife here! I’d aim to have two full days here, whether that means leaving Calgary early in the morning and spending 2 nights, or leaving later but spending 3 nights.
After driving back down to Calgary and then west, it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: The Rocky Mountains. This area has so many parks (see the map below, plus there’s even more provincial parks in the area).
These parks include:
- Banff National Park (orange)
- Yoho National Park (yellow)
- Kootenay National Park (dark blue)
- Jasper National Park (purple)
- Glacier National Park of Canada (maroon)
- Mount Revelstoke National Park (green)
When I went here in 2015, I first spend a few hours walking around in Canmore. It’s touristy (so it’s a bit expensive) but it’s a quaint town with cute stores. It was February, so we went skiing near Lake Louise, but if you’re there in the spring/summer/fall, there’s plenty of hiking and camping in the area. First I’d head into Kootenay National Park and do a day full of hikes there.
If you can, I would recommend getting away from your car for a few days and do a backpacking hike in Banff. It’s high on my bucket list for sure. Check out information and suggested itineraries here.
A trip to Banff wouldn’t be complete without taking a photo at the iconic Lake Moraine. Search it on Instagram and you’ll see just how popular it is. One of my best friends Victoria is in love with this Banff and the surrounding national parks and has been 3 or 4 times now (the two photos below are from her Instagram account @yourgurlvic).
Yoho is nearby as well and you could pop into the park for a day or two and do some hiking. This entire area can really be whatever you make of it! I would say a minimum of 5 nights should be spent in these three parks, but honestly I wouldn’t mind spending longer.
The direction you take from here will depend on what you want the rest of the trip to be. Essentially, you could go north to Jasper and through the provincial parks. This would be a good choice if you’re looking to get to northern British Columbia and Yukon (which would be amazing, it just adds on time and money). Or you could go south to Revelstoke and continue on to Vancouver. Or you could do a combination of the two!
Either way, I’m going to save these two sections of the road trip for my next two posts.