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Outdoors + Adventure

9 Best National Parks in Canada

There’s no better way to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday than with a visit to one of its national parks—especially given that Parks Canada is offering free access to all 47 in honor of the big anniversary. To guide your Great White North vacation-planning, we've compiled the 9 national parks in Canada you don't want to miss—from British Columbia's Pacific Rim National Park to Nunavut's lesser-known Auyuittuq National Park.

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Banff National Park, Alberta

The crown jewel of Canada’s national parks, Banff is an awe-inspiring landscape of towering snow-peaked mountains, deep forests, vast alpine meadows, and rushing waterfalls. Lace up your walking shoes and hike the Morraine Lake valley trail for the “Twenty Dollar view,” named for having been featured on the Canadian $20 bill, twice. After, reward yourself with Alberta beef fondue or British Columbia smoked trout at the Grizzly House, a Banff institution known for its fondue dinners and retro décor. The Fairmont Banff Springs, a historic Scottish Baronial castle at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is the ideal jumping off place for exploring the rest of the park.

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Jasper National Park, Alberta

Banff’s northern counterpart, Jasper, is the largest of the Canadian Rockies national parks, covering more than 4,200 square miles of pristine alpine wilderness. See it all 918 feet above ground at The Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored, cliff-edge walkway, where you can look out over glacier-formed valleys and waterfalls. Or, rent a canoe and paddle out to the jewel-colored Maligne Lake, one of the most photographed spots in the Rockies. To see a side of Jasper that few locals have even experienced, consider a luxury train trip (complete with glass-domed train cars and fine dining) on Rocky Mountaineer, which runs from April through October along routes spanning Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops, Jasper, and Banff.

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Pacific Rim National Park, British Columbia

For pure West Coast wilderness, hit British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park, located on Vancouver Island’s breathtaking west coast between Tofino and Ucluelet. The park is comprised of three distinct areas: Long Beach, a stretch of four consecutive beaches with surfer-friendly breaks; Broken Group Islands, a scattering of over 100 islands popular among kayakers; and the West Coast Trail, a challenging, pilgrimage-worthy backpacking trail that stretches 47 miles along wooden boardwalks, beach trails, ladders, and suspension bridges. As you traverse through centuries-old rainforests and dramatic fjords, you’ll encounter rare wildlife sightings including whales, bald eagles, and black bears.

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Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador

Grose Morne National Park is one of the few places in the world where you can see the earth’s mantle (the rocky layer under the crust)—the result of a plate collision that occurred several hundred million years ago. See the large, relocated portion of oceanic crust and ocean floor sediments by embarking on a full-day guided hike of the rugged Tablelands, where a lack of plant life and rust-colored soil give one the impression of being in a barren desert. Prefer sea views? Take a kayak tour of the park’s fjord in Bonne Bay or relax on the sandy beach at Shallow Bay. There are camping areas scattered throughout the park, but for more upscale lodgings, you’ll want to hit the road in the direction of the design-forward, 29-room Fogo Island Inn, on the largest offshore island of the province.

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Forillon National Park, Quebec

Quiet coves, jagged seaside cliffs, and traditional Gaspé fishing villages make up the breathtaking Forillon National Park on the eastern tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. The best way to see all is to rent a set of wheels and motor along the coast, stopping to explore the region’s picturesque round-pebble beaches, wildflower-filled meadows, and hiker-friendly trails. Along the way, you may spot whales, seals, black bears, and seabirds (there’s about a quarter-million of them in the area), as well as more than two dozen inland raptor species including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and northern harriers. Don’t miss climbing to the top of Cap Gaspé, a striking red and white lighthouse perched on the edge of a dramatic 312-foot cliff.

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Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

Canadians joke that in Saskatchewan, a prairie and boreal province in western Canada, the land is so flat and featureless that you can watch your dog run away for days. Well, it’s exactly the province’s characteristic barrenness (picture: a big, wide-open sky and knee-high wild grass for as long as you can see) that makes Grasslands National Park such a sight to behold. If you go, don’t forget to look up: the park is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, so the night sky gets really, really dark and is sometimes lit with Aurora Borealis. Other highlights include the Killdeer Badlands, a fossil-rich area of the park where the first dinosaur bones in western Canada were discovered, and the region’s thriving bison population.

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Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Highlands Park—Atlantic Canada’s first national park—is often referred to simply as “where the mountains meet the sea.” But to give you a bit of a bigger picture, the park is home to ancient plateaus sliced by river canyons, lush old-growth forests inhabited by rare plant and animal species, and rusty red cliffs which border the rugged Atlantic coast. You can traverse the area on two or four wheels following the seaside Cabot Trail or on foot as you traverse one of 26 trails which afford sweeping views of your choosing.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Davies and Nunavut Tourism

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Photo courtesy of Christian Kimber and Nunavut Tourism

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Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut

Glacier-carved fjords, vast uninhabited tundra, stark icebergs—Nunavut’s Auyuittuq National Park is truly one of the most startlingly beautiful places in Canada. In the Inukitut language, Auyuittuq means “the land that never melts,” but in fact, the park is accessible to tourists from late March to September, when the ice breaks up and the midnight sun shines brightly. The park’s biggest attraction is Mount Thor, the steepest, tallest cliff on Earth, with a 4,000-foot rock face and a 105-degree overhang. (Novice climbers, don’t even think about it.)

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Photos courtesy of Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation

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Fathom Five National Marine Park, Ontario

Fathom Five National Marine Park—which consists of the former Fathom Five Provincial Park and the western sector of the Georgian Bay Islands National Park—is one of Ontario’s most popular family summer destinations. This is largely because of the park’s 22 historic shipwrecks, which lie at the bottom of the clean, crystal-clear Georgian Bay, and consistently rank as being one of the best diving sites in North America. Another must-see is Flowerpot Island, which is accessible only by boat, and is famous for the two rock pillars ('flowerpots') on its eastern shoreline. There, go on a hike through the island's trails, picnic at Beachy Cove, check out the Flowerpot Island Lighthouse, or go for a refreshing swim.

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