A coast-to-coast tour of Canada
From the grasslands of Saskatchewan to the vast boreal forests of Yukon, here are stories from every province and territory
ALBERTA: A rookie's guide to viewing Lake Louise
You're going to Lake Louise this summer. You've made one mistake so far – going to one of Canada's most popular attractions in peak season – but you're new and still have a chance to redeem yourself. I'll give you this summer survival guide and tame my mountain snobbiness – gawd, so many tourists right now – if you pinkie swear to neither feed the critters nor litter. That includes tossing your biodegradable banana peel into the bush. Take the deal, rookie.
Lake Louise looks best from above, where its indescribable blue water further mocks the English language's shortcomings. The joint is packed in the summer, but if you get there early – no, really, I mean don't-miss-your-morning-flight early – you'll limit your exposure to the crowds and nab a parking spot. Grab some water, snacks, and cash. You're going to Lake Louise's Plain of Six Glaciers' tea house. Here are three options to get there, whether you're a hotshot hiker or a coach potato.
You like your porridge not too hot, not too cold
The Plain of Six Glaciers hike is a moderate 5.3-kilometre (one way) jaunt, with an elevation gain of 365 metres. Kids can do it. The hike to the Lake Agnes tea house is shorter, but Lake Louise is out of sight.
Start at the Chateau Lake Louise and take the shoreline path on the right. The Plain of Six Glaciers' trail head is at the end of the lake. Yes, it is uphill time. Go.
The trail leads right to the tea house. Be a dear and support the 93-year-old gem. Try the soup. Have the chocolate cake. Chill in the meadow beyond the employees' living quarters.
If you have enough gas in the tank, you can extend the trip on the main trail by hiking another 1.5 kilometres (one way) to the Abbot Pass viewpoint. Here, you can see Abbot Hut above and Lower Victoria Glacier below. You'll gain another 50 metres in elevation.
Head'r back down the same way you came. That's a respectable day. Good job, you.
For the keeners
If the Plain of Six Glaciers hike sounds too tame, even with the Abbot Pass extension, amp it up by taking the Highline trail. This 14.6-kilometre loop connects the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house to its Lake Agnes counterpart. If you're unsure whether you can complete the circuit, start with the Plain of Six Glaciers hike because if you go to Lake Agnes first but are too tuckered to continue, you'll miss the aerial view of Lake Louise.
On your way down from the Plain of Six Glaciers' tea house, watch for a fork in the path. Highline signs will steer you left. Jump on that trail, upward through the trees. This stretch is harder, which is why you'll have the trail to yourself. It leads to the top of the Big Beehive. Lake Agnes is down to your left, Lake Louise on your right, and Mirror Lake below. Head down the switchbacks and follow the trail that hugs Lake Agnes and deposits you at its tea house. Follow that trail back to Lake Louise's famous hotel, passing Mirror Lake and the Big Beehive on the way.
High-five. You've done well, guys.
Nope, you're not hiking up a mountain. Not now, not ever
Lake Louise has you covered. Tourists – let's be serious here, only tourists pick this option – can get high on the mountain thanks to hard-working pack horses. You'll pass the self-propelled tourists on parts of the path and they will judge you, but I'll give you this: If you're riding up a mountain on a horse, you understand the value of views. And your bottom side will hurt the next day. We'll call it even.
Now, y'all just a short walk to your vehicle, because you got here early enough to get a parking spot.
- Carrie Tait
BRITISH COLUMBIA: Backcountry bliss in Port Hardy
It's 9 a.m. on a juddering, loose-stone logging road that could easily dislodge a filling or two. For most visitors to northern Vancouver Island's Port Hardy region, this is exactly the kind of potholed dust track to avoid taking your rented car on. But for north islanders, it's a well-known access route to backcountry bliss.
"We wanted to bring people to the places locals go," says Chris, our driver, expertly weaving his chunky-tired van past tall stands of sun-dappled alder and hemlock trees. He and his partner, Anna – along for today's ride with a friendly Port Hardy hiker named Courtney – launched Cove Adventure Tours earlier this year.
Around 60 kilometres east of town, the gnarly old forests, vast deserted beaches and surprisingly quirky history of the region's rugged Cape Scott Provincial Park are today's camera-luring focal points. But first, there's an essential pit stop to make.
It's a little early for Lucky Lagers at the remote Scarlet Ibis Pub, but owner Pat is a bagged lunch expert. The chatty landlady – "I came for pizza in 1978, bought the place in 1981 and I've been here ever since" – is a twinkle-eyed local legend. After I admire the grand inlet views from her back deck, she tells me the bar is for sale.
Daydreaming about my pub-owning prospects, we're soon back on track, a black bear sauntering in front of us only briefly slowing our progress. By the time we reach the park's trailhead, the ferny foliage has closed in, beady-eyed ravens are croaking our arrival and a cloudless blue sky is framing a crowd of towering trees.
Senses heightened as we enter the shaded, cathedral-quiet trail – it's an easy 45-minute stroll to our first stop – tiny white dogwood flowers stud the feet of centuries-old western red cedars. Frisbee-sized fungi jut from some trees, while others wind around each other in sinuous symbiotic hugs.
We're soon blinking in the sudden, overwhelming sunlight of San Josef Bay beach.
Hitting the beach like giddy five-year-olds, we collect sand-dollar shells and smooth driftwood pucks, peering into small, anemone-packed pools. Gathering for lunch around the stacks – the beach's volcanic rock towers, each covered in wild flowers and bonsai-sized hemlock trees – I comment on my unusually relaxed state, making a mental note to buy that pub and relocate as soon as possible.
Reluctantly tearing ourselves away, we eventually zigzag back along the sand. Back in the forest, we soon find an intriguing plaque among the trees, indicating the site of a shop that once stood here. In the early 1900s, many hardy settlers arrived in this area, carving homesteads from the dense undergrowth.
Promised an access road that never came, the settlers slowly drifted away – except one. Bernt Ronning built his home here in 1910, sustaining himself as a trapper and fisherman until the 1960s. Passionate about horticulture, he also created one of the province's most astonishing private gardens.
Ordering seeds from around the world, he planted everything from rhododendrons to Swedish whitebeam trees. And although the forest quickly reclaimed his remote five-acre garden after his death, a local couple restored much of it in the 1980s, making it freely accessible to visitors who could find it.
Back on the road, there's time for a bonus stop before our late-afternoon Port Hardy return. Driving up a steep logging road that provides panoramic side-views of the bucolic slopes, we reach the hidden gem Goodspeed Fossil Bed.
Almost 250 metres above sea level, it's a shallow, walk-in shale pit. Picking-up some flat, angular rocks, most are laced with delicate shell patterns. A surprising finale to my restorative off-grid day out, it's another reminder to buy that pub and join the locals here permanently.
- John Lee, Special to the Globe and Mail
The writer was a guest of Tourism Vancouver Island. It did not review or approve this article.
MANITOBA: These polar bears will warm your heart
When colleagues and friends started posting pictures of the polar-bear tunnel at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo to Instagram, I had my doubts. Yes, the Arctic favourites are cute (albeit also terrifying) – but the gushing seemed over-the-top. I should have known better: Any attraction that can win over jaded travel writers is a sight worth seeing. Last fall, as I watched the white mammals swim over and alongside me (safely in their own domain, of course) – twirling and twisting like massive underwater ballerinas – I was among the visitors shrieking in delight.
I could have spent hours simply standing and watching them. But the bears are just one part of the Journey to Churchill tour, a Canadian Signature Experience (which essentially means it has the golden seal of approval from Destination Canada). I also got up close with muskoxen (seemingly created by Jim Henson) and viewed wolves (from a much safer distance). And during a behind-the-scenes look at the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (also included) I learned that all those delightful polar bears came to the zoo as abandoned or orphaned cubs. Winnipeg can be chilly, but I guarantee your heart will be warmed. $54.50 a person for 90 minutes. assiniboineparkzoo.ca
- Domini Clark
NEWFOUNDLAND: When design and nature collide
NOVA SCOTIA: The truth about Africville
NEW BRUNSWICK: All that, and a bag of chips
Sure, the world's highest tides at the Bay of Fundy are impressive – but New Brunswick is home to another jaw-dropping attraction: a tour of the Covered Bridge Potato Chips factory in Waterville. Yes, you can see how these wonders are made and enjoy a bag of fresh crisps just seconds after they've been fried to perfection. And then customize those delicious morsels with a flavour of your choice from a dozen or so options. All this for the low price of just $5 ($3 for children). Not so special are you now, feat of nature? coveredbridgechips.com
- Domini Clark
NUNAVUT: The wisdom of Canada's youngest territory
In Iqaluit, I've slept in a hotel room the Queen once used, been inside a prison, ridden a Ski-Doo out on the land, but found the showcase of Nunavut's past and present in an unexpected place – a government building.
From the outside the Legislative Building of Nunavut, the three-storey, glass and wood structure, has none of the historic heft of its stone counterparts in the south; after all, the structure was built in living memory. But inside building #926, as it's designated, is a glorious merging of Inuit and Western democracy. In the assembly hall, sealskin-lined seats sit in a circle. In keeping with Inuit tradition, Nunavut MPs govern by consensus; they do not belong to political parties but run as independents and together nominate cabinet and the premier.
The assembly and the lobby are rich in cultural symbols – everything from Cape Dorset prints to sculptures of the official Nunavut bird (ptarmigan), animal (sled dog) and flower (purple saxifrage). But the showstopper has to be the ceremonial mace. Crafted from the tusk of a narwhal, the sceptre boasts Nunavut gemstones hand-cut by six Inuit artists. Its crown features four silver loons coming together over a ball of lapis lazuli. When the assembly is in session, the mace rests in hands, carved in graphite and labradorite, of a man and woman, to represent gender equality. When the legislature is not sitting, you'll find the mace, as we did, in a glass display case where it is "carried" by a carved family, including an elder leading the way to the future and a child reaching to assist. Canada's youngest jurisdiction has the wisdom of the ages.
- Alison Gzowski
NORTHWEST TERRITORIES: Far North golf course offers a lesson in literacy
Of all the reasons to visit the Arctic, playing golf would surely not make top of list. And yet, golf has sent me on a dozen trips beyond the treeline to swing a club – or often a mystery instrument – on the frozen tundra. But in one small hamlet there is a true golf course, the world's most northern nine-hole green in Ulukhaktok, NWT.
With a population of less than 500, Ulukhaktok's (fomerly Holman) residents are easy to meet. We came upon a range of ages at a community feast, and were greeted at the airport by traditional dancers, singing and drumming with caribou-skin drums. Although we were there to raise money for literacy, on the golf course I was soon aware of my own stunning illiteracy – that of the land. As I was strolling across the course, a three-year-old casually noted there were lemmings beneath the frozen ground. A player on my team pointed out a white hare on a snow-covered mountain. What seems impossible, or magical, and is both to a visitor like me, is to witness the way locals read the land.
- Alison Gzowski
ONTARIO: A hidden gem of the north
If you blink, you'll miss it as you push along the Trans-Canada Highway, determined to clear the rugged and seemingly endless Northern Ontario landscape. But don't blink. Rather, pull over to take some time, even a couple of days, to experience what the silver, stark North Shore of Lake Superior, gives. This is Lawren Harris territory. And it is some of the most remarkable and wild landscape in the country.
Terrace Bay, a tiny town of about 1,500 people 224 kilometres east of Thunder Bay and 481 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, was built on the mid-level of a series of terraced Canadian Shield rock, created during the last glacial retreat. It's the true north.
Pull over at the Red Dog Inn to get your bearings. Then find what we called Golf Course Road (now Beach Road) just off the highway, and meander down to the coast of Superior. You'll eventually come across Terrace Bay Beach, a wide and long pebbled expanse, strewn with driftwood tossed ashore by the fierce Superior waters.
To the west along the beach, as you look out toward the Slate Islands, is the outlet from the Aguasabon Gorge. If you are adventurous, hike this upward and try to find mythical Pond 99 and 98. It's where we learned to swim in the wild. Or hop back in the car and drive a couple of kilometres along the Trans-Canada to the top of the gorge, where a stunning and terrifying surge of water and river cuts through the ancient rock, rushing, as it has for thousands of years, down to the lake. Quick, don't blink. We are running out of time. Grab any charter (the term is used loosely; just ask at the visitors centre) and boat out to the Slates, where caribou run wild and 10-pound rainbow trout shimmer in the ice-cold water.
You will miss all this, if you blink, and push along the highway. Don't. Stop. This old pulp town is worth every second.
- Andrew Gorham
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND: Enjoy simple pleasures
It doesn't take much to create the perfect day in Prince Edward Island. Just three ingredients, really: ocean, sand, lobster.
This is not a place for extreme thrills after all. No, one comes here seeking simple pleasures. Spend the morning on the water (part of a quest for oysters, perhaps), then enjoy a beach in the afternoon (try a stroll along the Greenwich Dunes Trail in Prince Edward Island National Park).
Finally, finish with a supper of lobsters, butter and rolls. If you can enjoy them with your bare feet in the sand, so much the better.
- Domini Clark
QUEBEC: Stories of our past for a better tomorrow
I meet guide and storyteller Dominic Ste-Marie in the lobby of the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations in Wendake, a First Nations community on the outskirts of Quebec City, on a sunny evening in June. With a smile on his face and a red sash knotted at his side, he welcomes me, then leads me out the back door to the longhouse down the hill, hidden behind a tall fence of round wooden stakes. Inside, we settle down on log stools by the fire – it's gas-powered, not just for convenience, but also to avoid smoke for those who overnight in the bunks that line each side of the dim space – and its heat warms the air around us, still slightly cool despite the summer temperatures outside.
I'd spent the day watching dancers in colourful, ornate regalia compete on the round grass field at the Wendake Pow Wow (this year June 30 to July 2), my untrained eyes slowly picking up the differences between various categories and skill levels with the help of the informative emcee. After the sensory overload of so much dancing, drumming and singing, it's a relief to shift gears and focus on the gentle tones of Ste-Marie's voice as he shares some of the stories of his ancestors.
Young and bearded, enunciating his words clearly in Québécois-tinged English, he launches into a series of tales. I sip licorice-scented Labrador tea as I learn about a braggart warrior who lucked his way into scaring away the stone giants menacing humanity; hear how a group of bored, hungry children drummed and danced their way into the heavens to become a constellation; and discover why leaves turn red in the fall. (Spoiler: It has to do with a deer that got too big for its britches.)
But the story that leaves me with the biggest impression is of the formation of the world on the back of a giant turtle: Turtle Island, as many Indigenous people call North America. Animals feature prominently – a beaver, a muskrat, a toad – and the moral of the story is one of hard work, of how nature's challenges make us into better, stronger people. But there's another point, too, of the contrast between the two brothers whose contradictory work shaped the earth. It's an interesting look at how differences aren't black and white, showcasing the belief that there's no such thing as truly right or wrong, truly good or evil. It's a story more people need to hear.
- Kat Tancock
SASKATCHEWAN: Lakes, grasslands and party time
There is no national park quite like Prince Albert National Park. And it's one of the best reasons to visit Saskatchewan. About a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Saskatoon, beyond the Prairie flatland Canadians so often picture when they think of the province, the rivers, lakes, grasslands and party atmosphere of Prince Albert National Park await. That's right – the party, which begins in Waskesiu, the resort town inside the 3,875-square-kilometre park. Hundreds of tiny cabins and cottages line the southern end of Waskesiu Lake and its long, sandy beach – and here all the fancy-coffee comforts of town are a short walk away, not to mention frequent sightings of elk. And when you're sick of all the people? Head into the park's back country – there are hundreds of interior lakes (the walleye fishing is good) and many offer pristine camping. Mosquitoes may be the size of toonies, but the peace out on the water is unforgettable. If you've arrived without a canoe, the Waskesiu Marina offers day trips and adventures, including a catered portage to historic Grey Owl's cabin, 40 km into the interior. Or you can escape into the park's even more remote southwestern grasslands, home to free-roaming herds of plains bison. Drive, hike and bike to see the shaggy beasts, or arrange a horseback tour with local operators.
- Catherine Dawson March
YUKON: Experience the vastness of Canada's boreal forest
Twenty hours of daylight is delicious, don't leave home without bear spray and Yukon is home to some of the best wilderness Canada has to offer. These are just a few of the lessons I learned when I said goodbye to my city apartment and followed my partner to Whitehorse four summers ago.
I was born in Toronto and have lived near its core for much of my life. It wasn't until work took my other half north that I ever considered visiting the Land of the Midnight Sun.
We spent six weeks living in a quiet community on the outskirts of Whitehorse fondly referred to as "Squatters Row." Our cabin had a roof, mismatched furniture, a wood stove and not much else. We read by candlelight and laughed (shrieked) while we "showered" in the icy mountain stream a few feet from our front door.
It was that summer that I developed a love for hiking.
If you're the sort of person that enjoys a steep, challenging jaunt, you should add Yukon to your list of summer travel destinations. Some of the most beautiful hikes in Canada are just outside of Whitehorse.
You can scale the aged and wrinkled Grey Mountain – and be rewarded with a view of downtown – in an afternoon. Less than an hour away is historic Carcross, where you can climb Nares Mountain, another half-day hike that offers one of the best views I've experienced in Canada. For more ambitious hikers, King's Throne is two hours west, in Kluane National Park and Reserve. There, you can climb high above Kathleen Lake to get a sense of the vastness of Canada's boreal forest.
When planning your trip, remember you're far less likely to run into other hikers in the North. Being responsible and prepared is crucial. Buy bear spray, expect erratic weather and plan for the unexpected.
In the summers since Squatter's Row, my partner and I have driven across Canada, travelling from Ucluelet, B.C., to Bonavista, Nfld., and everywhere in between in search of hikes and views like the ones we experienced in the North. The Rockies are brilliant and the Appalachians unique, but we've yet to experience wilderness that compares to Yukon.
- Shannon Busta