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Numa Falls at the Vermillion River Canyon in the Kootenay National Park Canada
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best national parks in Canada

It's time these gorgeous landscapes moved into the spotlight. This summer, plan a trip to the best national parks in Canada.

Written by
Winston Ross
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Canada's 48 national parks just don't get the respect they deserve. Where Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks in the US might be household names, Banff might conjure visions of the unknown. But it's time these gorgeous landscapes moved into the spotlight. The Canadian border reopened to international travelers last year, after a nearly two-year closure, so this is the first summer since 2019 when the best national parks in Canada can even be accessed.

We’ve curated a list of 10 incredible options, most of which could be explored on a single (albeit lengthy) road trip, via a loop through the rugged Canadian Rockies. Some of these parks, like Banff, are thronged with visitors in the high seasons, and the townships either within or just outside the park boundaries can be crowded but rich with luxury amenities. Other places remain wild and sparse, calling to the Sir Edmund Hillarys among us. Whichever location you choose, emerald lakes, towering mountains and marauding grizzlies and acrobatic mountain goats are only a trip away.

Best national parks in Canada

For all the wonder and less of the crowds, traverse the 142-mile Icefields Parkway en route to Jasper National Park, which arguably has all of the splendor of Banff, and way more elbow room in 6,759 miles of landscape, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. Besides the epic drive to and fro, Jasper is known for its collection of some of the most interesting hikes in the region—the Skyline Trail is one stupendous example of many—and the searing Miett Hot Springs in which to soak one’s weary bones beneath the country’s second-largest dark sky preserve afterwards. Peaks to ascend and lakes to paddle across are everywhere, all offering the tantalizing promise of a peek at black bears, grizzly bears, moose and elk. As Jasper’s limited hotel options are often stuffed, try the Lake Louise Inn, whose condominium-style rooms offer a perfect jumping off point for the lake, nearby Banff, and Jasper itself.

Kootenay shares its name with the Kootenay Rockies, Canada’s sibling to the US's Rocky Mountains and the home to four of the parks on this list—Kootenay, Yoho, Glacier and Revelstoke. Of the four parks, Kootenay is the skinniest, and is often explored in a day or so along the Banff-Windermere Highway stopping at attractions like the Radium Hot Springs, which is among the hottest in the world, and Marble Canyon, where a self-guided tour spans a sliver of gorge worn down by the waters of Tokumm Creek, towards a frigid mineral spring known as the Paint Pots, where iron water has turned the region’s clay to a vibrant orange. With 543 square miles to explore, there are plenty of options for digging a bit deeper. For hardier travelers, there’s a legendary 55km backpacking trip known as the Rockwall. Moreover, just outside the park lies a heavenly stretch of off-the-grid property, Nipika Mountain Resort, that features not only a series of well-appointed cabins but a network of mountain bike, hiking and cross-country ski trails.

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A stargazer’s paradise and another of Canada’s well-protected dark sky preserves, Elk Island lies about 20 miles east of Edmonton. It’s an important refuge for bison, elk and more than 250 bird species, and while it’s one of the country’s smallest parks at 75 square miles, it’s the largest fully enclosed national park in the country. Elk Island’s fescue grassland feeds everything from bison to pygmy shrew, sheltered by stands of aspen thickets and ample water. The largest population of hoofed mammals in Canada call Elk Island home, including more than 600 elk, 300 moose and more than 500 deer. Looking for somewher to stay? Try the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, an elegant offering that’s stood in the heart of downtown Edmonton for more than 100 years.

The alpine landscapes in Glacier are jaw-dropping year-round, with trails that wind from old-growth cedar trees to expansive high-country meadows nestled below 131 glaciers, some of which are still intact in the summer months. Glacier also features exploration options below the surface, with one of the longest cave systems in Canada, Nakimu Caves, running for 6km beneath the park, best explored with a guide (currently closed to the public). 

Between adventures, smart travelers will stay in and explore nearby Golden, a lovely town with excellent food at local favorite Eleven22 and beautiful cabins with hot tubs at Cedar House Chalets. Alternatively, the posh Kicking Horse Lodge in Golden, or Glacier Mountaineer Lodge in the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Alpine Village are choice stops to stay, with traditional rooms as well as one- to three-bedroom suites equipped with full kitchens, fireplaces and private balconies.

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Yoho’s starlet is a lake appropriately named Emerald; travelers flock to its shores to paddle its blue-green waters or hike the easy three-mile loop around it. But this lovely pond is the tip of Yoho’s 507-square-mile iceberg, as it were. There are no less than 28 peaks topping 9,800ft dotting the largely untamed park, which has an impressive collection of massive rock walls and plunging waterfalls. One of Yoho’s unique features is the Burgess Shale, one of the most significant fossil finds on earth, at more than 500 million years old. Once-in-a-lifetime hikes abound, but two excellent options are the hike to Walcott Quarry (where you can view Emerald Lake from above) and Takakkaw Falls, one of the nation’s tallest waterfalls, at 1,260ft. 

This B.C. expanse of parkland lives up to the moniker; it's the only inland temperate rainforest in the world and a magnet for skiers in winter and mountain bikers and hikers in the summer. Revelstoke is one of the smaller parks on our list, at 100 square miles, but it packs a punch, with gorgeous subalpine meadows at the base of jagged peaks. The Meadows in the Sky Parkway is a jaw-dropping drive whose hairpin turns take you from thick rainforest to wildflower mecca, and the Giant Cedar Boardwalk Trail (currently closed to the public). In the City of Revelstoke, on the banks of the Columbia River, set up a base camp at the Courthouse Inn or check out the cool new MicrOcubes in the park itself.

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Banff National Park | AB

Ever since a trio of railway workers stumbled upon a soothing cave and basin hot springs and started selling tickets, Banff has beckoned to outdoor enthusiasts the world over. Just here for the views? Hop on the Banff Gondola for fine dining at Sky Bistro. A bit more spry? Get up early and hike Johnston Canyon before the masses show up, where waterfalls cascade down rock canyons around every bend. If you arrive in May, June or September, head to the Bow Valley Parkway, one of the region’s most gorgeous byways, when stretches will be closed to car traffic. Lake Louise is a mandatory day trip if you’ve made it all the way to Banff, unless of course you’ve got the scratch for a stay at the exuberant Fairmont Lake Louise and can linger awhile longer. 

If you’re feeling a bit saltier, head to the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, where eagles and seabirds circle the skies above a collection of islands chock full of seals, otters, orcas and porpoise pods. Gulf Islands is a great place for sea kayaking and hiking in the lush forest trails in this Mediterranean-like climate. Looking for somewhere to stay? Try the Brentwood Bay Resort & Spa, where 36 thoughtfully designed ocean suits and villas feature floor-to-ceiling windows, king-sized beds and gas fireplaces.

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As you might imagine, this is a park known for a trio of placid lakes, where pristine waters lure paddlers of all stripes to motorboat-free bliss. Rocky Mountain peaks descend to gorgeous prairies and waterfalls that abound, none of it spoiled by some of the rampant tourism in other national parks. This officially designated International Peace Park lies right along the Montana border, the largest unguarded stretch of boundary in the world. Looking for somewhere to stay? Try the Rocky Ridge Country Lodge, 15 minutes east of the park’s entrance, a country bed and breakfast with six rooms and a three-bedroom cabin with nightly bonfires and barbecues on the deck.

Another seafaring venture, this reserve is home to the epic West Coast Trail, a 47-mile, multi-day backpacking trip that belongs on any hiker’s bucket list. It traverses more than 100 ladders, requires trudging through thick mud, wading through frigid mountain-fed rivers, and 'can bring even the most experienced hikers to their knees,' according to the Parks Canada website. There are plenty of more leisurely ways to experience the park, of course, from kayaking and canoeing to surfing. Looking for somewhere to stay? Try the Hotel Zed Tofino, a '70s-chic property tucked into the Tofino rainforest, featuring a bike path that runs straight through the lobby, a psychic’s den, and an interactive VW van lined with custom driftwood. 

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