Top 10 National Parks in Canada
North America’s largest country is home to 48 national parks spanning 328,193 square kilometers (203,930 square miles). The country is so vast, and its landscapes so varied, that there truly is something for everyone. Many of the parks are sprinkled with bright red Adirondack chairs, providing the perfect place to observe wildlife or snap a coveted selfie.
From coastal parks where whales can be spotted from land, to inland parks full of bison, bears and idyllic trails, Canada’s national parks should be added to the top of your bucket list.
These 10 in particular will leave you awestruck.
10. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve — British Columbia
This coastal park featuring verdant old-growth forest is located on Vancouver Island, separated from the city of Vancouver by the Straight of Georgia.
The park draws hikers, kayakers and even surfers thanks to its endless sandy beaches, windy waters and dense wooded areas. Sea wolves make their way from the forest to the water to hunt salmon, and though they may be friendly with humans, you’ll want to leave your dogs at home!
Pacific Rim Fun Fact
Gray and humpback whales are popular park residents and can often be spotted from shore.
Pacific Rim Fast Facts
- When to visit: Weekdays from May-September, as weekends are extremely busy (especially in June-August).
- What to know before you go: If you plan to stray off the main highways, rent a vehicle with four-wheel-drive, as most roads are rugged, bumpy and dusty.
9. Grasslands National Park — Saskatchewan
Canada’s only mixed-grass prairie park has been called one of the top 10 quietest places in North America. In lieu of traffic, radios or urban chatter, listen to the gentle sound of grass rustling in the breeze, punctured by coyotes howling and buffalos grunting.
Plenty of hiking opportunities exist around the park, but be sure to read all the signs, as actual quicksand exists and should be avoided.
At night, make sure to seek out constellations lighting up the sky; the park is a protected Dark Sky Preserve where light pollution, like noise pollution, is kept to a bare minimum.
Grasslands Fun Fact
The park is home to prairie dogs, which are not actually dogs, but rodents. These animals dig holes around the park, leaving their stomping grounds to resemble craters on a moonscape.
Grasslands Fast Facts
- When to visit: Fall and spring offer warm temperatures without the extreme heat of storm-prone summer months. Wildflowers are abundant in late May and early June.
- What to know before you go: Those hoping to overnight near the park should head to the Convent Inn in the village of Val Marie. This supposedly haunted hotel is a renovated convent, now renting rooms that used to belong to nuns.
8. Yoho National Park — British Columbia
“Amazement,” in the indigenous Cree language, is a very fitting name for this stunning park.
Yoho is the smallest of the four contiguous Canadian Rockies National Parks, and its glacial rivers, extensive icefields and unique fossil beds make it a must-see for anyone visiting nearby Banff, just 78 kilometers (48 miles) to the east.
Be sure to visit Lake O’Hara, a jewel-colored lake surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountain peaks, and Takakkaw Falls, Canada’s second-largest waterfall, plunging elegantly into Yoho Valley.
Yoho Fun Fact
Burgess Shale gives visitors access to fossilized remains of creatures, including rare, extinct worms and crabs, found almost nowhere else on earth.
Yoho Fast Facts
- When to visit: Fall visitors are treated to smaller crowds and stunning larch trees, which turn a brilliant golden hue beginning in late September.
- What to know before you go: Lake O’Hara, a must-visit within Yoho, is only accessible on foot or by shuttle bus, so plan accordingly.
7. Gros Morne National Park — Newfoundland and Labrador
Gros Morne offers the stark and distinctive features one would expect of a park located in the remote reaches of Newfoundland. Many visitors come to take in the sheer scope of the park’s glacier-carved fjords and rushing waterfalls, and to see the rare creatures that can survive the region's harsh climes, like Arctic foxes, caribou and reindeer.
The park also offers skiing and boat tours (including to do some whale-watching), and hosts an annual writers’ festival that draws big names and even bigger crowds.
Gros Morne Fun Fact
Gros Morne provides a rare opportunity to encounter the earth’s exposed mantle (the layer between the earth’s crust and core, for those who may have missed that day in high school geography). In the red-mountain landscapes of the Tablelands, hike past this unique geological feature.
Gros Morne Fast Facts
- When to visit: The most pleasant weather in the park occurs during May-October, though whale-watchers should plan their visit for between July and August.
- What to know before you go: While July and August are the warmest months and offer the best chance of whale-spotting, the park is very busy during this time and accommodations can be scarce.
6. Nahanni National Park Reserve — Northwest Territories
At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors can trek through alpine meadows and paddle through wild rivers, taking in some of the most impressive canyons in the world. (The gorges here are deeper than the Grand Canyon’s!)
Note that some river expeditions should only be attempted by experienced paddlers and those traveling with a licensed outfitter. Then again, this wildness is precisely what makes the river-trekking so memorable.
“National Geographic” even said that, for paddlers, the park’s remote, untamed and spectacular South Nahanni river is “what Everest is to mountaineers.”
Nahanni Fun Fact
Nahanni’s waterfalls are twice the height of Niagara Falls. These falls are best viewed if you fly into the area then hike down to the base, though an upper viewing platform is available for anyone not interested in the hike below.
Nahanni Fast Facts
- When to visit: To avoid spring flooding and extreme winter weather, plan your visit for between mid-June to mid-August.
- What to know before you go: There are no public roads leading into Nahanni. Visitors must fly or hike in.
5. Wood Buffalo National Park — Alberta & Northwest Territories
Bigger than the country of Switzerland, Wood Buffalo is not only Canada’s largest park, at a staggering 44,807 square kilometers (17,300 square miles), but among the five largest on Earth.
Stretching across both the Alberta province and Northwest Territories, the park contains huge tracts of boreal forest and plains, intercut with rushing rivers, sinkholes, salt flats and one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world.
The fun doesn’t stop at sunset in Wood Buffalo; recognized as the largest dark sky preserve in Canada, it’s the perfect place to go stargazing. The park’s salt flats reflect the constellations above and are dotted with buffalo tracks.
Wood Buffalo Fun Fact
Aptly named, Wood Buffalo provides critical habitat for the world’s largest herd of free-roaming wood bison, with 3,000 of these formidable beasts making their home here. The park also serves as the only breeding habitat in the world for the endangered whooping crane.
Wildlife enthusiasts, add this one to your bucket list asap.
Wood Buffalo Fast Facts
- When to visit: Summer draws the most visitors, but those visiting in winter may be treated to the aurora borealis (Northern Lights).
- What to know before you go: Winter visitors should check road conditions ahead of time.
4. Waterton Lakes National Park — Alberta
Known to be the place where “the prairies meet the mountains,” Waterton Lakes makes up for its small size with its diverse set of landscapes, including not only flat prairies and towering mountains, but vast canyons and wetlands.
The park shares a border with Glacier National Park in Montana, and together, the two parks are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve, as well as the world’s first International Peace Park. Theoretically, one could visit Waterton, as locals refer to it, in the morning, then head over to Glacier in the afternoon, though both parks deserve at least a few days each.
Catch a sightseeing boat tour across the international border and explore within a designated area on the U.S. side, or bring along your passport to venture deeper into Glacier National Park.
For a resplendent view of Upper Waterton Lake, head to the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel, a National Historic Site dating back to 1927 (an overnight stay here is also highly recommended).
Waterton Lakes Fun Fact
Grizzly bears, normally only found in mountainous regions, are found here in the plains, often right alongside the road.
Waterton Lakes Fast Facts
- When to visit: Wildflower fans would do well visiting the park in the springtime (late April-May).
- What to know before you go: If you catch the first boat of the day heading across the U.S. border, you’ll be riding with U.S. border agents heading to their post.
3. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve — British Columbia
Gwaii Haanas is a stunning park adjacent to a marine conservation area where wildlife reigns supreme. Sometimes referred to as the “Canadian Galapagos,” it is home to many endemic species found nowhere else in the world, as well as favorites like black and brown bears, sea lions, porpoises and migrating grey whales.
And that’s to say nothing of the park’s birding scene, which surely ranks among the best in the country. Watch for falcons and, as one local put it to me, “more eagles than you can shake a stick at.” Large seabird breeding colonies are also found here, and the park is an important migrant stopover along the Pacific flyway.
The park encompasses 1,884 islands and islets, perfect for kayaking past, and is an ideal place for camping thanks to its remote location and quiet atmosphere.
Gwaii Haanas Fun Fact
The park is as naturally magnificent as it is culturally significant. Home to ancient villages belonging to the native Haida people, it offers the chance to learn about indigenous traditions with the help of on-site guardians called Watchmen.
Gwaii Haanas Fast Facts
- When to visit: May through mid-September offers calmer weather and warmer temperatures.
- What to know before you go: This region doesn’t really get “summery weather,” even during peak summer months. Check the forecast before you go, and be sure to pack wet weather gear.
2. Torngat Mountains National Park — Newfoundland and Labrador
This park is distinguished by its extraordinary remoteness. It spans 9,700 square kilometers (3,700 square miles), but welcomes just 200 visitors per year.
Given its vastness and lack of crowds, it’s easy to find a pond reflecting the mountains, a mossy enclave or a stream full of sea urchins to enjoy all to yourself. The opportunities for kayaking, hiking and exploring are endless, and the landscapes are truly staggering, from waters filled with floating icebergs to a horizon stacked with rugged peaks.
Pro tip: Hire a trained guide to help you safely navigate the area, which is home to a sizable population of polar bears.
Torngat Mountains Fun Fact
Torngat Mountains is the only national park in Canada that is 100 percent managed by the Inuit indigenous people, who serve as guides and help educate on the land and native cultural customs. The park's Inuit sites include tent rings, food caches and burial sites.
In Inuktitut, Torngat means “Place of Spirits.”
Torngat Mountains Fast Facts
- When to visit: The park is only accessible 6-8-weeks per year (mid-July – late August), a brief period when enough ice has melted to allow boats through.
- What to know before you go: The only way to get to the park is via plane or boat, and currently, Adventure Canada is the sole expedition cruise that goes here. Their Inuit staff serve as bear guards and guide visitors through various hikes throughout the park.
1. Banff National Park
The Canadian Rocky Mountains form a spectacular backdrop for glaciers, fast-flowing rivers and boundless forests in this beloved national park.
Moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, and black and grizzly bears inhabit the park’s vast wilderness, while humans tend toward the town of Banff and the village of Lake Louise.
While most visitors flock to Banff during the summer months to snap photos canoeing through Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, winter visitors enjoy smaller crowds and are treated to dog sledding, snow-shoeing, snowboarding, ice skating and sleigh rides.
No matter when you visit, this park is extremely accessible, with plenty of infrastructure to complement the natural offerings. You can camp within the park, cozy up inside cabins deep in the forest or book a hotel right within the town of Banff, just five minutes from pristine wilderness.
Make sure to pick up a map of the park to explore lesser-visited trails and sites, such as Herbert Lake and Vermillion Lakes. Nothing here is anything less than striking.
Banff Fun Fact
Established in 1885, this was Canada’s first national park, and is among the oldest in the world.
Banff Fast Facts
- When to visit: Summer time is peak visiting season, so if you’d like to avoid massive crowds but still get to enjoy spectacular scenery, opt for shoulder season (late September through October) or winter months.
- What to know before you go: Shuttle buses run from Calgary Airport to the town of Banff, and those without their own wheels can catch a ride on the park’s public transportation to several sites within the park.