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Canada is more than its hulking-mountain, craggy-coast good looks: it also cooks extraordinary meals, rocks cool culture and unfurls wild, moose-spotting road trips.

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Canada is more than its hulking-mountain, craggy-coast good looks: it also cooks extraordinary meals, rocks cool culture and unfurls wild, moose-spotting road trips.

The Great Outdoors

The globe’s second-biggest country has an endless variety of landscapes, and nature is why many visitors come. Sky-high mountains, glinting glaciers, spectral rainforests and remote beaches are all here, spread across six times zones. They’re the backdrop for plenty of ‘ah’-inspiring moments – and for a big cast of local characters. That’s big as in polar bears, grizzly bears, whales and everyone’s favorite, moose.

The terrain also makes for a fantastic playground. Whether it’s snowboarding Whistler’s mountains, surfing Nova Scotia’s swells, wreck diving in the turquoise waters off the Bruce Peninsula or kayaking the white-frothed South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, adventures abound. There are gentler options, too, such as strolling Vancouver’s Stanley Park and swimming off Prince Edward Island’s pink-sand beaches.

Captivating Cultures

Sip a café au lait and tear into a flaky croissant at a sidewalk bistro in Montréal; slurp noodles or head to an Asian night market in the Vancouver area; explore Toronto’s rich performing arts scene; join a wild-fiddling Celtic party on Cape Breton Island; and kayak between rainforest-cloaked indigenous villages on Haida Gwaii: Canada is incredibly diverse across its breadth and within its cities. You’ll hear it in the music, see it in the arts and taste it in the cuisine.

Foodie Fare

Canada is a smorgasbord of local food. If you grazed from west to east across the country, you’d fill your plate with wild salmon and velvety scallops in British Columbia, poutine (French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds) in Québec, and lobster with a dab of melted butter in the Maritime provinces. Tastemakers may not tout Canadian food the way they do, say, Italian or French fare, so let’s just call the distinctive seafood, piquant cheeses and fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies our little secret. Ditto for the award-winning bold reds and crisp whites produced by the country’s vine-striped valleys.

Artistic Flair

The arts are an integral part of Canada’s cultural landscape, from the International Fringe Theater Festival (the world’s second-largest) in Edmonton to mega museums such as Ottawa’s National Gallery. Montréal’s Jazz Festival and Toronto’s star-studded Film Festival draw global crowds. And did you know Ontario’s Stratford Festival is the continent’s largest classical repertory theater? Even places you might not automatically think of – say, St John’s or Woody Point – put on renowned shindigs (an avant-garde ‘sound symposium’ and a big-name writers festival, respectively).

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Explore Canada

Jasper is a rugged beauty; it’s more raw and less tourist-pampering than its southern cousin Banff, and hence host to a more ambitious, adventurous visitor. Its tour de force is its extensive multipurpose trail network, much of it instantly accessible from the park’s compact townsite.

Backing it up is abundant wildlife, colossal icefields and–for the brave–the kind of desolate backcountry that makes you feel as though you’re a good few miles (and centuries) from anything resembling civilization.

Unlike Banff, most of Jasper’s trails are multiuse, open to hikers, horseback riders and cyclists. Thanks to this liberal sharing policy, the park is able to offer the best network of off-road cycling trails in Canada–and they’re not just for daredevils. Rated green (easy), blue (moderate) or black (difficult), they cater to pretty much everyone, including kids or parents with trailers in tow.

An added bonus is that many of Jasper’s trails start directly from the townsite, meaning you don’t need to lug your bike around by car or bus. Using a special cycling trail map (free from the info office), numerous loops can be plotted from your hotel or campground, with time to incorporate hiking, swimming, canoeing or grabbing a cup of coffee along the way.

Visitors view a beautiful turquiose lake with mountains in the background.
Travelers view Spirit Island on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park © i viewfinder / Shutterstock

Some of the most popular natural wonders, like Miette Hot Springs and Maligne Canyon, are easily accessible, and many more attractions are just a short hike away. Keep a little spare time in your itinerary to take advantage of the many diversions you stumble upon–a sparkling lake to admire, a snowshoe tour to explore or a moose to watch ambling by. As the largest of Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks, Jasper will quickly captivate you with its beauty and serenity.

Admission fees and other practicalities

Jasper National Park and Banff National Park are connected by the Icefields Parkway–one of Canada’s most famous road trips.

There are three main road entrances to Jasper National Park. The East Park Entrance is on Hwy 16 between Jasper and Hinton, just east of Pocahontas. The West Park Entrance is on the same highway, 24km (15 miles) west of Jasper Town, near Yellowhead Pass and the border with British Columbia and Mt Robson Provincial Park. The Icefields Parkway Entrance is 6km south of Jasper Town on Hwy 93, on the way to Lake Louise. You must either buy or show a park pass at all entry gates.

Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping and fire permits. See the latest fees on the Jasper National Park website.

Why you should go

Of all Canada’s top sights, Banff National Park justifiably ranks as many people’s number one. As much a piece of history as a natural wonder, Canada’s oldest national park, founded in 1885, is what Canada is all about. It’s a feral, but largely accessible, wilderness that attempts to cater for everyone – and largely succeeds – from bus-tour visitors to hard-core mountaineers.

The towering mountains of Banff provide endless opportunities for wildlife-watching, hiking, boating, climbing, mountain biking, or skiing. But you don’t have to be a seasoned outdoor-enthusiast to enjoy Banff–its natural beauty will astound even those who just want to soak up the sights. Rugged canyons compete for your attention with fields of alpine wildflowers, turquoise lakes–like the famed Lake Louise and Moraine Lake–and dense emerald forests. 

A grizzly bear walks through wildflowers.
Spot a grizzly bear – from a safe distance – in Banff © Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock

One of the great beauties of Banff is its juxtaposition of the untamed and the civilized. Grizzly bears roam within growling distance of diners drinking cocktails at the romantic Banff Springs Hotel, while hikers fresh from summit attempts queue up for ice cream with golfers clutching nine irons. 

History

Banff is a piece of history in itself. The region was home to First Nations peoples for 10,000 years before the creation of the park in 1885. Banff National Park is the world’s third-oldest national park (and Canada’s oldest). Cataloguing past triumphs and tribulations, Banff Town supports a healthy cache of four museums, virtually unparalleled for a ‘natural’ national park.

Tickets and other practicalities

Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping, fire permits and fishing permits. See the latest fees on the Banff National Park website

Camping in Banff National Park 

Banff has 14 frontcountry campgrounds catering for tents, recreational vehicles (RVs) and camper vans. Most are open from around June to mid-September, although Tunnel Mountain Village Two and Lake Louise Trailer campgrounds are open year-round.

Advance reservations are available for Tunnel Mountain, Two Jack, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise and some sites at Rampart Creek. The Parks Canada website starts taking reservations in January each year for a fee of C$11 in addition to regular camping fees. Book as far ahead as possible, as sites fill up fast.

Sites at all other campgrounds are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so the best way to claim a spot is to turn up early (around the official 11am checkout time is best) or check with parks staff about which campgrounds currently have availability. Banff Park Radio (101.1FM) also releases regular bulletins on campgrounds with available sites. It’s a good idea to stay in one place over weekends; sites are generally easier to come by midweek.

There’s a maximum stay of 14 nights and a maximum occupancy of six people per site. At larger campgrounds you can pay fees at the entry kiosk, but at smaller campgrounds, you’ll have to self-register: find a vacant site first, then go to the self-registration shelter, remembering to enter your name, site number, license plate and duration of stay on the envelope along with the relevant fees. If it’s late when you arrive, you can do this in the morning, or sometimes staff will come around and collect your fees in person in the morning.

Fires are usually allowed at campsites where there’s a fire pit – you’ll need to buy a fire permit (C$8.80, including wood) from the campground entrance. Watch for fire restrictions during dry periods.

Hotels in Banff National Park 

Despite having enough hotel rooms to rival a town three times its size, finding a place to sleep in Banff Town can be tricky. Demand is huge, and rates are notoriously expensive, especially in peak season. Many visitors choose to cut costs by camping, hosteling, hiring recreation vehicles or staying in nearby Canmore. Regardless of where you stay, book well ahead, especially if you’re coming in June, July or August.

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“Sky-high mountains, pristine lakes and spectral forests provide the backdrop for plenty of “ah”-inspiring moments on Canada’s top hiking trails.”

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