Your Canada bucket list just got (a lot) longer…
We could all use a break this summer. The last two summer travel seasons have been especially challenging for everyone − travellers, destinations and small businesses alike. But 2022’s summer could be the biggest one yet for travel within Canada.
The best things to do this summer in Western Canada include many hidden gems and unique experiences. You’ll find plenty of tried-and-true staples, too. But I tend to embrace under-the-radar spots as well as famous attractions. You’ll likely find things to do that you didn’t even know existed!
Believing that the most authentic recommendations are derived from personal experiences, the list highlights the places which I’ve discovered and explored on one or more occasions. But no matter where you plan to travel, you’re bound to find something unique and fun to do this summer!
1. Hit all seven of the Rocky Mountain Parks
Renowned for their scenic splendour, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are comprised of Banff, Jasper and Waterton Lakes national parks in Alberta, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia. The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems and deeply carved canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty attracting millions of visitors annually.
2. Snap postcard-worthy photos of Banff National Park
Explore pine forests, glacier-carved valleys and snow-capped peaks in Alberta’s Banff National Park.
If you Google “Canada nature,” you’ll see pictures of Banff National Park in the Rockies − and for good reason. Canada’s oldest and most popular national park is Mother Nature’s best. Anywhere you look, there are jagged peaks sprinkled with fluffy powder, bluer-than-blue glacial lakes, and majestic wildlife including bears (black and grizzly), elk, wolves, big horn sheep and foxes.
Despite being busy year-round, Banff is big enough that you can find something to do without being shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists (well, except perhaps if you’re waiting for that photo of Lake Louise).
Banff National Park is a hiker’s playground, with more than 1,600 km of trails. Following these trails up ridges leads to impressive viewpoints of craggy peaks, surprise waterfalls and massive glaciers. The higher you go, the more you’ll see of the 6,641 square kilometres that make up the park.
3. Immerse yourself in nature at Jasper National Park
Jasper has been named one of the 30 best national parks across the globe. Outside, an online publication, has included the picturesque spot on its list of must-see destinations. Jasper is the only Canadian entry.
Jasper can sometimes be overshadowed by its cousin to the south – Banff − but the park is the definition of “wild and scenic.” It’s the largest park in the Canadian Rockies.
Jasper is also host to a robust population of wildlife including black and grizzly bears, elk, moose, big horn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats, making it a popular destination for travellers to explore.
4. A scenic drive of a lifetime
Linking Lake Louise with Jasper is one of the most beautiful journeys on the planet via the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93). Rated as one of the top drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, the Icefield Parkway is a 233-km stretch of double-lane highway winding along the Continental Divide through soaring rocky mountain peaks, icefields and vast sweeping valleys.
The Icefields Parkway is dotted with more than 100 ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic rock spires and emerald lakes set in huge valleys of thick pine and larch forests.
Just as the name implies, these group of glaciers or “fields of ice” is the largest south of the Arctic Circle. They are 36,290 ha in area and 30 to 111 m in depth, and receive up to 2 m of snowfall per year.
Glacier Sky Walk, opened in May 2014, is a unique experience that puts you on a glass-floored observation platform 85 m over the Sunwapta Valley. The entire experience starts with a walk along the Discovery Trail. If you are not into heights, you can still view the Sunwapta Valley from a look-out point nearby.
5. Reach new peaks at Mount Robson Provincial Park
“On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.”
Mount Robson Provincial Park, the second-oldest park in British Columbia’s park system, is truly one of Canada’s crown jewels. The mountain for which the park is named guards the park’s western entrance. At 3,954 m, Mount Robson − the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies − towers over the lesser surrounding peaks; this is one of the finest views in the Rocky Mountains. Just as the early trappers, hunters and explorers felt in awe at the mountain’s magnificence, travellers today experience the same feelings.
With Alberta’s Jasper National Park as its easterly neighbour, Mount Robson Provincial Park comprises a portion of one of the world’s largest blocks of protected areas. Designated as a part of the Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990, Mount Robson provides everything from developed, vehicle-accessible camping to remote valleys that seldom see a human footprint. Mount Robson Provincial Park also protects the headwaters of the Fraser River.
First attempted in 1907, it was not until 1913 that humans finally stood on the summit of Mount Robson. On that clear, cold day, guide Conrad Kain, W.W. Foster and A.H. McCarthy beheld a view that no person had ever seen before.
6. Stand on the spot where B.C. began
Experience the excitement of the early West Coast fur trade at Fort Langley and stand in the spot where British Columbia was proclaimed a British colony in 1858. Explore the scenic fort − built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1827 − where fur traders once exchanged furs, salmon and cranberries with Indigenous communities.
Fort Langley National Historic Site offers interactive displays and activities. Watch blacksmithing, barrel-making or historic weapons demonstrations, take a guided tour and pan for gold. Additional experiences include overnight stays in a furnished oTENTik, audio tours available in seven languages and Sxwimelə Boutique and Gifts. There is also free parking on site for visitors.
Special events take place throughout the year such as Grave Tales walking tours, Brigade Days, Canada Day, the Cranberry Festival, Christmas events and Vive les Voyageurs Winter Festival in January.
The Fort Langley National Historic Site is within walking distance of Fort Langley Village, where you can explore locally owned shops, cafés, restaurants, museums and beautiful walking trails along the Fraser River.
7. Drink in the wine and sunshine in the Okanagan
Imagine a valley floor filled with a 270-km-long lake, wildlife including bighorn sheep, cougars and rattlesnakes, rainfall of less than 7 cm a year but with the greatest concentration of wineries and orchards that you can imagine. The Okanagan Valley is the heart of British Columbia’s grape-growing region and boasts more than 130 licensed wineries. An ever-changing panorama, the valley stretches for more than 240 km, across distinct sub-regions, each with different soil and climate conditions suited to a range of varietals.
Add to this the Okanagan’s natural beauty (it’s a hallowed summer vacation spot for Western Canadians), its wide range of non-wine related things for the whole family to do − from riding the century-old Kettle Valley Steam Railway and swimming in those pristine lakes, to biking and hiking − as well as its lush orchards selling juicy peaches and cherries on the roadside and you’ve got a wine country experience like no other.
8. Travel off the beaten path in Lesser Salve Lake Provincial Park
As you dig your toes into warm, soft sand and watch the setting sun reflect off the glassy surface of the lake, you may feel as if you are far away in some tropical locale. At nearly 1,200 square kilometres, it isn’t hard to mistake Lesser Slave Lake for an ocean. Its white sand beaches are some of the finest in Alberta and, when the west wind blows across the vast waters, you can get wave action big enough to surf on − though most people choose to ride the big breakers in kayaks.
The unique microclimate that encompasses the lake and rich habitat of the surrounding boreal forest has created a haven for nesting and migratory birds − particularly songbirds − which is why the area has been dubbed the continent’s bird nursery. Built to study them, the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory and Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation are fascinating to visit. You’ll learn that nearly half of all North American bird species nest and raise their young here, and billions of birds pass through during the spring and fall migrations. Tour the Boreal Centre and take a walk along the Songbird Trail, pausing in the middle to stand quietly and listen to the natural symphony created by songbirds in the towering aspen/poplar forest.
9. Travel back in time to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
The unusual landforms of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi resulted from the dynamic interaction of geology, climate and time. In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples created rock art in what is today southern Alberta. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America, including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.
10. Search for Wells Gray’s breathtaking waterfalls
Wells Gray is not as highly acclaimed as Mount Robson or the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. Having been there, I have no idea why. I mean… this place is awesome!
Wells Gray has something to offer every outdoor interest: lush alpine meadows, excellent birding and wildlife viewing opportunities, hiking, boating, canoeing and kayaking. Guiding businesses offer horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, fishing and hiking. The history enthusiast can learn about the early homesteaders, trappers and prospectors, or about the natural forces that produced Wells Gray’s many volcanoes, waterfalls, mineral springs and glaciers.
Many people head to Wells Gray for the lakes, but there are also more than 40 named waterfalls in the park. Many of these are in remote corners of the park, but eight of them are easy to reach from the Clearwater Valley Road.
So you might be wondering: Why are there so many waterfalls in the same small area? And how did they form? It turns out that the waterfalls in Wells Gray use the same secret formula as another favourite waterfall destination − Iceland: volcanoes + glaciers = waterfall magic.
11. Explore the natural wonders at Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park played an important part in the conservation of the plains bison. This “island of conservation” is 48 kilometres east of Edmonton along the Yellowhead Highway, which goes through the park. Watch for wood bison to the south and plains bison to the north.
Explore the park by foot, bike or car and be on the lookout for wildlife. Bison and other mammals are most active at dawn and dusk, when females travel with their young. Beyond the bison, be ready to glimpse deer, elk, coyotes and the countless birds that call Elk Island National Park home. Many animals shelter in the trees during the warmest parts of the day.
Elk Island has a number of trails of varied lengths winding through the different habitats found within the park. Since the park is not mountainous, the trails have very few steep inclines. Each trail contains many wildlife viewing opportunities − from two different subspecies of bison to a multitude of songbirds. Whether you’re out for a leisurely hike or a longer adventure, make your trip a safe one by checking the latest conditions.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
− John Burroughs