Canada's Natural Wonders Are Free in 2017

Parks Canada Gulf Islands National Parks ReserveGulf Islands National Park Reserve
Fritz Mueller/Courtesy Parks Canada

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

Canada turns 150 this year and it's giving a birthday gift to the world: See its countless national parks and historic sites without charge with the free Discovery Pass

Nature is a little bit like love: Poets and philosophers and songwriters have struggled to describe it since, it seems, the beginning of time. Its majesty, simply put, cannot be simply put. Perhaps one of the best portrayal came from the celebrated naturalist, John Muir when he wrote “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

But enough of the sentimentality. The only real way to understand nature is to experience it for yourself. You’ve likely entertained the notion of visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Maybe you’ve already been. But on the occasion of Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, we’ve been spending a lot of time lately learning about our mighty northern neighbor. When it comes to breathtaking nature, Canada’s got serious game. (No, really—those geese!). But all groaners aside, there are 46 national parks in the country and 171 national historic sites. Parks Canada, which was registered as a government agency under the National Parks Act of 1911, oversees all those national parks, the one urban national in Ottowa, and 125 national historic sites, the first of which, Fort Ann National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, was designated 100 years ago in 1917.

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We recently told you that 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canada and offered a rundown of its diverse offerings, from natural wonders to sports to cultural destinations. But here's the biggest news yet: on the occasion of the nation's birthday, Parks Canada is giving the world a gift. All year they’re giving out the Discovery Pass, which affords free entry to any park and historic site—148 in all—for a carload of up to seven people. The pass typically goes for $136 Canadian dollars. Little wonder, then, that as of early April, they’ve received 5.9 million orders for the pass, says Eric Magnan, media relations officer at Parks Canada. Additionally, boats get free lockage to the seven national sites, a fee that typically runs $8.80 per foot. (And take note: a small boat is 25 feet.)

“It’s a great opportunity to visit hidden gems,” Magnan says. Among the many suggestions he gave us is Rocky Mountain Historic Site, which is situated close to Banff National Park, offers a heritage camping experience of sleeping in teepees. Also, the Grasslands is still considered a somewhat undiscovered destination, especially for horse riders, he notes.  

“The diversity of activities and landscapes makes our national parks different and unique. In a few hours’ drive you can totally disconnect from urban life,” says Magnan. “For me, that feeling of being free in a national park, that’s really what thrills me.” 

So about those sites, Canada is home to some of the most superlative sites the planet has to offer—the biggest, highest, darkest of their class. Take, for instance, Kluane National Park and Reserve in the southwest Yukon. It’s where Mount Logan juts 5,959 meters into the sky, higher than any other peak in the nation. It’s also where you’ll find the country’s largest ice field, so it’s no surprise that it’s a destination for rafting-loving adventurers. The calving glaciers make for spectacular scenery on the water. 

Speaking of scenery on the water, the Bay of Fundy, part of Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, offers quite a spectacle: the world’s highest tides. At the head of the bay, waves can rise as high as 16 meters, which translates to about the height of a four-story building. Inland there's plenty of camping options, including yurts. For a different kind of extreme excursion to water, check out Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake. This Ontario destination, often referred to an inland ocean, has long stunned people with its intense storms. It’s part of a National Marine Conservation area, soon to be recognized as one of the largest protected areas of fresh water in the world. And while we’re on the topic of fresh water, the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, features woodlands that offer bike trails, secluded campsites, waterfront cabins and hiking trails with unbeatable shoreline views.

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The Discover Pass also offers access to a huge range of awe-inspiring historical sites, including feats of industrial and manufacturing progress that man has been able to achieve over the years, each quite consummate in its own right and, of course, a wondrous sight to behold. What’s more, each embodies a moment of history, a turning point in the nation. Take, for instance, Red Bay National Historic Site in Newfoundland and Labrador, the world’s largest and most complete industrial-scale whaling station. With its large population of right and bowhead wales, the area drew multitudes of whalers from Spain’s Basque during the mid-16th century. They established a major whaling port that stands mightily today. Over in Ontario you’ll find the Peterborough Lift Lock at the Trent-Severn Waterway, the world’s highest hydraulic lift, which opened in 1904.

Elsewhere in Ontario, an industrial feat from later in the 20th century is on display at the HMCS Haida, the world’s only surviving tribal class destroyer. Known as "Canada's most fightingest ship," it tread waters during WWII, the Korean War and the Cold War and today it sits majestically in Hamilton’s gorgeously revived Bayfront Park.

This is merely a tiny sampling of Canada’s rich offerings. We’ll leave it up to you to head north and discover the rest. 

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