Canada is the largest country on Earth, and it’s filled with a variety of ecosystems and ample wildlife to fill them. A multitude of national and provincial parks have been set aside both to preserve and highlight some of our natural beauty and historic sites. This list should read not as a ranking of these diverse protected spaces, and more like a bucket list of places to visit to become better acquainted with our wild spaces.
1. Banff National Park - Alberta
Banff National Park is the oldest, most well-known, and most visited national park in Canada. An easy trip from Calgary, Banff’s mountainous terrain contains hot springs, icefields, forests, lakes, caves, waterfalls, and of course abundant wildlife.
Like many parks on this list, Banff is a UNESCO world heritage site and was listed on account of its natural beauty.
Given Banff’s immense popularity, those looking for something a little less populated may want to consider other parks on this list.
2. Wood Buffalo National Park - Alberta/Northwest Territories
The largest national park in Canada, Wood Buffalo National Park was established in 1922 to protect what remained of the largest land animal in North America. Once on the brink of extinction, the nearly 10,000 wood bison alive today trace their ancestry back to Wood Buffalo National Park. Currently, the park is home to the largest free-roaming bison herd in the world.
The endangered Whooping crane also calls the forests and grasslands of Wood Buffalo National Park home. Although a secondary breeding population has been re-introduced in the United States, Wood Buffalo National Park was the large crane’s last stronghold.
In 1983, Wood Buffalo National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its important biological diversity.
3. Kluane National Park and Reserve - Yukon
Kluane National Park contains 17 of Canada’s 20 tallest mountains, including the tallest (Mount Logan), and so is a paradise for hikers. It also has the world’s largest largest non-polar icefield, and heaps of wildlife including the most genetically diverse population of grizzly bears. It is also home to the Alsek River, which was granted status as a Canadian Heritage River.
Kluane National Park and Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “exceptional natural beauty.”
4. Grasslands National Park - Saskatchewan
Grasslands National Park protects one of the last remaining tracts of mixed-grass ecosystem.
The park protects several endangered species as well, such as the endangered burrowing owl. Also found in Grasslands National Park is Canada’s only population of Black-footed ferrets, a species thought extinct twice and re-introduced to the Canadian wilderness as a result of a successful captive breeding program 70 years after they disappeared from this country.
In 1874, Canada’s first dinosaur remains were discovered in a location now part of the park.
5. Dinosaur Provincial Park - Alberta
2 hours from Calgary and 75 million years back in time, Dinosaur Provincial Park is famous for its abundance of fossils, which are on display in museums worldwide. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, fossils representing 500 species have been uncovered in these badlands, including more than 150 skeletons representing over 50 species of dinosaur.
Exploring the glacier-carved hoodoos can be an almost surreal experience, and alongside deer, coyotes, and rabbits you may see as many as 150 different species of the dinosaurs’ living feathered descendents.
While not located within the park, a visit to the famous Royal Tyrrell Museum only 100km away in Drumheller is a must to truly complete your trip back in time.
6. Algonquin Provincial Park - Ontario
Algonquin Provincial Park is Ontario’s oldest provincial park. Located in a transition zone, the park hosts a variety of ecosystems for hikers to explore. It is rich in wildlife, including Canada’s very own and endangered Algonquin Wolf. The Canada Jay, a popular contender for Canada’s national bird. also calls the park home. These brave little birds are easy to befriend if they think you will share your snacks.
Camping is a popular activity, and in winter campers can rent yurts.
7. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park - Alberta
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, also known as Áísínai’pi (“It is pictured” in Blackfoot), was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. The park contains thousands of indigenous petroglyphs, some of which date back to 1050 BCE. The site is sacred to the Blackfoot people. Interpretive walks though this historic region are conducted in summer.
Abundant wildlife calls the cottonwood forests and hoodoos of this important historic site home, which you may see while hiking, kayaking, or canoeing through the park. The northernmost species of cactus can be found here, so watch your step!
8. Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
This is one of only three national parks in Canada—and the first in Quebec—to protect a marine ecosystem. It is a hotspot for whales who are drawn to the rich feeding grounds created where the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers meet. In fact, over 2200 species call this region home, from microscopic algae to the largest creature on earth: the blue whale. Among the other species of cetacean sighted in these waters are the St. Lawrence beluga whale, an ecologically isolated population of a species normally found in the arctic.
There are numerous opportunities to view wildlife, whether by boat or from shoreline hiking trails.
9. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park - Alberta/Saskatchewan
Straddling the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park resembles a montane ecosystem in the middle of the prairies. The highest point in Saskatchewan is found in the area, and the Head of the Mountain Viewpoint on the Alberta side is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador—hiking is a big draw. Skygazers can celebrate as it is also one of the largest dark sky preserves in the world.
10. Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park - Nunavut
Only a 30 minute walk from the territorial capital of Iqaluit, Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park is home to a variety of wildlife, such as caribou and arctic foxes. The Woodsia fern—one of the rarest plants in the country—can also be found here. Fishing for Arctic char is one popular activity, as is exploring the historic sites left behind by early inhabitants of the region.
11. Gros Morne National Park - Newfoundland and Labrador
The rock formations at Gros Morne National Park are a geologist’s dream, and earned the park designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the way the rock formations and picturesque fjords shed light onto the process of plate tectonics.
The waters of glacier-carved Western Brook Pond, which is actually an inland fjord, are considered among the purest in the world.
In sharp contrast to its surroundings, the Tablelands region of the park is hostile to plant growth and looks almost alien when compared to the rest of Newfoundland.
12. Wapusk National Park - Manitoba
Located near Churchill aka the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," Wapusk National Park is named after the iconic bears (wâpask is Cree for “white bear”). Cape Churchill within the park is considered the best spot in the world to view and photograph these bears.
Access to the park is limited, and the Cape can only be reached by helicopter or tundra buggy. However, you are guaranteed an adventure worth bragging about.
13. Sable Island National Park Reserve - Nova Scotia
Sable Island is a narrow crescent-shaped island of sand 300km southeast of Nova Scotia. Famous for its large number of shipwrecks, island was granted National Park status in 2013.
The island is home the feral and diminutive Sable Island Horse, which traces its ancestry back to horses who were released to the island in the 1800s. People are likely to know of this species through the children’s book “Pit Pony.” The world’s largest colony of grey seals also calls Sable Island home.
14. Yoho National Park - British Columbia
Located on the western side of the Continental Divide, Yoho National Park is Canada’s second National Park. The name Yoho is derived from a Cree expression for awe or wonder, and this aptly named park doesn’t fail to disappoint.
Beyond the usual natural beauty one can experience in Canada’s array of national parks, Yoho is home to significant sections of the Burgess Shale fossil deposits which contain exquisitely preserved 540 million year old fossils dating from the time when most major animal groups appeared in the fossil record.
The park holds UNESCO World Heritage status along with several neighbouring parks for its beauty and importance to our planet’s history.
15. Waterton Lakes National Park - Alberta
Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park is joined with Glacier National Park in Montana in the United States to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The Peace Park was the first park of its kind in the world, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 because “Both national parks were originally designated by their respective nations because of their superlative mountain scenery, their high topographic relief, glacial landforms and abundant diversity of wildlife and wildflowers.”
Waterton Lakes National Park contains four distinct ecoregions, so hikes through the park provide varied scenery and an abundance of diverse wildlife.
16. Carden Alvar Provincial Park - Ontario
Carden Alvar Provincial Park is less a park and more a bioregion which has been gaining protection through the efforts of passionate individuals who began purchasing portions of privately owned farmland for the purpose of protecting this rare ecosystem.
An Important Bird Area spread out over a rare kind of grassland, a profusion of wildflowers such as Prairie Smoke take advantage of the open spaces. Over 230 species of bird have been found within the park’s boundaries. The alvar is home to Ontario’s largest breeding population of endangered loggerhead shrike, which is a predatory songbird capable of killing prey larger than itself.
Amenities are nonexistent, and travel between the individually protected birding hotspots requires a vehicle. That doesn’t stop dedicated birders from making the pilgrimage from Toronto each June, which is considered the best time for birding in the alvar.
17. Prince Edward Island National Park - Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island National Park is home to perhaps the most famous spot on the island: Green Gables, made famous worldwide through Lucy Maud Montgomory’s beloved Anne of Green Gables books. There are several other historic sites found throughout the park.
The beaches are a major draw, but there are also forests to hike in. Cycling is a popular way to explore the area.
The Canadian Nature Federation considers Prince Edward Island National Park to be Canada’s most endangered national park due to the delicate ecosystem which is susceptible to human activity and coastal erosion.
18. Quttinirpaaq National Park - Nunavut
Canada’s northernmost national park, its name literally means “Top of the World” in Inuktitut. It is the gateway to the North Pole, and therefore perfect for those seeking adventure and bragging rights. Backpacking, skiing, and hiking are all possible under 24 hour sunlight in the summer months.
Despite the harsh environment, humans have lived in the area for 4,500 years. The park is also home to a host of wildlife including the endemic (and endangered!) Peary caribou. Arctic wolves can also be found within the park.
19. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area, and Haida Heritage Site - British Columbia
Gwaii Haanas (“Islands of Beauty” in Haida) is located at the southern end of Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Columbia. The park is a protected archipelago of 138 islands. The Haida people have called the region home for over 12,000 years, and there are at least 500 Haida heritage sights on the islands. The village of Nang Sdins Llnagaay has even been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
A visit to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is as close as you can come to stepping into an Emily Carr painting--her book Klee Wyck was based on her experiences in the region, which also influenced her art.
39 plants and animals found at Gwaii Haanas are found nowhere else on earth.
20. Terra Nova National Park - Newfoundland and Labrador
Canada’s easternmost national park offers opportunities to hike and take in breathtaking views of the Atlantic ocean from land. The park is characterised by forested hills, lakes, bogs, and a rugged coast. Wildlife viewing includes whales, and the iconic provincial bird, the Atlantic puffin.
The park also protects historic sites for the Beothuk nation--Ochre Hill is named for the red dye the Beothuk people used to colour themselves for ceremonies.