Even if you’ve lived in Canada your whole life, there’s a good chance you’ve only seen a small portion of the country. While Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver may be obvious spots on any cross-country road trip, there are plenty of Canadian hidden gems worth a visit for their individual quirks and outdoor activity potential. Canada’s small towns are exciting because you never quite know what to expect – from secret hiking trails to quiet nights under the stars, making the most of the outdoors always seems easier from these places than from the middle of a sprawling city.
If you’re packing up your car and hitting the road, put some of these places on your list:
Carcross is located south of Whitehorse along the iconic Klondike Highway, rested just on the shores of Bennett Lake. Backdropped by Montana Mountain, this area is much less frequented than Dawson. For anyone who wants to fit in some hiking or mountain biking, the community’s old mining roads and prospector paths have been converted into public trails and are a must-visit.
Travel a mere 1km north, and you’ll find one of the Yukon’s stranger attractions: the Carcross Desert. Often considered the smallest desert in the world (though technically, it’s a series of sand dunes), the landscape feels out of place in the Great White North. This geological quirk is definitely worth a visit – in the summer, you can hike or sandboard, and come winter, the snowy dunes are perfect for cross-country skiing.
Nelson, British Columbia
BC’s known for its natural diversity, from coastal landscapes to mountain ranges, and the town of Nelson is no exception. Not far from Valhalla and Kokanee Glacier provincial parks, Nelson is a laid-back place to spend a few days before you keep road-tripping. With lots of ways to explore in your hiking boots, by mountain bike, in a boat, or on skis in winter, any outdoor lover could easily stop here and want to stay forever (and some definitely do). I recommend visiting Lakeside Park on the west arm of Kootenay Lake, right by the iconic Nelson Bridge. The park has a sweet little beach, and you can even rent SUPs and kayaks from the shore for an afternoon paddle.
This town, often overshadowed by its neighbours Banff and Jasper, is one of the most underrated spots in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. If you want to visit the Rockies but don’t want to deal with peak-season crowds, this off-the-beaten-track stop is my gift to you. Conveniently located off Highway 11 (known locally as “The Road Less Travelled”), it’s also a great launch spot for anyone who wants to visit the Columbia Icefields.
Spotted with crags, the winding North Saskatchewan River, a mountain biking trail network and plenty of campgrounds, Nordegg is filled with chances to stretch your legs and spend some time in the fresh air. I recommend visiting in the summer, when the turquoise Abraham Lake – pictured above – is especially impressive.
Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario’s first provincial park, might not be the best-kept natural secret in the province, but just 40km away lies the town of Huntsville, which very well could be. Located in the Muskokas, one of Ontario’s cottage regions, this town gives you a quintessential Ontarian experience. It’s a bit of a mecca for outdoors enthusiasts, and has been dubbed the triathlon capital of the country. With Arrowhead Provincial Park just 7km north of town, hikers, road bikers and paddlers can take advantage of all the ample trails and lakes. Arrowhead Lake is well-protected from strong winds thanks to the surrounding forest, so this is great place to fit in an overnight paddling adventure.
Looking for some epic eastern Canada activities to fit into this leg of your road trip? There are lots to choose from, including some first-class mountain bike trails in Quebec, like the flowy ones at Vallée Bras-du-Nord above. Vallée Bras-du-Nord, in Saint-Raymond, is also the place to go for a few days of camping, mixed in with some rock-climbing and via ferrata rappelling (a must-do from May to October).
Where to find them
This list hardly scrapes the surface of towns dotted across Canada that are well worth a stop on your next cross-country roadtrip. Start with these ones to plot out a route and find lots more along the way:
Road trip packing essentials
No matter how many destinations you’re cramming into your trip, you’ll want to maximize space in your adventure mobile. Here are a few items that’ll keep you organized on your cross-country travels:
- A clothing packing system: the MEC Outpost Duffle is a good choice for storing your necessities in the trunk or backseat.
- Packing cubes, like the Travel Light cubes, minimize the mess of packing and unpacking.
- A versatile jacket to withstand Canada’s varied landscapes and weather.
- An alternative power source for extended time exploring or in case of emergency.
- A tough mug, like the Stanley One Hand Vacuum Mug, to keep your drinks hot or cold during long days and nights on the road.
Enjoy the journey.
Photos: Shutterstock / Tomas Kulaja, Shutterstock / Kacey Greening, Shutterstock / BGSmith, Shutterstock / ah_fotobox, Shutterstock / Blazej Lyjak