Canada has no shortage of natural places to visit – with nearly 50 national parks and reserves, there’s endless exploring to be done in our expansive backyard. Some parks are hugely popular – for example, Banff National Park had 3.8 million visitors last year – but there are other national parks that had less than five. And if you’re anything like me, that’s actually a major selling point.
With free admission to Parks Canada places in 2017 (and free parks passes at MEC stores), there’ll be lots of people experiencing Canadian parks. Why not go somewhere less visited? These five northern parks prove that the best way to really feel like you’re on top of the world is to actually go there. Just don’t expect to drive into the park boundaries – these parks are way off the beaten track. Venture out of cell range and into some of the most breathtaking, soul-edifying backcountry on the planet.
Consider this post your spark to go somewhere new.
Sirmilik National Park, Nunavut
Visitors in 2016: 237
Inuktitut for “place of glaciers”
Located on northern Baffin Island and adjacent to the Northwest Passage, Sirmilik National Park actually has the most substantial number of visitors on this list. While its gorgeous glaciers, hoodoos, many-hued stone landscapes and exceptional hiking, sea kayaking and ski touring opportunities are a large part of the draw, these numbers are also because Sirmilik is one of Canada’s more accessible remote parks. There are regular flights to and from Pond Inlet or Arctic Bay, so you don’t have to arrange air travel in advance – though you will have to arrange transport to the park with local guides once you land.
Recommendations: Plan for a tour and keep your eyes out for upwards of 40 bird species. You can also take to the sea and paddle through ice floes, coming up along ringed seals, and migrating whales including orcas, belugas and narwhals.
Wapusk National Park, Manitoba
Visitors in 2016: 231
Cree for “white bear”
Hudson’s Bay cradles the most eastern boundary of Wapusk National Park and, as its name suggests, it’s home to polar bears. In fact, this giant bear species is the main reason people trek onto the perma-frozen tundra of this park, despite the lack of trails and roads. Wapusk is the home and protector of the world’s largest polar bear maternity denning area. At the end of October and beginning of November, about 1000 polar bears make their way through the park’s Cape Churchill region. It’s also home to a 3000-count herd of caribou, as well as moose, red foxes and wolverines.
Recommendations: Bring lots of warm layers and a camera. On wildlife viewing expeditions, there’s a good chance you’ll come across a mother bear and cub.
Ivvavik National Park, Yukon Territory
Visitors in 2016: 127
Inuvialuktun for “nursery” or “birthplace”
If you truly believe that the adventure is in the journey, then Ivvavik National Park is one you need to visit. Sprawling over the Yukon’s northwest, this park boasts some enticingly challenging access as well as a primo Arctic hiking experience up one of its famous peaks and along alpine ridge-walks. You can access the peaks right from Sheep Creek Base Camp.
Recommendations: Ivvavik is a place of reprieve for the natural world, and – as you can gather from the name – it’s a place where many species come to give birth. Go in the summer and head out on the Firth River to see the enormous migration of caribou.
Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut
Visitors in 2016: 17
Inuktitut for “land at the top of the world”
Looking for Canada’s most remote national park? Then look no further. Quttinirpaaq is located in northeastern Ellesmere Island and it extends to the polar ice cap, touching the very edge of North America.
The region is filled with glaciers, rivers, ice caps, desert tundra, and rugged cliffs and peaks. This is the land of the midnight sun, with a paradoxically stark but thriving natural world. On land, intrepid trekkers can see muskoxen, caribou and Arctic hares against the backdrop of Arctic poppies and saxifrage. The surrounding waters are home to walruses, seals and narwhals.
Recommendations: Save up, because this adventure is a bucket-list item due to transportation and logistic costs. Make it worth every penny by planning your trip between April and May, when you can avoid the potentially dangerous summer ice-melt rapids.
Tuktut Nogait National Park, Northwest Territories
Visitors in 2016: 4
Inuvialuktun for “young caribou”
Tuktut Nogait National Park is located a mere 170km north of the Arctic Circle. This place is the crown jewel of Canada’s national parks, with rolling tundra and wild terrain as far you can see.
The area covers over 16,000 square kilometers – bring your GPS – and has archaeological sites that date back 1200 to 1500 AD. With deep canyons and dramatic waterfalls, it offers a sprawling Arctic landscape filled with incredible wildlife. While the land may look barren, it’s been populated for thousands of years, and today’s Paulatak residents continue to fish, harvest berries, trap and more.
Recommendations: Visit in summer, as winters are particularly harsh. In the warmer months, you can enjoy hiking over the startlingly barren land and canoeing the Hornaday River Canyon.
Torngat Mountain National Park, Northern Labrador
Inuktitut for “place of spirits”
Visitors in 2016: unavailable
The Inuit and their predecessors have called the Torngat Mountains home for thousands of years. The hugely varied landscape of this area runs the gamut from towering mountain ranges (the highest mainland, east of the Rockies!) to waters packed with icebergs to the striking bedrock of the George Plateau. There are no roads, no signs and no set campgrounds – just mountains, glaciers and an incredible northern sky.
Recommendations: You can access the park by air, boat or snowmobile, and you have to register with park officials before exploring (for remote parks like this one, they encourage you to talk to them about your plans before your arrival). Consider using the services of a trained Inuit polar bear guard, who can help you travel safely and with respect for the people and wildlife of the area.
Some other really off-the-beaten path parks include Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut (265 visitors in 2015, and featured in the cover pic), Nahanni National Park (1044 visitors) and Nááts’ihch’oh National Park & Reserve. There’s no question that a trip to any of these places will take serious planning, lots of packing (and serious planning about packing), but they’re well worth the effort.
Even if you don’t travel nearly this far north, there are plenty of beautiful, less-visited places to explore all over Canada. Wherever you choose to visit, make sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles and check out backcountry clinics at MEC stores for more tips on outdoor adventure.