There are 39 national parks and 8 reserves in Canada, each with a unique and fascinating story to tell. Here are 10 national park and reserve locales that present the best opportunities for getting up close and personal with the country's wildlife.
Prince Albert National Park | Saskatchewan
White-tailed deer in Prince Albert National Park — Photo courtesy of iStock/Parry_Johnson
Prince Albert National Park in central Saskatchewan embraces a million acres of wilderness, seven rivers and 1,500 lakes. The landscape represents the transition from aspen parkland to northern boreal forest and it teems with wildlife. Unique to the park is a free-ranging bison herd that is estimated to be about 270 animals, and if they stay in the park, their only predators are wolves.
Campers and residents have some wonderful stories to tell about the wildlife, and one of the best is something I experienced firsthand. It was when my two-year-old told me there was a bear in the car. There he was, sitting in the front seat, licking out a popcorn bowl with no intention of leaving until the last trace of butter was gone. One door was open, so I approached the car banging two pot lids together. When he was ready, he put down the bowl and sauntered off, without a trace of damage to the car.
Other animals to enjoy here include elk, red fox, coyote, beaver, otter, moose, deer and wolf.
Grasslands National Park | Saskatchewan
Prairie dog iin Grasslands National Park — Photo courtesy of iStock/hartmanc10
In south Saskatchewan, you'll find Grasslands National Park. It is 907 square kilometers, situated north of Montana, adjacent to the border. It is best known for being the only place in the country that houses the comical black-tailed prairie dog. They are fascinating to watch and if you just stay in your car, they go about their business as usual. Other rare and endangered fauna include pronghorns, greater sage-grouses, burrowing owls and swift foxes.
Of interest: In 1877, Sitting Bull and 5,000 Sioux sought safety here after the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Banff National Park | Alberta
Bighorn sheep overlooking Lake Minnewanka — Photo courtesy of iStock/tiger_barb
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest park, established in 1885, and tends to be everyone’s favorite. It's located in the Rocky Mountains about 110 kilometers from Calgary. The views of the mountains are priceless, so beautiful that they take your breath away and UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site.
From April to October, Discover Banff Tours will pick up clients and take them for two-hour animal spotting safaris at dusk. The list of animals is long including elk, deer, black bears and grizzly bears, moose and even mountain sheep.
Lake Louise | Alberta
Beautiful Lake Louise — Photo courtesy of iStock/BWA_IMAGES
Lake Louise is a glacial lake within Banff National Park that's known for its beauty – colors of turquoise surrounded by the high peaks of the Rockies. And situated at one end of the lake is the most stately hotel you've ever seen.
The community of Lake Louise is 56 km north of Banff and is the gateway to the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in the world. The animals you would expect to see are elk, deer and bighorn sheep. But if you're lucky, maybe black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, cougar and lynx.
Jasper National Park | Alberta
Mt. Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park — Photo courtesy of iStock/PepiteVoyage
Jasper National Park is a seemingly infinite wilderness composed of glaciers, lakes and tall peaks. A road runs from the town of Jasper – the scenic Icefields Parkway – which leads you past alpine forests and the vast Columbia Icefields.
The town of about 5,000 serves as the commercial center of Jasper National Park. If you're interested in history, the Jasper Museum exhibits the fur trade, the building of the railway and early exploration of the park. Hiking, camping and skiing are the usual activities in this region.
One of the highlights of the trip is taking the Jasper Sky Tram that climbs to the summit of Whistler Mountain, famous for skiing. It's a family-friendly ride costing $44.95 per person but is well worth the investment.
Polar bear with cubs in Churchill — Photo courtesy of iStock/USO
Churchill, Man. is a town of about 900 people on the shore of Hudson Bay, far north in Manitoba. Recent flooding problems have closed the rail line, which is how most people arrive in Churchill. However, tourists still have the option to reach Churchill by airplane.
Once the rail line re-opens, it is a must-do. The wonderful trip offers excellent food in the dining car and private rooms for sleeping. The conductor and train personnel have a good time talking to the passengers and telling them stories about Churchill and polar bears, making travel fun and interesting. But if you can't wait to see Churchill, no matter how you get there, it will be an experience you can't forget.
In the summertime, 57,000 beluga whales come to the western side of Hudson Bay where the Churchill River empties into the Bay. The belugas are 3-4 meters in length and the best time to see them is during the last two weeks of July until the first two weeks of August. They like to come near the boats but never cause any trouble.
Belugas are the most vocal of all the whales and are so interesting to listen to with the help of hydrophones. Many visitors put on wetsuits and swim with them, as they're gentle creatures.
Churchill is also known for its polar bears in late fall. The bears gather waiting for the ice to form so they can catch their favorite food: seals. Travelers are taken on tours in tundra vehicles that are strong and specially made for viewing polar bears. The windows open easily so that visitors can get excellent images of the bears, play-fighting for fun and exercise, or just out for a walk, hoping the ice will soon be strong.
Another plus for visiting Churchill is the Northern Lights, with activity occurring 300 nights of the year.
Whales off the coast of British Columbia — Photo courtesy of iStock/Onnes
Sidney, B.C. is the home of the Sidney Whale Watching company. Three-hour tours are provided and if you don’t see whales, the next trip is free.
You'll board a 30-foot walk-around vessel equipped with hydrophones to listen to the language of the whales. These boats are built for wildlife viewing in the Salish Sea. Sidney makes an ideal place to see whales because the salmon, which whales like to feed on, come back to these waters every summer to spawn.
Elk Island National Park | Alberta
Herd of bison in Elk Island National Park — Photo courtesy of PHOTOS.com/Hemera Technologies
Elk Island National Park is 35 miles east of Edmonton, and has played a big part in the last 100 years of conservation to bring back the bison from the edge of extinction. The park is 194 square kilometers (75 sq. mi) of native grassland, aspen parkland and boreal forest. It is Canada’s largest completely enclosed park with a dense population of hoofed animals – bison, moose, mule deer, elk and white-tailed deer – roaming freely through it.
Waterton Lakes National Park | Alberta
Moose in Waterton Lakes National Park — Photo courtesy of iStock/hinzundkunz
Waterton Lakes National Park is in the far south of Alberta, actually bordering Glacier National Park in Montana. It's a rugged mountain and wilderness setting containing the deepest lakes in the Canadian Rockies.
This is outstanding scenery, where the prairies meet the mountains, and it's very isolated from any urban center – 160 miles from Calgary. Its summer population is around 2,500 but far less in winter. Lots of wildlife including wolverines, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, deer, mountain goats, elk, moose, fox and bears can be observed here.
Gwaii Haanas National Park | British Columbia
Rainforest on Haida Gwaii — Photo courtesy of iStock/annegeorg
Gwaii Haanas National Park is on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, a group of islands about 130 kilometers (81 miles) off the coast of British Columbia. Once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the new name is preferred by the population who live there.
Towering moss-draped cedars and spruce exist in the lush rainforest islands of this park. Bears hunt for salmon and the ocean around it bustles with porpoises, sea lions and whales, as this is a primary feeding ground for the humpback species.