Sunday, 15 July 2012

Ten All-Canadian Road Trips

Road trips. Is there anything better than the liberation that accompanies feeling the wind blow through your fingers, or the freedom in standing in a place you’ve never once stood? People go on road trips of all shapes and sizes for different reasons: a break from the mundane daily routine, a family-centered journey to some magical far-away place, to seek adventure and inspiration, for solitude, and the list continues. Canada is one of the most road trip-worthy countries in the world, offering diverse vistas and itineraries sure to please anyone, from the anxious nomad to the novice homebody. In lieu of my past experiences tripping across the country, I’ve compiled a master list of the best places to go when the call of the road beckons. Just close your eyes and point. 

1) Cabot Trail

The legendary Cape Breton Island rests on the Northeastern point of Nova Scotia and is the crown jewel of Maritime Canadian destinations. Although the island occupies a large portion of the province, it’s most sought after destination is the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, situated at the edge of the province and only accessible by the world famous Cabot Trail, a 298 Kilometre loop that enters the park and runs through many small coastal communities. This roads gives you the best of both worlds: high mountainous ranges with winding switchbacks and rugged coastal shorelines like candy for the eyes. 

Recommended Stops: Check out the town of Ingonish, located on the Southwestern side of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, or relax on Ingonish beach 11 minutes South on the Cabot Trail at the opening of South Ingonish Harbour. The Cape Breton Highlands National Park Visitor’s Centre is located in Cheticamp on the South end of the Cabot Trail.

2) Gaspe Peninsula

At the mouth of the mighty St. Lawrence River in Southeastern Quebec lies the Gaspe Peninsula and, seemingly, the edge of the world. Highway 132 circumnavigates the peninsula and is a traveler’s best bet for experiencing French-Canada’s rural countryside. Sea cliffs and river tributaries mark the landscape like gorgeous blemishes in stark contrast to the ocean below. The Gaspe Peninsula is certainly a road trip you’ll want to take slowly.

Recommended Stops: The towns of Gaspe and Perce are popular destinations for this trip, both adding their own uniqueness to the rural French-Canadian culture. Be sure to visit the peninsula’s national parks as well: Gaspesie National Park, located on highway 299 off Sainte Anne des Monts on the Northern interior and Forillion National Park, located on highway 132 due North of Gaspe on the very tip of the peninsula. Also see: Cap-Des Rosiers Lighthouse, Bioparc De La Gaspesie and Bonaventure Island, all in Gaspe town-area for more awesome activities.

3) Muskoka Woods

Muskoka, Ontario is prime lake country, and the side-trip options are endless. Highway 60 is the main artery that runs through the small townships and parks of the area, and it literally carves through the hills of limestone and shale that serve as a foundation for lush boreal forests. The main attraction in the area, though, is none other than Algonquin Provincial Park, a place that requires no introduction. So, whether you’re into fishing, camping, sandy beaches on pristine lakes, heart-pumping hikes or just an opportunity to relax and soak in the unbridled wilderness, Muskoka Woods has it all. 

Recommended Stops: Besides Algonquin Park...Lake Simcoe, Kawartha Highlands and the Muskoka Lakes/Georgian Bay area are all fantastic options for adventure.

4)  Icefields Parkway

Alberta is known for either its two largest metropolitan destinations (Edmonton and Calgary) or its two largest parks (Jasper and Banff). Given the option, I’ll always choose the latter, primarily because its connector route, the Icefields Parkway, is a stunning road trip, albeit a small one (it only takes about 4 to 5 hours to travel). This scenic road actually follows a continental divide, allowing for great viewing opportunities of massive glacial valleys, hence the “Icefields” Parkway. 

Recommended Stops: Jasper and Banff.....Duh. But also take some time to hike or drive out to these other great locations: Sunshine Meadows, Vermillion Lakes, the Norquay Lookout, Maligne Canyon, Athabaska Falls and Bald Hills. Lake Louise is also another option right on the South end of the Parkway if you like being pampered a little more.

5) Sea to Sky Corridor

The Sea to Sky Highway was conveniently named for doing exactly what it does: taking you from sea level at British Columbia’s Horseshoe Bay to the high elevations of the Southern Rocky Mountain Range, eventually terminating in Pemberton where highway 99 will take you further North if you so choose. This is quintessential Rocky Mountains driving, winding in and out of ominous canyons and over rushing whirlpools, enough to either make you very excited or very carsick (or both). All in all, the Sea to Sky highway occupies a mere 135 kilometers of tar, but it packs a copious amount of epicness. 

Recommended Stops: Squamish will be the first main destination along the highway, and avid hikers wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to summit the Squamish Chief. Whistler and Blackcomb Mounatins offer world-class skiing and snowboarding with resorts to satisfy the even the snobbiest of travellers. 

6) Sunshine Coast

Ah, yes, it’s mid-summertime and all you can think of is white sandy beaches, the sun on your face and the waves crashing against your feet. What better place in Canada is escape to in the summer than Southwestern BC’s Sunshine Coast? Beginning in Horseshoe Bay, the Sunshine Coast Highway stretches North along the interior coast and passes the picturesque coastal towns and beaches of Earls Bay, Powell River and Gibsons, eventually hitting the end of the road in the tiny fishing village and wharf of Lund. The entire trip is 184 kilometers long and consists of two ferry crossings, just in case you forgot that you’re driving alongside an inlet of the largest ocean on earth. Beach bums beware, once you experience the Sunshine Coast, you may never want to leave. 

Recommended Stops: Plenty of stop-worthy settlements and beaches dot the highway, including Bowen Island, Nelson Island an Sechelt. Once in Lund, you have the option of Kayaking or chartering a boat into the unforgettable Desolation Sound, where hundreds of small coves and tide pools beg for exploration.   

7) Stewart-Cassiar 

You’re headed North now, in search of a more isolated journey, maybe to reconnect with nature or meditate the landscape. In Norhwestern Canada, plenty of options are available, but a trip you won’t want to miss is the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, spanning 752 kilometers from Kitwanga, BC to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. The highway traverses over the Cassiar Mountain Range at the very Northern tip of the Rocky Mountains, gaining a total elevation of 2677 feet. The highway is well maintained year round and offers activities for every season, but the biggest draw to driving this itinerary is the raw and untamed wilderness you’ll encounter. Prepare for plenty of roadside animal sightings including Moose, Bison, Black Bears, the occasional Grizzly, Caribou, Red Fox and more. For all of its connection to the outside world, The Stewart-Cassiar is a perfect trip for the nature lover.

Recommended Stops: I recommend starting/ending your trip in Prince Rupert, BC’s Northernmost coastal town and just a short drive West of Terrace for its options to fish, paddle, hike or drive inland and across the breathtaking Queen Charlotte Islands. 

8) Liard-Yellowhead

The Northwest Territories are indeed Canada’s great beyond; a vast expanse of untouched land where few call home and even fewer seek to explore. Fortunately, for those that do, there are a couple of options to visit this magnificent place by land. One of those routes is the incredible Liard-Yellowhead highway, beginning just North of Fort Nelson, BC and ending in Yellowknife, the cosmopolitan capital city of NWT. It’s the journey of getting there, though that will make it worthwhile. The Liard-Yellowhead first traverses the great Nahanni Range just inside the NWT border before dropping down to the hundreds of lakes and tributaries of North-central Canada where vegetation is sparse and the views are spectacular. 

Recommended Stops: The Nahanni River National Park lies just inside the NWT border and is a very worthwhile day trip on the side. A few Aboriginal settlements along the way provide services and an opportunity to learn about Canada’s First Northern Peoples. These stops include Fort Liard, Fort Simpson and Fort Providence, in order from South to North. 

9) The Dempster Highway

If you’re seeking a true adventure and earth-shattering isolation, the Dempster Highway is your road trip. Starting just South of Dawson City, Yukon, the Dempster Highway follows a North-easterly route past the Arctic Circle and eventually stops in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It is the furthest North one can travel by car while still inside Canada, and you’ll certainly know it as the Boreal Forest gives way to the Arctic Tundra and rolling mountains strip themselves of greenery, leaving a barren landscape that is all but devoid of activity. A word to the wise: The Dempster is notoriously tough-going, so make sure you get a full tune up and bring a couple of spare tires. You wouldn’t want to be stuck out in the land of the midnight sun. 

Recommended Stops: Dawson City is a preserved gold-rush era town where you can still play craps in an old casino and watch cancan girls on stage. At the very beginning of the highway is Tombstone Territorial Park, one of Yukons most treasured protected areas. Other than this, the only real stops you’ll encounter on this 12 hour trip will be Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson, both offering very basic services and amenities. Don’t forget to note when you’ve crossed the Arctic Circle – this is where 24 hour daylight or darkness occur during the summer and winter seasons. I recommend travelling during fall (last two weeks of August for this area) when the tundra comes alive with wonderfully vivid autumn colours. 

10) Trans-Canada

None of these road trips long enough for you? Don’t fret, you can drive across the entire freakin’ country if you take the incredible Trans-Canada Highway! Canada has plenty of road trips for everyone, most of which branch out of a highway that hits both oceans and traverses through four different ecosystems. The Trans-Canada highway actually has two different branches, both of which offer endless options for adventure, relaxation and discovery. So go on now, get road trippin’!!

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