Canada. It may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think family vacation, but our neighbor to the north has much to offer, especially this year. The New York Times named it number one in “52 Places to Go in 2017,” and for good reason. In 2017 all of Canada’s National Parks and Historic Sites are offering free admission to everyone in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Canada is easily accessible from many U.S. states; 13 states border Canada and another dozen plus are in one-day’s driving distance. And many regular-fare and low-cost air carriers (WestJet, Sunwing, Sun Country, Horizon and Air Transat) fly between U.S. and Canadian cities. Just don’t forget your passports.
As for what you and your kids can do in Canada, think exploring European-like cities (Montreal and Quebec for example), fishing in provinces that feel like a cross between New England and Wales (Newfoundland), or hiking through those rugged Canadian Rockies.
Or you could take advantage of that free admission, learn Canadian history (since we certainly didn’t learn it in U.S. schools), or take up a new hobby by visiting one or many of the more than 200 Canadian National Parks and Historic Sites. And find out for yourself why Bono, frontman for U2, said “I believe the world needs more Canada.”
For your convenience, we’ve summarized what you can learn or experience where.
Art and music
Canada’s National Parks have long been supporting artists with residencies and inspirational landscape for subject matter. They have also offered spaces for classes for both young and a bit older. Both Mount Revelstoke National Park and Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site offer artists’ programs. Banff, Gros Morne, and Terra Nova all offer arts projects for kids and adults as part of programs, such as Banff’s Going to Bat for Bats that include bat house building and the Tetrahedral kite workshop at Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.
Other parks host concert series, music festivals, or the symphony, such as the Outdoor summer concert series at Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, Folk Fest at Lachine Canal National Historic Site, Outdoor concerts series at Chambly Canal National Historic Site, Symphony Under the Sky at Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site, and Maritime music at Fundy National Park.
First nations traditions
“As the First Peoples of Canada, First Nations, Metis and Intuit have sacred places of great cultural and spiritual importance across this land,” the Parks Canada website says. Parks connected to the First Peoples include Akami-Uapishkᵁ-KakKasuak-Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve; Ivvavik National Park; Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site; Kejimkujik National Park and Kouchibouguac National Park. At many of these parks you can interact with and listen to stories and music by the indigenous locals and learn the traditions of the Mi’kmaq culture (in a Wigwam ceremony) and others.
Ghosts, storytelling, and graveyards
Because many of the historic sites throughout Canada have been forts or battle sites, ghost stories abound. Some of the more famous places for storytelling and graveyard tours include: Ghost walk and haunted fort at Fort Battleford National Historic Site, Meet the Ghosts at Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site, Ghosts of the Citadel at Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, candlelight graveyard tour at Fort Anne National Historic Site, and Grave Tales at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you and your child love history and/or horror, maybe one of these potentially spine-tingling story times is for you.
While Canada is filled with outdoor activities year-round, some outdoor experiences are more structured. For example, the Discovery Tour at Banff connects you and your kids with nature and history. With a guide, you will “visit the sulfurous hot springs, have your photo taken at a traditional railway workers camp, immerse yourself in the story of the founding of one of the greatest conservation movements in the world, Parks Canada,” reads the Cave Basin National Historic Site webpage. (Banff was Canada’s first National Park and it is UNESCO heritage site.)
In any of the parks, your family can go running, cycling (Jasper National Park is filled with adrenaline pumping mountain bike trails), and hiking (Cape Breton National Park offers three guided hikes in a Your Park After Dark program). But if bouldering is what gets your heart soaring to new heights, Bruce Peninsula National Park is the place to climb. It’s also a place to swim, canoe, and kayak as BPNP has a gorgeous clear-water grotto.
If you’ve never camped before but always thought it might be fun, Parks Canada can prepare you with their app (available at Google Play or the App Store). Their website covers everything from what to bring, where to camp, what to know, what to cook, and how to reserve a campground space. Front country (serviced, unserviced, pull-through, walk-in, and group) camping is available at almost every park and backcountry camping is available in the wilder places, too.
And lastly, if your family loves to go off-road, Grasslands National Park has a wagon trail tour, an opportunity to view the vast heavens with Royal Astronomy Society astronomers or to go on a sunset horseback riding adventure.
Communing with wildlife is an inevitable part of any Canadian park experience. I have wandered a path near Lake Louise, heard a rustling in a tree above and found a porcupine hanging 10 feet above my head. Similarly, I have rounded a corner in the mountains of Jasper and come face to face with a big horned sheep and found myself speechless in awe. If a more organized wildlife encounter is your preference, you and your kids can snorkel with seals at Forillon National Park, experience Bison Backstage at Elk Island National Park, swim with the salmon for science at Fundy National Park, experience Gone Crabbing for Science at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside, kayak up-close to wildlife and Haida culture at Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, or celebrate The Festival of Birds at Point Pelee National Park.
Whiskey and rum tastings for adults
After all of that hiking, biking, and family time, maybe you will need to kick back and relax. Parks Canada offers whiskey tastings at Fort Wellington National Historic Site and Fortress™ rum tasting at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, as these two spirits have historical significance in Canada. Fort Louisberg invites you to “Be part of a colonial tradition as rum was one of the most popular drinks of 18th-century Louisbourg. Sample an authentic Rum Punch recipe and learn how sugar cane and its alcoholic offshoot influenced trade, shipping, and slavery in colonial North America.” (The drinking age in Canada is 19 so older children can participate in this event, too.)
And lastly, your trip to Canada doesn’t have to exclude exploring a city and a park at the same time. The Rogue Urban National Park is one of Park Canada’s finest examples of biodiversity and it is found within the city of Toronto.