Parks Canada’s Hidden Gems

Discover the hidden gems of Parks Canada.

Parks Canada

Thousand Islands National Park

From Mallorytown Landing in Eastern Ontario, you can begin your own exploration of shores and forests that Indigenous peoples travelled for thousands of years. 

Known until recently as St. Lawrence Islands National Park, the park is located on the famous seaway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, just a few hours’ drive from Ottawa, Montreal, or Toronto. 

A historic landing opens on an ancient land

Whether you paddle your own small craft or ride on a larger personal vessel or tour boat, travelling the park by water is easy and rewarding. 

You can take in dramatic granite outcroppings and sandy beaches, land at isolated island campsites, hike trails through a mixed forest that is relatively rare in Canada, and sample the majesty of night skies you would never see in a more crowded urban setting.

A story written in rock

When you travel these islands, you are passing over ancient hills worn down by geological forces over millions of years. This ecologically significant region links the boreal forests of Ontario’s Canadian Shield to the north with the Appalachian Mountains in New York State to the south.

It all forms part of the Frontenac Arch, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve dedicated to preserving this naturally significant landscape.

Forests worth a closer look

This mixed population of coniferous and deciduous trees is called a Carolinian forest. Even in death they continue to sustain a variety of life, serving as homes for flying squirrels, lofty perches used by owls waiting to spot prey, and a source of wood-boring insects eaten by woodpeckers.

On a walk through the island trails you might see Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink, the endangered Blanding’s turtle, or the non-venomous eastern ratsnake.

The river beckons one and all

The beautiful shorelines of the park’s many islands have attracted visitors who first came to the area more than 10,000 years ago, probably travelling in birch bark canoes. You can travel in the modern equivalent – kayaks and canoes - or join an organized tour on a larger motor boat.

Visitors can camp overnight, either in your own tent or a waterfront oTENTik, which is more like a small cabin.

Each island brings its own character

The park is made up of 20 islands and dozens of smaller islets that protect many rare species, including 30 at-risk plants and animals. Camelot Island, for example, features a significant population of pitch pine, a rare species not found in any other Canadian national park. These trees are dependent on fire to regenerate, so Parks Canada uses controlled fires to ensure their survival.

Laurier House National Historic Site

Just a 30-minute walk from Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa, Laurier House was the privately owned residence of two Canadian prime ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. This elegant three-storey mansion was built in 1878 in the venerable tree-lined neighbourhood known as Sandy Hill.

It’s an outstanding example of Second Empire architectural style, a mixture of Renaissance and Baroque features that evolved during the era of the Second French Empire. 

Re-live famous encounters with rich fineries

Over the course of 50 years, this residence did double duty as a comfortable home for both prime ministers and an appropriate venue to conduct affairs of state. This table, from Mackenzie King’s collection, is where he entertained dignitaries and politicians from across the country, as well as around the world. 

Made of mahogany, it could be expanded to accommodate up to 14 guests, who used sterling silverware adorned with ivory and mother of pearl handles.

Explore a treasure trove of historical mementos

Laurier lived in the house from 1897 until his death in 1919; King moved in two years later and remained until his death in 1950. Today Laurier House is packed with possessions that reflect the dynamic times, expansive careers, and sometimes curious personal interests of these key figures in Canada’s history. 

The furnishings include paintings, sculptures, thousands of books, and even a crystal ball that the famously eccentric King reputedly used during séances.

Enter a door to Canada’s past

Guided tours take visitors into the world occupied by these two prime ministers. You will be introduced to the opulent array of artifacts that defined the way each man lived and worked, as well as hear stories that animate the tenor of their times. 

See through the eyes of these prominent leaders, who ushered Canada into the 20th century through two world wars. You’ll gain a new understanding of how the country took its current place on the international scene.

Put on your white gloves

For an even more intimate experience of Laurier House, the exclusive White Glove Tour takes you to places not typically accessible to visitors, such as Sir Wilfrid and Lady Laurier’s private quarters. 

You’ll also have an unrivalled opportunity to touch remarkable items preserved here including the delicate china pieces King used at his meals and other furnishings that fill the house. This visit concludes with a memorable round of light refreshments on the verandah.

Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park

This unique meeting point of three major bodies of water — the flow from the Great Lakes, the Saguenay Fjord, and the Atlantic Ocean — is about a three-hour drive from Quebec City and a 5-1/2 hour drive from Montreal. As seen here at the Saint Lawrence River’s Lower Estuary, the area is alive with wildlife that can be seen in the water and the air around this majestic coastline.

Glimpse an underwater world

Whether you’re comfortably seated on a larger motor boat, perched in a small inflatable, paddling at wave height in a sea kayak, or scuba diving below, the park’s waters will reveal extraordinary ecological riches. 

Local tides regularly pump cold water into the region saturating it with nutrients that feed a diverse collection of fishes, seals, and whales. You can share this vibrant marine ecosystem with its remarkable inhabitants, from tiny zooplankton to the iconic white beluga whale and the mighty blue whale.

Sample the waters for yourself

The flourishing biodiversity of the park’s waters becomes fully accessible from the Marine Environment Discovery Centre. Colourful maps and displays orient you within the region, while you can also see high-definition images of what is happening underwater transmitted in real time by divers in the river.

Or you can join them by donning a thermal dry suit, flippers, and snorkel to submerge for a closer look.

Celebrate life on wings

The shape of the coastline, which includes open waters as well as large saltwater marshes, result in high concentrations of seabirds and shorebirds who thrive around the Park. Birdwatchers themselves flock in each September for the North Shore Migratory Bird Festival, which includes conferences, bird-banding, and other public activities.

The nearby Tadoussac Bird Observatory includes a research centre dedicated to studying these birds, as well as raptors like the Red-tailed Hawk, the Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle, and various types of owls.

Pointe-Noire or Cap de Bon-Désir visitor centres

From observation decks at Pointe-Noire or Cap de Bon-Désir visitor centres, you can watch pleasure craft and commercial vessels from all over the world ply the path that guided European explorers toward the interior of the land that would become Canada.

From here you can admire the towering walls of the nearby Saguenay Fjord and keep an eye out for whales that might surface at any moment. 

Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site

About a two-hour drive southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Kejimkujik National Park is divided into two distinct regions. The inland region is both a national park and a national historic site that welcomes families eager to hike, camp and canoe while exploring the park’s Acadian forest and many lakes, as well as its rich Mi’kmaw history.

Today we’ll explore Kejimkujik Seaside, the other region of the park, with spectacular beaches and rugged ocean views.

St. Catherine’s River Beach beckons

St. Catherine’s River Beach is one of the largest protected beaches in Nova Scotia. The fine white sand is created by the movement of the waves against the shoreline’s granite rocks, which contain quartz, a hard, light-coloured mineral.

The Singing Sands serenade

The beaches at Kejimkujik Seaside “talk”, or sing, as you walk across them. They make these sounds because of the uniform shape of the quartz grains of sand. 

The Dunes shelter rare birds

Behind the mark the high tide leaves, Marram grass spreads its dense roots to preserve sand dunes created by the wind. Where the grass is sparse, piping plovers – an endangered shorebird – make their nests, camouflaged with pebbles and shells.

Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site

Built by the Hudson Bay Company to administer its vast trading network in Manitoba, Lower Fort Garry is the oldest stone fur-trading post in Canada. Just a 30-minute drive northeast of Winnipeg, the fort was a central meeting place for European traders and First Nations’ trappers.

The national historic site also commemorates Treaty No. 1, the first of 11 numbered treaties negotiated between the Saulteaux and Swampy Cree First Nations and the British Crown.

It all began in the Fur Loft

When Governor George Simpson built Lower Fort Garry after a flood devastated the original Fort Garry, one of the first stone buildings he had erected in 1830 was the Fur Loft. The building warehoused the furs which trappers brought to trade and was home to the company store and a traders’ office.

Historical interpreters re-create life at the Fort

With 46,000 artifacts on site, the guides at Lower Fort Garry use objects like a beaded moccasin or a gunpowder magazine to illustrate life at the Fort in the 1850s. 

Dressed to represent the traders, the trappers, and the visiting First Nations’ peoples of the times the historical interpreters explain the way goods arrived at the Fort and were then repackaged and redistributed, along with basic supplies that nourished communities further north or south. 

The East Gate welcomed arrivals

The East Gate faces the Red River, which was a major transportation byway in Manitoba. Visitors and goods arrived via the Hudson Bay Company’s tough, versatile York boats, which could carry up to six tonnes of cargo and were usually rowed or sailed by Red River Métis crews.

There is a replica boat on site at Lower Fort Garry, where you can learn about how they came to be named after York Factory, the Company’s Northern Manitoba headquarters.

Grasslands National Park

Located in southern Saskatchewan near the border with the United States, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Regina, Grasslands National Park represents one of the few remaining large sections of native mixed grass prairie ecosystem left in North America.

Visitors can experience the undisturbed native prairie and see how this vast part of the continent’s interior existed before it was converted to farmland.

The horizon beckons you

If you are seeking wide-open spaces, Grasslands is a remarkable destination with unlimited backcountry camping. You will be travelling across land that at different prehistoric periods was a tropical jungle, ocean floor, and a path left by huge retreating glaciers that shaped the landscape you see today.

Witness living symbols of the wild frontier

For thousands of years, giant herds of bison were among the primal forces that influenced this dramatic landscape with their extensive grazing habits. Marvel at the majesty of these animals at Grasslands, where a herd 400-strong still roams. 

The extensive burrowing of the black-tailed prairie dog also shaped this land, which is the only place where you can still see them in their native habitat. 

Lingering signs of settlement and movement

Visitors to Grasslands will invariably run across some of the more than 12,000 tipi rings left behind by indigenous peoples as they travelled across this land. These nomadic communities thrived on the prairies and these artifacts date from as far back as 10,000 years ago. You can move even deeper through time by gazing at the park’s rich collection of dinosaur fossils.

Learn why they call it “the heavens"

Whether you lose yourself in a cloudless blue ocean overhead or become enthralled by the sheer drama of an impending storm, prairie skies are like no other. That is especially true of Grasslands at night, where the absence of artificial light makes this the darkest dark sky preserve in Canada.

Drive a genuine prairie path

Take your vehicle on the Ecotour road, an 80-km round trip through the park, where you may see antelope, mule deer, hawks, prairie dogs, and bison, as well as memorable views of coulees, buttes, and endlessly rolling prairie grasses. 

Following a self-guided tour, you can visit historic homesteads of prairie characters such as Will James, the cowboy, writer, and actor who shared legendary tales of life on his frontier ranch.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site

Follow the Cowboy Trail 100 kilometres southwest of Calgary, Alberta, to step back in time to the Bar U Ranch. This national historic site celebrates and demonstrates the role ranchers played in settling the Canadian West – complete with cowhands, horses, and the tales of charismatic characters.

Against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, the Bar U’s 35 historic buildings include barns, a blacksmith shop, and a cookhouse. Pitch in to try your hand at cowboy chores. 

Wagon rides behind the Bar U’s magnificent Percherons

Clamber aboard a horse-drawn wagon, and meet the Percheron horses who were the ranchers’ pride and joy. In the early 1900s, the Bar U bred more Percherons than anywhere else in the world. In the ranch’s heyday, 1,000 of these hard-working draft horses shared the range with 30,000 head of cattle.

Unleash your inner cowboy by roping steers

In 1882, when Fred Stimson homesteaded the ranch, cattle roamed at will without any fences. That made riding and roping critical job skills for cowboys. Today, you can practise roping on replica steers, learn to handle a branding iron as well as groom and saddle the real horses the Bar U hands still tend. 

Enjoy the Rocky Mountain air and view

The Rocky Mountains guard the western horizon of the historic Bar U Ranch, which straddles picturesque Pekisko Creek. This stream, which originates in the high mountains, helped water the immense herds of cattle and horses who roamed the ranch’s acreage in the southern foothills more than 130 years ago.

You can also wander along the Viewpoint Trail to watch cows and calves still grazing by the creek.

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