Georgian Bay Islands

Alternatives to Canada’s most crowded national parks

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Canada’s spectacular national parks reel in visitors from around the globe, but sometimes when tourist season is in full swing, our most famous natural wonders can feel more like theme park attractions than great escapes. Luckily, there are plenty of smaller and less-travelled parks to explore. If you’re looking for a more exclusive park experience, try opting for these alternatives.

Instead of: Banff National Park, Alberta (3,306,203 visitors in 2012/2013) and Jasper National Park, Alberta (1,993,139 visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Kootenay National Park, British Columbia (434,781 visitors in 2012/2013)

Kootenay National Park
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Millions of visitors flock to the Canadian Rockies each year, most heading to Jasper and Banff’s national parks for the massive mountains, stunning Columbia Icefields, hot springs, and crystal-clear, glacier-fed lakes. However, a jump over the continental divide unveils Kootenay National Park, with ice-capped mountains, canyons, and even cactus plants along the Rocky Mountain Trench. You can still partake in all kinds of alpine adventures like ice climbing, mountaineering, hiking, skiing (including heli-skiing), and more. Play a round of golf in Radium or hit the slopes, then go for a soak in the Radium Hot Springs, Canada’s biggest hot springs swimming pool.

Instead of: Revelstoke National Park, British Columbia (643,112 visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Kluane National Park, Yukon (43,744 visitors in 2012/2013)

Kluane National Park
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The two big British Columbia parks are home to 147 glaciers including the famous Illecillewaet Glacier, but the easy-access Trans-Canada Highway brings tons of tourists through the parks each year. For an icy and more isolated retreat, try heading up to the Yukon’s gorgeous Kluane National Park where it feels like winter year-round. The park is home to Mount Logan (Canada’s highest peak) and the largest icefields outside of the North and South Poles—actually covering 80 percent of the area. Splurge on a flight-seeing tour over the region to really see the size of the icefields, or camp with them at the Icefield Discovery Camp’s Glacier Camp.

Instead of: Fundy National Park of Canada, New Brunswick (240,481 visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Quebec (32,744 visitors in 2012/2013)

Quebec
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It’s not hard to see why New Brunswick’s magical Bay of Fundy is a popular place to visit. It has the world’s highest tides and wildest tidal fluctuations. You can stroll along the ocean floor and look up at the giant Hopewell Rocks, and then later that day, paddle alongside them on massive tides four storeys above. But if you’re looking for a more exclusive Atlantic experience, try exploring Quebec’s Mingan Archipelago on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. More than 30 limestone islands and 1,000 islets and reefs make up the spectacularly remote region, with massive monoliths jutting out from the shore and a gulf dotted with seals, dolphins, whales, and Atlantic puffins.

Instead of: Bruce Peninsula National Park (251,825 visitors in 2012/2013) and Fathom Five National Park, Ontario (244,231 visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Georgian Bay Island National Park, Ontario (38,790 visitors in 2012/2013)

Georgian Bay Islands
Inga Locmele/Shutterstock.com

Every year, half a million tourists flock to the Bruce Peninsula’s national parks to trek the Niagara Escarpment’s cliffs, visit the curious stacks along Flowerpot Island, and peer into Tobermory’s turquoise waters from glass-bottomed boats. But for a different kind of Georgian Bay experience, visit the 30,000 Islands in Georgian Bay Island National Park. It’s boat-access only but The Daytripper shuttle will cart you from Honey Harbour across to Beausoleil Island (the park’s largest island) where you can tent or rent a cabin and spend days hiking the island trails, swimming at Christian Beach, and lounging on big, sun-bleached boulders.

Instead of: Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan (238,401 in 2012/2013)
Try: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (6,132 visitors in 2012/2013)

Grasslands National Park
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Tourists love to hike, bike and horseback ride through Prince Albert National Park’s lakes, forests, grasslands, and plains, home to majestic, free-ranging Sturgeon River Plains bison. But if you’re looking for a real prairie adventure with fewer people, head to the Saskatchewan-Montana border. The wide open fields of Grasslands National Park are so remote that in 2009, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada dubbed it a Dark Sky Preserve. Grasslands entertains less than 10,000 visitors a year but has a lot to offer, from 70 species of grass on the plains to roaming buffalo, antelopes, prairie dogs, ferrets, and even thousands of dinosaur fossils in the park’s East Block Badlands.

Instead of: Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, Quebec (1,129,807 visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Thousand Islands National Park, Ontario (40,211 visitors in 2012/2013)

Thousand Islands
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The clear waters around Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park attract scuba divers from around the globe and tourists looking to cruise the Saguenay Fjord or spot a beluga whale in the St. Lawrence. But Ontario’s woodsy Thousand Islands region offers a different St. Lawrence experience, from castles to what it claims is some of the province’s best inland scuba diving (there are several charters in Brockville and Kingston). Divers won’t find any beluga whales down there but they might be able to spot a shipwreck or two. To avoid clusters of crowds, try kayaking and camping through the little islands which, long ago, were actually hilltop peaks until the St. Lawrence River flooded the area on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Instead of: Trent-Severn Waterway, Ontario (1,129,500 land visitors in 2012/2013)
Try: Sault Ste. Marie Canal, Ontario (128,825 land visitors in 2012/2013)

Sault Ste Marie Canal
Wikimedia Commons

Both canals are National Historic Sites but each year, more than a million visitors pass through the Trent-Severn Waterway’s series of locks, winding through cottage country and Southern Ontario farmlands. The Trent-Severn connects Lake Ontario to Lake Huron but the Sault Ste. Marie Canal connects Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and although it feels quiet in comparison, it was once the longest lock in the world and the first to operate with electrical power. Today, it’s cruised by recreational boats. Bring your own or hop on a guided tour to visit the world’s last remaining emergency swing dam.