5 unexpected Canadian adventures

Surfing in Tofino

There are some adventures that immediately bring Canada to mind—canoeing, skiing, dogsledding are among our favourites. But the Great White North is home to countless activities, some of which you’re more likely to associate with exotic locations abroad. In fact, many Canadians likely don’t even realize these adventures exist in their home country, but with a little sunscreen and an open mind, Canada’s boundless backyard can accommodate just about any adventure you crave.

Be honest—how many of these did you know about?

Surf a big one

Hawaii’s North Shore, Australia’s Bondi Beach—Canada’s coasts? Yes, while we may not have the surfing prestige that warmer destinations do, the waves off Canada’s coastlines are super surfable, all year round.

In fact, Tofino, B.C., was named one of the best surf towns in the world by National Geographic, and it’s widely considered to be the surf capital of Canada. The community of 1800 is home to just under a dozen surf schools. Interestingly, the best time of year to catch a wave isn’t in summer, but in winter, when the waves reach about 10 metres high (it’s also a good season for storm watching).

On the East Coast, the best surf spots are in Nova Scotia, with Lawrencetown Beach coming out on top. Lawrencetown is known for having some pretty rough conditions, thanks to tropical storms and hurricanes that frequently pass through. And while the waves don’t typically reach Tofino’s heights, there are strong rips and currents that require serious swimming skills. Also, unlike in Tofino, you’ll probably want to avoid winter water—peak surf season in Nova Scotia is from August to November.

Scuba dive among shipwrecks

Scuba diving
Photo by Jim Jo/Shutterstock.com

Canada’s scuba diving capital is Tobermory, Ontario, a small resort-like town at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. It’s here where you’ll find Fathom Five National Marine Park, the country’s first national marine conservation area. It’s also considered to be one of the best dive sites in North America (and one of the best freshwater dive sites in the world), thanks to crystal-clear water and an abundance of underwater caves and shipwrecks, some of which date back to the mid-1800s.

Some may argue, however, that the best diving in Canada is in British Columbia. In fact, National Geographic included scuba diving in B.C. on its 2014 Ultimate Adventure Bucket List, where Canada’s west coast was described as “the richest diving area in the world.” This isn’t a dive destination for the timid, though. In addition to underwater cliffs and sunken ships, divers can expect to see giant Pacific octopus, six-gill sharks, and wolf eels.

Among the most popular dive destinations out west are Race Rocks near Victoria (where seals and sea lions are commonly spotted), Barkley Sound near Ucluelet (which is known as “the graveyard of the Pacific”), and Snake Island near Nanaimo (where a steep underwater wall challenges deep divers). But the most unusual site is near Chemainus on Vancouver Island’s East Coast, where you can explore a sunken Boeing 737, and even climb inside the cockpit if you like.

Dig for dinosaurs

Dinosaur Provincial Park
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If your childhood dream was to dig up a dino (or you have a budding palaeontologist in the family), then get yourself to Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. The park, located southeast of Calgary in Alberta’s stunning Badlands, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its abundance of dinosaur fossil discoveries. According to UNESCO, “the property is unmatched in terms of the number and variety of high quality specimens.” To date, about 35 dinosaur species have been uncovered, dating back some 77 million years. Excavations continue to take place within the park grounds, and aspiring archaeologists can join in on authentic one-, two- and three-day digs with expert paleontological technicians.

If digging isn’t your thing, there are also bus tours, guided hikes, and self-guided trails throughout the park. Photographers will want to sign up for a photography tour at sunset that takes you into some of the more secret corners of the park and to mythical-sounding locations like Valley of the Gold, Valley of the Castles, and Valley of the Moon.

Climb the tallest sand dune in North America

Athabasca Sand dunes
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Saskatchewan is famed for being the flattest part of Canada, so it may be a shock to learn that North America’s tallest (and also the world’s most northerly) sand dune lies in Canada’s prairies, along Saskatchewan’s northern border. But that’s not all: The Athabasca Sand Dunes, which reach a maximum height of 30 metres, also make up North America’s largest dune system, stretching 100 kilometres.

The dunes are protected within a provincial park, and visiting them requires intensive wilderness experience, as there are no services, facilities or even roads within or near the park. Access is by float plane only, and visitors need to be prepared for self-sustained wilderness travel. They should also be aware of how to limit their impact on the fragile ecosystem. But if you’re able to handle the adventure, be prepared for the kind of views you’d expect to see in the Sahara.

Hike up a volcano

Mount Garbaldi
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Canada isn’t exactly known as a volcanic hotbed; when it comes to great volcano hikes, you’re more likely to think of Bali, Iceland, Guatemala, and Hawaii. But yes, there are volcanoes right here in Canada (granted, they tend to be a bit quieter than some of their international sisters). And some of them are open for truly epic climbing excursions.

Mount Garibaldi, near Squamish, B.C., is probably Canada’s best-known volcano and one of the most recognized peaks in the region. There are guided excursions to the summit, which stands at 2,678 metres. Unfortunately, you won’t see any wisps of steam coming from Garibaldi—the dormant volcano hasn’t erupted in more than 10,000 years.

For a less ancient volcano visit, the Wells-Gray volcanic field in B.C.’s Quesnel Highland is much younger, with its last eruption coming from the Kostal cone in the mid-1500s. There are several hiking trails and peaks to climb in Wells-Gray Provincial Park, including one trail that leads to Kostal Lake, next to the volcano. But be warned: It’s a difficult trail suitable for experienced backcountry hikers only.