It’s the year of free Parks Canada Discovery passes—which means Canada’s most popular national parks are going to be even more crowded when high season hits in the summer. What’s a nature-loving Canuck to do? Well, as the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm—or, in this case, the campsite. Traveling to parks at the very beginning of the season will help you beat the crowds, and can nab you some experiences you won’t get at the height of summer.
Some hints before you go: check to see what’s available at the park during the off-season. While parks may be open, visitors’ centres and interactive activities may not be up and running. Often, though, what you lose in activities you make up for in lack of crowds. Also, keep in mind that “spring” means different things in different places—always check weather reports to make sure you’re adequately prepared for whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at you.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, British Columbia
Pacific Rim combines rainforest, ocean, and First Nation culture for a uniquely west coast experience. California may be the spiritual home of surfing culture, but B.C.’s got a pretty strong surf scene as well. You’ll need a wetsuit, and, unless you’re an experienced surfer, it’s best to hook up with a licensed surf school who can show you the ropes and help you stay safe. Once you’re equipped, spend some quality time catching waves. Not up for surfing? Spring can have some dramatic storms, and the park has designated safe viewing areas for soaking in—literally—the beauty of the wild waves. For more traditional park activities, try hiking or kayaking—just stay aware of the weather and the tides. Looking for wildlife? Seals, whales, and seabirds are all plentiful.
It’s a good idea to visit Banff in the spring, since Canada’s most popular national park gets almost four million visitors a year. Depending on the weather, winter activities—including skiing, waterfall ice climbing, and snowshoeing—can last well into April and beyond. If you’re setting out on the trails, though, always be mindful of the conditions: avalanches are a real danger, especially as the seasons start to change. Pay close attention to the information provided by the park, and use their winter trails map to stay on safe winter routes. For a potentially less treacherous spring activity, visit the famous Banff Upper Hot Springs and their historic spa and bath house. (Also keep an eye out for the endangered Banff Springs snail, which lives around the hot springs.) Discovered in 1884, the hot springs were included when Banff National Park was created in 1885 as Canada’s first national park.
Point Pelee National Park, Ontario
If you’re a birder, Point Pelee—the “warbler capital of North America”—should be high on your list of “must see” places. The southernmost tip of the country is a prime location to watch songbirds migrating north. While mid-May is crowded with bird enthusiasts gathering for an informal festival celebrating the spring migration, many species are also visible in March and April, especially if the weather is warm. Check the hours of operation for services like the shuttle from the visitors’ centre to the tip of the park, since many don’t open until later in April.
Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
Spring is the perfect time to visit the gorgeous geology of Bruce Peninsula National Park, since summer often sees long lineups and packed parking lots. Take advantage of smaller crowds to hike to the park’s famous Grotto and explore its other trails. Along the trails, you can often see unique wildflowers that bloom in the small window between spring thaw and the appearance of leaves on the trees. Be warned—in early spring, the trails can still be covered in ice, so stay well back from the edge of the cliffs. If you get tired of dry land, you can always suit up with scuba gear to explore the shipwrecks at nearby Fathom Five National Marine Park.
Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, Quebec
Located at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Lawrence River, Saguenay-St. Lawrence National Marine Park is an ideal spot to watch whales migrating from early May until the end of October. While visitor centres and organized interpretive activities don’t start until late June, there are lots of opportunities to go whale watching by boat and on the shore (or, if you’re adventurous, by kayak) outside of the park’s peak season. Watch for minke, beluga, fin and blue whales, as well as harbour and grey seals.
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland
Both birds and icebergs migrate by Gros Morne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that helped geologists prove the theory of plate tectonics. The park is an ideal place to explore two very distinct landscapes: the coastal lowland bordering the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the alpine plateau in the Long Range Mountains. Up for a little more geology? Download the Explora app and traverse the Tablelands, an area where the earth’s mantle has pushed up through the crust. The app is perfect for exploring before guided tours have begun for the season.
Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
A major spot for spring bird migrations, Fundy National Park is probably best known for allowing visitors to explore the highest tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy. If you go in the spring, you’ll beat the crowds, but also be able to take advantage of activities like fat biking—biking with fat tires, perfect for tackling trails that might still be snowy. If you feel like camping and it’s still chilly, the park has both circular, insulated yurts and rustic cabins for rent. Make sure to sit outside and stargaze—the park is a dark sky preserve, which means there’s little to no light pollution.