When was the last time you visited a protected area like a provincial or national park, or a public nature reserve? These spaces are often not as inaccessible or wrought with MacGyver-esque rope bridge canyons, Class 5 rapids and granola-laden treehuggers as you might think. In fact, many of them offer some pretty superb opportunities for outdoor recreation, learning, and relaxation. Just make sure you choose the right area for your given objective. After all, there’s nothing worse than planning a great hike or paddle only to find out that the destination you’ve chosen is closed to the public.
So what is your objective? Maybe you’re looking for an exhilarating day hike, some straightforward wildlife-viewing opportunities, a couple of days of car camping, or a week of canoe-camping in the wilderness. Not all protected areas are the same and therefore you might want to do a bit of up-front research.
There are essentially four big questions to answer during your research.
1. What do you want to do?
When it comes to protected areas, you’ve got to remember that these spaces are typically set aside for public enjoyment of natural spaces and conservation of spectacular natural heritage. And on that premise, they’re managed with specific rules (backed by law) about what can and cannot take place within their boundaries. Some sites may be completely off-limits to any visitors; others may allow only self-propelled recreation and low-impact camping; and still others may allow fishing and hunting, motorized recreation, RV camping, or in some cases, harvesting of lumber and other natural resources (just so you know).
So decide what kind of experience it is that you’re seeking and use that to help you narrow down sites that pop up as you search for potential destinations online or elsewhere. And don’t worry. I provide a list below of some more detailed questions you’ll want to consider.
2. How do you want to do it? Back-country, RV, or in-between?
Ask yourself how you’d like to spend your time at your protected area of choice. Do you want to get away from it all and experience Mother Nature in her raw beauty? Or do you want to enjoy a day splashing around in the shallows while jet skis and motorboats whiz by on the lake? Do you want to pitch your 2.5-pound two-person tent in a pristine stand of old-growth after three days of paddling the hinterlands, or park the 40-foot motorhome at a hook-up near the beach and the amphitheatre for two weeks? Maybe you want to experience a little from Column A, and a little from Column B? Whatever the case, there’s a pretty clear distinction between the kinds of protected areas that specialize in true wilderness experiences and those that have boat launches, RV pull-thrus and hot dog stands on the beach. Then again, some areas like national parks may offer both types of activities in moderation in differently managed zones.
Just make sure you know what to expect—not just in terms of how you experience your destination, but also how your fellow protected areas visitors will be enjoying the area alongside you. These days you can find information on many protected areas online, including on travel review sites.
3. When do you want to do it?
Do you secretly want to walk out into the middle of a frozen lake in the wilderness and make snow-angels in perfect snow? Maybe you fancy the thrill of cannon-balling into a deep, dark water lake from a ledge? Or—dare I suggest it—you’re into midnight skinny-dipping during the harvest moon? In any case thinking about when you want to experience a protected area will help determine where and which type of area you choose. Some sites are completely closed to visitors during the winter, while others may be unserviced and “visit at your own risk” during the off-season. You can find some superb snowshoeing opportunities this way.
Some areas may have shoulder seasons during the spring and fall that allow for certain types of use, like hiking or paddling, without all the people and extra services. But during the spring you can reliably replace the missing people with hordes of hungry black flies in southern Canada. The late spring and early to mid fall can be potentially tricky times to go deep into black bear or moose country, respectively, as the animals may be a little bit testy during the “rut” period. Just stay sharp on the trails.
Summertime in Canada is going to be the best time to visit most protected areas, but do keep an eye on the forest fire index where you’re headed, since that can change your plans of s’mores and Neil Young tunes strummed in the firelight.
4. Where do you want to do it?
Canada is a large country, and each province offers a range of possibilities, so consider what you’d like to see and experience when you arrive at your destination. For example, don’t plan a trip to New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park if you want to experience backcountry camping in the boreal forest or spectacular coastal fjords. And don’t plan a backcountry paddling adventure at Ontario’s Rondeau Provincial Park.
When answering the question of where to go, keep in mind that a good number of protected areas are planned (or should be) with the conservation of representative examples of particular natural landscapes and ecosystems in mind. In fact, this is the basis for the way Canada’s National Parks are planned from coast, to coast, to coast, as indicated in Parks Canada’s latest park system plan. The provincial and territorial governments use similar approaches for most if not all of their respective protected areas, including sites that are often strictly off-limits and 100 percent about conservation of sensitive and irreplaceable ecosystems, like nature reserves. So think about this when you ponder a destination. Have you seen an example of an arid desert ecosystem in Canada? No, then check out publicly accessible protected areas in British Columbia’s South Okanagan region.
Wherever you end up, make a point of trying to know the local wildlife: not just the charismatic critters, but the noxious plants, venomous insects and reptiles and potential wildlife hazards (like rutting Bull Moose). Encountering wildlife in a protected area is usually a very special experience. It’s almost as if the animals act ‘more wild’ in these spaces, perhaps because they are less influenced by human developments and habitat loss. Whatever the case, make sure you’re at least a bit prepared for what you might encounter on the trails or in the shallows.
Some important points to keep in mind:
- Know the restrictions. Are you travelling to a different province or country to visit a protected area? Avoid problems by checking into special local laws or rules that may apply at your destination, such as alcohol consumption in protected areas.
- Know the climate. From potential white-outs to flash floods, you should know the extent of what’s a possible natural occurrence in the area you’re visiting.
- Know the terrain. Don’t go into an arid or high-elevation landscape expecting to find plentiful surface water, for example, and don’t expect water flowing through the forest to be free of nasty parasites like giardia, aka, the protozoan famous for causing “Beaver Fever”.
At the end of the day, there are simply too many different kinds of protected areas across Canada to list each type, which activities you can do at each, where it’s found, and who else is going there. So once you’ve got a particular area in mind, find out who manages it—for example, which government department or local non-profit organization—and check with them online or by phone if you’re unsure of what is or isn’t permitted. You’ll want to ask about site bookings or permit requirements for things like camping or fishing, and don’t forget to ask if your furry friend Fido is allowed in the area, too. For the sake of the animals that rely on them, many protected areas have strict rules requiring dogs to be on-leash at all times, if they’re even permitted on-site. Here’s a list of things you might consider asking about to drill a bit deeper into the questions above:
- Is access to the site free, or do you have to purchase a permit? Do you have to pay for certain services on-site?
- Is there any infrastructure at the site, like accessible trails, boardwalks, trailheads and markers along paths, bathrooms (with or without showers), drinking water, secure waste disposal areas, or other basic services?
- Are there any interpretive signs and staff at the area, or are you completely on your own?
- Are there trails to complement different hiking abilities and objectives?
- Is the area for day-use only? Is there overnight camping? Is it front-country or walk-in camping, backcountry hike-in or canoe camping or a combination of all of these?
- Is it a strict no-take area or is fishing (or hunting) permitted?
- How large is the area and what proportion is set aside for hiking trails, canoeing, wilderness conservation or other non-human uses? (I call this the “connecting with nature vs. connecting with people” ratio.)
- Is alcohol permitted on campsites or in public use areas? (And no, I don’t mean alcohol-fueled camp stoves.)
- Are there any pests you should prepare to avoid, such as skunks, deer ticks or seasonal blackflies and mosquitoes that can be mistaken for the provincial bird?
- And as many campers will recall from recent summers across Canada, is there a current ban on campfires or other open flames at the area?
So there you have it. I can’t forget to mention another type of protected area you can probably find right in your town or city: municipal parks. Canada’s cities are blessed with some pretty fantastic natural spaces so don’t forget to check them out too if you’re looking for an outdoor afternoon adventure.
Alexander MacDonald hails from Hall’s Harbour, NS, on the Bay of Fundy. He graduated from McGill with a BSc after spending a semester in the Republic of Panama. He has worked in the Environmental NGO sector for a number of groups ranging from local grassroots coalitions to national organizations. After moving with his wife to Ottawa to complete an MSc in Biology at the University of Ottawa, Alex joined the staff at Nature Canada, where he manages the organization’s national protected areas program, and currently leads the Lac Deschenes Naturehood initiative based in Ottawa-Gatineau. In his spare time, he also fronts the indie folk-rock band Umbrella Protest and enjoys teaching his young daughter about nature.