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From hidden gems to family favourites, here's a guide to some of Canada's national parks

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This past week, Parks Canada opened its new reservation system, marking the beginning of camping, hiking and outdoor adventures season across the country.

The federal agency operates 37 national parks where outdoor enthusiasts — or regular visitors — can book a campsite, chalet or cabin during the 2023 season. It also offers a number of historical sites, hiking trails, and beaches for swimming or boat access.

The opening of reservations each year sees thousands log on early in the morning to try and snag a spot at one of the parks. Since the COVID-19 slowdown, Parks Canada has steadily seen an increase in visitors, setting a new record of 516,000 camping nights last year.

With the number of options across the country, it can be hard to know which parks to visit and what each offers.

CTVNews.ca spoke to two travel experts who have spent most of their lives exploring the great Canadian landscapes, as well as a Parks Canada spokesperson, asking for their opinions on which national parks Canadians should visit this summer.

HIDDEN GEMS

Canada's national parks are a great way to explore the country, Marlis Butcher told CTVNews.ca in an interview. She is the author of "Park Bagger: Adventures in the Canadian National Parks," which details her time staying in all of the national parks.

Butcher, who lives in Burlington, Ont., said she attended the newest park, Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve in N.W.T, in 2022 to keep her streak up.

"Getting to go into a national park, you get to understand something about the natural environment of our country," Butcher said. "Even somebody who's not into (camping) can still visit and get to know and appreciate what the Canadian natural environment is like."

Having the experience of staying at each destination, Butcher knows which parks offer different experiences and hidden spots.

One of the first on her list of recommendations is Mingan Archipelago National Park, a small island reserve off the coast of eastern Quebec, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

"There are really neat boat trips to take out there and visit these really strange-shaped land formations," she said. "They're all strangely eroded features… some of the islands, they look like elephants."

Marlis Butcher in Mingan Archipelago National Park, a small island reserve off the coast of eastern Quebec. (Contributed)

Parks Canada spokesperson Eric Magnan also recommended the park, telling CTVNews.ca in an email the area offers 1,000 islands and islets that cover about 100 kilometres squared.

"Here, whales flip their tails and seals swim around," he said.

Butcher said swimming is possible, but the cold waters usually keep people exploring by boat instead, or sticking to the shore where they can taste wild blueberries.

The nearby town of Havre-Saint Pierre offers an escape from the wilderness with restaurants, shops and historical sites, Butcher said.

She says the road trip there has to be done before Labour Day, when the park shuts down for the season.

Yoho National Park, on the B.C.-Alberta border in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, offers "tranquil wilderness," Magnan said.

The park offers "some of Canada’s highest waterfalls, the half billion-year-old fossil beds of the Burgess Shale, and even its very own shimmering Emerald Lake," Magnan said.

Close to Yoho, Butcher says, people should visit Mount Revelstoke National Park as a day trip.

"It's a very small national park, but it's a mountain and there's a really neat scenic parkway to drive right up to the top of the mountain, and where you are literally in the middle of wildflowers…it's a riot of colours up there," she said.

Butcher said there is an accessible trail that goes to a mountaintop lake where visitors will "go nuts taking photographs."

"That trail follows the route up an old ski jump from the 1920s," Butcher said. "You're actually following exactly where the ski jumpers used to carry their old wooden skis up to the jump platform."

At the top, there is a cut-out of a ski jumper that Butcher says people can lean against and look over the side of the mountain.

Northern Ontario's wilderness can offer "equal parts" cultural experience and natural wonderland, Magan said of Pukaskwa National Park. It is located on the shores of Lake Superior, a four-hour drive south of Thunder Bay, Ont.

"Day hikers will marvel at views from the White River Suspension Bridge," Magnan said. "The Bimose Kinoomagewnan Trail shares important teachings of the Anishinaabe, and wilderness hiking and paddling routes put the untouched natural beauty of Pukaskwa on full display."

FAMILY-FRIENDLY

Lola Augustine Brown, a travel freelance writer based in Truro, N.S., says she's figured out the best parks in Canada for young kids.

Growing up, Brown's three kids marvelled at the experiences they had at Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland.

"The thing that my kids always talked about when we went to the park: they had a whale skeleton that we had to put together," Brown told CTVNews.ca in an interview. "When you're travelling with children, sometimes it's these little things that really do excite them."

(Left) Perdida Brown, Ian, Rocco and Carmelo Marquette putting together a whale puzzle at Terra Nova National Park visitor centre in Newfoundland. (Contributed)

One of Brown's favourite parks is the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia.

"It's stunning because it still feels really retro and old school," she said. At the same time, she added, "there are tons of new exciting restaurants and tourism offerings that have only really come about in the last five years…Even if you went 10 years ago, it's a completely different experience now."

A memory she has from a trip to the park involves her family taking part in a cultural experience.

"We went to an experience where we sat on the beach, and we had a fire and there was an interpreter dressed in 100-year-old fishing garb," she said. "He was explaining the local history to us dressed up in period garb around the campfire and we were making s'mores…It was really sweet."

Brown is not a camper and prefers to not sleep on the ground. Instead, she says, many parks have oTENTiks, which are A-frame cabins with raised floors equipped with furniture and a grill.

Brown says this offers a convenient and comfortable way to get outdoors for her family.

Carmelo and Rocco Marquette in front of an oTENTik cabin at Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (Contributed)

In the Prairies, Magnan said, families should visit the Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site in Saskatchewan. The historic place, just over an hour's drive northeast of Regina, showcases the province's "golden" fields of wheat.

"Join costume-clad workers for a day of labour on the homestead, fresh-baked bread scenting the air, (or) jump on a hay wagon, as a team of horses, their brasses clanking, bounce you across the freshly cut grass," Magnan said.

The site also offers teachings on traditional plant uses and how Indigenous communities traded fur.

As passes to Canada's parks are bought up, Brown said there are a few things to keep in mind before booking. When travelling with kids, she said, it's important for parents to choose sites close to playgrounds and ensure there are lots of activities nearby.

"I think the best thing about camping when you're a parent is that you know, your kids go to that playground, they're going to make 20 instant friends…And they're having the best time having a bit of a wild childhood like they're supposed to," Brown said.

FOR THE OUTDOOR ADVENTURER

A wild time can be had in many of Canada's remote national parks, with the breathtaking landscape and unique experiences making the trek to get there worth it, Butcher said.

"I tend to be attracted to the Arctic quite a bit," she said "Somebody once told me, 'If you go to the Arctic once, you will be drawn back again.' And I found it's so true."

For an adventure in Nunavut, Butcher recommends Auyuittuq National Park, which is northeast of Iqualuit and only accessible by plane to Pangnirtung.

"You can hire one of the local guides, somebody with a fishing boat, to take you into the park for a day or longer if you really want," Butcher said. "You're going to see mountains and glaciers and you'll be immersed in the Inuit culture."

Auyuittuq National Park (Contributed by Marlis Butcher)

Even though there is no road access, Butcher said, getting to Auyuittuq was "relatively easy" with the daily flights from Iqaluit to the nearby town of Pangnirtung.

Butcher did a two-week backpacking trip in the park, where the group did not have a trail to follow. The park is so close to the magnetic north they could not rely on compasses.

"Bring your camera because there's fabulous mountain scenery to be photographed," she said. "But if you're not that mobile and not that physically fit you can still go there easily and enjoy the scenery and the local hospitality."

Magnan recommends Torngat Mountains National Park, located in northern Labrador. The fly-in-only park has a "skyline of jagged peaks" and fjords that plunge towards icebergs.

"The subarctic Torngat Mountains are an Inuit homeland, a treasury of the powerful stories, spirits and traditions of centuries of travellers," he said.

Polar Bear at Saglek Fjord. Torngat Mountains National Park. (Parks Canada / Heiko Wittenborn)

Butcher, who was drawn back to the north for another adventure, said Kluane National Park and Reserve in Yukon was memorable.

"One of the coolest things to do from there is take a plane or helicopter ride to fly over to see Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada," Butcher said.

The mountain, which is located in the middle of a glacier, offers panoramic ice-covered mountain views.

When she was there, Butcher camped with a tent, but she said she saw many RVs and trailers at the park.

Kluane also offers many hikes, which Butcher says are not all difficult.

Through her adventures to all of Canada's national parks, Butcher said she has found appreciation for the country she calls home.

Her favourite part is "getting to see our country (and) getting to know how vastly different and unique Canada is," she said. 

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