Encompassing the grassy plains and snow-topped glaciers of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Western Canada is as vast as it is wild. From the Pacific-lapped beaches of Vancouver Island to the town that cohabits with polar bears on Hudson Bay, here are the must-see attractions in the region.
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The Columbia Icefield, Alberta
Connecting Alberta’s most famous national parks – Jasper and Banff – the Columbia Icefield is the largest of its kind in the Rocky Mountains. The glacier has six principal toes; the most visited, Athabasca, looms above the Icefields Parkway, a 230km (140mi) long highway that runs parallel to the icy contours of the Continental Divide. Guided tours can take visitors right up onto the glacier, but be aware that the highway can get busy in summertime.
Haida Gwaii, BC
Sparsely populated, rugged and windswept, the North Pacific archipelago of Haida Gwaii forms the heartland of the Haida Nation, who’ve lived here for 13,000 years. Old-growth forests of cedar and spruce and an abundant population of black bear, bald eagles and orcas have earned Haida Gwaii the moniker the Galapagos of the North. Naikoon Provincial Park on the main island’s northeastern side combines surf-pounded dunes, sphagnum bogs and stunted pine. The remote Gwaii Haanas National Park, which makes up the bottom third of the archipelago, has more than 500 ancient Haida sites, including the village of SGang Gwaay, where rows of weathered totems stare eerily out to sea.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatchewan
For 6,000 years, Wanuskewin has been a meeting place for indigenous peoples from across the Northern Plains – where communities came together to hunt bison, gather food and escape the winter winds. With archeological sites dating back thousands of years, including tipi rings, stone cairns and pottery fragments, Wanuskewin is today an educational facility with walking trails, events and exhibitions, directed by a council of First Nation elders. Keep an eye out for the wandering herd of plains bison that was reintroduced to the park in 2019.
Moraine Lake, Alberta
Amid dense coniferous forest and mountainous peaks, some lakes in Banff National Park refract a startling blue – a side effect of glacial silt deposits. The most famous, enclosed within the Valley of the Ten Peaks, are the teal waters of Moraine Lake. If you can tear yourself away from the surreal sight, ascend the challenging 7mi (11km) out-and-back trail to Sentinel Pass through Larch Valley for unparalleled views, especially in the gold of fall. Access to Moraine is via a winding alpine road from nearby Lake Louise; get here early if you want to enjoy the scenery in solitude.
Where Manitoba meets Hudson Bay you’ll find polar bears – living alongside people. Churchill, or the Polar Bear Capital of the World, is where thousands of migrating bears wait in autumn for the water to freeze on Hudson Bay. Modified vehicles, owned by responsible operators, allow for safe viewing of these seasonal residents; local authorities secure the town by maintaining a so-called polar bear jail during fall for adolescent bears that persistently loiter too close to town.
This end-of-the-road town is bordered by rugged wilderness on one side and the turbulent Pacific on the other. The population surges in summer when the ocean is a beginner surfer’s dream – all sunshine and gentle rollers – but locals will attest that the best surf season is fall, when the water is warmest and frothy 10ft (3m) waves are drawn to the shore. These swells beckon a line-up of surf events, including Queen of the Peak, the women’s Canadian surf championship, held in Cox Bay.
Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan
Prince Albert encompasses Canada’s southern boreal forest, where densely packed pine unfurls into flowering parkland. Home to elk, moose, beavers, otters, black bears and timber wolves, the national park is a sprawling wilderness sanctuary, and counts a growing herd of more than 400 plains bison among its inhabitants. You can canoe, hike, cross-country ski or snowshoe your way through timeless landscapes; we’d recommend the 5.3mi (8.5km) Spruce River Highlands Trail – it’s one of the only places where you can climb above the treeline to admire the surrounding hilltops.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Manitoba
Rising above the rolling prairie, Winnipeg is a city booming with craft breweries and coffee roasteries. Between them is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, housed in a contemporary building wrapped in an enormous glass cloud. The museum sheds light on Canada’s dark history – including the internment of Canadian-Japanese during WWII and the residential schools forced upon indigenous children as recently as the 1990s – with the explicit intention of encouraging reflection and inspiring a brighter future.
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
Known for its striking badlands and abundance of fossils, Dinosaur Provincial Park protects a complex ecosystem in the Red Deer River valley. At dusk, a chorus of coyotes and nighthawks soundtrack the setting sun; you’ll find cottontail rabbits, mule deer and pronghorn here, too, alongside 165 bird species in spring and summer. But it’s the dinosaurs that steal the show: 58 species have been discovered here, and more than 500 local specimens are on display around the world – stop by the visitor center for a glimpse into prehistory and to join a dig.
Whistler Blackcomb, BC
Beyond the north shore of Vancouver, 75mi (121km) along the winding Sea-to-Sky Highway (BC-99) that passes Howe Sound, is the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. The two eponymous mountains are both around 7,300ft (2,200m) high – and 8,171 acres (3,307ha) of their enormous flanks are skiable, served by over 200 ski runs and 36 lifts. For the bold, open bowls and couloirs can be found atop their craggy crowns; further down are enough powder fields, wide groomers and terrain parks to suit any level of intrepid skier.
Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
Preserving an undisturbed, semi-arid landscape – flushed with blue grama and silver sagebrush – Grasslands National Park is one of the largest Dark Sky Preserves in the world. Here, recumbent pastures meet endless sky; if you intend to camp, prepare for an isolated and bare-bones experience. What Grasslands lacks in frills, it makes up for in wilderness encounters – keep an eye out for burrowing owls, swift foxes, black-footed ferrets and Canada’s only black-tailed prairie dog colonies. Highlights include Frenchman River Valley, the Seventy Mile Butte and the badlands of Rock Creek.
Okanagan Valley, BC
Accounting for more than 80 percent of BC’s wine production, the wineries of Okanagan Valley have been pressing grapes since the 1850s. Today, the region is perhaps best known for its sweet icewine – produced using grapes harvested over the winter, frozen on the vine at -8C (17F). Some 200 vineyards line the valley – the best way to experience this region is by taking a 105mi (170km) road trip from Osoyoos to Vernon in summertime, when local produce is plentiful and the weather warm.
The Inside Passage, BC
Starting in Puget Sound, beside Seattle, the Inside Passage is a 932mi (1,500km) long stretch of sheltered ocean that follows the BC coast all the way up to Alaska. The way is generally wide and deep, crisscrossed with straits, fjords and anchorages, and is popular with cruise ships (BC Ferries) and freighters alike, thanks to its calm, flat waters. Overflowing with marine life, from humpback whales and dolphins to salmon sharks and sea lions, and long-traversed by First Nations, the Inside Passage is an enduring way to experience the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.
This is an updated version of an article originally by Hayley Simpson.
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