To celebrate Canada's 150th birthday, the country is putting a spotlight on its natural beauty—all 46 national parks, 168 national historic sites, four national marine conservation areas, one national urban park and eight historic canals will be free to the public through the end of the 2017. Kids under 18 and new Canadian citizens will also be receive free admission on an ongoing basis starting in 2018.
This means there's never been a better time to brush up on "O Canada" and head outdoors. Rather than just daydream about the vivid flora, towering mountains and furry animal life you might encounter on your free 2017 adventures, take a moment to learn about some of Canada's most breathtaking parks:
Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada's oldest. Nestled in the Canadian Rockies, it was founded after three railway miners happened upon a cave containing a warm mineral spring on the sleeve of present-day Sulphur Mountain in 1883.
Following ownership disputes, it became a modest 26-square kilometer hot springs reserve in 1885. Now, the park sprawls along 6,641 square kilometers of land, showcasing snow-capped mountain peaks, glaciers and meadows. You can still check out the exact cave that is considered to be the birthplace of the National Park system, now called the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, or just take in its jaw-dropping views.
Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park spans 50 miles of trails along meadows, marshes, lakes, parkland and even quicksand. Located in Fort Saskatchewan, the park serves as a sanctuary for rare and endangered species like bison, elk and more than 250 kinds of birds.
The park is also a great place to see stars: Elk Island is one of Canada's seven dark sky preserves, which means that the park has taken measures to reduce artificial light. Less light pollution means that plant life won't mistake artificial brightness for longer days, which can disrupt with their development, and also means that animals have a better chance of avoiding detection by prey. For humans, the reduced light just offers an even better view of the night sky.
Forillon National Park
This national park could mark the beginning or the end—of the Canadian portion of the International Appalachian Trail, that is. After it was established in 1970, Forillon became Quebec's first national park, and for good reason. The park offers glimpses of visiting whales, seabird colonies and magnificent views off of ten different rock formations. Local flora such as purple mountain saxifrage, tufted saxifrage, and white dryad decorate the park.
Forillon also has a rich sociological history. Be sure to check out the Grande-Grave Heritage Site in the heart of the park, which documents the lives of people who lived in the area's fishing communities in the late 1800s.
Wapusk National Park
Wapusk National Park in Manitoba is one of the few places in the entire world that allows visitors to, ahem, bear witness to three-month-old cubs and their mothers exploring the world together for the first time each February. The park is one of the largest known denning areas for polar bears in the world.
Though most visitors come for the bears, there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen in Wapusk. Keep an eye out for caribou, moose and arctic foxes, as well. Bring a jacket: Wapusk is a subarctic environment and the soil is permanently frozen.
Quttinirpaaq National Park
Considered to be one of the most remote and rugged northernmost lands in North America, Quttinirpaaq gives another meaning to the word "getaway". Located just 800 kilometers south of the North Pole, Quttinirpaaq's arctic desert landscape feels like it belongs on an alien planet. Yet wildlife such as arctic poppies and saxifrage still manage to grow here.
Life has also managed to survive. Quttinirpaaq National Park has been inhabited by humans on and off since Paleo-Eskimo people (circa 2000 to 4000 B.C.) arrived after crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia. In 1881, the United States Army’s Lady Franklin Bay Expedition established a polar station for scientific research in Quttinirpaaq named Fort Conger. While the expedition failed, the Fort Conger shelter has been designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building.
Mount Revelstoke National Park
Mount Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia is perhaps most famous for its summer wildflower bloom. Like clockwork, a rich, vibrant show of paintbrush flowers, pink heather, glacier lilies and more burst to life at the base of the mountain by August. The park is also home to the world's only temperate inland rainforest, which is full of old-growth western red cedar and western hemlock.
Come winter, Mount Revelstoke becomes a skiing destination. Indeed, Mount Revelstoke's ski jump was one of the first in Canada and is internationally acknowledged as one of the world's finest natural jumps.
Jasper National Park
The largest park in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, encompasses a staggering 10,878 square kilometers of wilderness. Visitors come to the Unesco site to see the Athabasca Glacier, the most-trafficked glacier in North America, which is part of the Columbia Icefield Area, as well as to take advantage of the water source to fish rainbow trout, brook trout, lake trout, pike, whitefish and bull trout.
A historic place of note in Jasper is the Mount Edith Cavell, which has a trail made for flowers lovers that leads to a subalpine meadow. The mountain's heroic namesake belongs to British nurse Edith Cavell, who moved to Brussels, Belgium, before the First World War. When war broke out, Cavell indiscriminately helped soldiers on both sides of the fight. But the German-occupied Brussels officials considered what she was doing treason and executed her by a firing squad. Her memory and deeds are preserved in the distinctive profile and the steep cliffs of the towering mountain.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park is home to the largest beaver dam in the world, which clocks in at an estimated 850-meters in length, and is still growing. Perhaps fittingly, the Wood Buffalo National Park holds the honor of being Canada's largest park. The Unesco site was first established in 1922 to protect the remaining wood bison herds in northern Canada. Today, it serves as a nesting habitat for another endangered animal: whooping cranes.
One of the park's most unique features is its salt planes. Visitors can hike around the saline creek to see vast plains of salt sprinkled with sinkholes and unusually shaped rocks. Wood Buffalo National Park also offers stunning, clear views of the aurora borealis. January and February are the best months for viewing due to the long nights, though for those who enjoy being able to feel their feet while star gazing, the Dark Sky Festival comes around every August.