Canada wilderness holidays

“You’re almost guaranteed to see bears by the roadside in Jasper or along the Icefields Parkway,” says Carmel Hendry, the North America product manager at our partner Explore Worldwide. “Drivers always have one eye open for them.” Canada’s wildlife is beyond spectacular. Depending on where you go you can expect to spot elk, caribou, moose, wolves, bald eagles, narwhals, killer whales, and of course, loads of bears.

The Canadian wilderness is vast. Although the country is nearly 10 million km², almost the entire population lives in urban areas within 200km of the US border, leaving much of the Rocky Mountains, the plains of the interior and the Arctic tundra to nature.

The country has 48 national parks and national park reserves (where the land claim remains unresolved but full park status is intended), with Parks Canada managing many of their protected areas in partnership with the Indigenous people who live in them.

Whether hiking the forests of Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, sea kayaking in Pacific Rim National Park, or driving the awe-inspiring Icefields Parkway, the Canadian wilderness envelopes you the moment you enter.

Given how accessible Canada’s wilderness is, overtourism has become a problem in some parts, especially the west.

Carmel points out how responsible holidays can be part of the solution: “We can’t really avoid busy places like Lake Louise on our trips; they’re unmissable. But we can use different, less crowded walking routes and relieve the strain on popular lookouts. Also, each of our groups travels in one small vehicle, which Parks Canada lets us take right up to the lake, whereas solo travellers must use a shuttle bus system introduced to control traffic. So not only does our way of travel help relieve overcrowding in these areas, it’s a better experience for traveller too."

Indigenous peoples & the Canadian wilderness

“The recent schools controversy is the latest indication of how there is a lot more that travel companies could do in educating people on problems faced by Indigenous people,” says Carmel Hendry. “Their cultures become more present while travelling from Calgary to Vancouver and so that gives our guides the chance to discuss the issues and spark conversation among the group.”

When it comes to the conservation of wilderness areas, there is an opportunity to make mutual respect more tangible. Canada’s Indigenous peoples, including the First Nations groups, the Inuit of the Arctic regions and the Métis, have sustainably stewarded the land for hundreds of generations, but for a long time Canadian attitudes to conservation essentially meant dispossessing them of the sites that were sacred to their ancestors.

Since the late 20th century, the Canadian government has acknowledged that its polices of enforced assimilation towards the Indigenous peoples, their removal from traditional tribal lands, and loss of rights were unjust, and started on a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’. This is a concept that has come under some criticism for its vagueness, but as the appalling abuses uncovered in the residential schools scandal demonstrate, truth, reconciliation and greater respect are long overdue.

There is also a view that reconciliation can go hand in hand with conservation. After all, there are some 700 unique Indigenous communities in Canada, many of them living in wilderness areas, and already monitoring and maintaining how ecosystems are performing.

Breanne Quesnel, co-founder of our partner Spirit of the West Adventures, explains how their holidays allow Indigenous voices and perspectives to be heard: “We try to hire Indigenous team members and encourage these team members to help be a bridge between cultures. We have also created some in-house resources to help our non-Indigenous team members provide guests with context about whose land we are travelling on, some of the history and present-day Indigenous use of these areas.”

Responsible wilderness holidays in Canada, while focused on wildlife and active experiences such as kayaking and hiking, don’t duck the presence of these communities. Instead, they seek out opportunities to raise awareness of Indigenous history and culture as they go, whether that’s discussing place names, totems and traditional rituals such as ‘pot latching’ feast days, or touring cultural centres like Lil’wat in Whistler with a guide of Indigenous heritage.

What do Canada wilderness holidays involve?

Given the size of the country and the astonishing breadth of its wilderness areas, it’s only natural that there are many ways to explore them. Both Jasper and Banff national parks are in the Canadian Rockies, and they are linked by the awe-inspiring Icefields Parkway from which you can see 12 of the 25 tallest peaks in the Rockies. Small group tours here see you hiking alpine meadows and coniferous forests, admiring tumbling waterfalls and humbling glaciers, and spotting bears as they fish for spawning salmon.

A small group tour can also take in Vancouver Island, part of Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia. You can cruise along fjord inlets, watching as black bears emerge from the rainforest to search for crabs, barnacles and clams along the shore. Boat excursions seek out whales and orcas, while other activities include canoeing or rafting.

Guided kayaking trips are a thrilling way to explore Vancouver Island and its surroundings such as the Johnstone Strait and Desolation Sound.

“The wildlife viewing possibilities on our tours are endless,” assures Breanne Quesnel. “Whales, dolphins, sea lions, bears, eagles, birdlife, rich intertidal life – and the list goes on. We try to help people enjoy everything from the orcas and humpback whales through to the tiniest barnacles as they are all connected and have an incredible story to tell. We strive to not interfere with the animals’ natural behaviour, though, as we see it is a privilege to be able to witness these creatures in their natural habitat.”

Responsible travel companies such as Explore Worldwide and Spirit of the West Adventures ensure that their guides keep a safe and respectful distance from the wildlife and adhere to Parks Canada’s Leave No Trace principles. Inappropriate behaviour towards wild animals can put people in danger – and the animals themselves too. Bears sometimes have to be shot if they begin approaching campsites where they smell food, and any cubs they have may also have to be euthanised.

Depending on the nature of your holiday, your accommodation might range from solar-powered log cabins on winter wellness retreats in Algonquin National Park to tents that you erect yourselves on kayaking tours, or a succession of locally owned hotels on a small group tour through Western Canada.

Our top Wilderness Holiday

Canada wilderness holiday, Rockies & Vancouver Island

Canada wilderness holiday, Rockies & Vancouver Island

Experience the Canadian wilderness and wildlife

From £4299 15 days ex flights
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When to go on a Canada wilderness holiday

The best time to go on a Canada wilderness holiday is during the warm summer months (May to September), whether you’re kayaking in British Columbia or embarking on an Arctic cruise through the Northwest Passage, when you want the waterways clear of ice.

The same goes for joining a small group tour taking in highlights of Western Canada’s national parks. Although the summer is peak season, responsible travel companies will proactively look at how they can relieve the strain on over-popular areas.

The blight of overtourism affects many areas in Canada’s best-loved national parks, especially during summer, leading to crowds, damage to paths, and strain on infrastructure such as car parking. Carmel Hendry highlights how Explore Worldwide is able to circumvent this by getting off the beaten track into Kananaskis Country, a massive wilderness area just outside Banff National Park: “Kananaskis gets a fraction of the visitors that the main park gets, but you still get the mountains, the glacial lakes, the wildlife spotting opportunities. There are ways to diversify the itinerary and avoid the big crowds.”

The call of the wild is a strong one in Canada. In answering it, responsible holidays in the Canadian wilderness take into account the needs of the wilderness itself, and those of the people and wildlife that consider it home.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kalen Emsley] [Intro: wildvoid] [What do Canada wilderness holidays involve?: Bruno Soares] [When to go on a Canada wilderness holiday: Thomas Lipke]