Whether your kids love dinosaurs or butterflies, Viking tales or whale tails, stargazing or campfire sing-a-longs, there’s a Parks Canada destination guaranteed to have them yelling “best day ever!”
1. Point Pelee National Park
Grab the binoculars, pack a picnic and make your way to Point Pelee National Park. It’s Canada’s smallest national park, but it’s also where the wild things are, with 390 (and counting) bird species spotted here.
Located on Canada’s most southern tip, this Ontario oasis is one of the warmest and sunniest places in the country. With its vines and Virginia-creeper-draped sycamores on lush forest trails edging onto marshes, it has a Jungle Book vibe that mini explorers will love.
Bring the family to the Festival of Birds during spring migration to take part in the birders’ breakfast, or paddle with guides, who’ll point out all the winged wildlife as well as frogs, crickets and eels. In mid-summer, you can take a “Butterflies of the Night” (aka moth-spotting) tour, with stargazing thrown in for good measure. And in September catch the monarch butterflies on their mass exodus to Mexico.
2. Rideau Canal National Historic Site
Have a sleepover at a restored 19th-century lockmaster’s stone house at the Rideau Canal National Historic Site. Or rough it—in the loosest sense of the word—in an oTENTik (tent/cabin hybrid with bunkbeds). You’ll all sleep soundly from action-packed days navigating 202 km of lakes, rivers and canals between Ottawa and Kingston.
Junior history geeks can use the Rideau Timescapes app to compare then-and-now photos along the canal. And you can bond with your small fry fishing for Northern pike, lake trout and—if you’re lucky—the mighty Muskellunge which can reach over 60 lb. Or paddle the waters, looking out for ospreys, herons and loons. The best paddling months are May-June and September-October, when there are fewer motorboats. In winter, the Ottawa section of this canal (a UNESCO World Heritage site) transforms into the world’s largest rink: the Rideau Canal Skateway. Skate along 7.8 km of trails through the frozen heart of the nation’s capital.
3. Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve
Let your kids be lighthouse keepers for a night this summer at Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve in Quebec. The lighthouse station is on Île aux Perroquets –one of thousands of islands and islets in the area—so the adventure begins with a boat ride to your temporary digs. Look out for whales, seals, dolphins, puffins, seabirds as you cross the Gulf of St Lawrence.
At the lighthouse-station inn, the cozy rooms have hand-stitched quilts and a fully equipped kitchen where you can prepare lunch and dinner (a hearty breakfast is provided). In the evenings, Mom and Dad can sample Quebec wines from the wine cellar. There’s also an exhibit about the lighthouse and its keepers in the foghorn building, where your kids can bombard the head keeper’s assistant with questions about living and working in this remote spot.
Within the national park reserve’s boundaries are scattered giant sculptural “flowerpot” monoliths, natural stone archways, cliffs, grottoes, fossils and reefs too. Nearby Île Quarry is worth visiting on a boat tour to discover these rocky wonders.
4. Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park
One of the world’s top spots for whale-watching, Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park is the place for your little ones to get to know the largest mammals on Earth.
Each summer, at this watery wonderland in Saguenay, Que., your kids can visit the Marine Environment Discovery Centre and ask questions in real time, to divers who are underwater, exploring the habitat of sea cucumbers, starfish and anemones. Teens (14+) can pull on a wetsuit and try Nordic snorkelling for themselves.
There are whale observation points in the park at Cap de Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre, where whales and seals venture close to the shore. Bring a picnic, kick back and enjoy the show. Or take a wildlife cruise to observe the marine creatures and birdlife that come from thousands of miles around to feed in these fishy parts. Interpreters also take family groups out at low tide to discover the wildlife lurking in the rock pools. Kids can touch a starfish or hold a crab if they dare.
5. Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site
Kids can make like 1850s trappers and traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, in St Andrews, Man., just north of Winnipeg.
Historic Trades Workshops run inside the stone buildings throughout July and August. Junior bakers can learn to bake their own bannocks in the hearth and churn butter that melts deliciously into their warm loaves. For a unique take-home souvenir, they can fashion a candle from tallow (the fat rendered from beef or mutton). And industrious sweet-toothed types can whip up some old-fashioned hot chocolate—as savoured by 19th-century soldiers, governors and traders.
When they’ve finished their handiwork, kids can explore the site at leisure to meet costumed interpreters from a blacksmith to Ojibway First Nations folks to Mounties. They’ll be invited to help with tasks like packing fur bales and building a tipi. And at the Guest Cottage, even tots can join in a play tea party with an old-fashioned miniature tea set. Pinkies up!
6. Batoche National Historic Site
At Batoche National Historic Site, Sask., your kids can have a full immersion experience in the world of a 19th-century Métis settler, living on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.
Prepare to be baffled by your chore-dodging kiddos’ sudden enthusiasm for weeding the garden and hand-scrubbing laundry, under the watchful eye of guides in character. (No, you can’t take the guides home). Just like their new mentors, your children will get dressed up in period costumes, so you can pull them up by the britches—literally—if need be.
An annual highlight at Batoche National Historic Site is the Louis Riel Relay and Kidfest! It’s taking place on July 6 this year (2019). Bring your family along to gorge on Saskatoon-berry pie, toss mini sandbanks through the holes in a wooden bison target, and watch the canoe-foot-and-horeseback relay race.
7. Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site
At Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site, Sask., kids can make hay while the sun shines—and gather freshly laid eggs, groom ponies, feed pigs and hand-milk cows. On this traditional 19th-century working farm, there are opportunities to grind heritage grains, make dough with your own flour then bake your bread in a clay oven. Families can join farm hands at work and watch horses draw their harvesting equipment through the fields. And there’s handmade ice cream as a reward for those willing to do a little churning.
Under-sixes can join the Little Red Hen Club—a two-day day camp (July through August) where participants get into period pinafores or overalls, and straw hats to help out on the farm. They’ll learn to make rope and play pre-tablet-era games involving wooden hoops and spoons.
8. Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic
Your family can have a historical sleepover in an 18th-century fortified town, at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site in Nova Scotia. After hours, it’s just you and a security guard or two, as you settle in for the night in tents like those French soldiers used three centuries ago when this trade and military hub was in its heyday. Period lanterns, a fire pit, modern camping mats and propane stoves are provided too. Prefer the great indoors? Book a night in a period house on the site, with a straw mattress on a real bed for extra comfort.
Daytime visitors have plenty of fun options, too. From July 1 through September 4, kids aged 5-10 can sign up for an hour-long Rookie Tour. They’ll tend sheep and goats, learn from a fisherman how to gut a (fake) cod, and fall into line for marching drills. Kids who’ve outgrown time-outs (aged 13+) can sign up to atone for their misdeeds as Prisoner of the Day. They’ll be fed bread and water then escorted to the iron collar by soldiers. The shame!
9 and 10. Cape Breton Highlands National Park & Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site
These two Parks Canada destinations in Nova Scotia are so close (and so awesome) that we suggest making one supertrip to visit both:
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is the place to go to experience one of Parks Canada’s newest forms of accommodation, the Cocoon Tree Bed. For just $70 a night, up to four people can sleep in a gently swaying tree house of sorts, the sound of the ocean waves lapping nearby. Their spherical, canvas-covered pod will be suspended six metres above the ground, from sturdy trees, at the Igonish Beach site.
And the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site is a magical place that captures the telephone inventor’s ingenuity, playful spirit and love of family. There’s a whole kids’ discovery area in the museum, where you and your children can try activities just like those the doting grandpa did with his own grandkids, such as designing and flying a kite or conducting an experiment to see if water can flow upwards.
11. Prince Edward Island National Park
Prince Edward Island National Park is all about the beach life, and there’s surprising variety in the seven supervised beaches you’ll find here in one of the country’s smallest national parks.
Kids can learn to build sand castles like a pro, with a sand sculptor, either at Cavendish, where the sands are tropical-island white, or at Brackley Beach, where the red sands will make you feel like you’ve landed on Mars. At both locations, families can also enter the Discovery Dome – a tent where kids can touch a lobster, cradle a clam or pick up a jellyfish from the touch tank. If accessibility is a consideration: note that three beaches— Stanhope, Cavendish and Brackley—offer special beach wheelchairs so the whole family can wander the beach and play in the sand at leisure.
If your kids have been getting to know Anne (with an E) in the new CBC adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, they’ll be thrilled to visit the Green Gables Heritage Place and discover for themselves landmarks like the Haunted Wood Trail, the Balsam Hollow Trail and Lover’s Lane. They can travel like olde-timey islanders in a horse and buggy; try traditional games, such as sack races; or settle down on the lawn for sing-alongs or storytime.
12. Klondike National Historic Sites
Take inspiration for your family vacation from 19th-century gold panners and make your way to Dawson City—the meeting point between the Klondike and Yukon rivers, in the Yukon. There at Klondike National Historic Sites your kids can learn firsthand from interpreters in character about the Gold Rush and the newcomers to Canada’s North who transformed this place from tent town to thriving outpost.
Little kids can sign up for the Xplorers’ program and complete activities to learn all about the goldfields and this small city of larger-then-life characters and colourful frontier buildings. And with accompanied older kids (aged 12+), you can play a murder mystery game at the Commissioner’s Residence. You’ll be locked in an Escape Room, where you’ll solve riddles and clues to win your freedom back. The whole family can walk the gangplank to explore the impressive steamship S.S. Keno.
Tip: Visit between late August and April to catch nature’s light show, Aurora Borealis. Your children will never forget the spectacle of the green- and purple-streaked shimmering night sky.
13. Gwaii Hanaas and Haida Heritage Site
The mood is magical at Gwaii Hanaas and Haida Heritage Site, as you make your way across the springy moss floor beneath the towering 95-m-tall cedars of the rainforest. Whales, eagles, porpoises, sea stars and sea lions are among the creatures that live in BC’s Gwaii Haanas islands—discover them on a kayaking trip or beach hike.
Your kids can fully immerse themselves in the history and culture of the Haida people, whose ancestors lived here more than 12,000 years. There are ancient totem poles, a contemporary 42-foot-tall carved legacy pole, and abandoned longhouses to discover.
On guided interpretation walks, your little ones will see the plants that the Haida traditionally used to make everything from sun block to diapers. Or they can gather colourful strands of seaweed and later press samples, in a crafting workshop, to take home as a souvenir. Tuckered out at the end of the day? Take the plunge, as a family, in the hot springs of Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island).
14. Fort Langley National Historic Site
Take your family, Fort Langley National Historic Site—48km from downtown Vancouver— to discover what life was like for the Hudson Bay fur traders, First Nations peoples, boat builders, farmers and Californian gold prospectors who all lived and went about their business on the edge of the Fraser River in the 1800s.
You can watch sparks fly at a blacksmithing demo and marvel at the speed and skill of the cooper as he builds a wooden barrel. The Parka Photo Missions app will keep you and your pre-schooler busy, scouring the site for objects in a photo scavenger hunt. Older kids will love panning for gold, and nobody will be able to resist hanging out with the goats, chick and bunnies on the heritage farm.
From the time that the Fort Langley Hudson’s Bay trading post was established in 1827, Kwantlen First Nation has been supplying food such as salted salmon, cranberries and potatoes to the people living and working here. This tradition continues at Lelem’ at the Fort café, a place to eat, filled with traditional arts and crafts, where you can stop in with the family for a tasty lunch of salmon-topped herbed bannock or elk stew.
15. Bar U Ranch National Historic Site
Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (Alta) is the only National Historic site in Canada to commemorate ranching. Here your kids can see firsthand some of the skills essential to pioneer life at historic buildings where everything from branding to saddlemaking to tacking up a ranch horse is demonstrated.
New for 2017, visitors can try their hand lassoing a replica steer and have their photo taken atop the Percheron horse— a gentle giant. At round-up camp, there’s cowboy coffee to sip around the campfire while the ranchhands tell stories and sing. And those who’re game for a bouncy ride can explore the whole site in a horse-drawn wagon.
If all that fresh Prairies air has your kids whining that they could eat a horse, they can try their hand at baking bannock, right on the fire, at the cookhouse. And Bar U-Café also serves up simple (and historically authentic) ranch fare that kids will love, such as chili, burgers and soup. The site is open May through September.
16. Jasper National Park
If you want to inspire in your children a sense of wonder for the Great Canadian Outdoors, Jasper National Park, on the Alberta side of the Rockies, is a good place to start. In summer they can take in the jagged mountains and turquoise lakes on hikes, rafting trips or horseback rides. Winter is for snowshoeing, pond skating and fat biking. The area is teeming with wildlife, so get the kids to look out for bighorn sheep, elk, beavers, moose, and porcupines.
Jasper is rich in First Nations heritage, and kids will crane their necks in awe as they take in all 27m of the Two Brothers Totem Pole, which was carved from a 600-year-old tree and inspired by the journey two brothers made from BC’s Haida Gwaii to the Rocky Mountains.
The National Park has pull for mini stargazers too. It’s a Dark Sky Preserve year-round, so there’s no pollution from artificial light to spoil your view of the starry, starry night. In October, the Dark Sky Festival takes place. Past guests include Bill Nye the Science Guy, astronaut Chris Hadfield and TV environmentalist David Suzuki.
17. Fundy National Park
Visitors to Fundy National Park, NB, can be among the first to sleep in Park Canada’s new Goutte d’O accommodation. It’s a cabin and a tent of sorts, shaped like a water droplet with a sofa bed on the ground level and a hammock up above for sleeping.
The Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides, so your family can actually explore the cliff tops at high tide in canoes or kayaks, when 160 billion tons of water flow into the bay, bringing the sea level up to 16m. At low tide kids love to roam the drained ocean floor. A Parks Canada naturalist will help them identify crabs, star fish and barnacles on the mud flats.
The whole family can let loose like Maritimers at a kitchen party in the former home of Canada’s first woman sea captain, Molly Kool. There will be fiddling, singing and skits to keep everybody entertained.
And on August 18, 19 and 20, park visitors can relax—or dance—in nature at the Rising Tides Festival, to sets by French, English and First Nations performers. There’s a craft sale at the event and face-painting and dream-catcher-making workshops for kids.
18. Signal Hill National Historic Site
Active families will love Signal Hill National Historic Site, in St John’s, Nfld., for its hiking options, which range from a ten-minute jaunt to an hour-long trail climb. The trails take in dramatic cliffs, colourful houses, ramshackle fishing stages, the Queens Battery and Barracks, and the impressive harbour. Reward your exertions at the end with a sweet treat at the Newfoundland Chocolate Café at the Visitors’ Centre.
Summer evening visitors to the historic hill can join in a lamplit ghost tour (suitable for most school-aged children and adults). A local storyteller in historic lieutenant’s attire will share ghoulish tales of ghost ships, pirates and headless ghosts.
And if you can make it to the summit in the wee hours of the morning on July 1 this year, you’ll be among the first in the country to watch Canada Day dawn. Join in the Sunrise Salute and flag-raising and sing a rousing “Oh, Canada!” with the kids to kick off the nation’s 150th birthday celebrations.
19. L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
The first Europeans to arrive in North America were actually Vikings, who sailed in from Greenland over 1,000 years ago – five centuries before Columbus. At L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Nfld. (open May through October), your kids can learn all about the Norse way of life from costumed interpreters.
At the boggy UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking the choppy Atlantic, visit grass-roofed Viking homes and marvel at archaeological treasures and reproductions of weapons, kitchen tools and nails made from bog iron ore. Kids can try knitting traditional Viking stitches or spinning yarn. Mom and Dad can master the art of axe throwing.
In July and August, in the warmth of the skáli (kitchen), you can all end the day listening to Vinland Sagas and Norse myths, while glugging back spiced partridgeberry juice. Be sure to request the Icelandic folktale Gilitrutt, the Lazy Housewife. With its weaving troll witch character, it will remind you all of the Grimm’s Brothers’ Rumpelstiltskin and round of your trip with a fitting happily ever after.