Our Top 10 Drives in Canada
When we think of Canada, it conjures up images of rolling hills, trees as far as the eye can see, coastal shores and vast mountain ranges. It is a country that is many different things to many different people, but at its core Canada is a country that offers a landscape like no other. And for driving enthusiasts, it’s music to our ears.
Each of us has a favourite route that sticks out in our minds. Our roads range from multi-lane superhighways to single-track asphalt and everything in between. Whether short or long, it is impossible to unanimously decide on the 10 most picturesque roadways throughout our True North Strong and Free, but if nothing else think of this list as a starting point. Here is our list of our 10 Best Drives, most of which I’ve been lucky enough to experience, beginning in the West:
The Sea to Sky Highway (409 km)
The Sea to Sky Highway is among the most memorable and necessary drives if you are in Vancouver. Though technically stretching 409 kilometres from end to end – from the Canadian edge of the Washington state border to Whistler – the true essence of this drive begins at Horseshoe Bay. As you tackle the winding asphalt and gradual elevation changes, you are surrounded by snow-capped mountains and evergreens on the right, and the Pacific Ocean into the Squamish River on the left. The roads can be busy so don’t expect to let loose just any old time. But, every now and then, the driving gods provide a clean slate for the ultimate enjoyment. There are numerous stops on route, including restaurants and lookouts along the Squamish that will keep you from wanting to sit shotgun for too long. If you decide to make the trek all the way to Whistler, you’ll be amongst the best slopes in the world. Then you’ll have to turn around and do the drive all over again. Oh, the horror.
Highway 1: Trans-Canada Highway
Kamloops to Banff (494 KM)
Some may say this is an obvious choice, but if you haven’t driven it, this highway is called no. 1 for a reason. For one of the most memorable drives you’ll ever experience, start from Kamloops toward the mining town of Revelstoke. Make sure to fill up your tank whenever possible as gas stations in these regions can be few and far between. As you venture further in, little can prepare you for Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park. Here, you’ll be submersed in a sea of lush green and towering mountains along one and two-lane highways. The terrain is variable, the roads are engaging, and you exit alongside the Columbia River. From there, you criss-cross along Kicking Horse River and enter Yoho National Park for a 111-kilometre journey across the B.C./Alberta border through Lake Louise and into Banff – two of the country’s most prized possessions. You’ll even get to cross paths with some moose in town if you’re lucky.
Banff to Jasper (232 KM)
Whether you want to continue your trek onward from Kamloops or experience it on its own, the Icefields Parkway is a journey that puts the immensity of the Canadian Rockies on full display. Prepare to feel awestruck and completely insignificant all at once. The parkway flows fluidly between the mountain valleys and glaciers, where taking pictures is an absolute must and will almost always result in a great shot. What’s more, speed enforcement tends to be more lax, although safe driving is a must due to the remote location and numerous sightseers. The highway surfaces are top-quality, meaning a smooth, comfortable and predictable drive among the world’s giants. This trip can easily be stretched into a mini vacation due to its close proximity to the Calgary airport and numerous activities and accommodations along the route. It’s best traveled during the day as nighttime visibility is greatly reduced.
The Red Coat Trail (676 KM)
Canada’s equivalent to the barren desert, Saskatchewan might seem like the least likely of all the provinces to check off in your speed diary, but consider this – wide open roads, little traffic, visibility for days, and fewer doughnut shops. This isn’t to suggest anything except that it could be an awesomely (responsible) drive. Also known as the Red Coat Trail and Ghost Town Trail, it is a straight highway well suited for a windows-down-music-up-arm-waving-while-wearing-cool-sunglasses drive from one end of the province to the other. Stop off at the First Nation’s ceremonial caves, outlaw Sam Kelly’s hideout, or visit Grasslands National Park for camping, horseback riding, or stargazing under brilliant night skies in the wide-open prairies. The highway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway and is often the choice for drivers making long distance treks, similar to the historic journeys of the Mounties for which it is named.
Township of Muskoka Lakes
Muskoka (200+ KM)
Where to start? Muskoka is considered by many to be the heart of Ontario’s cottage country and is a world famous hotspot for tourists far and wide. Entering the region in Gravenhurst via Highway 11 introduces you to a wealth of history at the Muskoka Wharf, where you’ll pass the RMS Segwun steamship en route to an almost infinite number of smooth, single-lane highways lined with Canadian maples, birches and evergreens along the rocky shorelines looping Lake Muskoka, Joseph and Rosseau. From there, you can get lost along any one of Highways 169, 118, 141 and 7. The small town of Bala is the perfect place to cruise with the top down and grab a bite from the local bakery or relax at the falls, while Port Carling offers numerous waterside restaurants, locks and small shops. If you’re the golfing type, it’s not a bad idea to keep your set in the trunk either. This may be one of the most quintessentially picturesque cottage drives of all.
Grand Algoma Tour
Sault Ste. Marie (682 KM)
Rated as one of Ontario’s Top 10 Motorcycle Routes for 2013 by Canada’s Great Outdoors, we figure if it’s good enough for two wheels, it has to be at least as much fun with four. Set aside a couple days to take in the loop while driving along the Lake Superior shoreline filled with twists, turns and ample passing zones. Because this route is so frequently traveled by motorcyclists, this route features some of the coolest lodging and dining options that make the trip all the more worthwhile. For the second half of the trip, Highway 129 offers clear, single lane country roads that hark to the days of pure driving enjoyment and the occasional wildlife sighting. It’s a great chance to escape the ordinary with a driving buddy or two.
Gaspé Peninsula (1,090 KM)
Mountains, rugged sea cliffs and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is a trifecta good enough to land the Gaspé Peninsula on the National Geographic Traveler list of the 20 Best Trips of 2011. Nothing’s changed much since, and it is one of few locations that make you forget you’re still in Canada. Starting on the Bas-Saint Laurent region bordering New Brunswick, Route 132 takes you on a tour of coastal shipbuilding villages, historical lighthouses, one of the world’s largest natural bird sanctuaries, and the piece de resistance – the Gaspé Peninsula and Percé Rock natural monument. The spectacular sights and a road to match make this an adventure to remember, whether you complete the entire tour or not.
The Cabot Trail
Cape Breton Island (298 KM)
The Cabot Trail is arguably Canada’s most scenic roadway and a must for any driving enthusiast, looping a healthy 298 kilometres around the tip of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Named after famed explorer John Cabot who sailed across the Atlantic in 1497, the trail is renowned for its breathtaking beauty, with unobstructed ocean views, dense foliage, steep elevation changes and smooth paved asphalt for the duration of the drive. The world famous route offers stunning vistas throughout the year, but it is highly recommended during the autumn season when the colours fill a panoramic view atop the tall, rocky seawall. There are also a number of historical sites and sightseeing opportunities that make this an easy route to travel in its entirety.
The Irish Loop
St. John’s (312 KM)
If you plan to travel to (or live in) Canada’s easternmost gem, the Irish Loop is a memorable and encompassing drive that gives you the full experience of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Starting in St. John’s and heading south on Route 10, the loop rides along the Atlantic seaboard and alongside the province’s numerous coasts and inlets for some excellent whale watching opportunities and cultural cuisine. Be sure to check out the ongoing archaeological dig in Ferryland and the harbour at Aquaforte, an area which deeply resembles Norwegian fjords and shares a deep history between with British and French armies. When you hit the southern coast, venture west to Trepassey Harbour and the tiny coastal communities sprinkled across single-lane roads, then around St. Mary’s Bay and Peter’s River – a place filled with expansive terrain and a rich sheep farming history. Head north on Route 90 and weave through the hundreds of ponds and gulleys, and you’ll see evidence of thousands of years of glacial cover and resulting flatland vegetation. Highway 1 completes the route back in St. John’s.
Fundy Coastal Drive
St. Stephen to Fundy National Park (242 KM)
Nestled in between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy is one of Canada’s natural wonders and a tour destination that, if timed properly, allows you to experience the rise of the coastal tide. Starting at Île Sainte-Croix, split your drive between the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 111 for one of Canada’s most memorable driving experiences. The route crosses bridges and waterways on the way through Saint John to Fundy National Park. If you plan your route according to the tide schedule (available at bayoffundytourism.com), you can walk on the seabed next to the Hopewell Rock formation at low tide, then watch as more than 100 billion tonnes of water flows into the bay and the water level rises up to 17 metres. Along with this natural phenomenon, the coast is filled with excellent cycling routes and historical venues. You can also extend your drive to Moncton or Prince Edward Island via the 12.9-kilometre Confederation Bridge.
Some routes will take longer than others, and whether that means a day trip or a set of overnights, it’s all part of the adventure. After all, this country (and its roads), are meant to be explored!