Last year, we planned to go to as many Canadian National Parks as possible on a summer road trip — and failed miserably. Strict COVID testing requirements combined with an overwhelmed healthcare system at the Montana-Alberta border stopped us dead in our tracks, diverting most of our adventures into Idaho and Colorado instead.
While that trip was fun on its own, we really hate giving up on ideas. So naturally, we tried again this year and managed to hit 13 National Parks in western Canada on a 65-day journey spanning May to July, 2022.
It was a wild ride, from mountains and muddy trails, to beavers and bugs (sooo many bugs). But we came away with some good memories and a little more insight into our neighbors to the north.
Oh, and if you’re just wondering how anyone could possibly afford to take a 65-day vacation, feel free to skip to the financial details. They might surprise you!
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Stats from This Summer’s Western Canada Trip
Beginning in our home state of Florida always starts our road trips out west on “hard” mode, but we generally don’t mind long drives. On this trip, we traveled over 12,000 miles (19,000 km), or an average of 185 miles per day. To us, this is a pretty enjoyable pace.
Along the way, we touched 22 US states (including Alaska!), 4 Canadian provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia), and 2 territories of Canada (Yukon and Northwest Territories).
We’ve passed through all of these places (with the exception of NT) on previous trips, but in the past, our passage through Canada has always just been a means to get to Alaska. This time around, we set out to explore the country: 41 of our 65 days were spent inside of Canada.
One thing we noticed is that Canada’s landscape seems to follow pretty much the same geographic pattern as the rest of North America: The middle (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and eastern Northwest Territories) is mostly flat plains, while the western region (British Columbia, Yukon, and western Alberta) is dominated by the Rocky Mountains — and honestly a lot more interesting to look at.
Canada turned out to be a really easy place for us to camp in our vehicle, probably in part due to its low population density. In the US, we have to carefully choose appropriate places to park our van, but in Canada, there seems to be a lot less fuss about it, which is really nice. We spent a total of 54 nights sleeping in our van on this trip, along with 9 nights in hotels and 2 nights with friends along the way.
13 Canadian National Parks, Ranked Best to Worst
When we visited the US National Parks back in 2019, we did all of them in one epic, 7-month odyssey, and then we ranked them from best to worst. On this year’s trip, we took things a little easier on ourselves and only ventured into 13 of Canada’s 48 National Parks — but we still found it fun to compare them (guess we just have a thing for lists). Here’s what we came up with:
1. Jasper (Alberta) — This park was full of incredible experiences, from walking on a glacier at the Columbia Icefield to canoeing with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in Pyramid Lake. It somehow felt reasonably uncrowded even with heavy visitor traffic in the middle of its peak summer season, perhaps because of its huge size.
2. Kluane (Yukon) — Bordering Alaska in one of Canada’s least populated regions, Kluane National Park has a unique sense of wilderness. Everything seems bigger here, from the sky to the lakes, and especially the mountains. It’s an easy place to get lost and feel alone.
3. Waterton Lakes (Alberta) — This park shares a border with Montana’s Glacier National Park, and it shows. You’ll walk along vast lakes filled with colorful pebbles while surrounded by mountains on all sides. Waterton is a small, busy park with a touristy town center (it even has a movie theater), but it still manages to maintain a quaint, “small town” vibe.
4. Banff (Alberta) — Canada’s oldest and most famous National Park has truly been spoiled by its own popularity. This place is positively breathtaking in every way, except that it’s nearly impossible to find a moment of serenity within its borders. Banff reminds us a lot of Yosemite National Park, which suffers from the same problem.
5. Kootenay (Alberta) — British Columbia’s Highway 93 traces the entire route of Kootenay National Park, from Radium Hot Springs northward to Banff. It’s a straightforward scenic drive with dozens of great hiking trails and viewpoints along the way. Be sure to stop at Marble Canyon Trail, which is a boardwalk that passes over rushing water. We walked it around 10 pm (still daytime in the summer!), and we were the only ones out there.
6. Glacier (British Columbia) — Make sure you check out this park late in the summer. When we visited in June, it was still completely frozen, and almost all of the trails were closed. Because of that, it’s difficult for us to really judge this place fairly, but the drives were beautiful.
7. Yoho (British Columbia) — Lovely, quiet lakes, forests, and mountains. Be sure to hike the Emerald Lake Loop, but bring some shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy. It’s worth it.
8. Grasslands (Saskatchewan) — We expected this park to be boring based on its name alone, but it was actually really cool. Grasslands is separated into two “blocks,” and we preferred the east, which felt a bit more remote and had unbelievable skies at night (you should definitely camp!). Take the Badlands Parkway around dusk for awesome wildlife encounters and landscape vistas.
9. Pacific Rim (British Columbia) — This park is really just a gigantic stretch of sandy beach on the southwest side of Vancouver Island. If you like beaches, then you’ll like Pacific Rim.
10. Mount Revelstoke (British Columbia) — Of the conglomerate of National Parks in the Canadian Rockies between Alberta and British Columbia, Mount Revelstoke was the least exciting to us personally. It’s pretty, but if you’re trying to do as much as possible in that general area and are short on time, this is the one to skip.
11. Elk Island (Alberta) — A tiny park on the outskirts of Edmonton, Elk Island is full of wildlife such as bison and beavers. It’s a little strange that it achieved “National Park” status, but it’s still a nice place to have a picnic and spend a day walking or biking.
12. Riding Mountain (Manitoba) — With lots of cabins, playgrounds, and activities centered around Clear Lake, Riding Mountain National Park would be a great place for a family vacation with kids.
13. Wood Buffalo (Northwest Territories) — We thought this park was going to be one of our top picks, because of its size (the largest in Canada and second largest park in the world) and its location (deep in no man’s land…our favorite). But as we made the arduous journey into one of the most isolated places on Canada’s road system, we learned that it was infested with bugs in a way we’ve never experienced anywhere else before. Unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes and gigantic, biting flies known as “bulldogs” made this park experience unenjoyable in every way. If you visit in the summer, you need to bring a full-body bug suit, complete with face netting (yes, seriously).
How Much This Western Canada Road Trip Cost
But long before that, we still managed to take six months off from our full-time jobs whenever we felt like it. And now, even with plenty of money in our investment portfolio to fund our trips, the truth is that we still don’t have to spend any of it to travel!
If you want to learn more about how all of that works, check out our guide to taking months off work and traveling cheaply. In this blog post, we’ll just focus on the costs of our Canada road trip.
Our van is pretty economical when it comes to fuel consumption, but gas was still a massive expense on this trip. Aside from the fact that we drove over 12,000 miles, gas was really expensive in Canada (more than in the US, even after the currency conversion).
The biggest expense of a typical vacation is lodging, but we kept that cost extremely low by sleeping in our camper van most nights. We have a super simple setup that doesn’t require overnight hookups, so we don’t even have to pay for campsites!
With that said, we also found that Canada is slightly less suited for our specific style of van life than most of the US. Because our van setup is so basic, we rely on public amenities that are sometimes harder to come by in sparsely populated areas. Combined with a heat wave on the way home that made overnight temperatures untenable, this caused us to spend a few more nights in hotels than we typically aim to. Oh well. At least we got some reward points on our favorite booking site. 😛
While the van saves us a ton of money on lodging, it comes with its own costs. Depreciation* and maintenance (including oil changes, an emergency tire patch, and a replacement battery connector) make up the figure shown in the chart.
While we do bust out our portable propane stove once in a while, we also have a tendency to be a little lazy about cooking on the road, so dining out cost us more than groceries on this trip. We used some clever menu hacks at cheap chain restaurants to keep that figure as low as possible, but it probably didn’t help that we also visited a vegan donut shop in Edmonton a few too many times.
The “Other” category included our Canadian National Park passes, canoe rentals, some ferry rides in the Alaskan panhandle (highly recommend!) and Vancouver areas, a couple of Magic: The Gathering tournaments, a handful of showers, our Planet Fitness memberships, and a couple of bug hats (which were, unfortunately, crucially important).
Altogether, this trip was actually kinda expensive compared to our typical camper van excursions, but still ridiculously cheap compared to a “normal,” middle-class American vacation — clocking in at just $64 USD per day, per person. To put that in context, our entire trip cost about as much as two people might normally spend on a hotel each night.
Travel doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think!
Interested in how long-term travel fits into a larger financial plan? Taking a big break from full-time work to go on an adventure like this is Step 4 of our Financial Roadmap — check it out!
* To calculate our vehicle depreciation, we took the Kelley Blue Book “private party” value of our van before the trip, and subtracted its value after the trip (with over 12,000 more miles on it).