Some of the best road trips in Canada you need to take at least once in your lifetime

Where craggy coastal roads stretch for days without end, passing under mountains, by glaciers and through rainforests, Canada can certainly make for a decent road trip. Untamed natural scenery is a big reason to visit the country, as is the big fauna that can be found among it. Polar bears, grizzlies, whales and moose all call Canada home, spread out from Whistler to Nova Scotia, and making for the most exciting car journeys. Take a break from driving with snowboarding near Vancouver or wreck diving off Bruce Peninsula, moving from kayak to bicycle to Toronto streetcar to explore Canada’s more urban treasures. But four wheels is today’s focus, allowing us to hone in on the 10 best road trips around the country.  

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Moraine Lake | Photo: Edward Koorey

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Delving further along the Trans-Canada Highway will take you on evermore adventures through the Alberta Badlands, into Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal, all the way to Fundy National Park and Gros Morne National Park

1. Vancouver Island

Accessible and not short of natural beauty is the Vancouver Island road trip which sees travellers cross the Strait of Georgia from mainland British Columbia towards Vancouver Island’s rugged coastal landscapes. Travelling the lower half of the island by coastal highway is both easy and filled with spectacular sights, connected by a string of scenic towns, most notably Victoria and Tofino. Between these two popular stop-offs, Cowichan Valley brings apple orchards and vineyards into your sights, while Cathedral Grove brings ancient fir forests. Once in Tofino on the west coast, make sure to try the surf over at Chesterman Beach or bask in the sunset on Long Beach before calling it a day at any of the myriad friendly hotels along the way.

The climate here is mild most of the year-round, meaning the shoulder seasons from March to May and again from September to November are worth considering. Summer meanwhile is all the busier and more expensive, yet still not to be counted out. To get to Vancouver Island you can fly in from Vancouver Airport, or for a rather smaller carbon footprint, rent a car from Vancouver City and get it across via ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo. From Nanaimo you’ll want to take the Pacific Rim Highway (BC Highway 4), passing by streams, lakes, mountains and rainforest en route to your first destination. There are no bad choices but we recommend stopping at Old Country Market and laid-back Ucluelet, joining whale-watching, storm-watching, fishing and hiking excursions, before finishing at Tofino for those perfect sunsets. Check out how else to stay amused with our list of the best things to do in Victoria and Vancouver Island.

Sproat Lake | Photo: Nathan Ziemanski

Vancouver Island | Photo: Lesly Derksen

2. The Trans-Canada Highway

You might’ve heard of the Trans-Canada Railway but it’s the Trans-Canada Highway that wins over intrepid travellers wishing to take their trip into their own hands. Running 900 kilometres across the entire country, the Trans-Canada Highway is an epic one, and not for the faint of heart. For a more leisurely intro, we suggest taking the highway on a Vancouver to Calgary road trip, as this section of the road is considered most beautiful. Shorter itineraries can cover a Vancouver to Banff road trip, starting on the Pacific Coast before making the long-haul journey into the northeast. Thankfully you can break up the trip any number of ways, stretching your legs in style within Banff, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke and the Glacier National Park of Canada, resting a while on Lake Louise, a hamlet ringed by the Canadian Rockies. If travelling in winter, Lake Louise becomes a triple threat thanks to skiing, ice-skating and leisure park activities, though you can also take a detour towards lesser-known attractions, travelling Highway 93 into Radium Hot Springs or Highway 97 down to Kelowna and Okanagan Valley.

Delving further along the Trans-Canada Highway will take you on evermore adventures through the Alberta Badlands, into Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal, all the way to Fundy National Park and Gros Morne National Park in the rural eastern territories of Newfoundland and Labrador. When planning your trip consider that skiing season is best between January and March though roads won’t be at their best during this time, meaning shorter journeys are advised. Summer is warmer and considered much safer for self-drive trips, particularly if heading into the mountains and riding rural roads. Anyone stopping off at Banff in cooler weather can fill their schedule with our selection of things to do in Banff in winter.

Photo: Andre Furtado

Photo: Redd

3. The Sea to Sky Highway, British Columbia

British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Highway is a catchy name for the drive between Vancouver and Whistler, linking the Pacific Coast to the nation’s best ski resorts. On the drive you’ll be honoured with stunning views over the West Coast mountains and Howe Sound, all complemented by picnicking in West Vancouver’s Whytecliff Park, cooling off in Shannon Falls and learning of regional history at the Britannia Mine Museum. Those wishing to get a new perspective on their surroundings can try the Sea to Sky Gondola which rises over the region and its huge suspension bridge, coming back down to earth for dinner in the indigenous area of Squamish Valley before taking the last leg to Whistler. The entire journey requires less than two hours in total, though taking the whole day to appreciate the culture and all those grand vistas, particularly at Tantalus Range Lookout, is a must. The best time to do this trip is in dry season between July and September, with skiing and snowboarding reserved for January to March. If the rain is not a problem, come anytime, staying busy as always with our dedicated Vancouver travel guide.

The Sea to Sky Highway | Photo: Aditya Chinchure

4. Montreal to Gaspé Peninsula

A longer drive of around nine hours total is in store for those wanting to travel from Montreal to Gaspé Peninsula, a journey made worth it by winding roads that follow the St Lawrence River through Quebec City, a fun rest point handily placed halfway. Montreal’s appeal is easily found in its European architecture and chic population of cheek kissers who make it hard to skip town. That feeling won’t last long, however, as you’ll find Quebec’s cobblestone centre to be equally as charming, before driving on towards the mountainous forest landscapes of Gaspé. See our full Montreal travel guide for insights on where to stay and what to do while in the French capital.

Once on the peninsula, it’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure; go glimpse the pierced rock at Percé and hike through Parc de la Gaspésie, hopping across the Gulf of St Lawrence to Bonaventure Island on warm days. For a slightly wilder time, go east of Matane for increasingly rugged surrounds and stiffer winds, made cosy by way of colourful cottages that may host you if you’re lucky. Wherever you stay, windswept beaches come a dime a dozen, though tourist season doesn’t last forever. Travel from June to mid-September for the best access to attractions, restaurants and accommodations, or with a little adventurous spirit, you can brave the chilly gulf winds of the offseason, going remote with winding drives through the hinterlands, such as the Matapédia Valley drive, the International Appalachian Trail and Route 198.

Gaspé Peninsula | Photo: Etienne Delorieux

Photo: Redd

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Circling the island at its very edges, the Cabot Trail loop gives prime sea views at all angles, as well as links to top hiking such as the Skyline Trail which rewards climbers with panoramas over the Atlantic Ocean

5. The Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

Comprised of a 300-kilometre highway on Breton Island, The Cabot Trail is a far-east coast Canada road trip renowned as one of Nova Scotia’s most loved driving routes. Circling the island at its very edges, the Cabot Trail loop gives prime sea views at all angles, as well as links to top hiking such as the Skyline Trail which rewards climbers with panoramas over the Atlantic Ocean. As well as views for days, Breton Island holds much Celtic and Acadian culture, best experienced among the small coastal communities widely known for their kind hospitality and artisanship. The island is supposed to take just three to four hours to complete, but much preferable is to take your time, hitting all the spots on the Artisan Road Trip itinerary mapped out by Tourism Nova Scotia, or getting active with golfing, kayaking, scuba diving and fishing excursions. Along the way, the region’s impressive collection of rocky beaches and rusted lighthouses will no doubt call for your attention.

Photo: David Tran

6. Prince Edward Island Coastal Drives

Anyone moving east on a Quebec road trip might wish to consider extending their drive into Prince Edward Island, an eastern province cradled by New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Here you’ll discover rural Canada at its best, watching windswept grass bluffs from your windscreen as they draw in from the red-sand coast and turn to flat pasture. While on the coastal roads, join in the popular activity of village-hopping, resting on the best and least-packed beaches, most of which lie within Prince Edward Island National Park. Enjoy modern farm-to-table fare in each settlement, particularly the shellfish, lobster and oyster selections known as some of the nation’s best. Definitively though, the island is most remembered for its connections with Anne of Green Gables, the red-headed character of the 20th-century author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, who set her story here in amongst the farmhouses, fields and dunes which remain to this day.

Dividing the island up into parts, the North Cape with its Mi’kmaq culture, potato museum and arts focus is a top draw, while the Central Coastal Drive connects the distinct Red Sands Shore to the Green Gables Shore and the Points East Coastal Drive brings evermore parks, trails and lighthouses into reach. You can also swap the car out to truly embrace the region on its own level, opting to cycle part (or all!) of the 435-kilometre Confederation Trail which links some of the island’s best bits by way of stunning coastal paths. Come in the summer months to truly appreciate the hospitality and balmy weather at its peak.

Prince Edward Island | Photo: Carl Campbell

Skyline Trail, Pleasant Bay | Photo: Elyse Turton

7. The Viking Trail and Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

Affectionately nicknamed ‘the Rock’ for its barren landscapes and ocean backdrop, Newfoundland is a joy to travel through. Your vehicle will pick up a thin veil of salt as you move along the cliffs and muskeg swamps of the Viking Trail (Route 430), traversing between two of the province’s World Heritage Sites. The first is Gros Morne National Park complete with glacial lakes and geological formations, while the second is rather more cultural in appeal; the 1000-year-old Viking settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows, once headed by Norse explorer Leif Erikson whose house still lies on the peninsula’s tip. The view from the road meanwhile remains utterly breath-taking as it hugs the shoreline in parallel with curious whales and icebergs all the way north to Port au Choix burial grounds and the ferry port to Labrador.

Appreciating all this harsh geography can get weary, but thankfully colourful houses and warm locals brighten the cliffs and fishing villages at all points along the way. Stop at Bonne Bay, Norris Point, Rocky Harbour, Sally’s Cove and Cow Head for a taste of easternmost lifestyles, venturing out to Woody Point for the remotest breaks.

Photo: Redd

Photo: Yosvany Garcia

8. Georgian Bay Coastal Route

Some of the most scenic drives Ontario province has to offer lie along Georgian Bay, the road mapping the eastern edge of Lake Huron, north of Toronto. As one of the easiest road trips from Toronto – looping around the bay before returning to the city – the Georgian Bay Coastal Route is a popular one among Torontonians, bringing unique scenery and freshwater beaches on some 2,000 kilometres of shoreline. 30,000 islands dot Lake Huron in impressive style, of which Manitoulin Island and its Wasaga Beach earn their respective titles as the world’s largest freshwater island and beach. Sticking to the mainland is just as good however, thanks to the big attractions such as the Grotto at Bruce Peninsula, Parry Sound and Killarney Provincial Park.

Adding to your Ontario road trip ideas, consider an extension by travelling southwest from Toronto to Amherstburg, through the Chatham-Kent corridor towards Lake Erie, which lies prettily on the US border. As well as views over Lake Erie, Lake St Clair and the Thames River, visitors can rest at any of the 23 local communities here, along with motorcyclists and those en route to Niagara Falls. Visit in summer for a busy but warm introduction to the region, or consider the shoulder seasons from late August to mid-September and May to June for mild weather and fewer crowds. Keep our Toronto travel guide in your back pocket for insights on where to stay and what to do while in the capital of Ontario.

Georgian Bay | Photo: Martina Schwab

9. The Dempster Highway, Yukon

One for all seasons is Yukon’s Dempster Highway, decisively not your average highway. The unique selling point of the 700-kilometre Dempster Highway is that it crosses the Arctic Circle and into the Northwest Territories where glacial wilderness, snowy mountains and stunning lakes and rivers combine. The highway begins in Dawson City, soon becoming not as highway-y as you might expect, turning into an isolated dirt road with just one service station at Eagle Plains and limited rest points. Prepare your trip with this in mind, making sure your vehicle is in tip-top condition and you have enough provisions packed to cover the unexpected. The sub-Arctic landscape cut through with tundra and impressive peaks such as that of Tombstone Mountain, makes the drive a genuine joy, but you will also appreciate stop-offs in Tombstone Territorial Park (and its Interpretive Centre), rambling up to North Fork Pass viewpoint or even the summit to reach the highest point on Dempster.

Look out for Yukon wildlife on your trip; mountain-dwelling pikas and marmots for instance, as well as partridge-like ptarmigan and swooping eagles. Evermore bird life can be found within the Blackstone Uplands, while twilight at Two Moose Lake viewing platform is said to be prime moose-watching time. When not on the move, consider parking up at any of the campgrounds around Tombstone or Engineer Creek, before eventually embarking on two ferry rides into the Northwest Territories where Inuvik will welcome you with its Great Northern Arts Festival come July. Further north towards the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk also awaits with more distinct Inuit culture and natural history.

Photo: Yasna

The Dempster Highway, Yukon | Photo: Brigachtal

10. The Okanagan Valley

Emphasis lies firmly on Canada’s gastronomy for the loop around Okanagan Valley, a circular journey around Okanagan Lake best done clockwise from Vernon to Penticton before branching out to Kelowna. Your lap around the lake will put you in salivating distance of farm-to-table fare and award-winning wineries, namely Kelowna’s RauDZ Regional Table restaurant and Davison Orchards for homely meals. Summerhill Pyramid Winery and Mission Hill Winery will satisfy most thirsts in the meantime. As well as grapes, appreciate lake views and the numerous beautiful towns alongside, lying close to beaches, walking trails and more. One of Canada’s warmest regions, June to September can get see temperatures reach up to 40° Celsius, while the sunshine around April, May and October comes cooler and a little more bearable. Ditch the car for a bit to discover the 10 beautiful places to explore gay Canada.

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Yoho National Park | Photo: Elise Zimmerman

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