Top 10 national parks and preserves in Atlantic Canada
There’s no denying the appeal of Atlantic Canada - the collective name for the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We’ve headed to this outdoorsy wonderland to visit some of the country’s best national parks and preserves - all of which have a shared common bond with the Atlantic’s waters.
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador
As the second-largest national park in Atlantic Canada and a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, this supernatural playground that’s part of the Lone Range Mountains stretches over 1,805 square kilometres of Western Newfoundland. Lord of the Rings-like terrain aside, recent glacial action has resulted in even more incredible scenery such as alpine plateau, coastal lowlands, glacial valleys, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, pristine lakes, and freshwater fjords - all of which create an eye-popping landscape. Must-dos include exploring the park's dense forests see the 5,000 moose that call this place home, visiting the small fishing villages that dot the shoreline, and getting stuck into all manner of camping, cycling, hiking, and boating. Don’t miss venturing through the billion-year-old Western Brook Pond Fjord on a two-hour interpretive cruise that takes in staggeringly huge waterfalls (including the 1,150-foot Pissing Mare Falls), the cliffside sculpture known as The Tin Man, and other fabled rock formations.
Kouchibouguac National Park, New Brunswick
Stretching along the Acadian Coastal Drive on New Brunswick’s east coast, this hard-to-pronounce wilderness (it’s koochi-boog-wac) was set up as a national park in 1969. Named by the First Nations Mi'kmaq people after the Kouchibouguac (meaning “river of the long tides”), it packs rather a lot into its 238 square kilometres; mainly salt marches, barrier islands, Acadian forest, bogs, sheltered lagoons, tidal rivers, freshwater systems, and 25 kilometres of shifting white sand dunes. Most visitors make a beeline for the canoeing, swimming, whale watching, seal spotting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tobogganing, but there’s also 60 kilometres of bikeways (most of which are flat) and nine designated hiking trails. Equally fabulous, is the campground, where you can ditch the canvas and glamp it up in an oTENTik - a tent-meets-rustic cabin structure kitted out with beds and furniture on a raised floor.
Sable Island Reserve, Nova Scotia
Wild horses will drag you to this tiny and remote all-sand island (just 42-kilometres in length) located off the Nova Scotia coast. Established in 2013, this national park reserve is accessible only by plane or boat - and then only if you’ve registered with Parks Canada for approval and completed a mandatory on-shore orientation. But the pay-off is worth it for the 500-plus descendants of the Sable Island Ponies, the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals (around 50,000), the superb marine-protected area known as The Gully, and a staggering amount of shipwrecks (over 350 vessels met their fate on what's tragically become known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”). Also worthy of your attention is climbing the 28-metre-high Bald Dune for stunning 360-degree views, exploring the beaches, dunes and bogs, and staking out the rare Ipswich Sparrow that makes this sandbar its one and only breeding ground.
Mealy Mountains Reserve, Newfoundland and Labrador
So remote there’s not even road access, Canada’s newest national park was created on the northern coast of Labrador in 2015 to protect and showcase the region’s glacially-rounded hills, pristine wild rivers, boreal forests, sub-arctic tundra, coastal ecosystems, and spectacular rapids and waterfalls. Known to the indigenous people as Akami-uapishku (Innu for White Mountains across) and KakKasuak (Labrador Inuit for mountain), the scene-stealer at this 4,130-square-mile terrain is the Mealy Mountains themselves whose bare rock summits reach up to a staggering 1,180 metres. Also of interest is the wildlife (mainly black bears, wolves and the threatened Mealy Mountain caribou herd), the 50-kilometre-long sandy ocean beaches that the sea-faring Vikings called the Wonderstrands, and the endless outdoorsy pursuits including geocaching, hiking, skating, snow shoeing, skiing, snowboarding, and camping.
Kejimkujik National Park & Historic Site, Nova Scotia
You'll have to veer inland for this 147-square-mile woodsy area (simply known as Keji or Kedge) that’s set within the UNESCO Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, roughly halfway between the Atlantic and Fundy coasts. Used for thousands of years by the Mi'Kmaq people, it’s the largest inland national park in Atlantic Canada and most celebrated for its island-dotted lakes, hardwood and conifer forests, drumlins (rounded glacial hills), and incredible wildlife (including white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, beavers, owls, and loons). There’s also excellent programs for stargazers eager to track the constellations (the park was designated a Dark Sky Preserve in 2010), amazing activities (hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), and plenty of lakes and connecting rivers for canoeing, boating, kayaking, and swimming. Fishing is also a big draw, so long as you have a licence (available from the Visitor Centre, just beyond the park entrance).
Terra Nova National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador
Where the ocean meets Newfoundland's central boreal forests, Canada's easternmost national park comes with all the hilly woods, fjords, lakes, rocky cliffs and wild Atlantic coastline you can muster. Set along several inlets of Bonavista Bay (once home to the native Archaic and Paleo-Eskimo peoples), this 400-kilometre-square patch of rugged greenery really does have it all; exciting waters for canoeing and sea kayaking, relaxed hiking trails, and interesting wildlife-watching (most famously the Terra Nova Moose and black bears that move about freely in the forests and marshy bogs). Must-dos here include taking a boat tour to see the marine life, teeing off at the 18-hole Twin Rivers Golf Course (part of the Terra Nova Golf Resort), and bedding down for the night at Newman Sound - the park's largest campground that promises enough on-site facilities (hot showers, Wi-Fi, launderette, grocery store) to convert you to canvas.
Torngat Mountains National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador
After decades of land claim settlements, this remote wilderness stretching from Saglek Fjord to the northern tip of Labrador was established as a national park in 2005. Taking its name from the Inuktitut word Tongait (meaning “place of spirits”), it’s reached only by charter plane or boat from Goose Bay, Nain or Kangiqsualujjuaq and best explored with one of the Inuit people who call this place home. Following a mandatory bear-safety briefing, visitors stay at the all-Inuit staffed Torngat Mountains Base Camp (open from July to September) at St John’s Harbour. Mercurial weather aside, essential doing includes capturing the ever-present polar bears on camera, hiking the wildflower-cloaked tundra, and marvelling at the vast barren mountains that rise thousands of feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
Prince Edward Island National Park, Prince Edward Island
It’s all about the stunning beaches, wind-sculpted dunes, sand pits, and barrier islands at the province’s only national park - a stunning wonderland that extends for 40 kilometres along the Gulf of St Lawrence shore. There’s three distinct sections: Greenwich for its pristine white sands and supervised swimming, Brackley-Dalvay for its equally impressive sands and majestic dunes, and Cavendish for its sandstone cliffs, three-mile Homestead Trail, and Anne of Green Gables connections (the house that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel is an absolute must-see). You’ll definitely need a vehicle to get from one to another, but once you’ve rocked up at either of the park’s campgrounds (either Cavendish or Rustico Island), explore the park by foot or bike. Further thrills include taking a guided trail tour to get to grips with the region’s wildlife and ecology (400 species plants, 300 species of birds), join one of the evening campfire presentations, and visit the traditional farming and fishing communities on the park’s border.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia
Most famous for its ridiculously scenic 185-mile-long Cabot Trail (a third of which passes through here at its northernmost point), this is one of the coolest places in Canada for staking out moose, black bears, coyote, endangered Canada lynx, and bald eagles. And while the glistening seaside cliffs (easily the most incredible in Atlantic Canada) are stunning from inside a car, nothing beats getting out and having a good look around this picture-perfect landscape. There’s also the flat-topped Highlands Plateau for hiking paths (both simple and strenuous), the French, North and Mackenzie mountains for look-offs, and enough cycling, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and swimming to keep you busy for weeks. There’s also seven campgrounds (only one of which is backcountry) that open from May to October, and a wonderful Stanley Thompson-designed 18-hole, par-72 golf course that ranks as one of the best in Canada.
Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
The highest tides in the world deservedly get all the love at the Bay of Fundy – the Atlantic Ocean ecological wonder between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that was declared one of the Seven Natural Wonders of North America in 2014. However, there’s much more to this place than 100 billion tons of seawater crashing into the shore. Ideal for nature enthusiasts, Fundy National Park in New Brunswick offers three campgrounds, lush forests, kayaking, canoeing, and over 120 km of walking and hiking trails. For a truly unique experience, hike into Fundy National Park’s amazing backcountry and Swim with Salmon for Science. A Parks Canada team of biologists, interpreters and Fort Folly First Nations partners deliver an experience unlike any other. A snorkel and mask are provided and qualified experts will teach you how to snorkel, count and identify the endangered Inner Bay of Fundy salmon in its crisp clear river habitat. While visiting the region, set out to discover other natural attractions along the Bay of Fundy coast: Cape Enrage, the Fundy Trail Parkway and The Hopewell Rocks.
More things to explore in Atlantic Canada
Visit a world of lighthouses
Exploring 'the land of Anne', Prince Edward Island
Top 10 things to do in Nova Scotia
Enjoying the beaches of New Brunswick
Enchanting Canadian Maritimes escorted tour
Self-Drive Maritime Magic Treasures tour
Maritime Canada by Motorhome tour