Road trips are some of the most fun, exciting and enjoyable ways to spend a week or two away from home on a holiday or getaway with friends or family. The feel of the open road, the sense of adventure and the ability to stop when and where you want are just a couple of reasons road trips are hugely popular ways to spend a few days off work. So whether it’s an SUV or a sedan, or you’re singing Marvin Gay’s blues alone, or with some company, or you’re riding with the whole family who just loves to sing nursery rhymes in the car, road trips are suited for everyone, every once in a while. But where should you consider going for your next road trip? With Canada often on people’s bucket lists, this summer has never been a better time to hit the Canadian open road, so here is a quick guide to making the most of a Canadian road trip!
Canada – An Overview
Canada is an enormous country that is bordered by the United States to the south, and three oceans meaning that it has the longest continuous coastline in the world. Stretching from Vancouver Island in the very west to Newfoundland in the very east, it covers a whole plethora of landscapes and interesting cultures and ways of life. Depending on what you want to see and experience, choosing one side to focus on for your trip is the best way to get the most out of it, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. As a general rule of thumb it takes around 5 days of about 16 hour driving days to get from Calgary, Alberta to the Nova Scotia, and that doesn’t allow for much stoppage time in many places except for rest. Here we cover the most popular routes in the two main parts of Canada that attract the most tourists – the east and the west.
The most common and well loved route in the west starts usually in Calgary and takes you along the south route of the Trans Canada Highway – a highway that stretches from Victoria in the west to St John’s in the east. Along this stretch of the south you will hit the Kootenays National Park – a mountainous wonderland that is simply beautiful any time of year and is home to the local Kokanee Beer. Kelowna is another popular stop – a picturesque small city in the Okanagan region, famous for its vineyards. Be sure to try some BC wine. You might be surprised. Allow at least 4 days driving from Calgary to Vancouver. Allow at least six if you want to stop in Banff along the way or stay longer in the Okanagan.
Vancouver is a city many people from both Canada and abroad often say they want to see and it doesn’t disappoint. Allow at least three days here to see everything from Gastown’s eclectic district to Robson Street for shopping and Granville Island’s farmers markets. Be sure to hit Stanley Park and cross the river on the Capilano Suspension bridge. You won’t regret that.
Leaving Vancouver, take the northern route of the Trans Canada toward Kamloops. Kamloops is a great pit stop for a couple hours to catch some lunch, but the real gem on this stretch is the small mountain town of Jasper, Alberta, about three hours west of Edmonton. This is an ideal place for outdoor lovers as you can get some whitewater rafting in, take the cable car up to the top of Whistler’s Mountain – fun fact, this is the longest and highest aerial tramcar in Canada! Allow at least two nights in Jasper – you can even splurge and stay at the luxurious Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, or pack up your bags and hit the rustic and unmaintained Saturday Night Backcountry Camping Loop – two options from a huge range of ways to spend your time in this beautiful and picturesque mountain town. (PS: Don’t miss the Jasper Brewing Company for craft beers brewed right on site!)
The final stop on this route is Edmonton – Alberta’s capital region. Spend a day at West Edmonton Mall checking out over 800 shops and restaurants, indoor waterpark, amusement park, arcades, mini golf and a replica of Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria. If you’re in town between May and September, be sure to head to Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum of Edmonton’s founding as a humble fur trading post through the ages to more modern times. Take a stroll down Whyte Ave, known for its quirky shops and cafes and rub elbows with Edmonton’s local hippie and hipster crowd (including their very own Cat Cafe!)
The final push is to take the QEII (commonly known as the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor) highway south for 3 hours back to Calgary where you can either spend a couple more days exploring the city if you haven’t already or you can take a quick day trip out east to Drumheller – Alberta’s own spot of Badlands and desert like area for hiking and fantastic layered hills in a valley known for its huge number of dinosaur findings. One hour East on highway 9 from Calgary.
**NB: You can also do this route starting from Vancouver or Edmonton or in reverse**
The east is awash with impressive architecture and history, being the first locations that settlers in Canada built upon when they arrived and includes the huge cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal and the smaller cities of Moncton and Halifax. The most ideal way to start this is to begin in Toronto which has a huge array of international flight connections meaning that you can get in and out with ease. Depending on the time you have you may wish to fly home out of Halifax, otherwise you will need to backtrack BACK to Toronto at the end of the trip.
Toronto is a bustling metropolitan city that is gateway to the Great Lakes region and also is a perfect starting point for a road trip through the east. We’d suggest heading south first though to Niagara to check out the world famous Niagara Falls for a night and then backtracking to Toronto. Don’t miss the CN Tower where you can face your fear of heights by heading up to the observation deck for truly awe-inspiring views of the city, or better yet, do a skywalk where you literally hang off the edge of the tower with special harnesses and security equipment. Definitely a moment to remember! We recommend at least one night in Toronto to check it out, but more if you like shopping, cafes and generally hanging around cities.
The next stop is Ottawa – Canada’s capital city and home of the Parliament buildings which are well worth a look. The city itself is fairly enjoyable to hang out in for a couple of hours, but unless you want to do anything beyond exploring Parliament and the museums, you may find that one night here (or a full day if you get there early enough) is more than enough to do everything there is to do. Toronto and Ottawa are only around a four hour drive apart, making them perfect to do in a day together if you are short on time.
From Ottawa to Montreal the drive is only two hours which is great as you can literally do Toronto to Montreal including a stop in Ottawa all in one day if you’re super pressed for time. This makes the eastern route ideal for those who are short of time to get a Canadian road trip in.
Montreal is worthy of at least a few days. With so many things to see, do and experience you will continually find yourself discovering yet another quirk or event that makes you fall deeper in love with this unique part of Canada. You can check out a hockey game, visit the botanical gardens, go for boat rides up and down the historic St Lawrence river or explore the streets (and street food!) of the city itself! If you visit in winter, don’t miss out trying tiere sur la neige, warm maple syrup poured on blocks of snow and rolled like lollipops!
Quebec City (also known simply as Quebec to add to confusion) is an absolute do not miss. The beautiful city with its walls and historic Chateau Frontenac (now a Fairmont hotel) add to the charm of this small city that hosts beautiful parks and back streets akin to something you’d find in the French countryside. Be sure to visit the Montmorency Falls, the Frontenac, and the Old Town of Quebec for a real taste of time travelling back to the days when the city was first founded.
The stretch from Quebec City to Moncton in New Brunswick is a heftier 7 to 8 hours in length but can be broken up depending on what you want to see in between. The cities of Edmundston and Fredericton are around halfway between Quebec and Moncton and are great stopping points for lunch or dinner and Moncton itself is perfect for an overnight stay. Check out the Magnetic Hill Winery.
If you want to push through though and get to Halifax, it’s only around another 4-5 hour drive from Moncton. We highly recommend doing a circuit of the Annapolis Valley once in Nova Scotia – dotted with berry farms, orchards and wineries it’s easy to see why the dream of many Canadians is to buy land and settle in the region. We also recommend a circuit of Cape Breton Island to the province’s north (and onward by ferry from Sydney to Newfoundland if you’re so inclined). Don’t miss the Cabot Trail – one of the most beautiful drives in Canada and regularly ranked as such by many top rated travel magazines.
So there you have two great options for road tripping Canada with both a route for outdoor lovers (west) and city lovers (east) to choose from. If you really can’t decide, book yourself a longer period and do both! You won’t regret either – we promise!