Canadians build the best bear hangs in the world- big, sturdy steel-and-cable rigs that tower over backcountry campsites. Good thing, too, because there are plenty of bears in the backcountry. And moose and wolves and other assorted wildlife. This nation is still the epitome of all things wild. A Canadian Royal Commission report on the economy alluded to the fact: "This is an immense country" where the "space enters the bloodstream," and "wilderness remains a partner in the venture." Canada has more lakes, rivers, and forests than any other nation, but that's only the tip of the wilderness iceberg. There are glaciers to hike across and polar waters where you paddle around house-size ice cubes. On the Pacific side you can stroll slack-jawed through groves of neck-bending old-growth spruce, and near the Atlantic Coast dump sand out of your boots after traversing dunes with 40-foot troughs. "If Canada did not exist," a casual observer once commented, "it would be in the interest of the United States to invent her." Go see for yourself. They're all just across the border, and each offers an experience that'll have you singing, "Oh Canada!" -The Editors
Banff National Park
Banff is backpacking heaven, what with all the snowy peaks, turquoise lakes, and over 1,000 miles of trails. There's enough here to keep you hiking for months, but if you need more, you can cobble together a larger trip by including the paths found in the other three contiguous Rocky Mountain national parks (Jasper to the north, and Kootenay and Yoho to the west). You can even take it a huge step further and link up with the trails in the three nearby British Columbia provincial parks (Mt. Assiniboine, Hamber, and Mt. Robson), which together form a World Heritage Site and one of the largest protected areas in the world. Whatever you choose to do, expect the mountains to ingrain themselves into your psyche. Adjectives like "majestic" are empty when it comes to describing the Canadian Rockies. There are three ranges overall, with the park located along the jagged Front and Main Ranges. In lower elevations you'll see elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats in grassy meadows, and the occasional bear. As the elevation increases, you'll travel through dense subalpine forests before entering windswept alpine meadows. Through it all, you'll be surrounded by glacier-clad peaks and will overlook brilliant glacier-fed lakes and streams.
Getting there: Calgary, Alberta, has the nearest international airport, and from there you have three options to get to Banff, which is 80 miles (11/2 hours) to the west: rent a car; hop on a Greyhound bus to the town of Banff; or catch a ride with Brewster Transportation (403-762-6767), which will drop you off at the town of Banff, Lake Louise, or trailheads along the highway.
Trails: Over 1,000 trail miles give you plenty of options, but Skoki Valley is the quickest escape from Lake Louise. Twenty miles of trail cut through wide, flowered meadows, weaving between the peaks of the Slate Range. Find out how Deception Pass got its name, and then hike to Merlin Lake for a quick dip to cool off. For current bear warnings call the park office at (403) 762-1550, then reroute your trip to stay out of those areas.
Season: Plan to visit July through September. Park staff at the visitor centers in Banff and Lake Louise can tell you which trails are snow-free. Early fall is nice because there are fewer bugs and people on the trails, and spectacular visual treats like the larch trees in all their autumnal glory.
Permits and fees: Backcountry users must purchase a personal-use permit (C$5 per person per day; C=Canadian dollars) and a wilderness pass (C$6 per person per night). Some designated campsites can be reserved by calling ahead to the park, and the rest are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Maps and guides: Must-reads include the park's "Backcountry Visitor's Guide" brochure; The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson ($14.95, Summerthought Publishing; 403-762-3919); and Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, by Graeme Pole ($24.95, Altitude Publishing; 403-678-6888); Don't Waste Your Time In The Canadian Rockies, by Kathy and Craig Copeland ($14.95, Wilderness Press; 800-443-7227). Gem Trek Publishing (403-932-4208) produces several 1:50,000-scale maps of Banff, including Banff Up-Close, C$9.95. Topographic maps and trip-planning info are available from the Friends of Banff by calling (403) 762-8918.
More information: Banff National Park, Box 900, Banff, AB T0L 0C0; http://www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-banff/index.html. Call Banff Information Centre, (403) 762-1550 or Lake Louise Visitor Centre, (403) 522-3833.
La Mauricie National Park
Fair warning: Don't play the Most Beautiful Place Game with me, because I've been to the deep forests of La Mauricie National Park. This is the backpacker's and canoeist's paradise, with its classic Eastern woodland, forest floors carpeted with wildflowers in spring, and red-hued maple leaves in autumn. There are about 150 lakes here, with some waterways nearly 30 miles long-the highways to the backcountry. In the spring the loons call, and the white-throated sparrows sing "oh Canada-Canada-Canada" throughout the night. Look for bears at water's edge and moose searching for breakfast. There's a strong human history that extends as far back as 5,000 years. Look carefully and you'll see evidence of Native peoples. You'll also paddle in the wake of European trappers, traders, and loggers who were here centuries ago.
Getting there: Fly into Montreal or Quebec City, then drive 2 hours (124 miles) to the park.
Trails: With so many lakes and portage routes, you could spend weeks in a canoe. A nice three-day loop starts on Lake Wapizagonke, the longest and most popular waterway in the park, jumps to Lake Waber, Lake Tessier, Lake Marechal, and Lake Caribou, which connects to Wapiza-gonke. Four miles of portaging is required. A five-day trip starts on Wapizagonke, continues on Lake Anticagamac, and then to Matawin River. Portage your canoe about 3 miles to Lake Cinq, and then choose whether to head back to Wapizagonke or paddle out on the southeastern side of the park via several smaller lakes.
Season: The backcountry is snow-free from mid-May to late October; biting bugs are less of a problem in early spring and fall. You can rent canoes at the day-use areas at Shewenegan and Lake Edouard from May through September, or outside the park. Don't be put off by the car campers crowding campsites and picnic grounds at the two entrances.
Permits and fees: Canoe campers must register at one of the two visitor centers and pay C$14 to $18 per tent per night. Fishing requires a permit (C$8 per day).
Maps: The La Mauricie National Park map is available for free from the park.
More information: La Mauricie National Park, 794-5e Rue, C.P. 758, Shawinigan, PQ G9N 6V9; (819) 536-2638.
Pukaskwa National Park
Ask the park staff where Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced puk-a-saw) is located and they'll tell you it's on "the wild shore of an inland sea." Quite an inspiring way to otherwise say the northernmost shore of Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Either way, this 725-square-mile park is a watery world that is home to seven major rivers, and hundreds of smaller lakes and streams. If you're not a fan of paddling frigid waters (average 39°F year-round), you can set out on the 37-mile-long Coastal Hiking Trail. You'll still make four river crossings, but the highlight is a stroll across a 120-foot-long suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the White River. Rangers call it "one of the most dynamic experiences in the park." As you pick your way across the rivers or follow well-worn animal trails, pause and consider the boreal forest and its waterways that were once a home, a source of livelihood, a highway for travel, and most of all a daunting obstacle to survival for aboriginal people and European trappers. When they plied the land, it was populated by reindeer (better known as woodland caribou), of which only about 10 remain. Few people are lucky enough to see them. But for the backcountry hiker there are plenty of moose, bears, otters, porcupines, and some 250 species of birds to keep you company.
Getting there: Pukaskwa is a 7-hour drive from Duluth, Minnesota, and a 5-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, both via the Trans Canada Highway. Connector flights stop in Marathon, Ontario, a 25-minute drive away. A taxi service from Marathon can drop you off at the park, and Greyhound buses go through the town daily.
Trails: The Coastal Hiking Trail's 37 miles demand a good fitness level, orienteering skills, and lots of patience. Despite continuous maintenance, the trail is often obscured by washouts or logs. The Coastal typically takes five days and four nights. You can arrange water-taxi services in the town of Heron Bay and get dropped off at trail's end at North Swallow River camping area or picked up at a prearranged location along the way. The typical fee for the drop-off is C$200 for a group of up to five. The boat trip takes just over 3 hours. Park headquarters can suggest local water taxis.
Season: The average daily temperature in July and August is 59° F, but expect intermittent heat and sun. Bugs are abundant in the summer months, making September to mid-October prime for visiting.
Permits and fees: Backpackers on the Coastal Trail pay a backcountry-use fee of C$6 per group for registration, and C$5 per person per night. Camp in established sites only, which have pit toilets, bear poles, and tent pads. A mandatory orientation session at the visitor center provides information on bugs, bears, and trail conditions. Call in advance to reserve your campsite.
Maps and guides: The Friends of Pukaskwa produces the Coastal Hiking Trail Guide (C$2), which includes a map, a 1:100,000 interpretive map of the park (C$8.95), plus 1:50,000 topos (C$8.95 each). All are available at the park store or by calling Friends of Pukaskwa; (807) 229-0801, ext. 233; http://marathon.lakeheadu.ca/~friends/friends.html.
More information: Pukaskwa National Park, Highway 627, Hattie Cove, ON P0T 1R0; (807) 229-0801; http://parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/parks/ontario/pukaskwa/pukaskwae.htm.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes is a dramatic land where the transition from high prairie to Rocky Mountains occurs in less than half a mile. If you were to leave the car behind and hike toward the high country, you'd start in grassy meadows where prairie smoke flowers and orchids tickle your ankles. Passage from grasslands to forest is brief as you quickly enter patches of alder and willow that reach up like fingers on the mountainsides. Eventually you'd enter the subalpine forests with their red-bark Engelmann spruce looming overhead. The trees soon give way to reddish shale dotted with twisted pines and low-lying flowers, and that's when you know you're in the alpine zone. Around you are some of the most awe-inspiring mountains on earth, soaring upward to 9,600 feet. The stair-stepped Waterton Lakes (Upper, Middle, and Lower) are the focal point of the park and the start of many backcountry hikes. At the south end of Upper Waterton Lake the park joins with its counterpart in the United States, Glacier National Park in Montana. Together the two units form an International Peace Park (designated in 1932).
Getting there: If you're in Glacier National Park, take Chief Mountain International Highway to Waterton Lakes. Or fly into Calgary and ride a Greyhound bus 165 miles to the park. Or take a connector flight from Calgary to Lethbridge that'll put you 65 miles closer to the park, where you can rent a car.
Trails: The park is served by three main highways, and most trailheads are just off the roadways. Or make reservations with the shuttle service at Tamarack Mall in the town of Waterton Park, which will drop you at your trailhead (C$6). The 114-mile network of trails largely follows lake shorelines up through lower montane forests and into the dry alpine zones. Carthew-Alderson Lakes Trail (12 miles) carries you to Cameron Lake, and along the way it offers a sampling of the various ecological zones, plus a good chance of seeing moose and bighorn sheep. Tamarack Trail (29 miles) traces the western border of the park and the Great Divide. It's demanding, with nearly 10,000 feet of combined ascents and descents.
Season: May to October is best; peak visitation is July to August. Trails in upper elevations usually are snow-free by July. Keep a windbreaker handy, since wind is constant at any elevation.
Permits and fees: All visitors pay a day-use fee of C$8 for a group of two to 10 people in one vehicle. For backcountry trips register at the visitor reception center 5 miles from the front gate; C$6 per person per night for a Wilderness Pass. You can call (403) 859-5133 three months ahead and pay an additional nonrefundable C$10 to reserve campsites. Fishing licenses are C$6 per week, C$13 for the season.
Maps and guides: Topo maps are available for C$10.17 from the park. For further reading, see Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, by Vicki Spring ($14.95, The Mountaineers Books; 800-553-4453) and Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, by Erik Molvar ($12.95, Falcon Press; 800-582-2665).
More information: c/o Superintendent, Waterton Lakes National Park, Waterton Park, AB T0K 2M0; http://www.worldweb.com/ParksCanada-Waterton/index.html. From mid-May to mid-November, call the information center at (403) 859-5133; off season, call (403) 859-2224.
Gros Morne National Park
Like many people, I'd long thought Newfoundland was a cold, damp island off the Atlantic coast, best suited for fishing villages and hardy domestic sheep. Then I visited its western coast and was stunned by this park's varied beauty: miles of white-sand beaches, fiords surrounded by dense evergreen forests, and a 2,600-foot mountain that rules the horizon. But it's the sea that dominates, sculpting jagged volcanic cliffs, high-reaching rock pillars, enormous sea stacks and sea caves, and smooth platforms. High atop the cliffs, grassy meadows flourish. Farther inland, glaciers have left their footprints, scooping out chunks of land and leaving sparkling lakes that dot the landscape. Stand on the summit of Gros Morne Mountain (the park's namesake) and you'll see where brash forests push their way through rocky outcrops. Occasionally you'll share the trail with moose and alpine wildlife such as arctic hares and rock ptarmigan. If your map and compass skills are sharp, make tracks for the Long Range Mountains in the interior of the park and you may meet up with caribou during summer calving season.
Getting there: From Halifax, Nova Scotia, the quickest route to Gros Morne is via a 2-hour flight to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where you can rent a car and drive an hour to the park.
Trails: You have two aerobic choices when considering the 63 or so miles of trail. Take the gentle option and you can dayhike from a basecamp, or do several easy overnighters. One of the most appealing routes is Green Gardens, a 12-mile loop that meanders along the coastal cliffs and occasionally descends to the cobbled beaches. It's perfect for those who want to spend their time reading, resting, and exploring tidal pools.
For a more gruelling backcountry experience, there are two main routes in the Long Range Mountains: the North Rim Traverse (18 miles, three days), and the Long Range Traverse (22 miles). Park officials call both "very strenuous." Watch your step since the arctic-alpine barrenlands of the backcountry are fragile and fog often reduces visibility to nil. Good navigational skills, a high fitness level, and some experience are requisites, but you're rewarded tenfold with the exquisite views, bountiful solitude, and intense wildlife encounters.
Season: From July through September it's warm and dry at low altitudes. The weather is highly changeable higher up, so be prepared for sudden fog, chilling rain, and even snow.
Permits and Fees: A permit for C$10 is required for each backcountry site per night. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. To do the Long Range and North Rim traverses you must first sit through an orientation by park staff; cost is C$35 per person, which includes daily park fee, backcountry permit, and rental of a VHF Telemetry Unit, which helps park officials locate hikers during search-and-rescue efforts.
Maps and Guides: Gros Morne National Park Trail Guide (C$10) 1:100,000 map shows the entire park; the 1:50,000 maps 12-H/12-Gros Morne and 12-H/13-St. Pauls (C$10 each) cover the Long Range and North Rim Traverses. All are available from the Gros Morne Co-operative Association (call park phone number below).
More information: Gros Morne National Park, P.O. Box 130, Rocky Harbour, NF A0K 4N0; (709) 458-2417; http://www.newcomm.net/grosmorne/default.htm.
Jasper National Park
With Jasper and Banff separated only by a roadsign that indicates you're leaving one park and entering the other, you might ask, "What's the difference?" For one thing, Jasper has half the number of visitors. And its trail system is perfect for long-distance hikes-if you have the time, fitness level, and backcountry skills needed to cover routes that pass through what one guidebook calls "the premier area for remote wilderness hiking in North America." Several river valleys carve the park, and between them are exquisite mountains that soar over 12,000 feet. The more than 600 miles of trails typically start in the Athabasca River Valley, then carry you into the high country, all the while sucking your breath away with stunning vistas of vast glaciers and the turquoise lakes they feed.
Getting there: Jasper is 192 miles west of Edmonton, Alberta, and 256 miles northwest of Calgary. Bus and train service run from Edmonton to Jasper. Brewster Transportation (403-762-6767) has daily service from the Calgary Airport, with drop-offs at some trailheads.
Trails: The North Boundary (107 miles) and the South Boundary (103 miles) trails provide days of solitary hiking, except for the elk, bear, and moose you may bump into. Both routes are below treeline (average elevation 5,000 feet), and mostly wind through forests, occasionally opening into a welcome meadow. Or try the shorter Jonas Pass trail (32 miles). You're above treeline for about 9 miles, with views of glacier-laden mountains and if you're lucky, herds of caribou. The trail system is organized into three levels: Semiprimitive areas have well-maintained trails, developed campgrounds, and are heavily used; primitive areas are more isolated, with wilder trails, bear poles, pit toilets, and fires permitted at campsites; wildland areas require good route-finding skills and a sense of adventure, because there are no trails, no designated campsites, and fires are not permitted. Check the "Wilderness Trip Planner" at the park's Web site for trails in each level.
Season: Lower-elevation trails open in mid-May; the rest are snow-free by mid-July and usually stay that way until mid-October.
Permits and fees: The day-use pass costs C$5 per person, per day. Backcountry campers must also purchase a wilderness pass (C$6 per person, per night). Some campsites can be reserved three months in advance for a nonrefundable C$10 fee. Call one of the park information centers (see below) to get your spot.
Maps and guides: The Friends of Jasper (403-852-4767), located in the Jasper Information Centre, sells topographic maps and guidebooks. Sunwapta Peak 83C/6 and Columbia Icefield 83C/3 cover the Jonas Pass hike. Snaring 83E/1, Rock Lake 83E/8, Blue Creek 83E/7, Twintree Lake 83E/6, and Mt. Robson 83E/3 cover North Boundary Trail. Columbia Icefield 83C/3, Sunwapta Peak 83C/6, Job Creek 83C/7, George Creek 83C/10, Southesk 83C/11, Mountain Park 83C/14, and Medicine Lake 83C/13 cover the South Boundary Trail.
More information: Jasper National Park, Box 10, Jasper, AB T0E 1E0; http://www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-jasper/index.html. Call the Jasper Information Centre at (403) 852-6176, or the Icefield Information Centre at (403) 852-6288.