Whether you’re searching for dinosaur skeletons, walking in the footsteps of Vikings or traversing glaciers, Canada is a fascinating country. Its 18 World Heritage Sites are wonderfully unique, each representing a crucial period in Canadian history. If you’re considering hopping on a flight to Canada, it’s well worth trying to see one or two of the country’s World Heritage sites. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll tell you about each UNESCO site in Canada so you can start planning your adventure.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Where is it? 18km northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta or a 2-hour drive if you are flying into Calgary
Perhaps the most unusually-named site on our list is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. At the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, this beautiful prairie landscape can be found around a short distance from Fort Macleod in Alberta. Historically, indigenous plains peoples killed bison by chasing them over the top of the cliff before retrieving them at the bottom of the hills. The so-called buffalo jump was used for some 5,500 years. The Blackfoot people carefully drove bison (or buffalo) from the Porcupine Hills and directed them through constructed lanes which led them to the cliff edge. This area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its evidence of prehistoric life. Not only are there metres of bison bones at the base of the cliff, there is also evidence of a sophisticated, kilometre-wide camp at the base of the precipice. The camp is dotted with the remnants of meat caches and cooking pits where the Crowfoot people processed the bison and made use of every part of the animal.
Historic District of Old Quebec
Where is it? Quebec Province – roughly a 3-hour drive if you fly into Montreal
The city of Quebec was founded by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain back in the early 17th century. According to UNESCO, it is the only North American city to have preserved its ramparts, bastions, gates and defensive works. Its fortified Upper Town area sits above the Cap Diamant River, and the Lower Town forms the harbour. The historic district of Quebec City is easy to explore, just be sure to keep your camera handy to capture the French-inspired architecture and cobbled streets.
Joggins Fossil Cliffs
Where is it? Joggins, Nova Scotia. It’s a 2-and-a-half-hour drive if you fly into Halifax
On the coast of Nova Scotia, Joggins Fossil Cliffs offer a unique insight into earth’s prehistoric past. Described as the ‘coal age Galapagos’ due to its abundance of Carboniferous fossils (from the geologic period 358 to 298 million years ago), the cliffs are a truly worthy UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dramatic coastline is a haven for geologists and fossil enthusiasts, as an afternoon’s stroll on the beach will reveal fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years. We spoke to Melissa Grey PhD, Curator of Palaeontology at Joggins Fossil Institute to find out more about this fascinating site: “The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site is the best place in the world to view what the world was like over 300 million years ago during the Late Carboniferous time period.
“Fossils of plants and animals are plentiful on the beach and you do not have to be a palaeontologist to find them! All fossils in Nova Scotia are protected, so, while visitors are able to find fossils, they are not allowed to keep them: take photos, not fossils!”
“The Joggins Fossil Centre houses a museum with interpretive displays, guided tours of varying lengths (1.5 hours, 2 hours and 4 hours) of the site (this is the best way to experience the cliffs/beach) and has a café and gift shop. We recommended visiting around low tide and allowing for plenty of time to explore the museum and beach (at least 1.5 hours).
We also asked Melissa why people should choose to visit the cliffs on their holiday to Canada: “Visitors experience a piece of the ancient world while also learning about the more recent cultural history of the area. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs are located along the beautiful Bay of Fundy with the highest tides in the world. Stunning scenery meets ancient history!”
Landscape of Grand Pré
Where is it? Minas Basin, Nova Scotia – 1 hour’s drive from Halifax
Nestled in the Minas Basin of Nova Scotia, the landscape of Grand Pré formally became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The marshland and the remains of old villages create a unique cultural landscape which, according to UNESCO, bear testimony to a great effort to develop agricultural farmland using the polder technique. The site also commemorates the Grand Pre landscape as a centre of Acadian settlement (1682 – 1755), and the Deportation of the Acadians. It’s believed that to many Acadians worldwide, the landscape of Grand Pre remains their ancestral homeland.
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Where is it? On the northern tip of Newfoundland, 1 hour from Saint Anthony Airport if you take an internal flight from St. John’s
Walk in the footsteps of Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows. This National Historic Site at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland holds the remains of an 11th century Viking settlement, and provides evidence of the first European presence in North America. Peat-turf buildings, reminiscent of those found in Greenland and Iceland, give visitors a rare glimpse into the past – a time when Viking settlers built and repaired ships and explored the lands around them.
UNESCO says: “The remnants correspond with the stories told in the Vinland Sagas, which document the voyages of Leif Erikson and other Norse explorers who ventured westward across the Atlantic Ocean from Iceland and Greenland to find and explore new territory, a significant achievement in the history of human migration and discovery.”
Old Town Lunenburg
Where is it? Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia – just over an hour’s drive from Halifax
The historic town of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia is considered the best-surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, the colourful town has retained its original layout and appearance, making it one of the most-visited destinations in the province. Its picturesque houses date back to the 18th century and the local fishing industry is still very much alive. Today, visitors can explore Lunenburg’s idyllic town centre as well as heading out on the water to sail or kayak.
A photographer’s paradise
It perhaps comes as no surprise that Lunenburg draws photographers from far and wide. Emily Fagan of Roads Less Traveled shared her top spots to photograph in the town:
“We spent nearly a month in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Lunenburg was one of our favourite destinations. It is a charming fishing village that is utterly picturesque. Being photographers, we wandered the delightful little streets taking photos of the historic buildings, and we walked along the waterfront taking photos of the boats bobbing in the bay. There are little sailboats and lovely old wooden schooners that evoke an earlier time.
“But the best view was when we walked around the edge of the harbour to the far shore and strolled up the grassy hillside. From that vantage point we could take in the classic Atlantic seacoast village view of the harbour lined with bright red fishing buildings and colourful houses running up the distant hillside.
“The other place we were drawn to for jaw-dropping photography was Peggy’s Cove, a tiny fishing village that boasts the most beautiful lighthouse we saw on all of Nova Scotia. Catching the sunset glinting off the ocean while the lighthouse flashed is still one of our fondest travel memories.”
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station
Where is it? Red Bay on the mainland of Labrador. It is part of the Labrador Coastal Drive and can be reached via ferry from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, to Blanc Sablon, Québec, and just 1 hour’s drive.
Established by Basque mariners in the 16th century, Red Bay can be found on the north-eastern tip of Canada, on the Strait of Belle Isle. This archeologically significant site provides ‘the earliest, most complete and best-preserved testimony of the European whaling tradition’, according to UNESCO. Those who founded the station in the 1530s named it Gran Baya, and used the area as a base for coastal hunting, butchering and rendering of whale fat to produce oil and storage. Red Bay’s whaling station was used for some 70 years, before the local whale population was exhausted.
Where is it? Ottawa city centre, Ontario
Built in the 19th century, the Rideau Canal is an impressive structure in the heart of Ottawa. The canal was constructed for military purposes, as a secure supply route in the event of a war with the United States of America. The locks and dams were all built by hand, and the construction has remained almost perfectly intact since opening in 1832. The Rideau Canal was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007 and today, locals flock to the canal to hike, kayak and cycle around it.
UNESCO says: “It is the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century to remain operational along its original line with most of its structures intact.”
SGang Gwaay – ‘Ninstints’
Where is it? Haida Gwaii archipelago, west coast of British Columbia – a scenic 8-hour ferry from Prince Rupert
SGang Gwaay, also known by its English name, Ninstints, is a historical site with remains of houses, carved mortuary and memorial poles of the First Nations Haida people. Commemorating the living culture of these indigenous peoples and their connection with the landscape around them “offers a visual key to their oral traditions”, according to UNESCO.
The island forms part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site on the north coast of British Columbia. Cedar long houses and spectacular monuments offer a unique insight into the lives of the Haida people in the 19th century. All the memorial poles face the ocean so that if a group approached the water, they can see the symbols to understand the inhabitants of the island. Visiting the archipelago of Haida Gwaii is a truly memorable experience, and one which is worth seeking out on your next holiday to Canada.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
Where is it? 219km east of Calgary, Alberta or just under a 2-and-a-half-hour drive
In Alberta’s Badlands lie some of the most important fossil discoveries ever made from the ‘Age of Reptiles’. With numerous specimens covering 44 species and 10 families of dinosaurs, dating back some 75 million years, Dinosaur Provincial Park is a fascinating place to visit for budding palaeontologists and Jurassic Park fans alike. Calgary-based travel blogger Leigh of Hike Bike Travel spoke to us about her visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park:
“I am not a dinosaur nut and yet I was blown away by the Badlands beauty of Dinosaur Provincial Park and now tell everyone that will listen that they should go, especially as it’s just a few hours’ drive from Calgary. And I can’t tell you how much fun it is to look for and find dinosaur bones.
“I did a sunset tour which gets you in an area off-limits otherwise and it was extraordinarily beautiful. I also highly recommend the Centrosaurus Quarry hike where you see a full skeleton embedded in the dirt.”
We were curious to find out Leigh’s top tip for travellers hoping to visit the park on their holiday to Canada: “Stay overnight if at all possible – and for that I recommend the glamping experience. Book a tour of some sort so you get into areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Guides are incredibly knowledgeable and bring the dinosaurs to life. In summer, take a bathing suit so you can cool off in the Red Deer River.”
Gros Morne National Park
Where is it? The island of Newfoundland, just a 25-minute drive from Deer Lake Regional Airport
On the west coast of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of the process of plate tectonics – the scientific theory that the Earth’s outers shell is divided into several plates which glide over the rocky inner layer before the core. As UNESCO explains: “The park provides a rare example of the process of continental drift, where the deep ocean crust and the rocks of the earth’s mantle lie exposed.”
As well as exciting geologists, Gros Morne National Park is a beautiful place to visit. Its spectacular wilderness, made up of fjords, glaciers and vast, dense woodland, makes the park an adventurer’s paradise. Granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1987, the park is recognised for its unique landscape, which is perfect for hiking, wildlife watching, swimming and camping.
Kluane and Tatshenshini-Alsek
Where is it? On the border of Alaska and Yukon – a 2-and-a-half-hour drive from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
The Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay and Tatshenshini-Alsek national parks are all protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Awarded the honour in 1972, these parks form part of the boundaries of Canada and the United States of America, and contain the largest non-polar icefield in the world. Both the Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek lie within the borders of Canada, and are praised by UNESCO for their “most spectacular glaciers”.
In southwest Yukon, the Kluane National Park and Reserve is a vast wilderness of ice fields, dense forests and imposing mountains. It is home to the highest mountain in Canada – Mount Logan – which towers at 19,551 feet (roughly four and a half times the height of Ben Nevis in Scotland), forming part of the Saint Elias Mountains. Approximately 83% of the park is covered in mountains and glaciers. Over in British Columbia, Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park is also well-regarded for its magnificent landscape. It was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1994, sitting alongside Kluane, Wrangell-St Elias and Glacier Bay.
Miguasha National Park
Where is it? 30km from Carleton-sur-mer, Quebec Province – roughly a 6-hour drive from Quebec City
On the southern coast of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec Province, Miguasha National Park is an important palaeontological site. It is considered by UNESCO to be the world’s most outstanding illustration of the Devonian Period, known as the ‘Age of the Fishes’. The rugged landscape dates back 370 million years, so an abundance of fish, invertebrate and plant fossils can be found along the beach. Visitors can also stop by the Miguasha Natural History Museum, which features more than 9,000 exhibits about the fossils and history of the park.
Where is it? Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland – roughly a 2-hour drive from St. John’s
One of Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage sites is Mistaken Point – a fossil site at the south-eastern tip of Newfoundland. This narrow 17km strip of wild, coastal cliffs dates back to the Ediacaran Period, roughly 580 million years ago, representing one of the oldest known groupings of large fossils anywhere in the world. Its unusual name comes from a time when sailors mistook the point for Cape Race in foggy weather, leading them to run into treacherous rocks. UNESCO says: “These fossils illustrate a watershed in the history of life on earth: the appearance of large, biologically complex organisms, after almost three billion years of micro-dominated evolution.
It’s estimated that Mistaken Point holds more than 10,000 fossil impressions, ranging from a mere few centimetres to almost two metres in length. For more information about guided tours and how to reach the site, visit the Fisheries and Land Resources website.
Nahanni National Park
Where is it? Northwest Territories
Set on the spectacular South Nahanni River, one of North America’s wildest rivers, this national park is a wildlife lovers’ paradise. Grizzly bears, wolves and caribou can all be seen wandering the forests and mountains of Nahanni National Park. Its name derives from the indigenous Dene language name for the area, Nahʔa Dehé, which means ‘river of the land of the Nahʔa people. An abundance of species call the park home, including peregrine falcons, wood bison, wolverines, snowshoe hares, bald eagles, and moose. Towering waterfalls and complex cave systems are hidden in this undisturbed natural park, which has no roads running through it. Visitors hoping to set eyes on the park’s four deep canyons will need to travel by chartered floatplane. For more information visit the Parks of Canada website.
Waterton Glacier International Peace Park
Where is it? 250km south of Calgary, Alberta – roughly a 3-hour drive
In 1932, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta was merged with the Glacier National Park in Montana, USA, to form the world’s first International Peace Park. Set on the border between the US and Canada, the park is rich in plant life and home to an abundance of animals. Its lush alpine forests and glacial features are at once typical of the Canadian landscape we all dream about seeing, yet it’s totally unique. UNESCO says: “Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has a distinctive climate, physiographic setting, mountain-prairie interface and tri-ocean hydrographical divide. It is an area of significant scenic values with abundant and diverse flora and fauna.”
Visitors can head to the hamlet of Waterton, set within the park, which is an easy way to get out and about in the surrounding landscape. If you’re an active traveller, the hiking routes are unbeatable. Photographers, birdwatchers and even windsurfers flock to the waterside community to experience the International Peace Park in all its glory.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Where is it? Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories
Larger in area than Switzerland, Wood Buffalo National Park is the second-largest national park in the world, second only to Northeast Greenland National Park. It is also home to North America’s largest population of wild bison. The park was established in 1922 to protect the herd of wood bison, which is currently estimated to be 5,000-strong. Its biological diversity and unique wildlife, including the elusive whooping crane, earned Wood Buffalo National Park UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983. Whether you’re an avid hiker seeking forest trails or a wildlife enthusiast hoping to catch a glimpse of wood bison, there’s plenty to see and do in Wood Buffalo National Park.
Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks
Where is it? Spanning British Columbia and Alberta – Banff is just a 90-minute drive from Calgary Airport
Stretching into Banff and Jasper National Parks, and Kootenay and Yoho Provincial Parks, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are perhaps one of the country’s best known and best-loved World Heritage sites. Towering mountain peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, canyons, limestone caves and beautifully blue lakes form the Canadian Rockies, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Some opt to take the magical journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train, which winds through the mountains to give you an up-close and personal view of this World Heritage Site.
Image Credit: Andrea Schaffer