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How to plan a road trip in Canada

posted February 2, 2017


Cabot Trail

Once you have your heart set on a road trip to Canada, it’s difficult to let go. You dream of seemingly endless roads passing snow-capped mountains, forests and sleepy towns. You dream of a wilderness where caribou and the odd black bear are often the only company you’ll have. For many, a road trip through Canada is the ultimate adventure. So to get you started, we’ve put together a handy guide to help you plan your journey.

Know your distances

Highway through the Rocky Mountains, Canada
SGPICS, Shutterstock

The drive from Vancouver, all the way in the west, to Quebec City in the east, is around 3,000 miles. Before you decide where you want to go, make sure you know how far apart the major towns and cities are. Canada is the second largest country in the world by area, so there’s plenty to see!

West Coast Cities

Get to know the approximate driving times between popular towns and cities in Western Canada:

From To Driving Time
Vancouver Victoria 3 hours
Includes a 2-hour ferry
Vancouver Whistler 1 hour 30 minutes
Up the stunning Sea to Sky Highway
Vancouver Kamloops 3 hours 30 minutes
Through the scenic BC Interior
Kamloops Jasper 4 hours 40 minutes
Into the mountain town & national park
Jasper Banff 3 hours 40 minutes
Along one of Canada’s most famous roads, the Icefield Parkway. Allow double this to stop and see all the sights en route!
Banff Calgary 1 hour 30 minutes
An easy and scenic drive if you are flying into Calgary airport

East Coast Cities

Some of Canada’s best-known cities, including its romantic francophone centres, are all handy driving distances:

From To Driving Time
Niagara Falls Toronto 1 hour 30 minutes
Perfect for a day trip
Toronto Ottawa 4 hours 20 minutes
Including a stretch along Lake Ontario
Ottawa Montreal Just shy of 2 hours
Montreal Quebec City 2 hours 50 minutes
Quebec City Saint John 6 hours 45 minutes
Into Canada’s Maritime Provinces

 

Pick a route

Rogers Pass BC

If you were planning an epic journey across Canada, the ideal places to stop on a logical route through the south would be Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and Montreal. Of course, you may well be taking several detours on your trip to see the likes of Wood Buffalo National Park or Canadian Rockies, so factor in these extra miles.

One of the most spectacular road trips, and one of our favourites, is from Vancouver to Alaska. Stretching around 2,200 miles through British Columbia, Yukon Territory and Alaska, this is the ultimate road trip.

The road to Alaska

Leave the vibrant port of Vancouver on Provincial Route 97, otherwise known as Cariboo Highway, heading for Prince George, the largest city in British Columbia and the junction of Highways 16 and 97. This spectacular section of the route takes approximately 10 hours. From here, merge onto the BC Highway 97 north. Leaving Prince George, the road leads you through rolling hills, forests and lakes. It’s worth stopping at the picturesque district of Mackenzie to get some fresh air and take in the sweeping views.

Back on Highway 97, drive through Pine Pass, with more beautiful scenery. Follow the road all the way up through Fort Nelson, past river valleys and mountains, to Watson Lake in Yukon Territory. This part of the drive takes around 15 hours, so you’ll want to split this over a few days. One place you could stop is Toad River, near the Northern Rocky Mountains. It has cabins, lodges and camping space 11 hours into the drive. Liard River Hot Springs are only an hour’s drive away if you feel like stopping for a dip on the way up to Yukon the next day! Another option for a stopover is Fort Nelson, around 8 hours from Prince George, which has plenty of accommodation.

From the Yukon Territory border, continue north into Alaska via Yukon Highway 1, also known as the Alaska Highway. This famously beautiful highway stops at Delta Junction, Alaska. From here, take the AK-2 to Fairbanks and beyond. Denali National Park and Preserve is just two hours south of Fairbanks.

Other popular routes include Vancouver to Calgary through the Rocky Mountains, Perce to Quebec, a 600-mile journey north-east to the coast, or the Cowboy Trail, taking the backroads from Lethbridge to Edmonton.

Plan your pit stops

Caribou crossing the road, Alaska
Denali National Park and Reserve (Flickr)

With so many viewpoints over Canada’s vast wilderness, it’s easy to get side-tracked on your journey by constantly stopping for photos. On such a big trip, timing is key, so research some main pit stops for your travels and try to stick to the route. Keep in mind that most lookout points have toilets, benches and fire pits, so they’re perfect for taking a break on a lengthy road trip. The national park trails starting from the roadside also often have facilities where they begin.

Choose your dates wisely

Canada is beautiful in all seasons, but for long road trips you may wish to pick a season with the least amount of snow and ice. Any time between May and September is an ideal time to visit because the nights aren’t as cold and you’ll get the best of the light. If you want to avoid crowds and tourist traffic, May is a perfect time to make the journey.

Apply for visas

Before you book anything, you’ll need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) to enter Canada by air. If you wish to visit the USA as part of your trip (and we recommend Alaska!), you will need to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) to enter America.

Book flights

Vancouver is a great place to start if you’re driving across Canada to the east or north-west towards Alaska. You can also fly to Toronto, Quebec, Calgary or Montreal. If you have the time, you might consider a longer circular route so you can fly back from the same place. If not, it’s worth considering “open jaw” flights, so you can fly back from a different airport. Avis offers free one-way car drop offs.

Hire a Car

RV driving on lakeside road

Next, you’ll need to look into car hire in Canada. Depending on what time of year you’re travelling, you may want to choose your car based on potential road conditions. If you’re planning on going off the beaten track, or driving through the winter, a sturdy car such as an SUV might be more suitable. Be sure to check that you are allowed to drive your hire car in winter conditions, as there are laws on snow tyres and chains.

Learn a few useful French phrases

Heading to Quebec? It’s worth remembering this province has a predominantly French-speaking population. Learning a few handy French phrases will go a long way if you’re visiting the area.

Don’t forget travel insurance

Travel insurance is usually pretty cheap and when you’re setting off on a big journey, it’s important to make sure you’re covered. As there are plenty of adventure activities on offer in Canada, if you’re planning on trying rafting, skiing or something similar, make sure you are covered. While it’s unpleasant to think of an accident or illness ruining your road trip, experiencing either of these without travel insurance would be a nightmare.

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