The grandeur of the Rocky Mountains is undeniable, and with the likes of Banff and Lake Louise under its belt, Alberta is well known for having stunning National Parks. But it’s not all about the West. The East Coast of Canada has some spectacular parks and scenery of its own. From islands scattered for miles along the Lawrence River, to a hidden kayaking wonderland enticingly named “The Grotto”, there is plenty to explore on the east coast. Plus these parks have the added benefit of being within easy driving distance of Toronto. So this year, why not opt for the shorter flight and discover the pleasures of urban and wilderness in one go?
Here are our top picks of east Canada parks that are easy to reach from Toronto, and offer great camping facilities if you want to stay over:
Thousand Islands National Park
Distance from Toronto: Roughly 3 hours by car
Best for: Kayaking, boat tours
Travel up the Saint Lawrence River to the Thousands Islands Parkway and you’ll discover an incredible geographic feature. Although this might be Canada’s smallest national park at only 9 square kilometres, you can be sure that it punches above its weight.
The river is home to 21 proper islands and innumerable little islets, which are actually the tops of ancient mountains. The picturesque granite cliffs and windswept pines of these islands are stunning, especially when viewed from a kayak or boat. As many of the best parts of the park are accessible only by boat, this is the perfect excuse to take to the water.
Hop from island to island and follow undulating hiking trails. If you’re lucky you’ll spot rare species of birds and even turtles among the islands’ rich fauna. Our Eastern Express driving holiday includes a 1000 Islands cruise.
Algonquin Provincial Park
Distance from Toronto: Under 3 hours by car
Best for: Wildlife, canoeing, hiking
From one of Canada’s smallest parks we jump to one of Canada’s largest: Algonquin is a quarter of the size of Belgium. As Canada’s oldest provincial park, its range has been increased over the years and we couldn’t be happier that more incredible landscapes are protected.
The park boasts an unbelievable 2400 lakes and 1400km of rivers, so it really is best explored in a canoe. Travelling by boat allows you to slip quietly through the water, meaning you’ll have the best opportunity of seeing some wildlife without disturbing the animals.
Its vast interior is made up of rocky ridges and dense forest, so biking and birding are also both popular activities. Of the incredible 53 species of mammals who call the park “home”, most visitors hope to see one of the big five: Moose, white tailed deer, beavers, black bears and wolves.
Our Journey of the Voyageur holiday lets you canoe through the wilds of Algonquin Park, slipping silently through the water to watch wildlife.
Bruce Peninsula National Park
Distance from Toronto: Under 3.5 hours by car
Best for: swimming, beaches, dark skies
On a tiny peninsula protruding into the azure waters of Georgian Bay lies Bruce Peninsula National Park. Although boasting dramatic cliffs, Dark Sky status and more wildlife than you can shake a stick at, Bruce is most famous for two wonderful things: The Singing Sands and The Grotto.
The Singing Sands is a huge sandy beach on the Northern side of the peninsula. Its sheltered location is perfect for families and their picnics. This area is surrounded by old-growth cedar trees, dense ferns and delicate orchid flowers.
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be ticked off your bucket list, hike rugged the Bruce Trail to the Grotto. This takes you through natural rock tunnels, arches and past a boulder beach to the shore’s edge. Here, erosion has worked her magic and revealed a huge overhang with a cave underneath, surrounded by crystal clear waters. Welcome to the Grotto.
Our Journey Beyond Nature suggested road trip takes you past Bruce Peninsula into Ontario’s wild heart.
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
Distance from Toronto: Under 2.5 hours by car
Best for: solitude, tranquillity, walks
This huge area of preserved wilderness encompasses Bottle Lake and Sucker Lake, as well as many other smaller lakes and waterways. From wetlands to forests to rocky outcrops, the scenery here is beautifully diverse.
Travel deeper into the park and you’ll be rewarded with secluded sandy beaches, wild rapids and tranquil lakes. The best thing about this park is the peace and quiet – tread softly and you might be lucky enough to spy a barred owl slumbering in the branches.
Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park
Distance from Toronto: Around 2 hours by car
Best for: solitude, tranquillity, walks
Wild by name, wild by nature. The Wildlands are one of the most diverse and least disturbed areas in Central Ontario. Scenic cliffs and shaded gorges are interspersed with lakes, rivers and streams across an ecologically diverse area.
The 500km long Ganaraska Hiking Trail has its wilderness section in the Wildlands Provincial Park. This section is one of the toughest on the trail, but is rewarded with sights like Victoria Falls, Hunter’s Lake, and Little Gull Lake.
As well as favourites like moose, black bears and beavers, the park is also home to more exotic wildlife like the endangered northern ribbon snake. Although there are no maintained facilities in the park for camping, it’s close enough to nip back to Toronto at the end of the day.
Image credits: Derek Hatfield (Flickr), Óðinn (Wikimedia)