How to Get the Most Out of Free Admission at Canada's National Parks

by  Teresa Bitler | Mar 9, 2016

To celebrate the nation’s 150th birthday, Canada is waiving admission fees to its national parks, marine conservation areas, and historic sites in 2017. Can’t wait? Any annual pass purchased this year will remain valid for 24 months, giving you two years for the price of one. Considering that admission to one park for a family of up to seven is $19.60 ($14.25 US), paying $136.40 ($99.19) for two years of unlimited admission is a bargain.

So, how do you make the most out of this opportunity, especially if you don’t live in Canada? Here's how.

Make a plan
First, decide where you want to go. The Canadian park system is divided into six regions: Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Canadian Prairies, Western Canada, and Northern Canada. One of the best ways to explore the country’s parks is to pick a region and base your trip there. (You can find a list of the regions, featured experiences within the region, and suggested itineraries here.)

Once you have an idea of where you’d like to go, consider your pass options. Are there two or three parks you want to visit in a specific region? Your best bet may be to wait until 2017 when you can get in for free. However, if you want to see parks in two separate regions, it might make sense to purchase a pass this year that gives you access for up to 24 months.

Pro tip: Not all sites within the park system charge entrance fees. Do some research before you go to see if the sites you want to visit actually cost money.

Decide when to go
Free admission is going to mean crowds, especially during the summer when school is out. If that’s when you have time to go, plan in advance. Make reservations now for hotels, rental cars, camp sites, and tours.

If you can, though, you may want to go during the low or shoulder season. The parks will probably still be more crowded than usual because of the free admission, but you won’t have to pay high-season rates for lodging. (On the other hand, some restaurants or attractions may close or have limited hours during the low season.)

Best bet: Schedule your trip for September or October. Not only will the kids be back in school, but temperatures are still moderate at that time of the year. Plus, time it right, and you may see fall foliage.

Choose how to go
Sure, you can drive your car and stay in hotels, but you have other options for visiting Canada’s national parks and sites. The first is to rent an RV. A standard RV that can accommodate up to five people can cost anywhere from $343 (US dollars, mileage not included) to rent for one week in April 2017 from Cruise America to $1,600 for a week during July 2016. But, you wouldn’t have to pay for hotels and you could prepare your own meals.

Another option is to go by train from one city to another, visiting the national parks in each area. The advantage to this approach is you’ll see parts of Canada that aren’t accessible any other way; the downside is once you get to your destination, say Vancouver, you’ll still need to find transportation to the nearby parks. Although Rocky Mountaineer offers exceptional packages, we recommend VIA Rail if you want to create your own itinerary and spend more time at the parks. Book early, though. With free admission to the parks, it’s going to be even tougher to reserve a rental car, RV, or seat on a train.

Find a place to stay
Nearby hotels, motels, and resorts make great bases for a national parks vacation, but why not optimize your time by actually staying in the park? Many of the parks, like Jasper National Park, have in-park lodging available as well as campgrounds where you can tent or RV camp; some even have yurts, teepees, and cabins available. (Camping permit and fees apply during 2017.)

But, what if you don’t have camping gear or want to travel with it? Parks Canada has two options that might work for you. The first is an equipped campsite ($55 per night, approximately $40 US). When you arrive to one of eight parks, your tent will have already been set up and outfitted with sleeping pads, a stove, propane, and lantern. Additional gear can be rented from local vendors.

Parks Canada also offers oTENTik lodging at several of its campgrounds ($120 per night, approximately $86 US). A cross between an A-frame cabin and a tent, these structures are mounted on a raised floor and include three beds (accommodations for up to six people). You’ll still have to bring or rent bedding, cookware, and other necessities. Again, book early if you want to guarantee a room or campsite during 2017.


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