This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Canada is one of the rare places on Earth where wide, well-maintained roads carve their way through remote, uncompromised wilderness. Behind the wheel of a car, you can skirt the icy feet of glaciers, wind through forests populated by foraging megafauna, climb Rocky Mountain slopes and explore storm-sculpted coastlines, where ocean waves are plied by migrating cetaceans. Adventurous travellers can even explore the all-season Dempster Highway, which runs from boreal wilderness north through the Arctic Circle and on to the stark polar coastline.

It’s for this reason that road trips are not to be rushed in Canada, a country that’s home to the second-longest national highway in the world. Scenic A-to-B drives are a thrill in themselves, but the joy of making it this far into the wilds is allowing plenty of time to get out and explore. After all, across provinces and territories like British Columbia and the Yukon, there are near-endless opportunities for mountain hiking, wild swimming in remote lakes, white-water paddling in a dugout canoe or back-country cycling under endless skies. In Nova Scotia, meanwhile, lighthouses lead drivers to coastal villages, where roadside inns serve seafood chowders to ancient recipes and words are still spoken in French Acadian and Scottish dialects. To get where your car or feet won’t reach, fly-and-drive opportunities abound. In British Columbia, seaplanes fly low above Pacific temperate rainforests and rugged coastlines, gently setting down on lakes for a spot of bear-watching. Over in the Yukon, small excursion planes access stellar sights like Kluane National Park, which has the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. 

Motorhomes and RVs are another popular travel choice, allowing your accommodation to come right along with you where it may otherwise be scant — and the country’s regions and territories have plenty of campgrounds that supply vehicles with power and water. There’s a lot to be said for camping in Canada, be it with a motorhome, the pre-set tents and cabins often available for rent in national parks, or a simple sleeping bag, as long as you follow local guidelines about wildlife and safety. You can expect evenings entirely devoid of light pollution, lit with a dazzling canopy of stars and — season and northerly latitude depending — a never-setting sun or heavenly displays from the Northern Lights.  

View of Dawson City's greenery and rivers

Midnight Dome lookout is the best spot to see Yukon’s Dawson City from above.

Photograph by Benjamin Steffes-Lai

Itinerary 1: British Columbia

Start: Vancouver
Finish: Tofino
Distance: 410 miles
Time: 7 to 10 days

The great outdoors? Make that the greatest. British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada, has all the ingredients to set any wilderness-lover’s pulse racing, from driftwood-strewn beaches to vast forests of evergreen giants, under whose canopies you’ll experience the hush and reverence of a cathedral. It’s here that some of planet Earth’s most charismatic creatures roam: galumphing grizzlies, skittish black bears, cougars and even elusive coastal wolves, which pick their way between glacier-fed inlets to feast on the Pacific’s larder. 

To get into the thick of it you must first pass through Vancouver, the province’s largest city — and surely a contender for the most scenic on the planet, above which floatplanes circle like honeybees over a hive. Amid the totem poles and skyscrapers in and around Stanley Park is one of Canada’s most exciting food scenes, known for innovative fine dining and hyper-local dishes. You can budget a week to take in the city and west coast of Vancouver Island, but it’s worth tacking on a few days to add one of the country’s most scenic routes to the itinerary: the aptly named Sea to Sky Highway, which winds up to the mountain resort of Whistler. After a ferry hop across the Strait of Georgia, island life awaits, with the soaring cedars of Cathedral Grove, windswept beaches and boardwalked trails of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, and pretty Tofino, the laid-back surfer town few ever want to leave.

Large totem poles in the park

The Indigenous totem poles are a must-visit spot in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Photograph by AWL Images

Six highlights in British Columbia

1. Vancouver
Vancouver sits in all its glassy glory between peaks and sea, with the old-growth forests of Stanley Park at its heart. Search for its nine Indigenous totem poles, then the choice is yours: seek out the new constellation of Michelin stars or slip south in search of spicy wontons on the Richmond Dumpling Trail.

2. Whistler
The Sea to Sky Highway climbs up from Vancouver with rock walls on one side, the Pacific on the other and nothing ahead but sky. Make for Whistler, home to North America’s biggest ski resort and a hiking hotspot, and visit the Whistler Train Wreck, which has turned the site of a rail accident into a graffiti venue. Time your trip back into town with dusk for the best chance of spotting black bears.

3. Nanaimo 
The rest of the trip is on Vancouver Island, which can be reached via a 30-mile ferry crossing from the mainland to the town of Nanaimo. Stick around to try a classic Canadian treat, the Nanaimo bar (coconut crumbs, custard icing and chocolate ganache). It was invented here, and there’s even a trail to tick off all varieties in town.

4. Cathedral Grove 
En route to the coast, the highway runs through MacMillan Provincial Park. Fringing both sides of the road is one of the world’s few easily accessible stands of old-growth temperate rainforest, where you can stroll along fern-lined trails between mammoth trunks and branches draped with lichen.

5. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Head on and through Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a protected swathe of evergreens protruding on rocky fingers into the Pacific. Wander by Long Beach, best known for surfing and storm-watching, or head into the forest tracing the pawprints of coastal wolves. 

6. Tofino
A town of First Nations art galleries and surf shacks at what feels like the edge of the world, Tofino is as chilled as it is picturesque. End the journey at Long Beach Lodge Resort, where cottages peek out from spruce trees a few steps from the coast.

The Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver at dusk

Vancouver sits in all its glassy glory between peaks and sea, with the old-growth forests of Stanley Park at its heart.

Photograph by Peter Pesta Photography

Itinerary 2: Yukon

Start: Whitehorse
Finish: Latitude 66° 33’ Arctic Circle
Distance: 605 miles
Time: 7 to 10 days

There’s nowhere like the Yukon for feeling like a pioneer-era explorer. Reaching above the Arctic Circle and dotted with gold rush towns, glacier-topped mountains and highways through boreal wilderness, this northerly territory is over three times the size of England, populated with far more creatures of fur and fin than people. 

Start in Whitehorse, the local capital city and travel hub, where the great Alaska and Klondike Highways meet. Then, it’s on to Dawson City, rich in gold rush history, and up the Dempster Highway — Canada’s only all-season public access road to the Arctic Circle — before tracing your route back to the start. Even allowing seven to 10 days for this itinerary, drives between major stops can take up to six hours, so plan ahead to access garages, shops and service suppliers in the larger towns and cities. On the plus side, there will be plenty of spectacular places to stretch your legs. The looped hiking trails at Five Finger Rapids between Whitehorse and Dawson, for example, take in mountaintop panoramas with the chance to kayak and canoe. 

And if all that’s not enough, Haines Junction, just under two hours west of Whitehorse, is a great addition to either end of this itinerary. Here, short flightseeing trips take you over the world’s largest non-polar ice fields: the glaciers of Kluane National Park.

A caribou standing in the snow

The Yukon’s frozen north is populated with far more creatures of fur and fin than people. 

Photograph by Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur

Five highlights in the Yukon

1. Whitehorse 
The 1890s encampment on the Yukon River’s White Horse Rapids has grown into the Yukon’s lively capital. Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters has artisan brews and bike hire, perfect for freewheeling the Waterfront Trail spanning the city. Next, explore the SS Klondike, a 19th-century boat-cum-museum revealing the scale of the region’s gold rush, and enjoy the wild game menu at Klondike Rib & Salmon, which is housed in the city’s oldest operating building. Nearby, Yukon Wildlife Preserve, Emerald Lake, Miles Canyon and Takhini Hot Springs offer further action and adventure.

2. Dawson City 
Make sure you have a full tank of petrol: it’s around a six-hour drive to the next stop. You can top up on food an hour in at Braeburn Lodge, famed for its delicious, dinner-plate-sized cinnamon buns. Your destination, the atmospheric frontier town of Dawson City, has welcomed both dignitaries and the desperate over the centuries, including pioneer-era author Jack London, whose wood cabin is now a museum. Take in this national historic site’s old theatres, clapboard houses and saloon bars on a walking tour. A must-see is the Sourdough Saloon, located in The Downtown hotel, which serves the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (a strong alcohol of your choice, with a preserved human toe in it). Just beyond town, the Klondike fields are where Canada’s gold rush began in 1896. Try gold-panning at Discovery Claim National Historic Site and get a view of it all from Midnight Dome lookout; during the colder months, the panorama is often lit by the Aurora Borealis.

3. Dempster Highway 
Wind your way along the Dempster Highway through remote tundra towards the dramatic wilderness of Tombstone Territorial Park, about an hour north of the Dempster Corner turnoff. Named for its craggy granite peak, the park is populated by wind-carved mountains and scenic viewpoints like North Fork Pass and Two Moose Lake. Numerous trails crisscross this ‘Patagonia of the North’.

4. Eagle Plains 
The road winds along the Ogilvie River Valley then climbs to the Eagle Plains plateau for spectacular views of the region. This is more or less halfway along the Dempster Highway, before it heads into the Northwest Territories. Eagle Plains Hotel, the only one for many miles, is a hub for travellers to exchange tales from the road and refuel (try the double-decker Arctic burger). The town also has an RV park and campground.

5. Latitude 66° 33’ Arctic Circle 
You’ve reached the end of your journey — and what an end it is. Just an hour’s drive north of Eagle Plains is latitude 66˚ 33’N, better known as the Arctic Circle, marked by a roadside sign. Despite its icy connotations, it can surprise visitors: in midsummer, the sun circles the sky but never sets; in autumn (August to September), the Richardson Mountains are ablaze with fiery colours. For those keen to complete the route, it’s six hours or more to the town of Inuvik, with the Arctic Ocean a further three hours’ drive away.  

Published in the March 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).

Source link