FILED - The fabulous mountain scenery of the Rocky Mountains can be experienced on the Smith-Dorrien Trail with less traffic than elsewhere. Photo: Ole Helmhausen/dpa
FILED - The fabulous mountain scenery of the Rocky Mountains can be experienced on the Smith-Dorrien Trail with less traffic than elsewhere. Photo: Ole Helmhausen/dpa

The national parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains were already notoriously overcrowded before the pandemic. Once the crisis is over, whenever that may be, an increased desire for nature and remoteness might even strain them further.

Luckily, the world’s second largest country still has some gems in store. Here are five places in Canada that haven’t been conquered by the masses (yet).

1. A paradise behind the mountains

Most people flying to Calgary, in the western province of Alberta, are looking to head to Banff National Park, known for the beautiful vistas of Lake Louise. However, the Rocky Mountains are much more pristine 20 minutes before Banff.

In Canmore, the Three Sisters Drive leads steeply uphill. Halfway up, the asphalt turns into a bumpy gravel road, which is now called Smith Dorrien Trail.

At the top, the trail squeezes through a gloomy canyon, before an incredible view opens up in front of the visitor: The deep blue Spray Lake, flanked by three-thousand-metre peaks whose steep slopes are tattooed with meltwater gullies and avalanche slopes. Not a car in sight, not a gondola, not a soul.

Chances of spotting moose, bears and wolves are just as good as in Banff National Park next door. The valley, part of Spray Valley Provincial Park, belongs to a wildlife corridor, where animals move between provincial parks in the south and Banff.

2. Looking for vastness

The Badlands make everyone feel like an explorer. There are few pictures of this area in south-eastern Alberta and still lots to discover in this little-known gem.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller with its famous dinosaur fossils hasn’t changed that. The Badlands have remained what they have always been: 90,000 square kilometres of empty, rolling endlessness, with riverbeds called coulees, three or four unexciting towns, and dozens of nests in the middle of nowhere whose very existence is chronically threatened.

But there are other highlights besides the starry night sky and the always visible curvature of the earth on the horizon.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park just outside Montana, for example, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its rock paintings, and Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, which opens up like a giant hole in front of the canopy.

In addition, there are ghost towns like Orion, Empress, Rowley and Manyberries. And the locals. The people here have experienced much hardship and are humble, godly and hospitable.

3. Quebec’s rough route

If you want to live here you have to be tough, a native once said. Physically, because you have to help out, and mentally, because the winters are damn long and there’s nothing to do then except DIY projects at home and watch Netflix.

It’s only eight hours by car from Montreal to the Gaspe Peninsula – a stone’s throw by Canadian standards. But once you’ve arrived, it feels like the end of the world.

The peninsula is the size of Belgium, but not even 130,000 people live here, all of them in tiny settlements along the coast with a gas station and a kiosk called Depanneur.

The mountainous interior is so impassable that the two-lane Route 132 can only curve around it. But it does so with flying colours: Hundreds of metres of steep coastline on the right and breakwaters on the left with the Atlantic Ocean behind, it fights its way past small bays to Perce.

The pretty resort town at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula is famous for whale watching and the Perce Rock, a monolith as big as an ocean liner. Route 132 is a beautiful alternative to the famous Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia.

4. Down to the Pacific Ocean over ‘The Hill’

It’s a miracle that cars are not regularly crashing into the abyss on “The Hill”. That’s what the locals call the section on Highway 20 from Anahim Lake to Bella Coola on the Pacific Ocean in the province of British Columbia.

The name is the understatement of the year. The rugged terrain has reduced the road to a single-lane dirt track, with rock walls to the right and a deep chasm to the left. Once on it, there’s nothing left but to pray that there will be no logging trucks in oncoming traffic.

During the first 6.4 kilometres alone, the road ascends 1,219 metres. A total of 1,828 metres in altitude separate the valley floor and Heckman Summit 21 kilometres away, with a gradient of up to 18 per cent.

But the adrenaline rush is richly rewarded with a beautiful vista of the Bella Coola Valley with its lush rainforests and 2,000-meter-high rock faces, resembling a piece of Yosemite National Park in the US. Only without tourists.

5. Overwhelming prairie

Endless skies, an ocean of grasses gently rippling in the wind. No tree or shrub in sight that the eyes could hold on to, only the line of the horizon, at a distance of ten kilometres or even 20 – impossible to estimate exactly.

In Grasslands National Park, conversations fall silent in the face of this vast emptiness.

The national park in the south of the province of Saskatchewan protects one of the last pieces of pristine prairie in North America. There are hardly any marked hiking trails.

You should expect isolation, a loose ground, orientation difficulties and a rough terrain, the park administration warns, as well as buffalo wallows, which are easy to trip into. The oval hollows are remnants of the buffalo herds which used to pass through the area and rolled in the mud for personal hygiene.

There are no camp sites within the park, but camping is allowed everywhere as long as you stay out of sight of any ranger trails and don’t make a fire. But that’s not a problem: at night the starry canopy will be more than enough.

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