Kayaking on a pristine glacial lake. Riding a wave to a secluded beach. Hiking above the cloud line. Wandering in a rain forest. It would be tough to tackle all of these adventures in a year, much less in a single vacation.
But the variety and proliferation of parks in British Columbia, from diverse city retreats to surprisingly accessible wildlife refuges means you can satisfy your need for nature, no sitting in traffic or battling crowds required. These seven bucket-list-level parks offer some of the best hiking, water sports and awe-inducing sites in North America.
Bonus: Many also feature great restaurants — and most are an easy drive (or just steps) from lively urban British Columbia centers.
There's a rain forest on the edge of downtown Vancouver. (Yes, really.) And that's only one of the marvels you'll find among Stanley Park's 1,000 acres, home to more than 200 species of birds , 30-plus hiking trails, two beaches, a swimming pool and more, all encircled by a 6 1/2-mile seawall where you can join Vancouver residents in biking, strolling, running or daydreaming. Why travel to the wilderness for an active adventure when you can kayak, hike, swim or spot an endangered Great Blue Heron just minutes from the heart of the city?
Walking distance from downtown Victoria, Beacon Hill Park bumps up against the Pacific Ocean, attracting paragliders, sailboarders and beach strollers who come for the sweeping vistas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. The park is also home to an ecologically diverse variety of ponds and streams, swaths of grassland and forest, all easily covered on foot, where you can get up close and personal to one of the many peacocks that have been freely roaming Beacon Hill's 200 acres since the 1890s.
Take a walk or gondola ride from Whistler Village and suddenly you're surrounded by snow-capped mountains, pristine glacial lakes and some of the best hiking and camping in North America. That's Garibaldi Provincial Park, with nearly 800 square miles of mountain wilderness and water adventures for experienced climbers, day trekkers and casual walkers alike. Or cool your heels and enjoy the 360-degree panoramas from the Peak2Peak Gondola; if you're lucky, you just may spot some black bears and their cubs below.
Just about an hour east of downtown Vancouver, Golden Ears Provincial Park is a haven for water sports lovers and trekkers alike. Popular Alouette Lake is the beach hangout, where locals take advantage of the park's proximity to Vancouver to spend the afternoon windsurfing, canoeing, kayaking or simply chilling with a fishing pole. The miles of hiking trails also beckon day trippers and overnight adventurers up for sleeping under the stars or a breathtaking scramble to the twin-peaked summit for which the park is named.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Looking for a hip summer vibe? You'll find it in the miles of secluded beaches of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, accessible from the laidback District of Tofino, where surfers gather after catching a wave at Long Beach, one of the best spots for hanging 10 on Canada's West Coast. Or shake the sand from between your toes and head out to one of the many trails that lead you through old growth forests and feathery curtains of witches' moths via wooden boardwalks that lead to yet more secluded coves, where you'll be tempted to dive back in again, with or without your board.
Top of the Rockies
Just a bit more than two hours from Calgary, Alberta, this UNESCO World Heritage Site (famous for the Burgess Shale Formation, a layer of rock that houses a treasure trove of fossils), is accessible by road and on foot. But you'll want to get out of the car to wander among the alpine wildflowers at their summer peak. Nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Yoho offers worth-the-hike waterfalls and towering peaks frosted with glacial ice (there are at least 25 peaks above 10,000 feet). Or take a load off and gaze at Emerald Lake, its waters truly jewel-like, its shores blissfully uncrowded, and dream.
Culture and nature
No cellphone access. No roads. No intrusions from the modern world. This unique preserve, accessible only by sea or sky, is located on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago 75 miles across the Hecate Strait from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area has been inhabited for generations by the Haida people, and visitors can hike to century-old monumental poles carved from the surrounding cedars or see the remains of post-and-beam historic Haida Long Houses. After your dose of culture, take to the waters by kayak and stay close to shore to see the colorful tidal pools teeming with life, or paddle farther out to explore the nearly 2,000 islands and islets, most practically deserted, except for the more than 20 species of whales and dolphins, among the other marine life. Don't forget your camera.