Road Trip Across Canada with Dogs: Experiences and Tips for Travellers
I recently did a month-long road trip with my dogs Forbes and Flirt across Canada. Setting out to explore the Canadian Rockies from Toronto on my own, driving more than 10 000 km (two oil changes were required along the way!) with a little Hyundai, in the company of two dogs who have some social boundary issues was a daunting thought at first and potentially not everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation.
In my case, I really wanted to explore the beautiful nature of this amazing country, and for me to go on hikes without my dogs just seems pointless, the reason why I have them is that I can enjoy the outdoors with them. So of course they would come with me and I planned the trip accordingly. Where to go and where to stay was based on the location of parks and places of natural beauty, even though along long stretches of driving we also stayed in cities.
Our main destination, The Rockies, is obviously a very popular holiday destination in Canada, which means that the famous locations can get very crowded. My goal was to seek trails which were not the hot spots for everyone. There is certainly no lack of wilderness and solitude on the mountains but one thing to consider if you are used to Ontario trail ratings (meaning aim for ‘difficult’ if you want to get a decent amount exercise) is that in Alberta and British Columbia it is a different story. One should take the parks’ difficulty ratings seriously over there: what is marked as ‘difficult’ could mean that the trail head may be accessible ONLY by a four-wheel-drive, the hike involves some lung-exploding elevation and that parts of the trail might be covered in thigh-deep snow in June!
I have compiled into this blog the highlights and most useful things that I discovered during our journey, and I’m encouraging anyone thinking of doing a trans Canada trip with dogs to put their doubts and concerns aside, and just do it! The most enjoyable experiences ended up being locations where we had a nice place to stay in as well. At the end of the day, there is nothing like relaxing in a place which feels like a home away from home. Now I know exactly where to go next time! Our route based on where we stayed was: Sault St Marie, ON -Thunder Bay, ON – Winnipeg, MB – Arcola, SK – Medicine Hat, AB – Canmore, AB -Valemount, BC -Kamloops, BC – Gray Creek (Kootenay Lake), BC – Pincher Creek (Waterton area), AB – Regina, SK – Aubigny, MB – Thunder Bay, ON – St Joseph Island, ON.
On our way to our first overnight location, Sault St Marie, we accidentally stumbled upon Chutes Provincial Park. It is very accessible from the highway and was very quiet both on our way to the West as well as on our journey back. It is great for a 1-2 hour break and a good walk.
When driving west you will end up driving through Lake Superior Provincial Park no matter what, as Trans Canada Highway cuts through it. On our way to the West, we stopped at Nokomis trail on the opposite side of the road from Old Woman’s Bay. The weather was not co-operating that day: Unfortunately, it was impossible to see the scenery because of rain and fog but the upside was that there was nobody else around. The hike was nice climbing up and down. On our way home from the west Lake Superior and I obviously met again, and what a surprise, it was very rainy and foggy again. Nevertheless, we hiked along Cathy’s Cove, which on a non-rainy day undoubtedly is spectacular. So explore the park and hope for good weather would be my advice!!
While in Thunder Bay Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is THE place to go to. While there we got a little sunshine too after our rainy journey that far. I asked for a trail recommendation at the campsite office, they recommended the Kabeyun trail, but due to all the rain and recent melting of snow I guess, it was very wet and mucky. Until we got to Tee Harbour, which was beautiful! It was May but it felt like March, Lake Superior had a very cold feel to it and birch trees had no leaves yet. We encountered just a couple of other people and deer. But a very nice nature excursion in our book.
Kakabeka Falls on the west side of Thunder Bay is a nice spot that we visited on our journey back from the West. It was not the most amazing when it comes to actual hiking trails, but definitely worth checking out, the falls are very pretty.
On our way back to Toronto our last stop was was Richards Landing on St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron. This was a great find and we had a very pleasant AirBnB to stay in. Especially after a day’s drive from Thunder Bay in heavy rain. If you are planning a road trip or just a getaway, St. Joseph Island is an excellent location. In previous years my summer getaway had always been Manitoulin Island (oh how I love that place!!), but now it would be a tough choice between these two. A great bonus: there was a sauna where we stayed, the proper wood heated kind, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
In Winnipeg we stayed at a brand new Super8, which was the best hotel/motel experience of the whole trip instead some dingy ones that we encountered. On the way back we stayed at a very nice AirBnB cabin just south of Winnipeg, but I didn’t happen to find anything spectacular for hiking near there, and after a lot of driving during previous days, I decided to to take it easy. There are amazing parks to visit in Manitoba, but this time didn’t have a chance to explore. The prairie skies are spectacular!
I think this is the province that doesn’t get enough credit when it comes to road trips in Canada. I found the prairies and the oil fields (we made a dip south from Trans Canada to see them) pretty and intriguing. We visited Moose Mountain Provincial Park in the evening in May, the weather was pretty cool, and it clearly wasn’t the season for visitors yet. We had a lovely walk around Beaver Lake (lots of mosquitoes around already though) and saw nobody on the trail. Another great stop along the way when looking for a nice meal is Little Red Market Café in the village of Mortlach, just along Trans Canada West of Moose Jaw.
Our first nature experience in Alberta was Cypress Hills Provincial Park East of Medicine Hat. This park is pretty, close to Elkwater Lake, and has nice hills and forestry to hike through. We hiked the Rodeo Loop trail (I think…), and it had quite a bit of elevation too. There was hardly anybody around on the trail.
And then the mountains, oh the mountains after a week of travelling we got there! The majestic sight of the Rockies is very uplifting and there is no comparison to anything else. Our whole trip actually got planned around a stay in Canmore, as in January this year I found out that a friend who had moved out of Toronto is running an AirBnB there. So our stay there was the longest of the trip, and we had a luxurious home for a week.
Quarry Lake Park and trails around there where a nice find right in Canmore, as the park actually has a lovely off-leash area with a pond and amazing mountain views. Mountain biking/hiking trails also start from the park, so you can keep exploring and one day we did the Highline Trail, which was great. I discovered that you really have to watch out for the mountain bikers, though, they come fast and unexpectedly. Not often, but they do. Unfortunately, they also ride through the actual dog park, so watch out.
Kananaskis Lakes, at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, was no doubt one of the highlights of our trip, about one hour’s drive East of Canmore. I don’t think I would have ever found this place if a local friend hadn’t shown it to me. It was gorgeous, to me the definition of Rockies and I ended up going back a second time, too. The hiking loop around the Upper Kananaskis lake is a long one which would take an entire day, we took the trail to the tip of the lake and then turned back. Lots of snow for the dogs to roll in, too!
Icefields Parkway (between Banff and Jasper) is a very popular road with travellers, with lots of spectacular spots along the way. It is advertised as the prettiest drive in Canada, and for a reason. When driving on the road it feels like you are on your own, but once you hit a point of interest, carloads of tourists are there. But touristy spots are touristy for a reason, so some of those have to be seen! We drove the Icefields Parkway from Canmore to Valemount, our next destination on the trip. We stopped at Peyto Lake. This is beyond spectacularly pretty! As the trail was still under wet snow it stopped some people from hiking up but once at the lookout, it was very busy. To an extent it was tough to find a spot for a photograph to avoid other people in it, but we got it, and the colour of the lake is something I have never seen before. It was so blue!
After Peyto Lake we also stopped at another trail, before Columbia Icefield, but I cannot remember the name of it anymore. It was short lived anyways, as the trail was under piles of wet snow and quite the climb, so we turned back after a few photos. Athabasca Glacier is a famous location on the Columbia Icefield, but with the dogs and the bunch of tourists and the glacier being kind of far away from the road (due to retreat as a result climate change!!) it was just a photo stop for me.
My goal was to explore the Jasper area more while I stayed in Valemount, a little mountain town on the BC side, but Jasper is huge and it really requires more time and planning. I want to go back there! More or less randomly I decided to go to Maligne Lake at Jasper Provincial Park, and chose Opal Trail based on a guide book as it promised excellent views. Once I got to the starting point I discovered that dogs were banned from the trail. I defied the authority as I had driven all that way and the guide book didn’t mention this at all. We saw a park ranger coming down the trail (not upset about us scrambling up) who told me that the trail was snowed in at the top. What’s a little snow to a Finn, I thought, lets do it! For a rookie not used to low oxygen levels and the elevation, the climb was lung-exploding! Once we got to the top the trail indeed was under snow. We started following others’ footsteps until they dispersed and I couldn’t see any more trails signs. At times I was in snow waist deep and Flirt had difficulty to follow. I ate my sandwiches, took photos and with shaking legs walked the downhill back.
Waterton National Park was the last mountain destination that we visited in Alberta on the way back from BC. We stayed at a motel in Pincher Creek, and I was set to do a final mountain hike on our day there. Which happened to be absolutely pouring with rain. But off we went to Goat Lake, hiking in rain and not really being able to see the mountains because of the clouds. It was about 4 hours in pouring rain, I must say that the dogs were not too impressed, but we did it! And afterwards, it cleared, so at least I got some photos of the mountains. Which at Waterton interestingly were more triangular in shape compared to other part of the Rockies.
The first to stay in BC for us was Valemount, where we stayed at an absolutely lovely place, where we also made a friend! The owner of the resort offered us her guest cabin and also took us on probably the prettiest hike of the whole trip. Kinney Lake at Mount Robson Provincial Park was breathtaking. Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Rockies, which I had chosen as a must see when planning the trip. The trail was fairly busy, but once we got to the other side of the lake we settled on a quiet spot off the trails, had a lovely picnic and the dogs got to roam around, swim and stroll in the glacial lake.
I took a liking to little Valemount, it wasn’t touristy, and would totally use this town as a base to stay in for exploring the area again. Next time!
Next stop in BC was Kamloops, and at this point it felt very sad to leave the sight of the majestic mountains behind. I chose Kamloops as a base when planning the trip because it seemed like close enough for exploring Wells Gray and Revelstoke Parks. Visiting these parks didn’t happen though, as distances can be quite deceiving when peering at them on Google Maps. It was very hot, so we drove to Vernon in the Okanagan area and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park for a hike and a swim for all of us. It was very pretty, and the dip in the lake was heavenly. There were mountain bikers though, and they came fast down those hills, so I had to be careful. Paul Lake Provincial Park near Kamloops was a nice, quiet hike the next day. Also, the wineries in the Okanagan area are lovely, I only had the time to visit one, Monte Creek Ranch.
After Kamloops the next destination was in The Kootenay Rockies. I very much would have wanted to spend more time in this area, now I just have to make another trip when I know all the good spots. I had booked a place to stay in a little village called Gray Creek, East of Kootenay Lake and I was aware of the fact that there would be two ferry crossings to get there from Kamloops. What a long, challenging journey this ended up to be! The morning I set out I found out the Trans Canada Highway West of Revelstoke was under water and mud due to flooding. So no chance to explore Revelstoke on the way. I took an alternate route, BUT everyone else obviously had the same agenda, therefore, we were in a ferry line for almost seven hours at Arrowhead Lake!!! The line was extremely long and the little ferry only fit so many cars. By the time I got across it was almost dark already, and I knew that I needed to take another ferry at Kootenay Lake. I had gotten information on the first ferry that it would be running potentially all night to accommodate the travellers, and I was really hoping for that.
But driving on winding mountain roads in the dark, with foggy patches and wildlife running around was slow going, so by the time I got to Kootenay Lake it was midnight, and the ferry, of course, was not running anymore. I knew I was very close to my lodgings, it was just the darn long lake in between. I decided to get back in the car and start driving around the lake as instructed by the owner of our AirBnB, it was another three hours of mountain roads through Slocan Valley, at around 3.30 am we finally got to Gray Creek. Wow. I was very glad that my car didn’t break down. Also along the route, we drove through some lovely looking spots, such as the town of Nelson, which definitely would be a great place to stay in. Once the sun started coming up in Gray Creek, I saw that we had arrived at a little piece of heaven on earth. The cottage was lovely and rustic and the view from the balcony was a great reward at the end of the tedious drive.
Pilot Bay Provincial Park was a pleasant, easy place to go hiking, and we ended up going there twice from Gray Creek. I tried to find more hardcore hikes with amazing scenery but some of them such as Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park has a dog ban. There would have been good trails towards Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park, but with a Hyundai Accent, there was no getting to the starts of the trail heads, a 4-wheel-drive is an absolute must. So we took it easy on us and the car.
Now it’s about a month after the trip, and I am looking at the photos of the mountains longingly. I am extremely happy we made this trip and I was impressed by how adaptable the dogs were. And it was surprisingly easy to find dog friendly, nice places to stay in. You can filter searches on AirBnB so that you only see the pet friendly options, and at the time of booking I let the owners know that I am a very conscientious dog owner and will leave the place cleaner than I found it. I made sure to live up to my promise, so that other dog owners would be welcome to visit after us, too.
Canada is gorgeous.
- Travelling with dogs