Cross-Canada camping trip from Ontario to British Columbia

Excitement (and nervousness) was in the air when we set out mid-August for an epic road trip and the start of a new phase in our lives! This would be a car camping trip like no other, spanning 5 provinces, using scaled back camping gear and relying on a rental car to bring my husband, daughter and I, our camping essentials and many prized possessions to Vancouver Island, with just 2 of us flying home. It would also be our inaugural vegetarian camping trip (vegan for one of us). For Ailish it would be her first time west of Ontario, while Alasdair and I hadn’t been that way since our honeymoon to Banff in 2001!

Part 2: A week touring Vancouver Island (while staying in Airbnbs).

Part 3: Highlights of the vegan restaurants we tried as we crossed the country (there were many gems!).

Sunset at Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

A few notes:

  • Booking provincial park campsites: All campsites were booked on the first allowable booking date for all provincial parks in all provinces. I was already familiar with the Ontario booking system (and the 5 months to the day booking in advance), but I had to create accounts and learn the booking systems for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. They each had their own booking timeframes. While we hoped to get waterfront, non-electrical sites where possible, we only really cared about Lake Superior – you can’t beat the waterfront sites and Agawa Bay sunsets. As it turned out, I didn’t manage to snag one, but I did get one a month later when a booking was cancelled (I checked the Ontario Parks website frequently!). We booked a few electrical sites when this was the only option, and did have a power bar with us to charge our devices. Mostly we charged phones, an iPad and headphones using chargers/adapters in the car, as well as with a small solar charger.
  • Booking national park campsites: Our plans for the trip hadn’t been finalized when the booking window opened, but we got lucky and I managed to grab the last site at the very small Glacier National Park. There were still many options at Banff National Park.
  • Car rental: We booked the car 9 months in advance, long before our trip was confirmed, because we wanted a larger vehicle and we knew there was a shortage of rentals. My biggest fear about the trip was that there would be no rental car for us on pick-up day!
  • Minimalist camping: Given that we would be flying our camping gear home, we scaled back what we would normally have with us when car camping. We did not bring a dining tent, our canoe or kayaks, our paddling gear, our bikes, an axe, a big pot or frying pan, or a hard-topped cooler. We brought our backcountry camping kitchen gear (including tarps) and a soft-sided cooler bag, which worked out great. We ended up buying a shallow bin for the cooler bag because when the ice melted, the bag leaked!
  • Food: Usually when we car camp I pack a Rubbermaid bin and a big cooler of food. For this trip we knew we’d be on the road most days, and therefore able to stop in grocery stores along the way. We often had picnic lunches after stopping at grocery stores for frest fruits and veggies, but we cooked our breakfasts and dinners. And then of course sometimes we ate in vegan restaurants!

Day 1: Hamilton, Ontario to Lake Superior Provincial Park (Agawa Bay Campground), Agawa Bay, Ontario (865 km / 9 hours)

Despite the super long day, when we visit Lake Superior Provincial Park we always drive the entire way on the first day of our trip. Doing so gives us more time at the park! We have visited times and I have written several blog posts about Lake Superior:

As is custom, we stopped for lunch in Sudbury, but this time we had lunch on the patio at Tucos Taco Lounge, dessert at Flurple’s, and grabbed treats to go from Beard’s Coffee Bar and Bakery (all vegan!)! Needless to say we did not need to stop for dinner in Sault Ste. Marie as we normally do!

We arrived at our waterfront campsite at the tail end of the sunset, and ended up putting our two new lightweight tents up in the dark – not ideal, when I had only put them up once before by myself months ago in the backyard! Nevertheless, they went up quickly and no fights ensued. We couldn’t wait to spend two full days in the park before continuing westward.

Day 2: Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

There are many great hiking trails in the park. On this day we chose to hike the Pinguisibi Trail along the Sand River. Ailish sat at the river’s edge and sketched the waterfall in front of her. Later in the afternoon, we swam at Katherine Cove – unlike the rocky beach, quick drop off and freezing water at Agawa Bay, Katherine Cove has a sandy beach, is shallow quite a ways out, and is therefore a tiny bit warmer (this is Lake Superior, after all, with an average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius or 36 degrees Fahrenheit)! We also visited the Visitor Centre gift shop and interactive displays. I always love looking at the book with recent animal sightings listed!

Day 3: Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

On our second full day at Lake Superior, Alasdair and I each went for a run – our goal was to run at least once in each province. In my case, I planned to do 5k runs. Ontario run done! We also went back to swim at Katherine Cove, and enjoyed our last Lake Superior sunset, not knowing when we would be back!

Day 4: Lake Superior Provincial Park to Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, Kakabeka Falls, Ontario (589 km / 6.25 hours)

After breakfast we set out for Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which we had previously stopped at briefly to see the falls, but not to camp. At one point along Highway 17 the traffic slowed – we expected construction or an accident – but as we got closer we saw a small airplane that had landed on the road! It didn’t look damaged. We wondered how it would be removed given its not insignificant wingspan! We stopped at the Terry Fox Monument just outside Thunder Bay.

Terry Fox Monument, Highway 17 near Thunder Bay, Ontario

Usually when we car camp we cook over the campfire, but for this trip we used both the campfire and my MSR Dragonfly backcountry stove. Ailish and I had our share of vegan s’mores over the course of the trip!

Day 5: Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park to Whiteshell Provincial Park (Falcon Lakeshore Campground), Falcon Beach, Manitoba (549 km / 6 hours)

It was a rainy morning, but before leaving the park we had to get a good look at the waterfall!

At some point in the morning we crossed the 90 degree longitude mark and entered the Central Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour. And then shortly afterwards we reached the Ontario/Manitoba border! The sign marking the spot was the nicest of the provincial signs we saw on our trip.

When we arrived at our campsite at Whiteshell Provincial Park (Falcon Lakeshore Campground), we initially thought that someone was mistakenly set up in our site. But no, our site was essentially shared with another group. We were shocked. It was tiny, and because the majority of the site was gravel (a harbinger of things to come), we had to set up one of our tents right beside our neighbour’s tent. Unfortunately they were also smokers. Suffice it to say this was our least favourite site of the trip. Alasdair and I each went for a run, and then we all went for a swim at the beach. Manitoba run done! With thunderstorms in the forecast along with lots of rain, and zero desire to spend another full day at that campsite, we decided to change our plans and stay at an Airbnb in Winnipeg the next night. Unfortunately our neighbours at the campsite across the road were incredibly loud, playing music at a volume I will never understand. We did eventually fall asleep.

Day 6: Whiteshell Provincial Park to Airbnb in Winnipeg, Manitoba (130 km / 1.5 hours)

When Alasdair and I woke to the sound of thunder early in the morning, we made the decision to pack up immediately and try to get out of there before the heavy rain started. We succeeded! As we were heading to Winnipeg, I caught site of a big sign out of the corner of my eye. I quickly made the decision to exit the highway, and we discovered we were at the longitudinal centre of Canada! A lucky find!

In Winnipeg we checked out The Forks (located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers), but it was raining so we decided to return the next day. We also had a delicious lunch at Roughage Eatery (vegan), and then we visited my Tante Claire and Uncle Alan, who we hadn’t seen in about 17 years! We had a really nice visit with them in their lovely backyard. That night we were fortunate to be able to do laundry at our Airbnb!

Day 7: Winnipeg, Manitoba to Rivers Provincial Park, Rivers, Manitoba (244 km / 2.75 hours)

We went back to The Forks – this time in the sun – where Ailish got out her guitar and she and Alasdair geeked out on physics and sound waves in a dome area of the skate park (to be fair, it was pretty cool). We were shocked by the flood marker pole nearby and couldn’t imagine the water level ever reaching those levels!

We went into The Forks Market to grab food for lunch, which we ate on the super cute patio area. We headed for Rivers Provincial Park, where the mosquitoes reminded us that we were still in Manitoba! They were horrendous!

We had heard on the radio that conditions were good to see the Northern Lights that night, so at Rivers Provincial Park we went for a walk in the dark away from campsites and lights and did some sky gazing. We got to giggling – apparently loudly – attracting the attention of someone who turned out to be a park warden, coming with his big flashlight to make sure we weren’t up to no good (apparently they had issues with people stealing wood)! We did see the Northern Lights, but they weren’t very colourful. We did, however, see lots of shooting stars! (This wasn’t the only night we star gazed… it was just the most memorable one!)

Day 8: Rivers Provincial Park to Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, Stewart Valley, Saskatchewan (650 km / 6.5 hours)

Not pictured: our 3 camping chairs and the fire pit.

We headed out after breakfast, entering into Saskatchewan (a first for all of us).

We stopped in Regina for a picnic lunch, and couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted several seemingly tame hares!

Gorgeous hare!

Alasdair and I went for runs, and then swam in the lake. Saskatchewan run done! We went star gazing again, this time climbing a steep hill to get as far away from lights as we could. We discovered on our way up that there were cacti in the park!

Unfortunately there was a very large group of extremely loud people near our campsite (it was ridiculous), so sometime late that night or early the next morning after struggling to fall asleep Alasdair went and asked them if they could be quieter – thankfully they agreed to settle down.

Day 9: Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park to Dinosaur Provincial Park, Brooks, Alberta (394 km / 4 hours)

On our drive to Dinosaur Provincial Park we were amazed at the number of hawks we saw on hydro poles along the highway. There were dozens and dozens of them! We crossed into Alberta and into the Mountain Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour. The truck carrying jumbo wheels seemed like a fitting welcome to the province.

We stopped at the Visitor Centre in Medicine Hat (where I bought some Saskatoon berries for me, and some Saskatoon berries and Saskatoon berry jam for my dad – they were a hit). We checked out the nearby Saasmis Teepee, the world’s tallest teepee, which includes some beautiful Indigenous art. We couldn’t stay in the area long because we had a tour booked at Dinosaur Provincial Park and we didn’t want to miss it! We arrived in time for our “Bare Bones Bus Tour”, and got to see “a fully articulated duck-billed dinosaur fossilized skeleton left virtually where it was discovered by the park’s first Park Ranger and excavated by one of the eminent palaeontologists of his time, Charles Sternberg”. Our guide was fantastic and sitting in the front seat I was nominated to be her assistant (passing information cards around the bus). The tour allowed us to go in an area that we wouldn’t have otherwise been permitted to. I highly recommend booking a tour.

On the bus tour at Dinosaur Provincial Park

The ground was so rocky in the campground that we had to get creative to peg our tent out, using food containers and lots of rocks! In fact, from Manitoba westward we camped in rocky campsites!

After dinner we joined a fun trivia program for families and learned more about dinosaurs and the park. Later, I decided to grab my camera and run after a couple of girls who themselves were running with a camera (this might sound weirder than it was). Ailish and then Alasdair joined me down by the river, and while it was hard in the fading light to figure out what we were seeing, we (and the family we were with) were convinced they were black bears (not beavers as someone else told us!). Later that night Ailish and I were spooked by eyes in the dark as we headed to the bathroom. We warned people coming our way, then went back with them and their big flashlight to discover the scary creatures were deer. But you might understand our uneasiness if you knew there are bobcats living there (and deadly spiders!). Thankfully we made it back to our tents unscathed.

Day 10: Dinosaur Provincial Park to Banff National Park (Johnston Canyon Campground), Banff, Alberta (353 km / 3.75 hours)

We had an early morning visitor to our campsite – magpies! We don’t have these birds in Ontario, so it was a nice surprise. After breakfast and packing up, we intended to park by the Visitor Centre and do some hiking. But when I tried to turn the car on, this is when our trip went haywire. To make a long story short, I will just say that we didn’t get to hike, and I drove for 2 1/2 hours to Calgary without knowing my speed, and after 5+ hours of stress in the city trying to find a replacement car (remember how I booked the big car 9 months in advance?), we were in a new rental van and on our way to Banff. Sadly we missed our lunch date with our friend Jordan, who initially introduced Alasdair to me at a soccer tournament in 2000 (I was recruited to play on their co-ed team). We had a very late lunch at a cute little vegan restaurant called Pachamama Soul, a great spot to unwind and de-stress. I loved my spicy chickpea wrap and ginger beet smoothie!

Chickpea buffalo wrap and ginger beet smoothie at Pachamama Soul, Calgary, Alberta

We arrived at Johnston Canyon campground at Banff National Park in the pouring rain! We set up our tents in the rain, and joined other campers eating dinner in a picnic shelter very close to our site. We were disappointed that there was a fire ban at the park, but we wouldn’t have had a fire in the pouring rain anyway.

Day 11: Banff National Park

In the morning as we drove into the town of Banff we were excited to see an elk! We took a Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain and enjoyed the spectacular views.

View from the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff National Park

We explored the town, and bought a new card game called Forbidden Island (we love to play cards and board games when we camp, and this trip was no exception).

On the way back to our campsite we stopped and went for a hike at Johnston Canyon. Unfortunately the trail past the lower falls was closed, but what we saw was very pretty. When we got back to our campsite we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the fire ban had been lifted (park staff were dumping wood out of a pick-up truck into a big pile). Alasdair and I went for runs, with me turning mine into a cross-training exercise. I did loops past the wood pile (we had paid for a fire permit), taking a couple of pieces at a time and running with them back to our site. Alberta run done.

Day 12: Banff National Park

Not only did our friend Jordan offer to shuttle us wherever we needed to go during our rental car fiasco, and offer to let us stay with him and his family for as long as needed, but he also drove nearly 2 hours to join us for breakfast in Banff so we could still meet up. It had been way too long since we had seen him!

After our 3 hour breakfast, we headed for the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where we would catch a shuttle bus to Moraine Lake. There’s limited parking at Moraine Lake, so we’re glad Jordan suggested the shuttle. We hiked the Rockpile trail and the Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail. While hiking the former, we stopped to have a snack, and spotted this wee one, a Golden-mantled ground squirrel. We did not feed it, but clearly people do.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

We also watched part of a very small wedding at this same spot. From Moraine Lake we took the shuttle to Lake Louise, but it was raining when we got there, so we decided to just take a quick look and then take the shuttle back to our car.

I cooked a pizza over the campfire, using pizza dough that I made from scratch – it was delicious and the crust browned perfectly! (Making pizza dough from scratch is nothing new for me, but I’d never done it while camping before. Usually we use tortillas or naan bread.)

Homemade pizza

Day 13: Banff National Park to Glacier National Park, Columbia-Shuswap, British Columbia (120 km / 1.5 hours)

We set out for Glacier National Park, and it wasn’t long before we reached the Alberta/British Columbia border and the province of our ultimate destination! We entered the Pacific Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour.

Alasdair suggested that we take a short detour to visit Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park, which we had seen on our honeymoon. The road there had quite a switch back at one point. The falls are beautiful, and there are many hikes accessible from this spot.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

We continued on to Loop Brook campground at Glacier National Park, a tiny campground with a gorgeous view. We hiked the 1.8 km Loop Brook Trail, an interpretive trail that provides information about the history of the rail line and the local area.

Loop Brook, Glacier National Park

We had yummy wraps for dinner, as well as baked potatoes (a first time for us while camping) and homemade brownies from scratch.

Day 14: Glacier National Park to Sasquatch Provincial Park, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia (508 km / 5.5 hours)

On our way to Sasquatch Provincial Park we stopped in Revelstoke for an outdoor visit with Alasdair’s university friend Lisa and her family. Sometime during our trip I learned that my friend Tim and his family would coincidentally be camping at the same provincial park as us at the same time. I met Tim at a youth hostel in Montreal during university while he was travelling with a friend from England and I was travelling with my friend Anne – I hadn’t seen him since. Unfortunately a rainy weekend forecast scuttled their plans and we didn’t get to meet up after all. Next time!

We arrived in the dark and had some trouble finding our campsite, but we eventually found it. As it turned out we set our tents up in the rain, but then the rain stopped long enough for us to have dinner. We even saw a friendly local – a skunk! We learned that there was still a fire ban in the province – the reason it was lifted in Banff and Glacier was that the national parks are under different rules (they make their own risk assessments).

Day 15: Sasquatch Provincial Park to Goldstream Provincial Park, Langford, British Columbia (227 km / 4.25 hours)

We packed up and set out for Vancouver, where we had plans to have a vegan lunch with my cousin Julie, who I hadn’t seen in a very, very long time (pre-kids!). First though, we went for a walk along the water near Science World, and then we went to Catfé, which would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip! Catfé: “Cat lovers mewnite. Catfe offers up catpuccinos, cat-themed treats, cat supplies and meowchandise, all in the company of adoptable rescue cats.” It was so nice to be able to pet and play with many adorable cats. Note: reservations highly recommended!

Ailish sketches Guppy. A cat is in the cubby above “MEOW MEOW MEOW”.

From here we met Julie at Chickpea, where we had an amazing meal on the patio and enjoyed catching up. We headed for the Tsawwassen ferry to Victoria (Swartz Bay), which we had booked ahead of time. Alasdair and I spent a lot of the 1 1/2 hour ferry ride doing laps around the ship! There was a bit of wind.

I kept moving in the open air and didn’t feel sea sick.

Once we arrived on Vancouver Island we headed for Goldstream Provincial Park, the last stop on the camping part of our trip. Our campsite was in a beautiful forest with some huge trees (big diameter and very tall). We were also very close to a fantastic looking playground for kids, which included a bike pump track and trails.

Day 16: Goldstream Provincial Park

First thing in the morning we spotted a very cute raccoon in one of the trees on our campsite. We were lucky enough to see it again that night.

“Why, hello there!”

Alasdair and I went for runs, but there was no lake in the park to jump into afterwards, so showers it was. British Columbia run done! We hadn’t been at a campground with a lake since we were in Saskatchewan! We also did some short hikes in the park, including a trail in the campground to Goldstream Falls.

Goldstream Falls, Goldstream Provincial Park, British Columbia

We headed into Victoria, since we were just 25 minutes away. We visited Beacon Hill Park, including the Terry Fox monument. We went for dinner at Virtuous Pie, an awesome vegan pizza place with a great patio.

Before climbing into our tents for the last sleep of our trip, we gave our camping chairs – well loved but still life in them – to a family at the campsite across from us, as we were not going to fly them home with us. We gave our leftover MSR fuel to one of Alasdair’s former students, who we met near the end of our trip.

Day 17: Goldstream Provincial Park to Nanaimo, British Columbia (99 km / 1.25 hours)

The morning of our 17th day marked the end of the camping part of our trip. Overall we got lucky with the weather – it rained far less than I expected it to. We had a few cold nights in the tent, in particular (and surprisingly!) at Lake Superior Provincial Park, and then again in Banff. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to drive across the prairies and through the Rocky Mountains. The change in landscape as we crossed the country was incredible. I highly recommend it.

From here on out we would sleep at Airbnbs and be able to do laundry again! We pulled out of our campsite, left the park, and headed for Nanaimo, the next stop of our exploration of Vancouver Island!

Don’t forget to come back to read about the next part of our journey, as well as a review of the vegan restaurants we tried.

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