By Chantal Houde
As summer approaches, so too does road trip season.
Though journeying by car may not be what first comes to mind when we think of wellness travel, thanks to the potentially long hours spent at the wheel, in Canada, it’s easy to find destinations and stops along the way to be active, get outside, and eat well before and after a day of driving.
With seemingly endless places to hike, paddle, cycle, and swim as you explore mountains, islands, beaches (lake, river or ocean-side), forests, and cities across the country, there’s an itinerary and road trip style to suit all tastes and budgets, including trips with wellness in mind.
Last summer, on a two-week drive from Ottawa, Ontario to Jasper, Alberta in a truck outfitted with bicycles, a canoe and a basic kitchen, I was able to experience some of the best of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, including camping in some of the most unique Canadian landscapes I’ve seen.
Spruce Woods Provincial Park in central Manitoba was perhaps one of the best surprises of this summer road trip. Kiche Manitou campground, with soft and sandy sites, modern facilities, access to a small beach, and an extensive trail network, is worth a visit, but the real highlight is the nearby Spirit Sands, a unique desert-like ecosystem (the area gets twice as much rain as a true desert) with rolling sand dunes that is held in reverence by Indigenous peoples.
Be sure to bring water, as temperatures amongst the dunes can be several degrees higher than in the surrounding areas, and leave plenty of time for the incredible hike in this sacred natural space.
In Saskatchewan, we stayed at Grasslands National Park, home (in the West Block) to a wild herd of Plains Bison, and a park I’d hoped to camp at for several years. The unique experience was well worth the wait, and worth having a bicycle to enjoy the easy, winding ride along the 11-km Badlands Parkway near our camp at Rock Creek.
It was a memorable experience tenting on the wide-open land at the border of the badlands and prairies, where the monochromatic horizon erupted with colour at the rise and set of the sun.
The weather can change quickly, though, and it did while we were cycling. Be sure to bring a rain jacket/windbreaker if you plan on riding, hiking, or taking one of the free educational walks listed on the ‘community board’ at the campground–we really enjoyed the homesteader history lesson in the morning before heading to Alberta!
With two nights booked at an Airbnb in Calgary after camping for four nights, I was looking forward to some urban explorations, a yoga class, and a dinner out.
One of my favourite parts of summer road-tripping is that there is ample opportunity to try local, fresh, and nourishing food: from roadside farm stands, farmer’s markets, local restaurants, or even foraging, if you have the knowledge and skills, for in-season wild foods found abundantly in Canada.
The seasonally-shifting menu at Ten Foot Henry, a spot that bills itself as ‘fresh vegetable-anchored,’ features tapas-style sharing plates, has meal options and substitutions (the avocado whip to replace crema was decadent!) for all dietary preferences.
Our dishes arrived beautifully presented and were even more appealing to the palate–a pleasure to linger over in the light-filled and vibrant space.
From Calgary, we spontaneously spent one night outside of Banff in a basic but scenic campground (there are many that don’t require a reservation just off the Icefields Parkway) before continuing to Jasper, our final summer road trip destination where we had four nights’ stay booked, and lots of activities planned.
If you’re comfortable with the backcountry, there are several options for hike-in sites. We did the intermediate-level 24km Saturday Night Loop trail and camped on the side of the remote Saturday Night Lake, which we happened to have all to ourselves–a truly magical experience.
The next day, a guided horseback ride in the mountains was a fun way to recover after the long hike while still getting to see different trails and take in more scenery. Stables advertise at the information centre in the park in Jasper; stop by to find out times and prices.
Canoeing the turquoise waters framed by towering snow-covered peaks on the renowned Maligne Lake was another highlight of the trip. The nearby Maligne Canyon, offering easy and accessible walking trails along the length of the lip of the canyon, is also well worth a short detour on the way to the lake. It has several waterfalls flowing during the warmer months, providing excellent photo opportunities.
We also spent some time exploring near the Pocahontas campground, where we set up our home base. There are trails with waterfalls at every turn, and the nearby Miette Hot Springs, with the hottest waters in the Canadian Rockies.
We spent less time exploring on the return trip but did make a stop overnight in Saskatoon to replenish supplies, attend a yoga class, and cycle the network of recreational pathways along the South Saskatchewan River.
We also made our way through wide, tree-lined streets to Hearth, a restaurant nestled in a leafy residential neighbourhood that focuses on locally sourced–sometimes even wildcrafted–prairie food.
Eating here feels like a visit to your neighbour’s house, with an added touch of elegance and a very creative menu. The vegan dish was the perfect blend of textures and colours and tastes to appease all the senses; there were options for all dietary inclinations and requirements.
The last leg of the summer road trip trip saw us tired and heading for home, but there is lots to see and do in Northern Ontario as well. Countless provincial parks and crown land promise nature and camping experiences to suit all, and the landscape, with its abundant lakes and the windswept landscape of the Canadian Shield, provide ample opportunity for outdoor adventures.
If you have more time or are taking this trip in reverse, I’d recommend setting aside a couple of days to spend there before heading to the nation’s capital, Ottawa, for a cultural and outdoor experience all of its own.
Whether you opt for a similar itinerary or head to a different part of the country, the open road beckons and is sure to please those with an adventurous spirit!
Chantal is a Yoga Alliance-certified 500-hour therapeutic yoga teacher. When she’s not travelling, she offers nourishing, trauma-informed classes in Ottawa, Ontario, that invite students to cultivate self-compassion while releasing tension and balancing the nervous system. Her systems-based teachings draw on elements of several yoga lineages learned from practice and over 900 hours of teacher trainings around the world, as well as on principles of ecopsychology. Connect with her on Instagram @naturespacepractice.