Canada is hosting a birthday celebration and everyone is invited.
Our neighbors to the north are commemorating the country’s 150th anniversary this year and, as part of the festivities, admission is free to all of Canada’s national parks, including Waterton Lakes, Jasper and Banff.
Parks Canada, the agency that manages the country’s natural treasures similar to the National Park Service in the U.S., is inviting everyone to explore its history and outdoor amenities by ordering a Discovery Pass, which will provide unlimited free access all year to the country’s 47 national parks, 171 national historic sites and four marine conservation areas.
The passes, which will cover a group traveling together, can be ordered online at www.pc.gc.ca. Camping fees and other services, such as tours and rentals, are not included with the free pass.
Eric Magnan, an outreach coordinator with Parks Canada, said demand for the free passes “has been incredible.” When the passes first became available in December, the agency’s website crashed temporarily. More than 4.5 million passes have been ordered through mid-February from across the world, including the Vatican and Antarctica.
“It’s beyond any expectations we had. We’re actually very pleased,” Magnan said. “For us it’s a very good opportunity to showcase what we are capable of providing to visitors and showcasing what we can offer. It will also build awareness about protecting national parks and national historic sites. We’re definitely looking forward to 2017.”
As further motivation for American travelers, the exchange rate currently favors the U.S. dollar. In late February, $1 U.S. was worth $1.32 Canadian, meaning $100 is worth $132 up north.
National parks in both the U.S. and Canada are experiencing all-time record popularity these days.
Last year the National Park Service celebrated its centennial and drew a record number of visits with 330 million, a 7 percent increase over 2015. Glacier National Park set an annual record for the third year in a row with 2.96 million visits.
Canada’s national parks experienced record attendance last year with 24.5 million visitors. The national parks in Alberta, which include Jasper, the largest in the country, and Banff, are by far the most popular with nearly 7.5 million visitors in 2016.
Canada Parks officials are already preparing for crowds swarming the various sites by increasing services and accommodations, such as additional bus shuttles and staffing.
“We definitely expect a lot of visitors this year,” Magnan said.
Parks Canada is also touting a campaign of travel tips to prepare prospective visitors, such as planning a trip well in advance, exploring lesser known sites and traveling in the so-called shoulder seasons.
“There are a lot of hidden gems across Canada for people who want to discover new areas in the country,” Magnan said.
For residents in Northwest Montana, several national parks across Western Canada are less than a day’s drive away, making it possible for a short trek or a full vacation without long travel requirements.
Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta shares a unique relationship with Glacier National Park — in 1932, the two countries banded together to form the world’s first International Peace Park.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park encompasses a combined 1,720 square miles between the two sites. Upper Waterton Lake spans Alberta and Montana and a one-hour boat ride from Waterton leads to Goat Haunt, a seasonal port of entry in Glacier.
Waterton is also home to the Prince of Wales Hotel, an iconic national landmark that is celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2017.
Many of Canada’s national parks follow different regulations than U.S. sites. For example, some parks in Canada, such as Jasper and Banff, have designated trails for mountain biking. Pets are allowed in most Canadian national park campgrounds and trails but must be on a leash at all times.
The official 150th celebration will culminate on July 1, which is Canada Day, the country’s equivalent to the Fourth of July.
“It’s going to be a great celebration,” Magnan said.
Pick up the upcoming spring 2017 issue of Flathead Living magazine for a breakdown of national parks in Western Canada with travel tips and exciting vacation ideas.