Driving from eastern Canada to the country's west coast is a major undertaking, but a rewarding one that you will not forget.
Even Canadians are shocked by the diversity of the people and landscape when traversing the country. You'll be moving through a range of cultures, languages and dialects, provinces, time zones, and topographies that are all compelling and very Canadian. You likely will enjoy some places more than others, but the fact that they all comprise one nation is part of what makes the journey so appealing.
Especially if you're coming from Europe, which is a patchwork of different countries easily accessible to each other, Canada's expanse can be surprising.
The quickest way across Canada is actually heading south in Ontario and continuing through the northern United States. But that would hardly be the Ultimate Canadian Road Trip, now would it?
The stops included on this itinerary are mostly larger urban centers, assuming they will offer a wide variety of hotels with occupancy. If you have a trailer or RV, be sure to know where you can park it overnight. There are lots of campgrounds across Canada but reservations are recommended for the popular ones. In addition, Wal-Mart Canada allows one-night parking free of charge in its parking lots.
Don't be overwhelmed by Canada's size: Embrace it and tackle it head-on with the Ultimate Canadian Road Trip, driving from Montreal, Quebec, west to Vancouver, British Columbia.
- Distance covered: 2,860 miles (4,600 kilometers)
- Hours driving: About 54 hours, an average of 7 to 8 hours behind the wheel each day
- Nights: Seven (This number can quite easily be reduced to four or five if you are willing to drive 10 to 12 hours per day. On the other hand, you could also stretch it out by adding more stops or spending more time in your favorite places.)
- Time zones covered: Four (Beginning in the Eastern time zone, you'll move through Central, Mountain, and end up in the Pacific time zone).
- Currency used: All provinces in Canada use the Canadian dollar, though some, especially those close to the U.S. border, may accept American money.
- Safety: Canada is generally a safe country, with strict gun laws and a crime rate much lower than in the U.S. That said, keep your car locked when you're not in it and your valuables in a safe place. The emergency number everywhere is 911.
- Speed limits: Highway speed is between 100 and 120 km/hour (about 60–75 miles/hour) depending on your province.
Start in Montreal, Quebec
Steeped in history and infused with French culture, Montreal is one of Canada's most popular destinations. Chances are you will want to spend at least a night or two here while you explore the unique culture and indulge in the delicious and rich Quebecois cuisine. Old Montreal, especially, is a special chance to stroll cobblestone paths and peruse 17th-century architecture.
Don't worry about your French here. Though many people here speak French, shopkeepers and restaurant and hotel staff pretty much all speak English.
The first leg of your journey from Montreal to Toronto is not a particularly scenic one if you take the quickest route, which is by Highway 401. Nevertheless, there are several nice pit stops along the way, which include historic Kingston or Prince Edward County.
Distance from Montreal, Quebec to Toronto, Ontario: 337 miles (542 kilometers), 6 to 7 hours
First Stop: Toronto, Ontario
Toronto is Canada's biggest city, its financial center, and the most popular destination for travelers. It is bustling and diverse with no shortage of things to do. But it is a city and if you're not up for tackling the crowds, continue on north on Highway 400 past Toronto for about three hours until you arrive in Ontario cottage country, a region of lakes and forest. Here you can find camping or smaller scale motels or resorts in a pretty setting.
Another option is to reach Barrie, a mid-sized city that will reduce the following leg's drive by an hour and a half.
Recognize that Toronto traffic is a nightmare, so if you stay over, get on the road early in the morning or consider staying on the northern outskirts of the city so you can make an easy morning break for the highway. Highway 400 is the fastest route but if you're interested in seeing some of the pretty farmland north of Toronto, hit the more rural roads that run parallel.
Distance from Toronto, Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario: 435 miles (700 kilometers), 7 to 8 hours
Second Stop: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
As you head north of Toronto, your nerves will relax as urban sprawl gives way to the rugged, forested landscape of the Canadian Shield. You'll eventually switch over to the Trans-Canada Highway, which stretches all the way to Vancouver. The route here hugs the giant coast of Lake Huron through Northern Ontario's biggest city, Sudbury, before winding up in Sault Ste. Marie, one of the country's oldest communities.
Sault Ste. Marie, known colloquially as "the Soo," is a riverside community that borders Michigan and you can even cross the International Bridge to reach American soil. If you see a freight ship coming through the canal, it's worth stopping to watch how the complex lock system moves the vessel across the river. Accommodation is limited to smaller-scale hotels and motels but you will see some familiar chains, like Marriott, Delta, and Super 8.
Distance from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Thunder Bay, Ontario: 437 miles (706 kilometers), 8 hours
Third Stop: Thunder Bay, Ontario
There's not a lot to see along the 437-mile stretch between the Soo and Thunder Bay unless you stop at some of the lookouts, where you will witness the craggy beauty of the Canadian Shield. Northern Ontario is relatively unpopulated (most of the province's population lives in the "Golden Horseshoe" region around Toronto). Plus, those Great Lakes just get in the way of everything, making driving "as the crow flies" difficult.
You are now on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is generally single lane. Take care of the transport trucks and wait for passing lanes before overtaking them. Keep your gas tank above half as services are limited—especially between October and April—and try to get to Thunder Bay before dark, while always keeping your eyes peeled for moose and deer.
If you have time for sightseeing in Thunder Bay, the Fort William Historical Park is the most popular attraction of the city. It's a re-creation of the fur trading outpost that was in the same spot during the early 1800s and the frontier feel transports visitors to another bygone era.
Distance from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Winnipeg, Manitoba: 436 miles (703 kilometers), 7.5 to 8.5 hours
Fourth Stop: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Continue on Trans-Canada Highway 17 from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg for the most well-worn route and services. But if you're looking for scenery—and way fewer trucks—take Highway 11, which runs south of and parallel to Highway 17. The scenic route adds about an hour to the drive, but you can even reduce that by cutting through Minnesota and back up to Canada.
You made it to Manitoba! The provincial capital of Winnipeg is a fairly populous city, but it's easy to get around and filled with friendly and down-to-earth locals. If you're visiting in the winter, make sure you are fully prepared with heavy jackets and layers; Winnipeg gets frigidly cold, even by Canadian standards.
There are lots of hotels in Winnipeg to suit any range of budget and thriving cultural and culinary scenes. The Forks is a huge cultural space with a market, shopping, restaurants, and more, and is a great place to start your exploration of the city. The must-see attraction of Winnipeg is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a powerful exhibition exploring human rights abuses across Canada and the globe.
Distance from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Regina, Saskatchewan: 356 miles (573 kilometers), 6 hours
Fifth Stop: Regina, Saskatchewan
Between Winnipeg and Regina, you're in the heart of the Prairies, meaning flat. Police have reportedly pulled over people for reading books while driving here. If you are looking to shave some time off of your trip, this may be a stop to eliminate if you want to get closer to Calgary. It's not that Regina isn't worth visiting, but if you're itching for the dramatic landscapes and picturesque views of the Candian Rockies, you'll need to drive a bit farther.
The drive through the Prairies is scenic albeit a bit monotonous, but you can break up the drive by stopping in some of the province's best sites that are easily accessible from the Trans-Canadian Highway. Moose Mountain Provincial Park and Qu'Appelle Valley are just short detours off the highway and really showcase the beauty of Saskatchewan.
Distance from Regina, Saskatchewan to Calgary, Alberta: 472 miles (760 kilometers), 7.5 hours
Sixth Stop: Calgary, Alberta
Like many cosmopolitan centers in Canada, Calgary is multicultural, safe, friendly, and in close proximity to abundant natural beauty. It's also a big city that some may wish to avoid, so you can consider carrying on to Canmore or Banff, both of which are pristine alpine towns with plenty of amenities for travelers. But as far as cities go, Calgary is one of Canada's most charming. The Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown is a pedestrian street with the best restaurants, bars, boutiques, and cafes in town.
For an interesting detour along the route, the town of Drumheller isn't far off the highway and is considered by some to be the dinosaur capital of the world. These rocky badlands are a drastic change in scenery from the rest of the route, and you can see Canada's largest collection of fossils in the Museum of Paleontology.
Distance from Calgary, Alberta to Kelowna, B.C.: 382 miles (615 kilometers), 7 hours
Seventh Stop: Kelowna, B.C.
By this point, you'll have already seen some incredible scenery. But the best has been saved for last, and the final stretch through British Columbia will blow you away. The shortest route along the Trans-Canada Highway is incredibly scenic through the towns of Golden and Revelstoke—home to two of Canada's best ski resorts—and perfect places to stop for lunch and photos.
This route departs from the Trans-Canadian Highway and stops in Kelowna, which is in the heart of the Okanagan Wine Region. If you're not wild about wine, skip it and stay on the Trans-Canada highway. The town of Kaloomps is a picturesque town with plenty of options for accommodations and would make a great pitstop before the final leg of the trip.
Distance from Kelowna, B.C. to Vancouver, B.C.: 242 miles (390 kilometers), 4.5 hours
End in Vancouver, B.C.
Get out the rain gear and put on your Birkenstocks. You made it to Vancouver, B.C., Canada's answer to San Francisco and one of the world's most livable cities. Surrounded both by water and mountains, Vancouver is a big urban center with laid-back charm.
Though you deserve to put up your feet after the big drive, that's the last thing you'll want to do in Vancouver, where the people are always on the move, either kayaking, jogging the seawall, climbing the Grouse Grind, or any number of other ways to enjoy the city. You won't be at a loss for things to do in one of North America's trendiest cities.