How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Road trip through Canadian prairies and national parks!

When I made the decision to relocate from Chicago to Seattle, I knew I had a golden road trip opportunity in front of me. And since I’d already seen all 50 states, I decided to take a voyage on four wheels up through central Canada on the way out west.

canam road trip car

It was such a memorable trip, driving through mountains and canola fields and open prairies. I visited three national parks in the U.S. and four more in Canada, seeing a ton of wildlife along the way (bears! mountain goats! bighorn sheep! moose!)

If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you saw the journey unfold as it happened. Here’s a more in-depth look at how I spent my summer vacation on the can-am road trip.

canam road trip

Chicago, Illinois

chicago downtown

A quick stop in the Windy City allowed me to hang out with old friends again, play in a volleyball tournament, go to the local farmers market for the last time, get the car tuned up, and prepare to move on to bigger and better things.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

canoeing isle royale

I’ve wanted to visit Isle Royale for a long time. It’s a secluded island way up north between Canada and the upper peninsula of Michigan. The island is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, and the only way to get there is by ferry or seaplane.

isle royale national park

I took the ferry and decided to camp there for a couple nights. Isle Royale is famous for its moose and its wolves. Over the years, the populations of both have fluctuated, but as of this summer there were only 2 wolves left, due to a lack of genetic diversity and the inability of new wolves to get to the island.

More than 1600 moose live here, but you typically have to hike really far into the interior of the island to catch a glimpse of one. I got lucky. While sitting my tent at Rock Harbor campground, I heard the crashing of twigs and branches nearby and the thundering of feet. There are no bears on Isle Royale, so I knew it had to be a moose.

camping isle royale

I looked up just in time to see a huge mother moose and her baby running on a trail through the woods about 15 feet from my tent. In less than two seconds they were gone. Such a fleeting but memorable wildlife sighting.

Upper peninsula of Michigan

On the way to my next stop, I spent the night in a random roadside motel. They didn’t accept credit cards, so I had to pay with a personal check. In 2017!

roadside motel

inside motel

This place was straight out of the ’70s with its wooden paneling. I loved it. Fortunately, I survived the night.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

voyageurs ferry

Also way up north by the Canadian border, Voyageurs consists mostly of islands and waterways. Since I don’t have a boat, the best way for me to see the park was again via ferry.

A tour boat took us to a few islands in the park. They explained the history of the area – it was a popular trading route between native people and French-Canadian fur traders. They also kept an eye out for wildlife, which consisted mostly of bald eagles.

bald eagles voyageurs

We saw around 10 bald eagles high in the trees. The coolest moment was seeing a baby eagle in its nest and then seeing the mother or father fly in with a food delivery. You don’t get to witness a moment like that in person very often.

Winnipeg, Manitoba

winnipeg building

After crossing the border and convincing a skeptical Canadian border official that I wasn’t planning to become an illegal alien in her country (the fact that my car was packed with all my belongings didn’t help my argument), I headed for Winnipeg.

On the way, I encountered the exact longitudinal center of Canada. It’s a cool roadside stop for geography geeks.

longitudinal center of canada

It was great to be back in a city after spending the previous week camping in nature and driving through small towns. I found some fun stuff to do in Winnipeg by heading for the Forks area. This area at the meeting of two rivers is where native people met for centuries. Now, it has a riverwalk, restaurants, and shops.

winnipeg art piece

My top recommendation in Winnipeg is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. It’s a massive, modern facility that tells the story of the genocides around the world throughout the past few centuries (there were far more than I realized), as well as spotlighting those working for the rights of minority groups and all humans.

canadian museum human rights

The museum also has a lookout elevator tower, from which I took the bridge photo that served as last month’s Photo Teaser. I met up with a local and wandered through the hipster neighborhoods, grabbed a couple drinks, and walked along the riverfront path. Winnipeg was a nice spot – I’d go back again.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

saskatoon sunset

I never imaged finding myself in Saskatoon, but that’s why I love travel. It opens doors to new worlds! I made the drive up because my friend Kat now lives here, so it was great having a familiar face to show me around the city.

We found some of the city’s nicer food spots, including a pizza place that tops the pie with a maple syrup drizzle. Only in Canada!

maple syrup pizza saskatoon

In Saskatchewan there are a ton of golden yellow canola fields. You must get your picture taken with one when you visit.

canola field

I found a ton of quirky in Saskatoon, including some interesting street art, a nude beach on the river informally known as Bare Ass Beach, and an old-timey museum (the Western Development Museum) that recreates a main street from 1910.

Oh, and “the worst store ever,” which is the tagline Glitch Gifts and Novelties uses to refer to itself. Think of them as the old mall store Spencer’s, taken to an extreme degree. Want to buy some “Maybe You Touched Your Genitals” liquid soap?

glitch gifts novelties

Edmonton, Alberta

k-days edmonton ferris wheel

I happened to show up in Edmonton during a busy festival weekend. Taste of Edmonton was in its final days, so I headed downtown to check out some of the tasty offerings.

I ended up trying beef spare ribs & mashed potatoes, a Thai noodle dish, maple bacon mac & cheese, spinach & artichoke dip, and mango cheesecake.

mango cheesecake taste of edmonton

Then it was time for K-Days, a multi-day event with carnival rides, fried foods, and live concerts. One night, I saw ’90s hitmaker CeCe Peniston (finally it has happened to me!) on stage. A couple days later, I returned to see Alessia Cara, by far the most talented and promising of today’s young female pop stars.

k-days carnival concert

Calgary, Alberta

calgary stampede

calgary skyline

Heading toward Calgary, I stopped at one of the quirkiest attractions in North America. The Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington consists of more than 30 dioramas in which stuffed dead gophers are dressed up in various silly scenes. For no apparent reason. I’ll have much more to write about this place in the coming weeks…

gopher hole museum

The Calgary Stampede had ended a few weeks earlier, but I walked around the site and checked out the signs, statues, and street art of the stampede. In my remaining limited time, I had to visit a burger restaurant called Regrub. I wasn’t there for the beef; I was there for the dessert.

regrub milkshake

Regrub’s bizarrely decadent milkshakes are known for having crazy toppings. I got a red velvet milkshake topped with a rainbow rice krispie treat and other goodies. Other shakes were even more bizarre – one was topped with a donut, another with a slice of cheesecake, and another featured a stack of pancakes on top!

Jasper and Banff National Parks, Alberta

lake louise

Banff and Jasper are Canada’s iconic national parks. I couldn’t possibly recap all the glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife I saw during my week there. Jasper’s glaciers were pretty amazing. You can walk almost right up to Athabasca Glacier.

athabasca glacier

While driving the Icefields Parkway, every time I looked over at a mountain, I saw another glacier on the peak. It was a stunning visual scene. So were the wildflowers, the forests, and the lakes. Peyto Lake is one of the lakes with impossibly bright turquoise-colored water. It stays that color from the glacial silt that flows into it regularly.

peyto lake turquoise

In Jasper you can ride the Skytram halfway up a mountain, and then hike the rest of the way, as I did to reach Whistler’s Summit.

jasper skytram

In terms of wildlife, I saw a couple of berry-eating black bears which caused a traffic jam on the side of the road.

banff black bears

Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Banff and Jasper were as beautiful as advertised. But for some reason you never hear a word about the other two national parks that border them: Yoho and Kootenay. I popped into Yoho one afternoon to see Natural Bridge, a stunning formation where jagged rocks intercept a river and form a natural bridge across it.

natural bridge yoho

The river is forced under the rocks via a waterfall. You can walk right up to the water and get a sense of how incredibly powerful the rushing water really is.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta

head smashed in buffalo jump

For thousands of years, native people used this small cliff to chase buffalo off the edge, then gather the bodies at the bottom for food and shelter. It was a genius method of hunting. This site was still in use for that purpose as recently as the 1800s.

Head-Smashed-In is one of the best-preserved buffalo jumps on the continent and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can walk a short trail above the jump and then another down below. It’s overwhelming to think about the amount of history at this location.

buffalo jump view

Interesting footnote: The cliff used to be 20m high but is now only 10m high, because of the buildup up rocks and bone fragments at the bottom over time.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

waterton red rocks canyon

Waterton Lakes is the Canadian park connected to Glacier National Park at the U.S.-Canada border. It sees fewer visitors but has the same mountains, lakes, and scenery. I made a quick stop on the way to Montana and hung out in the Red Rocks Canyon area.

Glacier National Park, Montana

many glacier kayaking

After getting a taste of Glacier a couple years ago, I was dying to go back. Especially because I never got to see the mountain goats that are usually running around all over the place on the Hidden Lake hike. This time, things were different.

mountain goat glacier

During my hike down to Hidden Lake, I saw more than 20 goats, at least a dozen from extreme up-close range. They walked right on the trail, they allowed humans to pass within three feet of them. I spent a good hour just sitting and observing them.

mountain goat meadow

I also saw bighorn sheep on the same hike from close range and saw moose on the Grinnell Glacier hike.

sheep moose glacier

The Grinnell hike was one of two long ranger-led hikes I participated in. Hiking alone at this time of year in heavy grizzly country is not ideal, but Glacier offers free hikes with rangers, so I took advantage. These weren’t casual strolls; they were strenuous 12 mile treks that took most of the day. I had never been on a hike that long, but they were so much fun, now I’m hooked.

grinnell glacier

I also did the famous Highline trail that hugs the cliff wall for a bit before opening into meadows and winding over to the Granite Park Chalet.

highline trail ledge

Somehow, the only thing I didn’t see was a bear. Now, I can’t wait to go back to Glacier again for more marathon hikes and wildlife sightings.

Couer d’Alene, Idaho

coeur d'alene beach

During a quick afternoon stop in Idaho on the final leg of the journey to Seattle, I chanced upon a downtown beach. It was a very hot day and this was the perfect find. I also popped into the local history museum, which was mildly interesting, but the beach was the place to be on this summer day.

Seattle, Washington

seattle street

Home! Well, it’s going to be my home. I haven’t quite settled in yet. Dealing with the insane traffic and non-intuitive driving patterns of Seattle has been a challenge. But I’m excited to see what this city has in store for me.

Up next: Iceland!

In less than a week, I’m heading to Europe for the first time, specifically the magical land of Iceland! I’ll be blogging about the trip next month, but you can follow along now on Instagram.

And that’s how I spent my summer vacation! How did you spend yours?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Facebook Comments

comments

About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

CommentLuv badge