British Columbia·Point of View

It ain't easy but it's so worth it: Family camping from Vancouver to Toronto

A Canadian family visited five national parks and five provincial parks in five provinces this summer from B.C. to Ontario, with two children under the age of 4.

Tent camping has its charms from the West Coast mountains to the Great Lakes

Admiring the power of the Kakabeka Falls near Thunder Bay, Ont., from afar. CBC's Jennifer Chen and her family went on a road trip across five provinces this summer. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen)

When you travel with two small children, you attract attention. There's no hiding or quietly hiking as they bellow Disney songs at the top of their lungs. At least the bears were getting plenty of notice to stay far away from this gang of hikers. 

We were on the trail at Glacier National Park and the conservation officers were out talking to people about bear activity that morning. Travel in groups of four and make lots of noise. Check and check. 

I muttered a quiet apology to anyone hoping to get out into the wilderness to enjoy some peace and tranquillity. Luckily, most people didn't seem to mind our merry troupe as we trundled along on the trail. 

This was the first part of our summer road trip. Starting in early July, my husband and I left Vancouver with our two kids, age four and two.

Hiking en route to Lake Oesa, at Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen)

The plan was to camp or visit at least five national parks and five provincial parks on our way to Toronto, over the span of six weeks.

We were moving from B.C. to Ontario to be closer to family and find more affordable housing, and my husband convinced me that this was a rare, not-to-be-missed opportunity to do something special with the kids, while they were young, and we weren't working. 

I was skeptical at first and worried about how long we would all last, sleeping in the same tent, and spending hours in the car together — but I had always wanted to drive across the prairies and camp on Lake Superior, so I agreed, with some reservations. 

The author with her husband under the downpour at Glacier National Park. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen )

In the first couple of weeks, the rain dampened our camping experience, but usually not for too long, and it meant that we could enjoy a campfire, with arrows on the forest fire danger rating signs all pointing to moderate or low. It seemed like a fair trade.

An early lesson was to make friends with families nearby, as we often needed to borrow an axe to chop wood, or a lighter for the fire. Often other children came by, eager to play with our kids, which provided a welcome distraction as we made dinner. 

At Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park, everyone got to know each other as the cold, wet weather crowded most campers into the shelters. The atmosphere was convivial and warm as people traded adventure stories around the wood burning stove. 

Many people had come to Lake O'Hara multiple times, and I could see why. After a day of rain, the sky cleared and we were surrounded by magnificent mountains mirrored on a glassy emerald green lake. 

A stunning vista of Lake O'Hara in B.C.'s Yoho National Park. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen)

It was definitely one of the chilliest places we camped, with temperatures close to zero C, our children bundled with as many warm clothes as I could get on them. 

Next we were on to Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta. The sites were very open at the Townsite camp, and we could walk to shops and restaurants by the lake. 

Without any trees nearby to block the view, we could take in the rugged mountains from our tent. 

As we ventured up the busy Bertha Falls trail, it was striking to see the vibrant regeneration of a mountain after a devastating forest fire. Many of the trails were still closed due to the Kenow Wildfire in 2017, which burned more than 19,000 hectares in the park.

At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Alberta. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen)

At Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, we explored the peculiar rock formations that rise like chimneys above the Milk River and are sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations (it was just named a World Heritage Site this summer). 

En route, a fellow travelling British Columbian recommended a great swimming hole at Katepwa Point Provincial Park in Saskatchewan. At Riding Mountain National Park we hunted (with our eyes) for buffalo, picnicked with the masses and took a stroll in the wetlands. 

As for bugs, we lucked out and didn't get seriously attacked by mosquitos until Quetico Provincial Park in Northern Ontario. Our kitchen screen tent, which hadn't been taken out of the bag since Glacier in B.C., was put to good use. 

Showers and washing machines were luxuries in some parks, while others were more "rustic." Sleeping Giant Provincial Park was a highlight, with a roomy campsite right by a lake made for a dip, and plenty of trees for shade, perfect for hanging a hammock. 

The hoodoo rock formations tower high above the river at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen )

We encountered plenty of photo ops and a bounty of breathtaking scenery, and like Joffre Lakes, I felt a bit sad to see that places such as The Grotto at Bruce Peninsula National Park have become overburdened by Instagram fame. 

We gave it a miss this time and took a quieter trail to the shores of Georgian Bay, where we marked the end of our big adventure with a refreshing dip in the clear blue waters.

The kids lobbed rocks into the lake, squealing with delight.

They didn't need all the books and activities I'd packed, all they needed were rocks and some water to make a satisfying splash. They loved hiking and they were curious about the animals we saw (from "beers" to "pip-munks") and I was impressed at how adaptable they were, sleeping in a different place every couple of days. 

Jennifer Chen said her kids didn't need all the books and activities she'd packed. All they needed were rocks and some water to make a satisfying splash. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen )

Despite having to plan most of it months in advance to secure decent campsites, we still managed to find moments of spontaneity and surprise — often in the people we met, but also seeing places for ourselves, and allowing time for discovery.

In the end, I think our whole family connected to nature and each other in a new way. We feel lucky that we were able to see and better understand different parts of our country. 

A sweet camping spot at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. (Submitted by Jennifer Chen)

Still, it might take some convincing to get my four-year-old out on another camping road trip anytime soon. He kept asking us, "Are we going home now?" 

As for me, I concede my husband was right about the trip being a rich and rewarding experience, but at the moment I'm not ready to give up a comfortable bed and four burner stove.

The car was barely unpacked when he brought up the idea of driving to the East Coast with our camping gear. I told him to ask me again — in five or six years. 

About the Author

Jennifer Chen worked as a radio producer at CBC Vancouver for 14 years. She is relocating to Ottawa and recovering from her road trip.

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