British Columbia, with its stunning landscapes, pristine eco-systems, and vast tracts of wilderness, has one of the highest proportions of protected land of any jurisdiction in the world.
There are more than 1,000 provincial parks, conservancies, ecological reserves, and recreation areas in BC, protecting 14.7 per cent of the province's land base or 13.9 million hectares — more than any other province in Canada.
There are also seven national parks in BC: The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site off the west coast, and Mount Revelstoke, Kootenay, Glacier, and Yoho national parks in the Kootenay Rockies.
And BC's protected areas continue to grow: in May 2012, BC’s provincial government announced legislation to add more than 550,000 hectares (1,360,000 acres) to the province’s parks and protected areas system. Ten new conservancies were established, plus there were significant expansions to several existing conservancies, parks and recreation areas.
Although conservation is the first priority, BC's parks and protected areas also offer opportunities for most of the outdoor activities, from hiking and kayaking to diving and boating, that the province is known for.
Although most parks are accessible by road, a large number of the province's parks are virtually untouched wilderness, used primarily by back-country hikers and mountaineers. Many lake and coastal marine parks can be reached only by boat.
BC's provincial parks are free for day users. Day use fees are charged at national parks.
Here's just a taste of some must-see parks and protected areas:
The Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Clayoquot Sound, (pronounced kla-kwat), on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is a wilderness so biologically diverse it's been designated by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a World Biosphere Reserve.
Home to some of the world's largest and oldest trees, the 350,000-hectare (864,870-acre) reserve encompasses ancient temperate rainforest, long sandy beaches, lakes, rivers and streams, mountain peaks, rocky shores, coastal mudflats and estuaries, each with its rich population of flora and fauna.
The Long Beach Unit of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the town of Tofino, as well as 18 provincial parks, protected areas and ecological reserves, are all within the reserve. The Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is the first of its kind on Canada's west coast and the first to have a marine component. The Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, at www.clayoquotbiosphere.org, has details.
The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
This popular park on Vancouver Island's west coast is best known as the home of Long Beach, a 16-kilometre (10-mile) -long stretch of surf battered sand, backed by old-growth forest, facing the open Pacific. Two other components of the park are the Broken Group Islands, a renowned kayaking destination known for its clear seas and abundant marine life in Barkley Sound; and the West Coast Trail, one of the world's most famous — and scenic — long-distance hikes.
The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
The Southern Gulf Islands, a sprinkling of wild and rural, inhabited and uninhabited islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Victoria, are blessed with a Mediterranean-like climate and a bucolic landscape of woodlands, meadows, coastal bluffs and white shell beaches. The archipelago and its surrounding waters are home to a wealth of wildlife, including eagles, deer, Orcas, porpoises and otters.
The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada, established on May 9, 2003, protects 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres) of land across 15 of the Gulf Islands and approximately 60 islets and reefs as well as 2,600 hectares (6,425 acres) of adjacent waters. Parts of the park are only accessible to boaters, but park areas on Mayne, Saturna and the Pender Islands can be a reached by car ferry and road. A seasonal foot passenger ferry from Sidney on Vancouver Island takes visitors to the Sidney Spit section of the park.
The Stein Valley Nlaka'pamux Heritage Park
This wilderness park near Lytton, about three hours northeast of Vancouver, is co-managed by BC Parks and the Nlaka'pamux Nation. The park protects an intact watershed, in addition to preserving the important cultural values of First Nations history of the area.
Wells Gray Provincial Park
One of BC's largest parks, Wells Gray, off Highway 5 in the Thompson Okanagan region, is a wilderness of rivers, lakes, snow peaks, extinct volcanoes and, especially, waterfalls, the best known of which is Helmcken Falls. The Helmcken Falls Rim Trail, which leads to one of Canada’s highest waterfalls, is an eight-kilometre (five-mile) trail that is easily reached from the road. Hiking, canoeing, fishing and camping are other draws here.
The Muskwa-Kechika Management Area
Several parks and protected areas combine to form this vast reserve in Northern BC. The region, north of Prince George, northwest of Fort St. John and extending to the Yukon border, covers 6.4 million hectares (nearly 16 million acres) — an area nearly the size of the Republic of Ireland. A spectacular landscape of glacier-draped peaks, alpine valleys and major wetlands, the area is so rich in wildlife it's been dubbed The Serengeti of the North. Home to grizzly and black bear, lynx, Stone's sheep, bison, mountain goat, moose, elk, caribou, mule and white-tailed deer, it remains one of the best places on earth to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Highway 97, the Alaska Highway, travels through Stone Mountain Provincial Park and Muncho Lake Provincial Park, two of the parks within the reserve, and wildlife can often be spotted from the highway.
The National Parks Corridor
The Trans-Canada Highway between Revelstoke and the BC/Alberta border passes through three major national parks: Mount Revelstoke National Park, where the Meadows-in-the-Sky Parkway leads to sweeping views of the Monashee and Selkirk mountains; Glacier National Park, named for its more than 400 glaciers; and Yoho National Park, home to the Burgess Shale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its Cambrian-aged fossils. Yoho National Park links with Kootenay National Park, also in BC, as well as Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta to create a protected area across much of the Canadian Rockies.