Animal lovers often tell us their “dream vacation” is to go on an African safari, but the price of that trip is cost prohibitive to the average person, let alone family. And while there are singular animal attractions in the U.S. — the wild ponies of Assateague or swimming with dolphins in Florida, for instance — no wide swath of landscape here can quite compare to the diverse nature and environment experiences of a visit to Western Canada.
With affordable flights, luxurious yet economical accommodations, a favorable currency exchange rate and the timeless appeal of a unique train ride, wildlife enthusiasts can go on a North American safari and get the most bang for their buck — moose, elk and caribou included. From the rainforests of Vancouver, British Columbia, through the Canadian Rockies into Alberta province’s breathtaking Banff National Park (and beyond!) aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, get travel tips on planning the Canadian animal adventure of a lifetime, from someone who’s been there.
Our adventure began in the city by the sea, Vancouver, British Columbia, where we quickly made the acquaintance of some curious seals while kayaking in Deep Cove (tours from $89). Like an in-water version of Whack-a-Mole, the seals’ adorable heads randomly popped up as we explored Canada’s southernmost fjord. Due to the autumnal timing of our trip, snorkeling with seals in Nanaimo (from $227) was not an option this trip, but we did happen to see one frolicking along the seawall in Stanley Park.
If bigger (much bigger!) sea mammals are at the top of your itinerary, we recommend any one of the area’s abundant whale watching tours. Humpback whales, killer whales, gray whales, sperm whales and many more are native to the region.
When you’re ready to get back on dry land, head up to Vancouver’s premiere peak: Grouse Mountain. Here, avid hikers can tackle the “Grouse Grind,” a nearly two-mile trail up the face of the mountain that locals refer to as Mother Nature’s StairMaster. Before you ascend, fuel up with a bear-y unique breakfast at the Grizzly Lookout Grill, visit with Grinder and Coola in their habitat and learn about bear conservation. (The bears were orphans rescued as cubs, raised by humans and can no longer live in the wild.)
On the way back to the city, make a pit stop at the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Cliffwalk, where you can explore the evergreen and cedar rainforest while trekking through the tree canopy over a canyon more than 100 feet below. Here, birdwatchers can Meet the Raptors (as well as owls and other birds of prey), not to mention the adorable, tiny, fit-in-the-palm of your hand Douglas squirrels who roam the Douglas Fir trees of Vancouver’s temperate rainforest.
Finally, we recommend staying at the pet-friendly Opus boutique hotel in the trendy Yaletown neighborhood of downtown Vancouver, or better yet, check into the swanky Fairmont Vancouver and meet canine ambassadors Elly and Ella, former guide dogs that now greet guests who are homesick for their own pups while away on vacay.
Ride the Rocky Mountaineer Through the Canadian Rockies
On an African safari, you’d board a bus or special overland truck for a rugged adventure. This Canadian safari experience is decidedly more luxurious. The double-decker, glass-domed train offers 65 different journeys along four distinct routes through the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. On the first leg of the Rocky Mountaineer’s popular First Passage to the West trip, from Vancouver to Kamloops, you’ll pass “Hell’s Gate” canyon and learn the history of the gorge and its rushing Fraser River, stocked with spawning salmon (and frequented by beavers).
As the scenery changes from green valleys and farm land to the dry, desert-like terrain of Ashcroft, British Columbia, you’ll look out the domed windows (or view from the open-air vestibule) and see anything from giant osprey nests and big-horned sheep to mountain goats and bald eagles as the train chugs into Kamloops.
From the First Nations Shuswap region of Kamloops, the train whisks passengers eastward, deeper and higher into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. You might see might see flocks (or “convocations”) of bald eagles, elk or moose and hear the train tour guides occasionally yell, “Bear on the right!” or “Bear on the left!”
Banff and Lake Louise
You know a town is über-proud of its wildlife when it names all its streets after animals! In Canada, that town would be Banff, with its village roads called Squirrel, Lynx, Buffalo, Bear and more.
Depending on your Rocky Mountaineer journey, you’ll either arrive in Banff (home to Banff National Park) or the hamlet of Lake Louise next. Probably you’ll visit both. We stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs (which has a nearby sister hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise). Both luxury hotels are pet friendly with pet-sitting services available (and cleaning fees that help support the Bow Valley SPCA). And for those who are missing their furry kids back at home, the Banff property boasts a canine ambassador named BEAR, who is a recent graduate of the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind program.
However, the hotel’s in-house hound isn’t the only adventure dog to keep on your radar: dog sled tours are available throughout the area, while Game of Thrones fans can get their wolf fix at the Yamnuska Wolf Dog Sanctuary.
Discover Banff Tours offers specialized wildlife safari tours, hitting popular spots like the Banff Springs Golf Course, where elk are frequently spotted. They can be seen roaming freely throughout the property, particularly at the golf course. Rutting season happens in early fall, so lucky visitors may be serenaded by their “eerie bugling calls” in late September. But take caution: elk are known to be most aggressive in the fall.
Tours also go to the Bow Valley Parkway, where bears and sometimes wolves are spotted. It’s a quick way to get some animal sightseeing time in if you’re on a short trip. Additionally, the Lake Louise Sightseeing Lift, Gondola and Interpretive Center (open during the summer at the Lake Louise Ski Resort) takes visitors high above the grizzly trail — an area known for grazing grizzly bears, who can be watched gathering berries and preparing for their winter hibernation — at a safe height.
Another exciting development is the news that bison have officially been reintroduced to Banff National Park. Through an extensive plan to reintroduce the species, 10 pregnant cows that were brought into the Panther Valley have given birth, and their calves are now thriving. In Spring 2018 they will have a soft release from their pasture, according to Crowfoot Media.
Banff is the perfect landscape to explore on horseback or by sleigh ride in the winter. Some even say the best way to experience the Canadian Rockies is through the eyes and ears of a horse. Banff Trail Riders can help you book a quick one-hour loop around the Fairmont hotel property or help you plan a two-day guided back-country trek.
Locals also recommend driving around the Banff and Lake Louise region at dusk or dawn to search for animals. We saw mule deer along the sidewalk during our walk into town, but moose and caribou (also known as reindeer!) sightings are not uncommon.
In recent years, Banff Park highways were completely lined with fencing two meters high and one meter deep. This initiative helped reduce road kill by 80-95 percent. Animal crossing bridges for bears (it took the bears about five years to figure it out, but now the mama bears teach their young) and underpasses for cougar and elk have also helped maintain the park as a safe space for both humans and animals.
It’s important to stay inside your car while searching for wildlife and to avoid any personal contact with the animals for their safety, as well as your own. You can often find them on Tunnel Mountain, the Bow Valley Parkway, the Minnewanka Loop or the Icefields Parkway.
Final word to the wise: Leave your drones parked at home. They are illegal in all Canadian National Parks and can cause stress to the wildlife. Otherwise, don’t forget your zoom-lens, and happy animal-spotting!