If you live in Canada or have some kind of interest in visiting Canada soon (and why wouldn’t you?!), it is likely you would have heard about Parks Canada offering free Discovery Passes. This giveaway is in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Demand has been so high for these free passes that the Parks Canada website started crashing within hours of release on Dec 1. Over 900,000 people have applied for Discovery Passes so far.

The good news is that there are plenty of Discovery Passes to go around – an unlimited number in fact. But the question is for many, what actually are they? Let’s break it down a bit.

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What exactly is a National Park?

National Parks

National Parks are protected areas for public enjoyment and appreciation, managed by Parks Canada. Some National Parks are small (22 sq km, Prince Edward Island) while others are much, much larger (44, 807 sq km, Wood Buffalo). The oldest National Park is Banff in Alberta, founded in 1885. National Parks typically have viewpoints, camping opportunities, hiking trails and lake access though some are exceptionally remote and will have few visitor services.

National Park Reserves

National Park Reserves are proposed National Parks. The intention is to have a system of national parks that represent each of Canada’s natural regions; the project is so far about 60% complete.

National Historic Sites

National Historic Sites are places of profound importance to Canada’s history. These commemorate places and events that have shaped the identity of Canada

National Marine Conservation Areas

There are a small number of National Marine Conservation Areasthat are managed for sustainable use by Parks Canada.

Provincial and Territorial Parks

National Parks are different from Provincial Parks and Territorial Parks. These are also protected areas, but they are administrated by the individual governments of provinces and territories. There are many more Provincial and Territorial Parks than there are National Parks. British Columbia, for example, has over 600 Provincial Parks. Provincial and Territorial Parks are usually free to entry but services (camping etc.) typically have a fee.

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Where are Canada’s National Parks and National Historic Sites?

There are currently 38 National Parks and 8 National Park Reserves found across the country, with at least one Park in each province and territory. National Historic Sites are also located all around Canada.

The Parks Canada website lists all of the National Parks and National Park Reserves and National Marine Conservation Areas plus the 140 National Historic Sites that they manage.

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What is free in 2017?

To visit most of Canada’s National Parks, Reserves, Marine Conservation Areas and National Historic Sites, there is usually an admission (entry) fee. For the Parks, Reserves and Conservation Areas this is a daily admission fee which means visitors have to pay the admission charge for every day they spend within park boundaries.

In 2017, all admission fees are waived – it is free for everyone to visit all National Parks, Reserves, Marine Conservation Areas and Parks Canada-run National Historic Sites. Lockage at Parks Canada’s historic canals and waterways is also free in 2017.

Regular daily admission fees

For reference, the entry fee per day in 2016 for the Rocky Mountain National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes and Elk Island National Parks) was:
Adult $ 9.80
Senior $ 8.30
Youth $ 4.90
Family/Group $ 19.60 (up to seven people arriving together in a single vehicle)

Which National Park services and activities are NOT free in 2017?

  • Any kind of camping, whether in the front country (car camping) or backcountry (accessible via foot or boat)
  • Firewood at campgrounds
  • Campsite reservations (mandatory for backcountry adventures)
  • Access to hot springs pools managed by Parks Canada, such as Radium Hot Springs
  • Guided tours and hikes not included in park admission

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What is the National Park Discovery Pass?

The Discovery Pass is an annual pass which provides free entry to all National Parks/Reserves, Marine Conservation Areas and Parks Canada-run National Historic Sites. Discovery Passes should be displayed on vehicle rear view mirrors.

Regular Discovery Pass prices

The price of a Discovery Pass in 2016 was:
Adult $ 67.70
Senior $ 57.90
Youth $ 33.30
Family/Group $ 136.40

Parks Canada is offering free Discovery Passes valid for the entirety of 2017.

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Is a Discovery Pass needed for free entry to Canada’s National Parks?

No. Visitors to Canada’s National Parks in 2017 will not have to pay entry fees whether they have a Discovery Pass or not.

The free Discovery Passes are, effectively, a souvenir for visitors. For Parks Canada, it is a way to collect statistical data and have contact with visitors. Visitors to National Parks in 2017 who do not already have a free Discovery Pass will be encouraged to get one on arrival by Parks Canada staff. Issuing free Discovery Passes like this enables park staff to connect with visitors and provide them with important safety and wildlife information.

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How to get your free Discovery Pass

Order online: Have your Discovery Pass delivered to your door by ordering online.

On arrival: Visitors can receive a free Discovery Pass at a National Park/Reserve, Marine Conservation Area or National Historic Site. Most will have a visitor centre or gatehouse (drive-thru kiosk) at the entrance.

Are you planning to visit any National Parks or National Historic Sites this year?

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

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