The Trans-Canada Highway extends 7,821 km (4,860 miles), from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. It passes through all ten of Canada’s provinces and is truly a place where road trip dreams are made of.
My Trans-Canada road trip adventure began in my hometown of Ottawa and ended in the mountain town of Fernie, British Columbia. A ‘measly’ 3,500km, less than 50% of the overall TCH, but by far the longest road trip my boyfriend Pete or I had ever taken. We did the trip in December, with a Honda Civic packed to the brim with supplies needed for a winter in Fernie. This wasn’t the type of trip where we had time to take every detour. But, it allowed us to see many beautiful places across Canada and give a taster of what the Trans-Canada Highway has to offer.
A Few Days Before Leaving…
Are we insane?
Sometime between trying to squeeze 7 pairs of skis, a TV, computer monitor, kitchen supplies, bedding and enough winter clothes for a season into my Civic I began to question whether this road trip was a great idea. Six months earlier, we had decided to spend the winter in the mountains. We had to somehow get us, our stuff and a car out to Fernie. Rather than spending thousands on shipping, we decided to bite the bullet and do the drive.
With my dizziness condition, driving and long journeys are a huge challenge. Why had I decided I could handle 3,500km? All kinds of doubts and fears were flowing through my mind, but it was too late at this point. We were committed.
Trans-Canada Road Trip in Winter
There’s driving across Canada and then there’s driving across Canada in December. By this time of year, snowstorms can happen at any time and temperatures can drop below -20° Celsius. I started reading stories about people whose cars had broken down in freezing temperatures and who had to light candles to survive until help showed up. Some parts of this road trip are in remote areas, without any cellphone signal.
We got winter tires installed on the car, stashed candles and lighters in the glove-box and packed blankets and enough food and water to survive if we got stranded. I double-checked our road-side assistance program, scrutinized the weather forecast and, on December 2nd, we hit the road.
Day 1: Ottawa – Sault Ste. Marie (795km/494mi)
The Day of the Common Loon
We set off from Ottawa and laughed about how, after only five minutes of driving, we were already on the Trans-Canada. We wouldn’t need to make another turn for 3000km. The highway hugs the Ottawa river and then turns west passing through North Bay, Sudbury until finally reaching Sault Ste. Marie. We drove by numerous lakes and, before long, I saw a Common Loon from the passenger-side window. It would be the last Loon I would see for the rest of the trip and likely for the rest of the year.
I excitedly announced,
Today is the day of the Loon. I want to pick a bird that represents each day of the trip!
Although the overall experience of the TCH is amazing, there are a lot of long boring stretches. Discovering what birds I would see through the car windows quickly became a fun way to pass the time.
Day 1 was one of the least interesting days of the road trip. My favourite part was driving through towns I had heard of, but never imagined I would visit. We rolled into Sault Ste. Marie about 30 minutes after the sunset and were amazed by what a big transportation hub it was. The highway is lined with gas stations, motels and restaurants, all gearing towards people passing through.
Day 2: Sault-Ste Marie-Thunder Bay (700km/435mi)
The Day of the Bald Eagle
North or South of Lake Superior
We agonized about whether to go north or south of Lake Superior. If you go south of the lake, you leave the TCH and cross the border into the US. We were told the roads were better, hotels and gas were cheaper and it was a safer option during winter. If you go north of the lake, you stay on the Trans-Canada Highway and follow the remote and stunning north shore of Lake Superior. The scenery is better, but in some places you truly are in the middle of nowhere without cell phone reception and gas stations are few and far between.
The weather for December 3rd looked fantastic – sunny and a relatively mild 0° Celsius. Crossing the border into the US meant dealing with customs and the risk of them searching our tightly packed Civic. We threw caution to the wind and headed north!
North Shore of Lake Superior
The drive along the north shore was one of my favourite days of the road trip. Lake Superior is so large and rugged that you feel like you are driving alongside a wild ocean. Waves were crashing onto deserted shorelines adorned with Jack Pines made famous by the Group of Seven. Each bend of the road uncovered a new perspective on this majestic lake.
About 45 minutes into the drive, I saw a Bald Eagle perching in the sunshine on the branch of a tall Pine tree. We would see 5 more before the day was over.
Today is the day of the Bald Eagle! What a perfect bird to represent the landscape.
The other bird of the day was the giant Canada Goose in Wawa. When the Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1960, a local entrepreneur wanted to entice highway travelers into the town itself. His solution? Build a giant goose statue! Wawa takes its name from the Ojibwe word for wild goose, wewe so there is a connection.
I would love to revisit Lake Superior, armed with my landscape camera and tripod. I really didn’t have chance to take many memorable photographs of the lake. Being December, most turnoffs were covered with snow and, after nearly getting out Civic stuck on the first one, we skipped over most of the rest!
Day 3: Thunder Bay-Winnipeg (700km/425mi)
The Day of the Magpie
Day 3 of the road trip and we were still in Ontario and would be for most of the day. The road goes north from Thunder Bay and passes through Upsala, Ignace and Vermilion Bay, towns I had never heard of. You go through endless forests and an increasing number of lakes in the latter half of the day. Moose are regularly seen along the first half of the drive and we saw one just off the side of the road.
About 2 or so hours into the drive, Pete yelled out “what is that bird???”
It’s a Black-billed Magpie!
Magpies only live in western North America, so seeing our first one was a true sign that we were making progress (even if we were still in Ontario!).
The other ‘excitement’ was crossing into Central Standard Time. But when would we cross the Manitoba border? By this point in the journey, you just want to get out of Ontario.
When we finally crossed the border, we pulled off at the Welcome to Manitoba sign and met a group of people from Nova Scotia. They were hardcore TCHers, not like us Ontarians.
My favourite part of day 3 was emerging out of the forest into the wide-open expanse of the prairies. It is a remarkable experience and one I could do over and over again!
Days 4-5: Winnipeg
We spent two days getting in some much-needed R&R in Winnipeg. I managed to squeeze in some birding – after 3 days getting frustrated by passenger-seat birding, I needed the real deal. The highlight was seeing Pine Grosbeaks and a late Hermit Thrush at the English Garden in Assiniboine park.
Day 6: Winnipeg-Swift Current (816km/507mi)
The Day of the Snowy Owl
My Dad grew up on the prairies and he warned me about how boring this part of the drive would be. On one hand I agreed with him, but on the other I just loved the big skies and open expanse.
About thirty minutes outside of Winnipeg, we saw our first Snowy Owl perching on a low post in a field. We ended up seeing 4 more before the end of the day, including one that landed right beside the TCH. We were able to quickly pull over and I grabbed a few shots before continuing on our way.
100 km outside of Swift Current, we ran into our first real snow of the journey. The kind where you don’t know where the lanes on the road are anymore, but trucks are still blasting past at full speed.
Day 7: Swift Current-Fernie (590km/367mi)
The Day of the Canada Goose
Luckily the snow had stopped overnight and we didn’t feel guilty leaving at 9am because the sun had only just begun to rise. When you drive west at this time of year, the sun rises later and later the further you go. Especially in places like Thunder Bay or Swift Current that are on the edge a time zone.
We really felt a sense of anticipation on day 7 – we were only 6 hours from Fernie! Being in the wide expanse of the prairies, it was hard to imagine we would be in the mountains soon. At Medicine Hat, we left the TCH and took the 3 to continue on to Fernie. The prairies slowly started to give way to rolling hills and by the time we reached Lethbridge we could see the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance.
Halfway through the journey I saw my first Canada Goose of the trip! I couldn’t believe it had taken this long to see one (except for the Goose in Wawa!). One turned into thousands and we saw huge flocks of geese throughout the day.
Finally, we were driving through Crowsnest Pass and the very visible remains of the Frank rockslide. Then, at km 3,500 (ish) we arrived in Fernie!
Trans-Canada Road Trip Overall Impressions
Like most travel experiences, despite the pre-trip jitters, it was worth it. Was it long? Yes. Was it boring? Sometimes. Did Pete and I sometimes want to kill each other 😉 ? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes!
I just loved feeling like I was truly seeing Canada, not just flying over it. Experiencing the wild shores of Lake Superior, emerging onto the prairies after 3 straight days in the forests of Ontario and getting those first glimpses of the rocky mountains are memories that will stay with me.
Traveling along the TCH feels like a throwback to a time before airplane travel became so common. There was something nice about re-discovering the joy of the road trip. If I do it again, I will go earlier in the year and take more time to explore areas like Lake Superior and Saskatchewan. Those were two places that stood out to me as ones I want to revisit – especially for birding and landscape photography.
In the meantime, I will enjoy spending the winter in Fernie with a newfound understanding of where I am in relation to the rest of Canada. I’m also pretty happy to not be eating Tim Hortons 3 times a day anymore!
If You Go
- TransCanadaHighway.com is a great resource
- Here are some fun facts about the TCH
- I booked hotels at the last-minute from the road – there were often big discounts to this strategy
- Thunder Bay was the most difficult place to book a hotel – selection was poor and ratings were low!
- If you drive the North Shore of Lake Superior in winter, expect a lot of establishments to be closed. Get gas whenever you see a station!
- Prepare music playlists in advance – good tunes gets you through the boredom
- I used an ObusForme (Amazon link) back rest, compression socks and a car cushion to help reduce aching muscles from endless days in the car
Have you ever taken a long road-trip like this? Share your experience in the comments below ↓