Post-pandemic, the open road beckons – and our iconic transcontinental route offers the ultimate release following months of isolation

There’s something about the open road. Freedom, adventure, change of scene, or simply the joy of driving hopefully a nice car. It’s a North American thing, probably because we have the endless lengths of open highway compared to compressed Europe or crowded Asia.

Driving across Canada is something some of us achieved in your youth. Maybe it was an extended camping trip with your parents and siblings. Perhaps it was to deliver a “drive-away” car to Calgary or Vancouver, en route to a summer job in the Rockies. Or a post-graduation “gap” trip, a last lark before you took the plunge into fulltime work.

Canadian Road Trip

Entering Manitoba on a sunny day on the open road on a cross-Canada road trip
Photo: Mathew Elder

While I was spared the family camping ordeal, I did manage to drive across Canada three times before the age of 25. So why on earth would I want to tackle it yet again – and in my 66th year? Adventure and driving experience – with a dash of nostalgia for past journeys.

A large part of the motivation was to give my almost-new Volkswagen All-Track Sportwagen a decent run. Indeed, it achieved that, with a mere 4,000 kilometers on the odometer when I wheeled out of my downtown Montreal garage early last June, and 16,000 on the ticker when I got back home four weeks later.

Those 12,000 kilometers, mostly on open Trans-Canada Highway westbound and on a succession of U.S. interstates eastbound, did the trick. While there are innumerable possible road-trip itineraries out of Montreal – think anywhere in the eastern United States – the iconic cross-Canada drive, in the wake of the fur-trading voyageurs and of course tracking the original, Canadian Pacific Railway route through rugged Ontario, racing across the Prairies and then weaving through the ranges of the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia.

It is a journey that may tempt if you’ve never done it – or, if a reprise effort, as a throwback to your youth. And it might seem a particularly appealing endeavour once we are freed from months of coronavirus lock-down.

Canadian Road Trip

The main operations of The Royal Canadian Mint are in Winnipeg
Photo: Mathew Elder

While it’s attractive to wheel westward with minimal planning and take any fork in the road on a whim, the trip does require some planning. Assuming you’ll almost certainly be gone for a month or more, you’ll need to select ample clothing and personal effects, and organize the car for convenience. While we all are different in terms of our needs and how we approach things, what follows is my experience from which hopefully road-trip-inclined readers can gain some insight and ideas.

My drive was solo, with the western destination of Whistler to visit my son for a few weeks. After carefully packing my gear and equipping the car with items of convenience (see accompanying article), I headed out from Montreal on the westbound Autoroute 40 on a Monday in early June 2019, with a flexible first-night stop in North Bay or a little beyond. This was my road-trip mantra: with a couple of exceptions, build in plenty of flexibility as to how far you go each day, and research some potential places to stay. It relieves the deadline-like pressure of having to reach a particular place every day (which is contrary to the spirit of this trip). You can stop sooner or go farther, depending on how you feel and your energy level – your worst enemy on a solo road trip is fatigue.

While it’s worthwhile to at least identify some potential daily distance goals before you depart on the trip – some structure is helpful, after all – this should only be a guideline. The best tactic is to spend a few minutes on a computer tablet each evening to identify the next day’s potential destinations, with a hotel or two in each place with their phone numbers recorded so by, say, mid-afternoon you can call ahead to reserve a room. In June in northern Ontario or the Prairies, room availability was not an issue, so it was fairly safe to simply find a place to stay on a walk-in basis. But it is helpful to at least have identified some places to stay. I chose from a number of hotel chains, which for the most part I limited to, in order of preference as long as the rates were reasonable, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Best Western and Comfort Inn.

Canadian Road Trip

Castle Mountain is in Banff National Park, halfway between
Banff and Lake Louise
Photo: Matthew Elder

The first night I made it to the west side of Sudbury, a modest 700 kilometres from Montreal after a leisurely mid-morning departure — later in the trip, early starts became de rigueur to allow for sightseeing and unscheduled stops at points of interest. This first leg of the journey comprised a scenic drive up the Ottawa Valley and then at North Bay into the never-ending woods and rock of the Canadian Sheild.

For Day Two I set my sights higher, to northwestern Ontario, anywhere between Thunder Bay and Kenora. I made it almost to the latter, stopping in Dryden after an 11-hour run across the top of Lake Superior and then across the forest-fire-ravaged land west of Thunder Bay. It’s a drive that ranges from spectacular vistas of Lake Superior to endless forest, which fortunately is cut back far from each side of the highway, making it easier to scan for large wildlife – a reason why night driving must be an exercise in caution in northern Ontario.

While possible to do the cross-prairie run in a long day, I did two overnight stops, in Winnipeg and Regina. I had friends to visit in Winnipeg and did some sightseeing, including a visit to the Royal Canadian Mint’s main coin-processing plant. (Only commemorative coins are made in Ottawa.) I also walked about the city’s interesting Forks area, which includes a vibrant market. En route to Regina, I made a pilgrimage to the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum in Shilo, MB. I have long had an interest in this section of the army, as my father served as a gunner in northwest Europe during the Second World War. I then carried on to Regina for the night.

Canadian Road Trip

Panoramic view entering Kicking Horse Pass

Enroute to Calgary, I made a detour to Cypress Hills Provincial Park in the Badlands of southeastern Alberta. Short hikes are a terrific way to break up a long road trip, and Cypress Hills offers an exhilarating trail network across some very hilly terrain covered with a variety of fir trees. The wind sweeps across the prairie, providing a welcome hit of fresh air. I hiked for about two hours and then enjoyed a bowl of organic chili at the park’s welcome centre.

I was able to take my time at Cypress Hills as I didn’t need to reach Calgary till mid-evening to meet my son’s flight from Vancouver. We had arranged to drive across the Rockies and B.C. together, some much appreciated one-on-one time given the huge distance that normally calseparates us. After a night at the Holiday Inn and Suites near Calgary Airport and a Starbucks for the road, we set out early on a Saturday morning for the mountains. The 90-minute drive to Banff is among the world’s most fantastic drives, taking you in short order from flat plains through rolling foothills and suddenly into massive rocks faces of the Rockies north of Kananaskis Country.

Canadian Road Trip

Lake Lillooet in the Coastal Mountains – on the way to Whistler
Photo: Matthew Elder

After a late breakfast and leisurely stroll up and down Banff Avenue, we were back on the road to Lake Louise, 45 minutes northwest. Sadly, it has become nearly impossible to make it up to the lake and its iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, as the always-popular tourist stop had become completely overrun. One must now park in a lot several kilometers before reaching the Lake Louise townsite and take a shuttle bus to the lake. The same applied to visits to lovely Moraine Lake Lodge nearby. (You can, however, drive to either resort if you can prove you are a registered guest.)

Canadian Road Trip

Author Matthew Elder at The Last Spike

While disappointing not to take in either of those iconic Rocky Mountain sites, we made up for it by driving a half-hour north up the Icefields Parkway to be wowed by the spectacular Crowchild Range that follows the Continental Divide. If one has the time, continuing up the Parkway another 200 km to Jasper will provide the ultimate Rocky Mountain driving experience. But for those hell-bent for the Pacific, it is no hardship to continue along the westbound Trans-Canada through Kicking Horse Pass, Golden, Rogers Pass and Revelstoke. The Purcell, Selkirk and Monashee ranges are as spectacular as the Rockies. What’s more, you are continuing to follow the historic route blazed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s – which of course has a strong Montreal connection, being planned and built by the expertise and determination of our city’s Golden Square Mile entrepreneurs.

Recommended stops along this route are the Parks Canada’s Rogers Pass Discovery Centre and, farther west in Eagle Pass, the site of The Last Spike at Craigellachie, There’s not much to see there, although if so inclined (as was the author) one can simulate hammering the spike that completed the CPR in 1885, linking east to west. The Trans-Canada then passes through wide-open lake country, notably Shuswap Lake, as the terrain, while rugged, becomes increasingly desert-like.

Kamloops, in the heart of the B.C. Interior, is a convenient overnight stop off the highway. From here, there are a number of route options:

● The most direct route to Vancouver along the mountainous Coquihalla Highway to the Lower Fraser Valley, and westward along the Trans-Canada
● An alternative to the above route is to keep on Highway 1 and proceed along the Thompson and Fraser canyons, making stops along the way to observe Hell’s Gate and other staining sights
● The most adventurous choice is to head directly to Whistler through the mostly impenetrable Coastal Mountains. Follow Highway 1 to Cache Creek and then briefly north on 97 to 99 south, toward Lillooet, an hour or so east. From there, you drive another hour and a half along a twisting highway through wilderness, emerging in relative civilization at Pemberton. It’s another half-hour to the near-metropolis of Whistler, in non-pandemic times a busy and entertaining a year-round resort. We chose this route mainly because we were bound for my son’s home in Whistler.

On the Coast

Canadian Road Trip

Consider spending several days to enjoy Vancouver
and its world-class parks

Any cross-country drive requires at a least a few weeks on the west coast. Although B.C.’s access to the Pacific is rather compressed in the Lower Mainland surrounding Vancouver, there are nonetheless many places to go. Vancouver itself is a beautiful and fascinating city. Apart from walking around the downtown waterfront and following the Stanley Park seawall, points of interest include Granville Island and its myriad shops, galleries and restaurants; the Queen Elizabeth and VanDusen gardens; the Vancouver Aquarium; and, my favourite, the B.C. Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus.

Side trips can be numerous. Take a ferry to Vancouver Island and drive across to Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park. Or embark on another ferry to explore funky Salt Spring Island and the other Gulf Islands. If you have the time, consider the 2½ hour drive south (excluding a potentially lengthy wait at the Peace Arch border crossing) to Seattle. Explore Pike Place Market; the Chihuly Garden and Glass; the Museum of Flight near the massive Boeing aircraft plant; and the canal locks that link inland Lake Washington to Puget Sound. Enroute, consider a stop in La Connor and its boutiques, seafood restaurants and endless tulip fields.

Next month: The Drive Home, with an alternate route through the United States.

Organize the car for practicality and convenience

Packing for any month-long trip is a challenge. Key consideration are: how long can you go before or until you have convenient access to laundry facilities? What range of climactic conditions will you encounter? How much luggage space is available?


Trunk luggage organized for one-bag check-in

The advantage of packing for travel by automobile as opposed to flying is there is no suitcase dimension and weight restrictions. You can fill up the car with the better part of your belongings if you wish – and as solo road tripper with a spacious VW All-Track, this was a possibility.

Practicality and convenience is the road-trip mantra, however. For quick overnight stops, you don’t want to lug a huge suitcase. All you really need is a change of clothes and toiletry kit. My solution was to pack a large duffle bag as well as a standard carry-on roller case. I would pack the latter for two or three nights at a time, retrieving items from the duffle when repacking. I also had a separate bag for laundry. These bags were accessible via the rear hatch of my car, allowing me to easily move items from one bag to another and stay organized.


Easy access to
front seat gear

Driving alone means there is no one in the passenger seat to hand you a tissue or retrieve anything from the back seat. My solution was to place a box of tissues, a large Ziplok container on the passenger seat (to hold wet-wipes, hand sanitizer, energy bars and the like) and a shoebox holding some CAA guidebooks and road maps. I would open and refold a map to show the region to be covered during that day’s drive. While the onscreen navigation is invaluable on a long trip, it’s helpful to also be able to glance at a visual of the big picture. Rounding out the front-seat amenities were a water bottle and an insulated coffee mug, which could live either in the VW’s spacious door pocket or in the center-console cup holders.

I endeavoured to keep the back seat free, except for easily- accessible outerwear including a rainslicker, windbreaker and sleeveless fleece vest (which incidentally is a very comfortable garment to wear on long drives).

Depending on driving conditions, it’s good to have the car washed a few times along the way. It’s nice to drive a clean car – and, more importantly, it ensures a clear view out all the windows. Also, keep a spray bottle of glass cleaner in the trunk as well as scrub pad to clean off the windshield at gas stops, particularly if driving during bug season. And while out on the west coast, have the oil and filter changed – it’s one long trip that will exceed the recommended oil-change interval.