Canada’s Highway reaches a milestone
A history of the Trans-Canada highway, with specific high points along the route from sea to shimmering sea.
The image of cars in a showroom
Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Canada’s national auto route is about to hit the Big 5-0.
At just over 8,000 km, the Trans-Canada Highway is a sightseeing marvel linking Newfoundland to British Columbia, with thousands of communities and points of interest along the way as it traverses maritime, rural, urban, forest, prairie and mountainous terrain.
Ferry services tie the highway to the mainland on both coasts, from St. John’s on The Rock in the east to Victoria on Vancouver Island in the west.
And while Prince Edward Island is connected by the 13-km Confederation Bridge, a ferry connects Prince Rupert in B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands.
Set in motion by the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1949, an agreement between the federal government and the provinces to build a national highway on a cost-shared basis, construction began the following year.
Marked by its distinctive white-on-green maple leaf signs, the route was officially opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Sept. 3, 1962 and was completed in 1971.
The Trans-Canada is actually made up of numerous routes in a patchwork of roads crossing the country. Since its completion, some provinces have constructed additional links and added their own upgrades.
Although the federal government looks after maintenance and repair of the highway in national parks, it is the responsibility of the provinces to look after it within their borders. In some cases, Ottawa provides funding for upgrades.
There are countless points of interest, sights to see and things to do along the Trans-Canada Highway. Here are just 10, one for each province:
Terra Nova National Park: About 200 km west of St. John’s and 60 km east of Gander, Terra Nova became Newfoundland’s first national park when it was established in 1957, eight years after the province joined Confederation.
The Trans-Canada runs about 40 km through the middle of the park in a landscape of rugged cliffs and sheltered inlets with rocky fingers reaching out into Bonavista Bay on the North Atlantic Ocean.
The boreal forested rolling hills, bogs and ponds support a wide range of wildlife such as moose, bear, beaver and bald eagles. The area’s history includes settlements dating back to the earliest European pioneers and native cultures.
Icebergs float offshore from May to August and nearly 60 kilometers of trails provide excellent hiking and biking routes. It has campgrounds, roadside pull-offs and day-use areas for auto travellers in need of a scenic stretch.
Bras d’Or Lake: This inland sea in the centre of Cape Breton, with its hundreds of coves and islands, is an international boat cruising destination.
It’s where the highlands meet the lowlands and early Scottish settlers found a new world akin to their homeland.
The 142-km section of the Trans-Canada running from North Sydney to Port Hastings was named the Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell Way in 2010. Midway along the north shore is the town of Baddeck, where the inventor of the telephone had a summer home.
Get off the main highway at Bras d’Or, on the north-eastern part of the lake, or at Whycocomagh to the south, and meander along The Bras d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive.
Shoreline roads pass through a panorama of farms, villages and woodlands that are home to white-tailed deer, osprey, bald eagles, foxes, and raccoons.
Confederation Bridge: The link to Prince Edward Island is an engineering marvel and the reason more tourists visit Canada’s birthplace these days.
Before its completion in 1997, ferry boats were the only option. But now the crossing is easier and faster — about 10 minutes.
Built over four years at a cost of $1.3 billion, the two-lane toll bridge carries the Trans-Canada Highway between Borden-Carleton, P.E.I. and Cape Jourimain, N.B. It is supported by 62 piers in a span that allows major ship traffic to pass underneath.
On the island, enjoy the shores of Malpeque Bay, the pretty seaside town of Summerside, the North Cape peninsula, the island’s pastoral countryside, the narrow roads linking quaint coastal villages and, of course, Canada’s birthplace in Charlottetown.
Saint John River: The Trans-Canada follows the river as it flows south through New Brunswick to the Bay of Fundy, a 673-km route from Little Saint John Lake on the Maine-Quebec border.
This region includes the Saint John River Valley, home of the “French fry capital of the world” in the farming community of Florenceville-Bristol, where the McCain frozen food empire began with a family-owned farm in 1957.
A kilometer off the main highway at Hartland (120 km northwest of Fredericton) is the world’s longest covered bridge, built in 1901. It is worth the detour and a drive-through.
The river’s lower section from Fredericton to Saint John is nicknamed the “Rhine of North America,” because of its popularity with boaters.
St. Lawrence River: The scenery in Quebec is magnifique and the hilltop view from Riviere du Loup, known for its spectacular sunsets, is where it all begins as you head west.
Dating back to 1673, it is a stopping point for Trans-Canada travellers coming from Quebec City, the Maritimes or the Gaspé Peninsula.
Venture from the highway at any one of several cutoffs onto Route 132 and trek through historic French colonial villages, such as La Poctiere, Saint-Jean Port Joli, St-Michelle De Bellechasse or St-Vallier De Bellechasse.
Charming towns and their surrounding fields rise up gentle slopes dotted with old stone farmhouses. The tall spires of parish churches are the first things that will catch your eye.
Lake Superior: The rugged 700-km route along the lake’s northern shore is one of Ontario’s most beautiful spans of uninterrupted roadway.
For the builders of the Trans-Canada, the 265-km stretch from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa was one of the most difficult sections to complete, second only to the highway over the Rogers Pass in B.C.
The vistas from this wonder of the Canadian Shield were 2 billion years in the making, scoured by the last Ice Age. “Gitche Gumee” (Big Water) to the native Ojibwa, it is the largest freshwater lake on the planet.
Rocky cliffs and ridges, rolling hills of boreal forest, rushing waterfalls and cobblestone beaches are so breathtaking you will have to pull over to savour the scenery that inspired Group of Seven painters in the early 1900s.
Terrace Bay, Marathon and Wawa (home of the giant Canada Goose) are three of many places you can stop for food and lodging.
Portage La Prairie: Winnipeg may be the “Gateway to the West” but Portage la Prairie is the “Fork in the road” — the point where the Trans-Canada splits into a northern route along the Yellowhead Highway and a southern route along Highway 1.
According to Environment Canada, Portage la Prairie has the most sunny days in Canada during the summer months, so chances are the weather will be nice when you visit.
Located on the Assiniboine River, the town has a winter lights festival at Christmas and an 18-hole golf course for those sunny days.
Quill Lakes: The “Goose Capital of Saskatchewan” is a good place to stop for a gander.
A designated Shorebird Reserve Network Site, it’s where more than 15 species of shorebirds nest spring and summer and is an oasis for long-distance winged migrators.
Endangered species such as piping plovers, sage grouse, burrowing owls and whooping cranes swoop by every spring and fall.
During the winter, you can see many species of owls and woodpeckers and Arctic transients such as gyrfalcons, snowy owls and flocks of snow buntings.
The vast flocks of geese and ducks also make it one of Canada’s best bird-hunting regions, drawing hunters from across North America each fall.
The Village of Quill Lake, established in 1907, is perched above the north end of Big Quill Lake, 160 km east of Saskatoon, and the Yellowhead branch of the Trans-Canada runs around its south shore.
Brooks: Take refuge from the near-desert terrain that surrounds this city of 13,000 in the Alberta-Saskatchewan region called “Palliser’s Triangle,” a largely semi-arid steppe region unsuitable for agriculture.
The soil is very nutrient-rich and, although the dryness makes it hard to farm, it’s great for ranching.
In 1915, settlers built an irrigation aqueduct that was then one of the largest concrete structures in the world, spanning 3 km and hovering 20 metres above the parched landscape.
Now a National Historic Site and monument, the giant centipede-like water channel operated until 1977.
Brooks is also an oil and gas hub, with 26,000 wells in the area. South of town, Lake Newell is the focal point for recreation, providing sailing, windsurfing, fishing, hunting and camping. Kinbrook Provincial Park is on the eastern shore of the lake.
Rogers Pass: Rising 1,330 metres through the Selkirk Mountains, this stretch of the highway has stunning views that can be dangerously distracting for motorists white-knuckling their way along this rocky roller coaster route through the B.C. interior.
It is where the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Trans-Canada Highway shortcut through the Big Bend of the Columbia River between Revelstoke and Golden.
Discovered in 1881 by railway surveyor Maj. Albert Rogers, it was the most difficult stretch of the Trans-Canada to build and wasn’t paved until 1963.
Commemorated as a National Historic Site in the heart of Glacier National Park, it is surrounded by mountains popular for skiing, camping, hiking and mountain climbing.
A series of tunnels keep the massive flow of snow off the roadway from October to May. It has the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program and although snow slides are not a hazard in the summer, driver distraction is.
Thankfully, there are many vantage points to pull off and safely take it all in.