A walk in the the park: La Mauricie National Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Some trails in La Mauricie National Park are perfect for Ski-Dooing.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.
Ski-Dooing on a mountainside in La Mauricie National Park.

The first time I drove to La Mauricie National Park, I was all alone and I thought I knew what sort of adventure I was setting myself up for.

I wanted to write about the free-for-2017 Discovery Pass, and La Mauricie was the national park near me that was open in winter, so I dropped my family in Otterburn Park for winter camping with their Beaver and Cub troupes and headed (later than I meant), north toward the park.

After several hilarious-in-retrospect adventures with an ancient GPS, I found myself alone with Joe the Truck on mountain roads that were sheer ice with packed snow over them. Plows had spent the winter clearing the road and building great snowbanks on either side, meaning there was almost no way I’d find myself ditched if I slid too exuberantly. It was like bowling with the kiddie bumpers up.

We had so much fun on the road, up and down, side to side, around curves and past a covered bridge, that I was barely disappointed when the GPS lead me directly to the wrong entrance to the park — an entrance that was closed for the winter. Hey, y’all, sometimes it’s just about the drive.

Nope. There's more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren't allowed to check it out.

Nope. There’s more road and forest out there, but Joe the Truck and I weren’t allowed to check it out.You can click through here to find out what happened when I went back the next weekend with most of my family to try my hand at winter camping.

I give La Mauricie National Park three (completely arbitrary, out of five) stroller wheels. The trails were great and we loved the way station where we could start a fire and share our marshmallows with other travellers. More than half the park was closed for winter, and trail maps weren’t super easy to follow. We hope to bring it up to four or more stroller wheels when we go back during the summer.

Find out how to get your Parks Canada 2017 Discovery pass (it’s free this year).

Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.
Inside La Mauricie National Park, several trails were open for the season.

Tennessee: Mist in the mountains, music on the streets

GATLINBURG, Tn. — The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are joined at the hip. The hip is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We spent the better part of a day driving through the park, which stretches south and into the sky. We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome—at 6,643, it’s the very top of Tennessee. There, Jilly filled the mist with bubbles and danced on the observatory, waiting till the sky cleared enough to be able to see half of the state laid out before us. At dusk, we approached the edge of the park and discovered a field of grazing elk.

Drivers were extremely courteous and careful. In our entire day drive, we only encountered one ass. He was from New York.

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Though it was full dark, we made the last-minute decision to turn away from our cabin and hit Gatlinburg for some live music. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in Tennessee.

Gatlinburg is a little more sedate than Pigeon Forge, but there was still plenty to see at nearly 10 p.m. There was a fat lady singing outside the circus museum, and greater-than-life-size superheroes across the street at the superstar car museum.

gatlinburg tennessee

I was headed to the superheroes when I heard banjo music and Melani called me back—there was the live music I was looking for, just hanging out ripping tunes on the wide sidewalk.

I sent Jilly over with a dollar bill for the upturned hat and a lady in pioneer costume grabbed her little hands and did the polka while her companions strummed away. Within moments other children had joined till there was a dance party going on outside a discount jewelry store.

We had crossed the street but hadn’t stopped giggling when we encountered a second group of performers and Jilly was caught up again with even more children—where were all these kids coming from?—in a joyful square dance and a semi-successful chicken dance.

We had stumbled upon Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, a troupe of singers, dancers and other artists who take to Gatlinburg’s streets to surprise and delight tourists.

We capped off the night with live music, margaritas (virgin for our preschooler, natch) and key lime pie at the brewery.

Gatlinburg doesn’t sparkle and holler the way Pigeon Forge does. But it puts on a good show and makes outsiders—even Northerners—feel welcome for a spell.

A walk in the park: Cape Breton Highlands National Park

 Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

cape breton highlands park roadCAPE BRETON, N.S. — It had been about 90 minutes, a third of that in the rain. Trevor had gone on ahead. I was stumbling along with a significant limp. Melani was carrying sound-asleep Jilly like a sacrificial lamb.

A dad, his two kids close behind, paused and smiled pityingly at my discomfort. He was just starting on the path. “Was it worth it, though?”

I was a little grumpy, as you might imagine, so I said, “Not if you’re used to long walks in the forest.”

Maybe that wasn’t fair. I mean, most walks through the forest don’t culminate in a vista so grand no camera can capture it and no words can describe it. But the truth is, we’ve walked in lovely forests in Quebec and they have a lot more in common with this trail than one might imagine. We were interested in the other virtues of Cape Breton, like cliffs and whales and waves and islands jutting out of the sea. Those things Highlands National Park has aplenty … just not so much on the seven-kilometre Skyline, which is advertised as Nova Scotia’s premier hiking trail.

But don’t let my forest-jaded self discourage you. Highlands Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and has dozens on dozens of trails to discover, over bog and along high beaches as well as through thick woods with a myriad shades of green. Even if you never leave the car, you’ll see the most spectacular sights from winding avenues twisting over French Mountain, past Jigging Cove and through Lone Sheiling. It takes at least two and a half hours to drive the entire route from Cheticamp to Ingonish, through towns with captivating names like Cape North, Dingwall and the elusive Meat Cove (ask me about the drive to that place sometime).

There are hundreds of species of animals throughout the park, which covers a sweeping 950 square kilometres, at least six salt- and freshwater beaches, and Acadian, Boreal and Taiga habitats. There are layers on layers of history here, from the beginning of earth through a time when the land was owned by no one but home to a few brave people, to the settling of the Europeans to we slightly grumpy tourists and gawkers who come to swallow as much beauty as we can before returning to our two-dimensional lives.

Despite the weather and what I consider to be a poor choice in walking trails, Cape Breton Highlands National Park gets four out of five stroller wheels. The paths were clear and flat and an easy walk, even though they passed through forest and over a mountain. And—oh!—everyone we met had a smile and a “hello,” which you just don’t get as often at home.

four wheelsThe road from Cheticamp to Ingonish Beach is 170 kilometres, but mind that much of that is on mountain roads—you’ll have to gear down to get up and down those ancient hills safely.

A park pass must be purchased between May and October. Prices range from $3.90 for youth to $19.60 for a family for a day pass. But consider purchasing the annual family pass, which will run you $98.10 and is accepted at dozens of attractions across the country.