The Trans-Canada Highway is a series of provincial highways which join all ten provinces of Canada. Following 8,030 km (just under 5,000 miles) of Trans-Canada Highway across all ten provinces is one of the three-longest single-country highway journeys in the world.
Canada is the second largest country in the world by area and a cross-country trip overland was no small obstacle for early travellers to overcome. While the Canadian Pacific Railway's (CPR) last spike opened travel across Canada by train in 1885, an "all-red route" (entirely through British territory) by road remained elusive for much of the 20th century. Albert E. Todd (the mayor of Victoria, BC from 1917-1919) had a gold medal struck in 1912, to be offered as a prize for the first car to drive from Nova Scotia across all of Canada to the Pacific. That award remained unclaimed for more than three decades, not through lack of effort, but through lack of infrastructure.
British freelance writer Thomas Wilby (“A Motor Car Tour Through Canada”, 1914) and Reo head mechanic James Haney reached Victoria from Halifax only by carrying their 1912 Reo by train from North Bay to Sudbury, by ship across Lake Superior to the Lakehead, then back on the train to Selkirk. An attempt to motor on the CPR's rail tracks in British Columbia damaged two of the four tires; their attempt to find an "All-Red Route" failed as they had to cross briefly into the US to avoid mountains between Paterson and Cascade, British Columbia. Later voyagers merely found more of the same; Percy Gomery (“A Motor Scamper ‘Cross Canada”, 1922) left Montreal with his wife to drive home to Vancouver in 1920; they got as far as Sault Sainte Marie (Ontario) before having to cross into foreign territory. A wartime effort forced a gravel road through a northern route Hearst-Geraldton-Nipigon in 1943, allowing Brig. R. Alex Macfarlane (rtd.) and former Royal Canadian Air Force squadron leader Ken MacGillivray to drive a new GM 1946 Chevrolet Stylemaster from Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, to the Pacific as the first to cross the country entirely on Canadian roads. The Trans-Canada Highway Act (1949) funded construction of the current mainline, which officially opened in 1962. Paving of two lanes coast-to-coast was completed by 1970, making it the most lengthy uninterrupted highway in the world at the time.
The Trans-Canada Highway system is recognizable by its distinctive white-on-green maple leaf markers.
The Trans-Canada Highway is one of the three-longest single-country highway journeys in the world, along with the Highway 1 ring road around Australia and the Trans-Siberian Highway across Russia (if you ignore the brief detour into neighbouring Kazakhstan).
Despite the distances, many Canadians have some interest in seeing the entire country, and driving across Canada is a common way of doing it. The Trans-Canada Highway is not one road but a system of provincial highways that together span the entire country:
- Trans Canada Highway 1 (four western provinces, mainline)
- Trans Canada Highway 16 - Yellowhead Highway (four western provinces, northern alternate)
- Ontario Highway 17/417 (Ontario mainline)
- Ontario Highway 11, Highway 71 (mostly-northern alternate)
- Ontario Highway 69/400, Highway 12, Highway 7 (southern alternate)
- Québec Autoroutes 40, 20 and 85/Route 185 (mainline)
- Québec Route 117/Ontario Highway 66 (northern alternate)
- Trans Canada Highway 2 (New Brunswick, mainline)
- Trans Canada Highway 104/105 (Nova Scotia, mainline)
- Trans Canada Highway 16/1/106 (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, northern alternate)
- Trans Canada Highway 1 (Newfoundland, mainline)
It's quicker to list what isn't on the Trans-Canada: Labrador, the far north and high Arctic, Southwestern Ontario, the Niagara Peninsula and a chunk of southern Nova Scotia. The highway bypasses Toronto and Halifax.
Across Canada by motorcoach?
Greyhound Canada, once Canada's major interprovincial coach operator, officially ended operations in 2021. Crossing Canada with a single ticket is, for now, a thing of the past.
As of April 2021, bus schedules have seen major service reductions, and a trans-Canada bus trip involves poorly-timed connections across providers. The train (see below) is a more realistic option for those travelling straight through Western Canada.
From Victoria, take the BC Ferries connector to Vancouver. From there, Rider Expressruns Vancouver-Calgary-Edmonton-Saskatoon-Winnipeg. Ontario Northland runs Winnipeg-Thunder Bay-Sault Sainte Marie-Sudbury-Ottawa (three transfers). From there, Orléans Express goes Ottawa-Montreal-Québec-Rivière-du-Loup (one transfer). There is a gap crossing into New Brunswick; from Edmundston, Maritime Bus travels to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Cross to Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland on a Marine Atlantic ferry, then take DRL (one bus daily) to St John's.
This journey covers 6 time zones and more than 8,000 km, under conditions which vary from congested urban freeway (in Ottawa and Montreal) to thousands of kilometres of sparsely-populated wilderness (in northwestern Ontario) or steep mountain ranges (in the Rockies). The route passes through most of the populated areas of Canada, geographically the second-largest country on Earth. It is therefore not possible to give a comprehensive description of a trip of this scale in a single article (although printing a copy of the Canada guide and everything under it would be a good start, a full description would fill a book).
Be sure to leave lots of time – a week just in driving time one-way is not unrealistic, assuming somebody is behind the wheel 24 hours a day with no stops to sightsee. Winter driving can take even longer; it is not unreasonable to expect to need a full week just to make the Winnipeg-Ottawa leg of the journey when there is snow on the ground. Bring a reliable vehicle - a full mechanical inspection before departure on a trip of this length is advisable. A cellular telephone can be useful as a means of obtaining roadside assistance, but expect huge mobile dead zones in sparsely-populated areas like Northern Ontario and the Lake Superior shore (a satellite phone may be of more use in these areas); coverage is also very sporadic in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains (where a satellite phone might or might not be able to make a connection depending on whether the mountains are in the way of a connection).
While it is similar in concept to the Interstate Highway System in the United States, the Trans-Canada is considerably different in scale and consistency. In densely populated areas (at least by Canadian standards) and in between nearby major cities, the highway will often be divided with at least two lanes in each direction. But in lightly populated areas such as Northern Ontario or - in the case of the Yellowhead - much of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the highway has only one lane in each direction, undivided, and has gravel shoulders and variable pavement quality. Much of the highway is not grade-separated and passes directly through many communities, functioning as the main street of the town.
This trip can be started almost anywhere in Canada. The highway runs from Victoria (British Columbia) to St. John's, Newfoundland (or the other way around, both cities declare a "mile 0" or "mile one" for the highway), with a third possible origin point at Prince Rupert on the Yellowhead Highway. However, for practical purposes many travellers skip the trip to Newfoundland, and end it in Nova Scotia, others may skip Victoria and end in Vancouver.
The trip is listed from west to east (from Victoria), but obviously could be done in either direction. There are some locations where multiple routes are called the Trans-Canada highway; the shortest or most direct route is listed as the "mainline" in these cases.
Victoria to Winnipeg
The Trans-Canada Highway begins in 1 Victoria at the intersection of Douglas Street and Dallas Road (where the "Mile 0" plaque stands) and passes through downtown Victoria and northward along the east coast of Vancouver Island to Nanaimo. Short freeway segments of the TCH can be found near Victoria and Nanaimo, but the rest of the highway on Vancouver Island is heavily signalized. The highway passes through downtown 2 Nanaimo to Departure Bay ferry terminal and follows a two hour ferry to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. The route becomes a freeway and enters 3 Vancouver.
It is possible to bypass the busiest sections of Highway 1 in Metro Vancouver:
- From Victoria, take BC Highway 17 from Victoria to the Swartz Bay- Tsawwassen ferry (approx. 2 hours), which also avoids circuitous Vancouver Island route
- The Duke Point-Twawwassen ferry (approx. 3 hours) from Nanaimo (via Highway 19) also offers a link to the bypass. Highway 17 links with the TCH in Surrey.
The Trans-Canada Highway travels through the Fraser Valley, passing through the smaller cities of 4 Abbotsford and 5 Chilliwack. For westbound traffic heading into Vancouver, be sure to refuel in these communities as petrol in Metro Vancouver costs more due to additional taxes.
The Trans-Canada Highway exits the freeway at 6 Hope (exit 170) and turns north through the Fraser Canyon, turns east at 7 Cache Creek, and enters 8 Kamloops, rejoining the freeway (westbound traffic exits the freeway at exit 362).
- An alternative between Hope and Kamloops is sticking to the freeway by following the Coquihalla Highway (Yellowhead Highway 5), which reduces the travel time by 1 hour.
From Kamloops, the route continues east through 9 Salmon Arm, 10 Sicamous, and 11 Revelstoke to Glacier National Park which features a marker commemorating the Trans-Canada's 1962 official opening and avalanche-prone Rogers Pass. At the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, set your watch ahead. After passing through 12 Golden, the highway enters the Canadian Rockies and goes through Yoho National Park.
At the Alberta border, the TCH becomes a divided highway and enters Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, passing through 13 Lake Louise and 14 Banff. The highway leaves the national park at 15 Canmore and continues to 16 Calgary, where it passes through the north/central portion of the city.
- An alternate route is the northern portion Highway 201 (Stoney Trail), which serves as a freeway bypass for TCH through Calgary.
The Trans-Canada Highway continues east through endless prairies, passing through 17 Strathmore and 18 Brooks, and 19 Medicine Hat. It then crosses into Saskatchewan, passing between the Great Sandhills to the north and the Cypress Hills to the south near 20 Maple Creek. It then continues through 21 Swift Current and 22 Moose Jaw to 23 Regina, the province’s capital city. It continues east, crosses into Manitoba, and passes through 24 Brandon and 25 Portage la Prairie before continuing to 26 Winnipeg.
- An alternative is the Yellowhead Highway, which follows Canadian National's "Grand Trunk Pacific Railway" from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Trans-Canada 16 leads through Terrace and Prince George BC, Jasper National Park, Alberta's capital Edmonton, Alberta/Saskatchewan border city of Lloydminster and Saskatoon before joining the Trans-Canada mainline just west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
The southern portion of Winnipeg's Perimeter Highway (Highway 100) is part of the Trans-Canada system and bypasses the city with a mix of traffic lights and interchanges, while Highway 1 continues through central Winnipeg. Highway 1 continues eastward to Kenora, becoming Ontario Highway 17 at the provincial border. Saskatchewan does not use Daylight Saving Time, when heading east go ahead one hour on entering Saskatchewan from Alberta (in winter) or leaving Saskatchewan into Manitoba (in summer). Winnipeg is one hour ahead of Calgary and two hours ahead of Vancouver.
Fuel prices in British Columbia (and particularly in Vancouver) are higher than in the other three western provinces; heading east, they will begin to creep upwards again in Ontario and become worse still in Quebec.
Winnipeg to Ottawa
The Trans-Canada runs over prairie for a little way east of Winnipeg, then a long stretch of lightly inhabited forested country. It is called Highway 17 most of the way across Ontario, and 417 near Ottawa (as Ontario uses 400-series numbers for large motorways).
Winnipeg is 2,170 km (1,350 mi) from Ottawa. Towns on the route are:
- 27 Kenora and Dryden, in the Central time zone. Move ahead one hour to Eastern time and enter
- 28 Thunder Bay
- 29 Wawa (legendary for stranded hitchhikers)
- 30 Sault Ste Marie
- 31 Sudbury (swing south here to reach Toronto)
- 32 North Bay
- 33 Pembroke
From Thunder Bay to the Sault, the road winds along the shore of Lake Superior and is quite pretty. However, the section from Wawa to the Sault sits in a snow belt and is frequently closed in winter; see Sault Sainte Marie (Ontario)#Winter Driving.
A few Trans-Canada Highway branches are signed as part of the system, providing alternate routes in central Canada:
- An alternate, mostly further north, is Highway 11, which branches off at Nipigon (east of Thunder Bay) and runs via Hearst, Kapuskasing, Cochrane, and Temiskaming Shores to North Bay. Professional intercity drivers use this route in the winter to avoid lake-effect winds from Lake Superior and Lake Huron (and the above-mentioned possible road closures between Wawa and Sault Ste Marie).
- An alternate further south is Highway 69/400 from Sudbury. Instead of continuing into Toronto, take Highway 12 to bypass the city and reach Ontario Highway 7 (Peterborough, Perth). Re-join the mainline Trans-Canada (417) in the west end of Ottawa.
- An additional northern alternate exists in Québec (from Ontario 11, take Ontario 66 through Kirkland Lake to Québec 117, passing through Rouyn-Noranda and Val d'Or); rejoin la Transcanadienne in Montréal.
Ottawa to Moncton
While the road from Kenora to Sudbury is long and sparsely-populated, past 34 Arnprior and the Ottawa Valley the highway becomes wider and traffic heavier as one enters 35 Ottawa, the national capital. Ottawa to Montréal is just over two hours by freeway, passing near small towns like 36 Embrun and 37 Hawkesbury on Ontario 417 (which becomes Québec autoroute 40). Be sure to refuel before leaving Ottawa as petrol in Quebec costs more (with a further increase on Montréal island) due to high taxes, and while the fuel stations on the Ontario side of the border charge lower prices than Montréal, they charge higher prices than Ottawa.
While it is possible to bypass Montréal by taking Autoroute 30 southbound at 38 Vaudreuil-Dorion and rejoining the Trans-Canada (as Autoroute 20) on the south shore, "la Transcanadienne" goes directly through the city and is heavily congested during peak hours.
Downriver from 39 Montréal, autoroute 20 follows the south shore through 40 Drummondville to 41 Lévis. Traffic for Québec City exits northbound at Ste. Foy, the last pair of bridges across the St. Lawrence River. (It's also possible to follow the north shore from Montréal to Québec via Trois-Rivières - see Windsor-Quebec corridor - but the distance is slightly longer and that route is not part of the Trans-Canada Highway.)
Continue to follow the south shore from Lévis down to 42 Rivière-du-Loup, a small town near enough to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence that one begins to spot salt water marine life, such as whales. The road forks at this point; Trans-Canada traffic turns south onto Route 185 (partially widened as autoroute 85) toward 43 Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! and 44 Edmundston, New Brunswick while continuing to follow the river eastward would lead to the Gaspé Peninsula.
Set your watch ahead another hour upon entering New Brunswick. From Edmundston, the highway largely follows the New Brunswick-Maine border to 45 Fredericton, the provincial capital and a long-established United Empire Loyalist town, then heads eastward through 46 Moncton and onward to Nova Scotia. (The highway skirts the edge of Canadian Forces Base Gagetown just east of Fredericton; do not leave the highway in this area unless you want to be a live-fire practice target. This area is clearly marked by very large signs at each end of the military base.)
The mainline Trans-Canada Highway crosses from Sackville (New Brunswick) directly into 47 Amherst (Nova Scotia). An alternate route exits onto New Brunswick route 16 at Sackville to cross the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, then crosses back to Nova Scotia from PEI on a seasonal ferry.
Prince Edward Island
The Trans-Canada Highway crosses the Northumberland Strait by the way of the 12.9-km Confederation Bridge (in the west) and the Wood Islands ferry crossing (in the east). If you land on the island using the bridge from New Brunswick, the TCH starts in 48 Borden-Carleton and meanders across the southern part of Queens County towards 49 Charlottetown about the halfway point, then crosses into Kings County, ending at the ferry terminal in Wood Islands.
The time to drive from Borden-Carleton to Wood Islands, if you don't stop to explore along the way, is approximately 95 minutes. If you've incurred the cost of crossing from the mainland to PEI (and back), it makes sense to stop and look around; PEI has some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere. Also, the series of books starting with Anne of Green Gables took place in PEI and sites associated with them attract many visitors.
Moncton to North Sydney, Nova Scotia
Be sure to leave New Brunswick on a full tank; fuel prices in Amherst (Nova Scotia) are (as of 2014) six cents a litre higher - due in part to Nova Scotia's 15% value added tax on all purchases. Follow NS 104 through 50 Springhill, 51 Truro, 52 Stellarton-New Glasgow and 53 Antigonish to 54 Port Hawkesbury. (It is possible for all except large trucks to bypass the one road toll at the Cobequid Pass, between Springhill and Truro, by going to the old road NS 4 for the affected section.) As Halifax is not on the Trans-Canada Highway, traffic for that city exits onto NS 102 southbound at Truro.
Cape Breton is an island, joined to the rest of Nova Scotia by one narrow causeway at Port Hawkesbury. Much of the island is parkland. Two parallel roads run from the causeway to the former coal mining town of Sydney (Nova Scotia); the Trans-Canada Highway follows NS 105 on a western path through 55 Baddeck (home of an Alexander Graham Bell museum) while NS 4/104 takes a more eastern path. Those heading to Louisbourg (where a former French fortress village has been largely restored) will turn south just before the highway's terminus in Sydney.
Set your watch forward another half hour upon entering Newfoundland.
Port aux Basques to St. John's
In Newfoundland, the Trans-Canada (highway #1) follows a wide 900-km (550-mile) arc to the north from Port aux Basques through 58 Corner Brook, 59 Deer Lake, 60 Grand Falls-Windsor, 61 Gander and then southeast to the Avalon Peninsula and 62 St. John's. The highway is two lanes and most of these points (with the exception of St. John's and possibly Corner Brook) are small towns or villages. This route largely avoids the sparsely-populated, rugged and inaccessible south coast of Newfoundland, instead following the path of the former "Newfie Bullet" narrow-gauge railway. (The former rail line is now trailways.) There are a few possible side trips: north to the Great Northern Peninsula (where a group of Vikings settled in northwestern Newfoundland briefly but didn't stay permanently) via Gros Morne National Park, south to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, France from the Burin Peninsula, or east along the historic Bonavista Peninsula.
In St. John's, the Trans-Canada Highway ends inauspiciously on an Outer Ring Road which runs north of the city, past the airport. A more suitable ending point for a trans-Canada journey would be Signal Hill, a National Historic Site associated with the early Marconi experimentation in trans-Atlantic radio, or Cape Spear (just south of the city) as the easternmost point in Canada.
The weather in parts of Canada can be extreme in winter. In much of northwestern Ontario, distances are long, settlements few and far between and cellular telephone coverage incomplete or sporadic. Be sure that your vehicle is in top condition and that you are carrying adequate supplies before setting out. In the west, this route crosses the Rocky Mountains and can be dangerous during winter storms - sometimes the road may even be closed due to snow avalanche risk.
In Newfoundland, a moose on the highway is a Canadian stop sign and is not to be ignored lightly. These animals are numerous, much heavier than deer or other wildlife and have a much higher centre of gravity. A moose through the windscreen in a vehicular collision can be deadly for both the vehicle's driver and the moose.
Unless you have two (or more) drivers, be prepared to spend at least a week on the highway - not including tour and sightseeing stops. The distances involved are not to be underestimated.
Beware of construction zones. There's an old joke that Canada's roads have two seasons - winter and construction - so be prepared for construction slowdowns with little notice anywhere along the route. Not only will construction slow you down, but you may have to contend with rather long stretches of very narrow temporary lanes (one in each direction), flanked by barrels, and some portions may be on rough temporary surface or shoulder.