- This article is an itinerary.
The Trans-Canada Highway is a series of provincial highways which join all ten provinces of Canada.
Canada is the second largest country in the world and a cross-country trip overland was no small obstacle. While the Canadian Pacific Railway's (CPR) last spike opened travel across Canada by train in 1885, an "all-red route" 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 (Ontario), by ship across Lake Superior to the Lakehead, then back on the train to Selkirk. An attempt to motor on CP's rail tracks in British Columbia damaged two of the four tires; their attempt to find an "All-Red Route" (entirely through British territory) failed as they had to cross briefly into the US to avoid mountains between Paterson and Cascade, BC. 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 RCAF squadron leader Ken MacGillivray to drive a new GM 1946 Chevrolet Stylemaster from Louisbourg NS 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. 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.
Following 8030 km (just under 5000 miles) of Trans-Canada Highway across all ten provinces is one of the three-longest single-country highway journeys in the world (along with the Highway 1 ring road around Australia and – if one ignores the brief detour into neighbouring Kazakhstan – a Trans-Siberian Highway paved across Russia by 2010).
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 66 (northern alternate)
- Trans Canada Highway 2/16 (New Brunswick)
- Trans Canada Highway 106/104/105 (Nova Scotia)
- Highway 1 (Newfoundland, PEI)
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.
This journey covers 6 time zones and more than 8,000 km, under conditions which vary from congested urban freeway (in Ottawa and Montréal) 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 Canada 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) and 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; coverage is also very sporadic in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains.
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 highway, designated as Highway 1 in the 4 western provinces goes through the magnificent mountains of British Columbia and western Alberta and the awe inspiring prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
- 1 Victoria (British Columbia) north on Vancouver Island to
- 2 Nanaimo take the ferry to
- 3 Vancouver drive east on the freeway to
- 4 Hope continues North up the Fraser Canyon (impressive) to
- 5 Cache Creek turns east to
- 6 Kamloops then continues east through
- the Shuswap Lake area (fishing, beaches) to
- 7 Revelstoke (pleasant little mountain town).
Getting across the Rocky Mountains proved an obstacle for road and rail. Avalanche-prone Rogers Pass (in what is now Glacier National Park) was a key, vulnerable link in the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1885 to 1916, when traffic was diverted via a rail tunnel. The pass was incorporated into the highway, where a marker commemorates the Trans-Canada's 1962 official opening. Parks Canada often closes areas of Glacier National Park in winter so that soldiers may trigger controlled avalanches using 105mm howitzers or explosives.
- 9 Calgary where it goes through the centre of the city and from there continue to
- 10 Medicine Hat. Continue through the endless prairies to
- 11 Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan before you come to
- 12 Regina and then
- 13 Brandon in Manitoba finishing the western portion in Winnipeg.
This mainline route more-or-less follows the Canadian Pacific Railway line.
- An alternative is the Yellowhead Highway, which follows Canadian National's "Grand Trunk Pacific Railway" from Prince Rupert. Trans-Canada 16 leads through Terrace and Prince George BC, Jasper National Park, Alberta's capital Edmonton, Saskatchewan border city Lloydminster and Saskatoon before joining the Trans-Canada mainline just west of 14 Portage la Prairie in Manitoba.
Set your watch ahead one hour when leaving BC for Alberta; as Saskatchewan does not use Daylight Savings Time, when heading east go ahead one hour on entering Saskatchewan (in winter) or leaving Saskatchewan (in summer). Winnipeg and Kenora are two hours ahead of Vancouver. The third time change (to Eastern Time) is made just west of Thunder Bay, within Ontario.
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 2170 km from Ottawa. Towns on the route are:
- 16 Kenora and Dryden, in the Central time zone. Move ahead one hour to Eastern time and enter
- 17 Thunder Bay
- 18 Wawa (legendary for stranded hitchhikers)
- 19 Sault Ste Marie
- 20 Sudbury (swing south here to reach Toronto)
- 21 North Bay
- 22 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.
- 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 to Québec 117); rejoin la Transcanadienne in Montréal.
Ottawa to Moncton
While the road from Kenora to Sudbury is long and sparsely-populated, past 23 Arnprior and the Ottawa Valley the highway becomes wider and traffic heavier as one enters 24 Ottawa-Gatineau, the national capital. Ottawa to Montréal is just over two hours by freeway, passing through small towns like 25 Embrun and 26 Hawkesbury on Ontario 417 (which becomes Québec autoroute 40). Be sure to refuel before leaving Ontario as petrol in Quebec costs more (with a further increase on Montréal island) due to high taxes.
While it is possible to bypass Montréal by taking Autoroute 30 southbound at 27 Vaudreuil-Dorion and rejoining the Trans-Canada (as Autoroute 20) on the south shore, "la Transcanadienne" goes directly though the city and is heavily congested during peak hours.
Downriver from 28 Montréal, autoroute 20 follows the south shore through 29 Drummondville to 30 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 31 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 32 Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! and 33 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 34 Fredericton, the provincial capital and a long-established United Empire Loyalist town, then heads eastward through 35 Moncton and onward to Nova Scotia.
The mainline Trans-Canada Highway crosses from Sackville (New Brunswick) directly into 36 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 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 Borden and meanders across the southern part of Queens County towards 37 Charlottetown about the halfway point, then crosses into Kings County ending at the ferry terminal in Wood Islands.
The time to drive from Borden 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 38 Springhill, 39 Truro, 40 Stellarton-New Glasgow and 41 Antigonish to 42 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 43 Baddeck (home of an Alexander Graham Bell museum) while NS 4/104 takes a more eastern path through Louisbourg (where a former French fortress village has been largely restored) and ends in Cape Breton.
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 46 Corner Brook, 47 Deer Lake, 48 Grand Falls-Windsor, 49 Gander and then southeast to the Avalon Peninsula and 50 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, be warned... 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.
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. 2017 was the 150th anniversary of the Canada Confederation, and there were loads of construction projects designed to make the nation ready for that celebration. Not only will construction slow you down, but you may have to contend with rather long stretches of very narrow temporary lanes (1 in each direction), flanked by barrels, and some portions may be on rough temporary surface or shoulder. There's an old joke that Canada's roads have two seasons - winter and construction - so be prepared for more construction slowdowns after the sesquicentennial.