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The Main Street of Canada

Often equated to America’s Historic Route 66, the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) threads across the south of the vast country, through all ten provinces, connecting communities from the east to the west coast. Every year, countless people travel this great transcontinental road. Those who trace the footprint of this great national highway as an attraction, rather than a long, boring stretch to be crossed in a hurry, are rewarded with small-town charm, fascinating history, and one-of-a kind roadside attractions.

Join us as we travel the central and western portions of the iconic highway and embrace the great Canadian road trip.

The Beginnings

While both Route 66 and the TCH are considered iconic, symbolizing a pathway to freedom and adventure, they stand uniquely different. America’s Historic Route 66 is much older, having been established in 1926; more famous—songs and books have been written, and movies made; and remains decommissioned and absent from modern maps. The Trans-Canada Highway, on the other hand, stretches almost twice as long as Route 66 and remains a popular working highway today.

The idea of a highway that would span Canada from coast to coast was birthed soon after the Canadian Pacific Railway line was completed in 1885. In 1914, the Canada Highway Association was formed, bringing the dream of a national highway closer to reality. However, the worldwide social and economic shock of the Great Depression affected Canada severely. That, and the world wars that followed, brought an abrupt end to any massive national construction projects. It was not until 1945, after World War II, that discussions on a national roadway were resumed.

The phenomenal increase in motor vehicles on the road and the growing demand for long-distance road travel opened the way for a two-lane highway proposal, running from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia, following the shortest and most practical east-to-west line.

An ambitious date of December 1956 was set for its completion and the TCH was officially declared open to traffic in 1962. However, it was not until 1971 that it was fully and finally completed.

An amazing feat in and of itself at a cost of over $1 billion, the TCH is now considered the world’s longest national road, covering some 4,860 miles (7,821 km) over mountains, across prairies, through forests, and beside majestic waters, crossing six time zones. The TCH truly traces the heartbeat of Canada.

Whether you are looking for giant roadside attractions, places of historical significance, funky wall murals, vintage bridges, natural wonders, or a memorable night’s stay, Canada has plenty, and many can be found along the Trans-Canada Highway. So, buckle up and enjoy as we journey together down Canada’s Main Street.

Ontario

Sudbury, Ontario - Known for its mining of copper, cobalt, silver, and more importantly nickel, Sudbury is home to the Big Nickel, the biggest coin in the world. Standing at 30-feet (9 m) tall and weighing nearly 13,000 kilograms, this giant Canadian roadside attraction is made of stainless steel and is an exact replica of a 1951 Canadian nickel. In 1964, the creator, Ted Szilva, inspired by a local contest to celebrate the Canadian Centennial, came up with the idea of building the giant 12-sided monument to commemorate the region’s rich mining history. Today, the Big Nickel is world famous and a must-see on a Trans-Canada cross country road trip.

The Big Nickel

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Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario -Pronounced sue-saint-marie and affectionately known to locals as “The Soo”, the town is situated on St. Mary’s River across from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the United States. The city got its name in 1669 when the French established a Jesuit mission there. The Sault Ste. Marie Canal, created in 1895, is a National Historic Site that offers plenty of opportunities for a relaxing stroll, picnic, or bike ride. Other notable attractions include the sacred Agawa Rock, the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre, and Frontier Village, replete with quirky sculptures, looming totem poles, and life-sized wood carvings. It’s a fun, pretty town.

Statue of the three bears, Sault Ste Marie

After a day of exploring The Soo, make your way to the Water Tower Inn, a family-run venue whose story is a typical mom-and-pop runaway success. JJ (Jim) Hilsinger, an entrepreneur at heart, turned a ramshackle drive-through on the edge of town into JJ’s Carry-Out, a fast-food joint serving Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years and five KFC outlets later, Hilsinger, always the visionary, built The Water Tower Inn on the same ground that the original JJ’s Carry-Out once stood. It opened for business in 1974 and is now part of the Best Western Premier Collection.

Today, 46 years later, the same ambition to offer a .photo-label.left The Big Nickelcomfortable stay still runs through the venue. The landmark water tower on the property, which was used to store water between 1967 and 1991, and was purchased by the Inn in 2003, is a guiding beacon to great hospitality.

The Water Tower Inn

Wawa, Ontario -The 141-mile (227 km) stretch from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, has spectacular scenery as the highway weaves, rising and falling, with the land. This section is listed as one of Canada’s Top Nine Great Drives, offering ridiculous views of the pristine, blue coastline of Lake Superior—a lake so large, it's often described as an inland sea.

Batchawana Bay, about 40 miles (65 km) north of Sault Ste. Marie marks the halfway point of the TCH, with as many miles to the east as to the west. Then you drive straight through Lake Superior Provincial Park—the largest provincial park, covering 397,370 acres (160,810 hectares). There’s a section known as “The Graveyard of the Great Lakes” where the famed SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975. Don’t know the story? Make sure to listen to the haunting tune by famed Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.

View of Lake Superior from the Trans Canada Highway

Wawa is also home to the World’s Largest Canadian Goose statue. The idea of a grand goose monument was hatched by Al Turcott, a local Dry Goods store merchant who was concerned that the TCH would bypass his community and wanted something that would beckon tourists on their Trans-Canada travels to stop and stay for a while. How Route 66 is that! The Wawa Goose was unveiled in 1960 and is one of the most photographed roadside attractions in Canada.

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Continuing westward, the town of White River, self-proclaimed as the coldest spot is also the noted birthplace of the real bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. A Winnie-the-Pooh statue to commemorate this heritage provides a great photo op.

The World’s Largest Canada Goose
Winnie the Pooh Statue

Thunder Bay, Ontario -Located on Lake Superior, Thunder Bay derives its name from the mythic thunderbirds that protected the Ojibwe tribes that lived on the lake long ago. According to legend, the giant birds swept down from the peak of Mount McKay to beat their giant wings and raise thunderstorms. Since the days of thunderbirds and fur traders, Thunder Bay has grown into a thriving town formed by the merger of Port Arthur and Fort William in 1970. Among its unique attractions are the historic preservation site Centennial Park and the Fort William Historical Park, as well as Lake Superior and the Terry Fox monument. The Sleeping Giant, a sill formation and mesa that is one of the “Seven Wonders of Canada,” is a natural marvel to see.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

If you’re looking for an overnight stay in Thunder Bay, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites is the place to go. It is the best spot in town. Located just steps away from the shining waters of Lake Superior, it is modern with spacious rooms offering all the comfort and amenities that new-generation Holiday Inns are known for.

Manitoba

The eastern gateway to the Prairies has been given a bad rap for being just boring flatlands. However, if you are patient with Manitoba, she will reward you with expansive landscapes decorated with impossibly multi-toned fields of vibrant yellow and lime green canola, backdropped by big blue skies. The TCH, also known as Highway 1 in Manitoba, runs for approximately 300 miles (490 km) through the province as a divided highway. Manitoba also hosts the longitudinal center of Canada—the midway between the extreme points of the country.

Canola - Fields of gold

Winnipeg, Manitoba -For anyone looking to discover the rich history of Canada’s heartland, Winnipeg is the place to start. Fondly called “The Peg” by locals, must-see attractions include A Maze in Corn Amusement Farm, featuring a 15-foot-tall bale pyramid, and the Ross House Museum, Western Canada’s first post office. Winnipeg is also home to unique and colorful murals—600, to be exact. These outdoor works of art, displayed on walls across the downtown area, give you a glimpse into the numerous cultures and history represented in the city.

Nutty Club historic building in downtown Winnipeg

Located in the 20-block Exchange District—a National Historic Site of Canada consisting of the greatest collection of heritage buildings in North America—is the Fairmont Winnipeg, an excellent spot to turn in for the night. The Fairmont’s central location is perfect for exploring Winnipeg’s blend of historic and metropolitan charm and provides impressive skyline views of the city’s historic buildings. The elegant, minimalist hotel is blocks away from the acclaimed Canadian Museum for Human Rights; the Manitoba Museum, where you can climb aboard a 17th Century vessel; and the scenic Riverwalk and the historic Forks Market, a beautiful green space where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet, and a 1974 designated National Historic Site of Canada.

Fairmont Winnipeg

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Not to be missed is the world's largest Coke Can in Portage la Prairie, about an hour west of Winnipeg.

This former water tower, built in 1905 by the Manitoba Iron Works Limited in Winnipeg, was moved from the treatment plant to its current location when it was acquired and painted by Coca Cola.

It stands as 85 feet ( 26 meters) - it can be seen for miles around - and offers a great photo op and a chance to get out and stretch your legs.

Saskatchewan

The joke: Saskatchewan is so flat that when your dog runs away, you can watch him run for two days. And flat it is. But with that comes a sense of infinite space and the vastest sky you have even seen. This is a province that you may want to take your time in, as the beauty of the landscape is incredible. And if you dare venture off the beaten path, into the small-town communities that dot the TCH, there are plenty of treasures to be found.

Moosomin, Saskatchewan - The first town to be established along the Canadian Pacific Railway. History buffs will appreciate some of its top attractions, such as the Cenotaph Park war memorial, which honors those that fell during WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. The Moosomin Regional Museum is also worth the trip and is home to the original Fudge Snow Plane, a snowmobile predecessor that was once manufactured here.

Continuing west from Moosomin, the TCH is punctuated with quaint small towns that are worthy of a stop. Wolseley, Saskatchewan, is known for the 328-foot-long (100 m), swinging bridge across Fairy Lake. The original bridge, built in 1905 for $300, was constructed to provide pedestrian passage to downtown. However, it collapsed during a storm, as did the second bridge. The third and current bridge was built in 2004 for the whopping sum of $250,000.

An 18-foot statue of an Indian head sits just off the highway in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. The monument was commissioned in 1984 to honor the First Nation’s history in the area and is a great photo op.

The Indian Head Statue

A detour to Fort Qu’Appelle—originally established in 1864 as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, which has today been transformed into a museum—is well-advised if you have the time. The drive through part of the Qu’Appelle Valley is a scenic route that parallels the TCH and offers long sections of lonely backroads with little traffic and stunning views.

Regina, Saskatchewan - Known as the “Queen City” and the capital of Saskatchewan, Regina is a great city stop, rich with history. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum, home to “Scotty,” the largest T-Rex skeleton ever found, is a must-visit, as is the Warehouse District. Dubbed the ‘Soul of the City,’ the district spans 80 blocks of what used to be warehouses serving a nearby railway station. Today, it hosts the oldest locally owned businesses in Saskatchewan and offers a trendy entertainment, food, drinks, and shopping experience.

The historic Hotel Saskatchewan, located in the heart of downtown Regina and conveniently across from Victoria Park, provides the ideal overnight stay. Opened in 1927, the 10-story masonry venue is the oldest hotel in Regina and presents 20th century, elegant architecture complimented with contemporary modern fixtures and amenities.

The Hotel Saskatchewan, Regina

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Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan - The route west from Regina takes you past Moose Jaw, a town with a rich and storied past, and a great name. Founded in 1882, Moose Jaw earned its unique name from the town’s river, whose contours resemble a moose’s jaw. A labyrinth of underground tunnels underneath the town, believed to have been first built as utility tunnels in the early 1900s, also housed, or so the story goes, early Chinese immigrants.

During the 1920s Prohibition era, Moose Jaw gained the notorious moniker, “Little Chicago” when it became a distribution point for bootlegging from Canada to the United States using the Soo Line Railroad that ran from Chicago to Moose Jaw. The town became a sort of gangsters' paradise, with regular visitors from the Chicago mob. Rumor has it that Al Capone likely visited Moose Jaw and even used the tunnels for bootlegging. For seventy-five years, city officials denied the existence of the network of tunnels, but now visitors can take the popular Tunnels of Moose Jaw tour to see and experience the tunnels firsthand.

Throughout Moose Jaw’s charming downtown are an array of giant outdoor murals depicting scenes from the town's early history, including one that paints a scene of Moose Jaw’s Main Street in the 1920s.

But what would a town named Moose Jaw be without a giant moose? Mac the Moose happens to be the world’s largest moose sculpture—a title reclaimed after much fanfare from The Big Elk in Norway—standing 34 feet tall and weighing in at 10 tons. The giant roadside attraction is located on the grounds of Moose Jaw Visitor Centre, just off the TCH.

Mac the Moose

After exploring Moose Jaw and its rich past, take refuge at the Grant Hall Hotel, a beautifully restored building with a history dating back to 1928. Built in the Edwardian Commercial style, the hotel boasts a stately lobby with beautiful spiral columns, an opulent dining room and bar, and cozy comfortable rooms. Walking around the hotel, named after the Vice President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the history of the building feels very present. Like any good hotel, there is also a great focus on gastronomic offerings, including dishes like the mustard and pistachio-crusted rack of lamb and the seasoned and seared ribeye. And be sure to leave room for dessert; the Summer Surprise-in-a-jar is phenomenal.

Grant Hall Hotel, Moose Jaw

Alberta

Alberta embodies the Canadian wild west vibe of outlaws, horse thieves, and cowboys. But it is also home to a diverse landscape of big blue skies, open prairies, and stunning badlands to the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains, and picturesque national parks around Banff and Jasper.

Heading west from Moose Jaw, the TCH is flanked by land so flat that you can see for miles. Getting closer to the town of Chaplin, the terrain becomes a white sea of salt. The water levels of Chaplin Lake, the second-largest saline lake in Canada, fluctuate considerably due to evaporation, exposing extensive mudflats in the summer. These create a sea of white. In the middle of the prairie land, this is quite the sight to see.

Through the towns of Swift Current and Maple Creek, the view is characterized by rolling green pastures, yellow canola fields, and a smattering of grain elevators all the way to Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Medicine Hat, Alberta - Or “The Hat” as it is known to locals, Medicine Hat is nestled between the prairie and picturesque cliffs of southeast Alberta and is home to a giant attraction: the Saamis Teepee, the world's tallest teepee. Measuring 215 feet (66 m)—equivalent to a 20-story building—it was originally constructed for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, where it stood in Calgary's McMahon Stadium before being moved to Medicine Hat three years later. Built entirely of steel, the photogenic landmark is adorned with ten circular storyboards depicting the history and culture of Canada's native heritage.

The Saamis Teepee, World's Largest Teepee

A visit to the Historic Clay District provides a fascinating glimpse into the town's booming clay products industry that dates back to 1912. Medalta was the largest producer of pottery throughout Canada, with a wide range of hotel, restaurant ware, and kitchenware, including Medalta’s famous bean pots. Today, the sprawling 150-acre complex includes the old Medalta factory that has been restored to a working museum, and huge beehive historic kilns, which were once used as cheap accommodations by travelers looking for work during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

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After exploring Medicine Hat’s downtown district with its brick and sandstone buildings, settle in for the night at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Medicine Hat. Conveniently located right off the TCH and steps away from great shopping and dining options, this hotel offers spacious and comfortable rooms, modern finishings, and a complimentary breakfast.

Holiday Inn Express and Suites, Medicine Hat

Calgary, Alberta - Plenty of rolling prairies embrace you as you continue west, and with just under three hours to get to Calgary, the Dinosaur Provincial Park near the town of Brooks makes for a worthy detour. The park is known to have some of the richest concentrations of dinosaur fossils in the world. The scenery is stunningly beautiful with canyons and unique rock formations.

Initially the site of a North-West Mounted Police post in 1875, Calgary gained prominence as a cattle-ranching frontier and became a town in 1884. Today, it is a cosmopolitan city renowned for what has been called the greatest outdoor show on Earth: the annual Calgary Stampede. The 10-day summer event attracts tens of thousands of rodeo fans each year to celebrate western heritage and culture with bull riding, barrel racing, a derby, music festivals, and a firework extravaganza. Other city attractions include Heritage Park Historical Village, Canada’s largest living history museum; the Eau Claire smokestack, the last of Calgary’s old Transit System garages; and nearby Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, an archaeological site tied to native tribes’ buffalo hunting. There is no shortage of things to do and see in Calgary, so once you get here, you will want to settle in and stay for a few days.

The Westin Calgary, formerly the Calgary Inn and the birthplace of the Bloody Caesar, is the perfect base to explore the city. The story goes that in 1969, bartender Walter Chell was tasked with mixing a special drink to commemorate the opening of the Inn’s Italian restaurant. Hours of combining vodka, tomato juice, and spices later, the Caesar, Canada’s beloved cocktail, was born. The Westin offers a unique Build-Your-Own Caesar experience complete with a recipe plus all the ingredients needed to make the perfect Bloody Caesar.

The Westin Calgary

The hotel is steps away from Prince's Island Park, a large, 50-acre green space set on an island in the Bow River. The Calgary Tower—which offers 360-degree views, where, on a clear day, you can see out towards the Rocky Mountains—and the Glenbow Museum are among many nearby attractions.


Canada is one big country and even to the most enthusiastic of road travelers, a nearly 5,000-mile trip is no trifling matter. But if you do decide to set out and discover Canada by car, follow the white maple leaf signs that mark the unbreakable black ribbon of asphalt, from coast to coast, on Canada’s most scenic highway.

Canola field and lake in Saskatchewan. By Elena Elisseeva.
Terry Fox Monument, Thunder Bay, Ontario. By Gregor McDougall.
Spider VW. Kenora, Ontario
Nipigon, Ontario Mural.
Northern Ontario.
Dean Lake Bridge, Huron Shores, Ontario.
"Nutty Club" Building. Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Ranch Men Motel. Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Wawa, Ontario.
Nipigon, Ontario.
Saskatchewan.
The Huge Skies of Saskatchewan.
Windmill located in the small town of Holland, Manitoba. By EWY Media.

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