• National parks, sizes proportional to annual numbers of visitors (2009-2010 season)
    National parks, sizes proportional to annual numbers of visitors (2009-2010 season)

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If we were to list the biggest national parks in the country, which ones would make the cut? Well, it would depend on what “big” means.

The map above, for example, sizes Canada’s 42 national parks relative to the number of visitors they attract. By that measure, parks located in the mountainous region of Western Canada are major magnets. Banff National Park alone boasts more than three million visits annually. The inset map, however, shows national parks by actual land mass, and a different picture emerges.

Compare, for example, Canada’s southernmost and northernmost parks. In 2010, southern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park attracted 240,081 visitors to its cozy 15-square-kilometre Carolinian paradise. By contrast, in Quttinirpaaq National Park, located on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic, a hardy two visitors (and an untold number of polar bears) had 37,775 square kilometres all to themselves.

According to its mandate, Parks Canada’s first priority is to protect Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, which explains why key representative habitats are part of the park system. More than just attracting visitors, it’s ensuring that these places remain wild.

But to be economically viable and relevant to Canadians, the park system must attract visitors. On that measure, Parks Canada is holding its own. Overall, the system has seen a three-percent rise in visits, due partly to the growing popularity of parks such as Wood Buffalo in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, Grasslands in Saskatchewan and Gros Morne in Newfoundland.

So, who is the biggest on the block? We’ll call it a draw.