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National parks are the finest examples of scenic beauty a country has to offer. But parks are not static postcards-far from it. Maritime Canada's five national parks are dynamic ecosystems where forests, rivers, lakes, beaches and rugged coastlines teem with wildlife. This is where people come to play. Whether its paddling pristine lakes, hiking mountain trails, exploring the ocean floor, discovering the workings of fragile sand beaches or learning more about a rich, cultural heritage, these five parks offer endless possibilities for families and adventurers.

Kejimkujik-Paddling

When Mi'kmaq paddlers named Kejimkujik (kej-im-koo-jik) Lake in southern Nova Scotia, their inspiration must have been hard-earned experience. The word means "tired muscles." Dozens of islands look as if they were tossed by some great hand across this big lake, gangly with long arms and hidden coves for endless exploring by canoe or kayak.

Start with one of the shortest, most rewarding routes. Rent a canoe at Jake's Landing, drive it back to the information centre just inside the park entrance and put in below the magnificent Mill Falls. The two-hour ride from there down the Mersey River back to Jake's Landing is quick and satisfying on swift but safe waters. Bring a camera as white-tailed deer and beaver are common and so used to people, they go about their business with barely a glance as you glide by.

It's the backcountry paddling at Keji that's most rewarding. A couple of long portages on groomed trails gets you to Peskowesk Lake. The eight-kilometre long lake is wild and spectacular. The single campsite on Île de l'Original in the middle of the lake faces west for a gorgeous sunset from the beach. When the stars come out and the loons call, you'll feel about as far from civilization as you can get.

Cape Breton Highlands - Hiking

The name of this park in northern Nova Scotia serves as a perfect description. The steep-sided mountains abruptly level off into tablelands sheered flat by glaciers. Some 25 marked and serviced trails-most between one and four hours long-offer hard-won views of breathtaking ocean and mountain scenery. Two of the best are Skyline and Franey.

The moderate three-hour, nine-kilometre hike to the end of Skyline trail is probably the most popular in the park. It's the view from the cliff that draws people. Bald eagles soar overhead and gannets plunge from great heights into the ocean while whales breach in the distance. Binoculars are mandatory. Look past the distant highway where cars look like toys and scour the slopes of the opposite mountain for moose.

Grunting up the seven-kilometre Franey trail with an elevation gain of 430 metres is not for the faint of heart, but the view from the large flat rocks at the top makes it all worth while. The sheer face of Franey Mountain is to the west, the ocean to the east and the Clyburn River valley straight below. What a place for a picnic.

Prince Edward Island - Culture and History Among the Dunes

In Prince Edward Island National Park, visitors can enjoy short, easy walks of a few kilometres around marshes, through woodlands and farmlands, along beaches-seven are supervised-and beside dunes where red foxes dig their dens. But it's the cultural history of the park that sparkles and makes for family fun. Green Gables, the home of Lucy Maude Montgomery's famous fictional Anne Shirley, is here. So is the stately Dalvay-by-the-Sea, a 115-year-old Victorian summer home built by an oil baron. It's now a hotel and dining room with National Historic Site designation that will wow the kids.

The park's prehistory dates back 10,000 years when the first aboriginal people lived entirely off the land and sea. When the first Europeans arrived, the friendly Mi'kmaq helped them endure chronic food shortages and war. In 1758, the British deported all but 300 Acadians. Those who returned years later joined those who remained to establish fishing and farming settlements, many still alive with Acadian culture to this day. The park offers fascinating interpretive talks, demonstrations, stories, skits and songs at the Greenwich Interpretive Centre and around the campfire at night. The kids will love it.

Kouchibouguac - Barrier Island and Lagoon Exploration

Although the sands of Kouchibouguac (Kou-she-boo-gwack) Park in northeastern New Brunswick make up just two per cent of the park, it is the main attraction. A 25-kilometre system of wave and wind crafted islands, dunes and spits made of shifting sand protect a set of lagoons and estuaries loaded with wildlife. With the warmest waters north of Carolina, swimming at the beach is very popular. And paddlers in the large protected lagoons can watch osprey-also known as fish hawks-hunt tomcod and gaspereau.

To take a walk on Kelly's Beach is no stroll in the park. It's a four-hour hike along a six-kilometre stretch of ocean-side wilderness. With loose sand underfoot and no shade or fresh water along the way, you need to come prepared but the rewards make the work worthwhile. The second largest colony of terns in North America and the endangered piping plover nest here. Grey and harbour seals sunbathe on the sand. The best activity in Kouchibouguac is the Voyageur Canoe Adventure to the otherwise inaccessible sand islands, combining paddling and wilderness beach walking for a unique and memorable experience.

Fundy - Ocean Floor Discovery

With two distinct but interconnected ecosystems, Fundy has much to offer. The deeply cut river valleys of the Caledonia Highlands plateau-the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains-are dominated by red spruce. In fact, the oldest individual red spruce on the planet lives here. It's 450 years old. But there's another record holder, the great tides of the Bay of Fundy. With a 15-metre swing in ocean level in a six-hour period, a walk onto the mud flats, beaches and rocky shores at low tide is like a walk on the ocean floor.

Off Alma Beach and beneath colourful coastal cliffs where endangered peregrine falcons nest, the tidal flats can stretch for a kilometre into the bay. Guided beach walks and children's interpretive programs give kids and parents a peek beneath the seaweed for barnacles, dog whelks, gumdrop sea slugs, limpets, butterfish, crabs and periwinkles. Skate in boots or old sneakers across the muddy flats where a strange and succulent feast of colourful clam and bamboo worms and mud shrimp awaits the sandpipers and plovers that flock here by the thousands in late summer. 

Maritime Canada's five national parks are perfect for fun-filled family holidays, memory-making adventures and laid back escapes from the bustle of everyday life. Kids and adults alike can learn about the natural environment and the rich cultural history of the Maritimes with its wide range of landscapes and colourful human history.

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