Elk Island National Park is the 8th smallest of Canada’s National Parks, but it is the largest fully enclosed one. It sits at the edge of the boreal forest. The landscape consists of small wetlands, lakes, aspen woodlands and surrounding prairie meadows.
There are opportunities to see elk, white tail deer, moose, coyotes, beavers and over 200 bird species, but the park is best known for its efforts to conserve Alberta’s Plains bison. It was in this area that they were brought back from near extinction. Buffalo from this stock are sent to facilities around the world. Both Plains and Wood bison can be seen grazing in their natural habitat within the park.
The park has trails suitable for hiking, walking and biking or you can explore by vehicle. There’s campging and picnic areas and in the summer months canoe and kayak rentals are available. Despite all this, the park is not that well known. It’s likely because it is smaller and lacks the tourism facilities and services that some of the larger parks have. The majority of visitors head west from Edmonton to Jasper and Banff. More information on what the park has to offer can be found here: Parks Canada Elk Island National Park
Directions, Hours And Park Fees
The Elk Island Visitor Centre is located just inside the park off Highway 16. It’s open daily from 9am to 5pm during the summer months through to the end of September. The Parks Canada staff will answer any questions you have. There is a supply of trail maps, tourist brochures, park passes, permits, and you can make camping reservations.
Elk Island National Park is an easy day trip from Edmonton. Head 35 km’s east, it’s right off the Yellowhead Highway 16. The park is open and accessible to visitors 24 hours a day year round, although many services are only available in the summer. When the gates are not staffed or the visitor center is closed you can purchase day passes from the automated machines near the park gates.
***Note: For the remainder of 2017 the park entry is free as are all National Parks in Canada. At the start of 2018 the normal entry fee will apply.
The Best Time To Visit The Elk Island National Park
There’s no guarantee in this natural environment that you will see wildlife, but the time of year that offers the chance to see the most variety of wildlife is in late spring and early summer. The best time of day is often near dawn or dusk.
The bison are more active in July and August, particulary during the rutting period from late July through the first half of August. During this time the bison can be quite entertaining to watch, but it is also a time where extra caution needs to be taken around them. Keep in mind that the summer months are the busiest time in the park. Mosquitoes can be quite bad in some years.
The shoulder seasons are more peaceful. The orange and yellow colours of the aspen parkland foilage are beautiful in the fall. Spring is another time when the landscape is pretty and it’s an excellent time to see the songbirds in the tree canopies.
Spring is when you might be lucky enough to spot a bison calf in the grassy meadows. They have fuzzy reddish coloured coats. Winter is another quiet time to visit, but you will find cross country skiers and people snow shoeing in the park. It’s a good time to spot elk or moose. It’s easier to see them with all the leaves off the trees.
Interpretative Programs And Special Events
The Bison Eye View tour goes to the bison handling facility. You get to see the corrals used for the bison and techniques used in the conservation program.
The park has several festivals throughout the year including the Bison Festival, Paddlefest, Canada Day events and the Gateway To The Stars or the Dark Sky Preserve Star Party. Elk Island Events
Camping In The Park
Tent, RV And Trailer Camping
The park offers overnight camping for tents, RV’s and trailers from mid-May to Thanksgiving (weather permitting). Campsites can be reserved from mid-May to Labour Day. The Astotin Lake campground has 71 unserviced sites. There are picnic shelters, food lockers, fire pits and washrooms and shower facilities. Firewood is available with the purchase of a fire permit. Camping Information and Reservations
oTENTik Comfort Camping
There are five oTENTik units at Astotin Lake. They are like a tent and a cabin in one. Think of it as comfort camping or glamping as it has been referred to. Each unit can sleep up to six people. Due to the small amout of units they book up fast, reserve early.
Equipped Camping For Vistors Without Gear
If you’re visiting but don’t have camping gear Parks Canada has partnered with Mountain Equipment Co-op to offer equipped campsites. They include a tent, sleeping pads, dining shelter, camping chairs, a propane stove and lantern.
Oster Lake Camping
Back Country camping is available at Oster Lake. It’s a very serene area of the park. It is a hike in site with six campsites available for reservation.
Hiking And Walking Trails
There are 11 trails that cover over 80 km’s in the park. Most of them are easy to moderate, only two are considered difficult. Most of the terrain of the park is flat, there are very few steep inclines on any of the trails. They range in length from 300 meters to 16 km’s. One of the unique trails is called the Living Boardwalk Trail. It’s on land and on floating boardwalks through the marshland and over water. Elk Island Trails
Exploring By Vehicle
Bison Loop Road – Shortly after the entrance gate turn right to drive the the Bison Loop Road.
Elk Island Parkway – After completing the Bison Loop it brings you back to the Elk Island Parkway. It is the main road that runs for 20 km’s north and south through the park. Where the parkway branches stay on the right fork to go to Astotin Lake near the north end of the park.
The Yellowhead Highway 16 bisects through Elk Island National Park for 10km’s. If you are traveling along this section of the highway watch for wood bison to the south and plains bison to the north.
The southern section of the park on the other side of Yellowhead Highway 16 is not accesible by vehicle. There is a 16 km hike called the Wood Bison Trail that can be done on this side. It takes between 4 to 5 hours over moderate terrain.
Golf Course And Cafe
There is a small, well groomed nine hole golf course with a clubhouse where you can enjoy a cafe style meal or ice cream treat. Equipment can be rented at the pro shop.
For more information on fees or to reserve a tee off time you can call the clubhouse at (780) 998-3161 or visit the Elk Island Golf Course website www.elkislandgolf.com
Astotin Lake is where most of the parks amentieis are located. There are picnic shelters and picnic tables, fire pits and wood, drinking water and flush toilets. The lake has a beautiful boardwalk along the shore. Next to picnic areas is the Astotin Theatre that has an interactive learning area and Park’s Canada interpreters on site. Due to swimmers itch, swimming is not recommened in the lake.
Astotin Lake Canoe And Kayak Rentals And SUP
Haskin Canoe has a rental kiosk at the lake. Canoes, kayaks and Stand Up Paddle boards are available Fridays, Saturdays, Sunday and stat holidays until the end of September. Tours are also available, including a full moon tour. You’re also welcome to bring your own canoe, kayay or SUP. The boat launch is at the north end of the lake. Motorized boats are not permitted. Canoe Rentals Elk Island
There are picnic tables located throughout the park at Astotin Lake, Beaver Bay, Tawayik Lake and Moss Lake trail head.
Picnic shelters can be found within the Astotin Lake Area or the Tawayik Lake Picnic Area. The shelters are available on a first come, first served basis. They are not reservable.
Stay safe, the bison can charge and can be particularly dangerous during the rutting season. 100 meters is the recommended distance to keep between you and larger animals such as bison. Give them space and keep the animals line of travel or escape route clear.
The park has a variety of birdlife including white pelicans on Astotin Lake, Blue Herons in the marshes, avocets, bald eagles, great horned owls and large number of songbirds. If you’re really lucky you might get to see one of the endangered Trumpeter Swan. The best time to see birds is near dawn. The spring and fall are times of migrations and offer the chance to see the largest diversity of birds.
The lakes and marshes offer opportunities to photograph sunrises and sunsets. During the warmer months Astotin Lake offers a beach and great vantage points for sunsets. The fall foilage is a photographer’s dream.
Parks Canada has five sets of red chairs located in various areas of Elk Island National Park. The red chairs surrounded by nature make excellent subjects for photographing.
Star Gazing And The Northen Lights
Elk Island National Park has the designation of a dark sky preserve. It’s an excellent place for star gazing. There’s also opportunities to see the Northern Lights. Dark Sky Preserve events are held. The park is open all day, every day. Visitors are welcome to take in the splendour of the park at all times of the night.
Ukranian Cultural Heritage Village
The Cultural Center is set up as an open air musuem. There are several relocated and restored structures from when the Ukranian pioneers settled in central Alberta from 1892 to the 1930’s. The restored structures include a sod house, a one and two room school house, a grain elevator, blacksmith shop and three Byzantine churches. Visitors can watch role players in costumes recreate the early days of the settlers. The center is open from the May long weekend to Labour Day. It’s a 5 minute drive east of Elk Island National Park. More info here: Ukrainian Village
Vegreville’s Giant Easter Egg
Approximately half and hour drive east of Elk Island National Park you can view the world’s largest easter egg in the little town of Vegreville. More info here: Vegreville Easter Egg