Only 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Edmonton, a relatively unknown location provides a haven for bison, elk, and birds — as well as for outdoor enthusiasts, stargazers, and wildlife watchers. This quiet paradise just so happens to be one of Canada’s most underrated national parks.
So, no matter when you’re visiting Edmonton or how you like to celebrate the great outdoors, don’t miss a day trip to Elk Island National Park. Here are just a few exciting things that you can do during your time there.
Although the changing seasons do affect Elk Island’s programming (after all, this is Canada), several year-round activities make this national park a great travel destination during each and every month. Whether you come for the wildlife, Northern Lights, or secluded campsites, you’re guaranteed to make incredible memories at Elk Island.
Look for bison
Millions of bison once roamed the Great Plains of North America, but Elk Island is now one of the few places to encounter these wild animals. In fact, the park is an important conservation center for the two major species (plains and wood), and up to 1,000 bison can be found here at any given time. The park keeps the species separate, ensuring their genetic purity, and fenced in, protecting them from the outside world.
The bison do roam freely within their spheres in Elk Island (the plains bison live north of the main parkway, and the wood bison live south of it), but you’re likely to find them grazing near one of their favorite places: Wood Bison Trail, Tawayik Lake Trail, or Bison Loop Road. Given their layers of fat and fur, the bison tend to be more active when it’s cool outside — so, to increase your chances of encountering a herd, it’s best to visit in the early morning or late evening.
When looking for bison, don’t forget to take a few basic precautions. After all, these creatures are much larger than humans, and their actions are often unpredictable. Try to maintain a distance of at least 330 feet (100 meters) from the animals, and whenever possible, watch them from behind a large object, like a vehicle or tree. Walk or drive slowly when you’re near the bison, and always give them the right of way.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of bison conservation, the differences between the species, or the ways that Elk Island tests for disease and genetic purity, make sure to take the bison eye view tour. You won’t see any wildlife on this tour, but you will get a behind-the-scenes look of the park’s bison handling facility. It’s an interesting sneak peek at what it takes to keep the herds healthy and happy.
Watch the night sky
At Elk Island, the adventures don’t end just because the sun has set. Sometimes the park is even busier after dark, and there are several reasons for that, all of which revolve around the night sky.
The park is part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, meaning that you’ll find little artificial light in the area. As it turns out, Elk Island is the most open expanse in the entire preserve — creating the perfect scene to stargaze, watch meteor showers, and even observe the Northern Lights. Luckily, the national park remains open 24/7 so you can spend all night watching the dazzling beauty of the night sky. Before you go, you might want to check a Northern Lights forecast, which will inform you of your likelihood of seeing aurora borealis that evening. And remember, to make the most of your experience, you should dress warmly and bring a blanket and telescope.
Whether you prefer staying in a campsite with access to running water, roughing it in the backcountry, or sleeping in an RV, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Elk Island.
The campgrounds near Astotin Lake are the best choice for most visitors. You can bring your own tent or reserve an oTENTik, a hybrid structure with a wooden platform and tent body; either way, you’ll enjoy natural beauty, fresh air, hot showers, and flush toilets, all at the same time.
For a quieter experience closer to wildlife and farther from other people, you can hike into the Oster Lake Backcountry Campground. At this campground, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a few bison, a coyote or two, and the plentiful birds that are practically guaranteed to fly gracefully around your site.
Finally, if you’re comfortable driving an RV (or if you have a friend who is), you can stay near Astotin Lake during the winter. This is the only campsite available after early October, and Elk Island doesn’t provide any additional services to winter campers, so this option works best for self-sufficient individuals who don’t mind the cold.
Activities by the season
Depending on when you visit the park, you might find an amazing summer getaway or a winter wonderland. Then again, you could discover a landscape awash in spring blossoms or fall colors. Regardless of the season, this national park is the perfect setting for adventures of every kind.
Spring and summer
When the temperatures begin to climb back up the thermostat, Edmontonians flock to Elk Island. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the city in spring or summer, you should do the same. After all, the park offers plenty to do!
Try hiking on some of the most popular trails, which range from short boardwalks to challenging forays past lakes and through forests. If you’d like a recommendation, two of our favorites include Lakeview Trail, which leads through some of the park’s only spruce trees, and Simmons Trail, where you might spot bison, moose, or elk. But no matter which option you choose, you can’t go wrong. (And if hiking isn’t your favorite activity, don’t fret! The park offers up plenty of other warm-weather activities, including geocaching, cycling, and even golfing.)
Of course, if you’d rather spend your day on the water, you should go straight to Astotin Lake, the largest body of water in Elk Island. You can tour the lake and its 21 islands in a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle-board — the water is almost always calm, making it suitable for adventurers of all skill levels. Bon voyage!
Fall and winter
Elk Island is noticeably quieter once the summer crowds and the seasonal rangers have gone home for the year, but the new solitude can make the national park even more magical.
Come fall, you might have an easier time encountering the park’s famous bison. After all, these animals prefer cool temperatures over warm ones, so they’re often more active on a crisp autumn morning than they are on a hot summer day. Drive down Bison Loop Road, or hike Wood Bison Trail or Tawayik Lake Trail, and see what you can find.
And in winter, Elk Island turns into a real-life snow globe, where hearty explorers can embark on cross-country skiing excursions or snowshoeing outings on any of the trails. The park also creates a skating loop on Astotin Lake, letting you ice-skate all the way around Archer Island or play a friendly game of hockey. No matter which activity you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable adventure!
Visiting Elk Island National Park is the ideal way to immerse yourself in nature while exploring Edmonton. Don’t miss it — and don’t forget to tell us in the comments when you’d most like to travel to this impressive park.