The Great White North is home to a multitude of remote and seemingly untouched natural areas. The problem is that the magic of many of these places draws visitors from far and wide. So if you’re looking to experience crisp Canadian air, sprawling landscapes, and wondrous natural sites (and who isn’t?), consider skipping this northern nation’s most famous parks and opting for a relatively unknown — but comparatively stunning — alternative.
Just west of Calgary lies Banff, Canada’s inaugural national park, and perhaps its most beloved. Home to Lake Louise, Rocky Mountain peaks, and ample wildlife-sighting opportunities, Banff sees over four million visitors a year, so its pristine glacial lakes are often plagued by yellow-jacketed, camera-wielding tourists, and its trails and parking lots are often clogged. While the allure is unmistakable, the crowds may be enough to deter even the most eager visitor. Nearby Jasper National Park hosts a similar situation. Although it is Canada’s largest park and home to hot springs, alpine forests, crystalline lakes, and the stunning glaciers of the Columbia Icefield, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is often referred to as one of the most photogenic sites in Canada and is plagued by photographers.
But lesser-known Elk Island National Park offers just as much as its better-known neighbors. The park has graced Edmonton since 1913 and though it was originally intended as a refuge for the region’s protected elk population, it found greater success sheltering a large number of protected American Bison. The park also acts as Canada’s largest enclosed national park (though it is simultaneously the country’s eighth smallest) and hosts a variety of other diverse wildlife species, not to mention a number of unique archaeological findings. The area is also a part of the impressive Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, where due to reduced light pollution, lucky visitors can stargaze and possibly catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. But that’s not all — Elk Island promises sites and experiences that entice travelers of myriad interests.
In terms of natural attractions, Elk Island is awash with sights to see and photograph. Are you a lake enthusiast? Swap Banff’s Louise or Jasper’s Pyramid for Elk Island’s Astotin. Though its water’s not the turquoise you’ll see at Lake Louise, Astotin picks up a multitude of hues during the early morning and late afternoon, as the sun rises and sets.
You can even set up camp on the water’s edge between May and September. And while you’ll experience dark, clear skies across Canada, nowhere is the Milky Way clearer and more beautifully spangled across the sky than at Elk Island. Visitors to Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve report regular sightings of the Northern Lights and frequent meteor showers.
It’s undeniable that Canadian National Parks are packed with colorful and diverse flora and fauna. At Banff, you can expect to see moose, elk, mule deer, caribou, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. In Jasper, you’ll see much of the same, plus smaller mammals like porcupine, beavers, and ground squirrels. You may also spot black and grizzly bears in either locale. At Elk Island, however, you’ll certainly catch the usual suspects —moose, white-tailed deer, wolves, foxes, cougars, and an errant bear or two — but you’ll also get to visit one of the largest groups of bison in North America!
There are usually about a thousand of these furry residents within the confines of the park at any time, though baby bison (also known as “baby reds”) are born between May and June, making those months a particularly auspicious visiting time for animal lovers. To spot these unique and rugged animals, visit early in the day or late in the afternoon.
Fortunately for those who want to get out of their cars and stretch their legs, Elk Island offers a variety of hikes of various lengths and difficulty levels.
Each trail offers scenic vistas and the opportunity to spot wildlife, ranging from bison to rare birds. If you desire a more rustic experience, backcountry camping may be the solution.
And fortunately, Elk Island offers that too, and a backcountry experience here will be much less stressful to book than at Banff or Jasper — reservations for the latter two tend to fill up quite quickly after the online portal is opened.
At Elk Island, you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding a site near the park’s westernmost shore at Oster Lake for a spectacular experience removed from the bustle of Edmonton.
Location, Location, Location
Due to its (relatively) eastern location, Edmonton’s Elk Island is a shorter trek for East Coasters than either Jasper or Banff — and it’s just a 45-minute drive from the Edmonton International Airport (YEG).
Use your saved travel hours to explore the oddities and charm that Edmonton has to offer, and if you’re still itching to hit the hotspots, you can always catch a bus or drive on to Banff and Jasper afterward.
Did we miss any of your favorite attractions in Elk Island? Let us know in the comments below! For more information about visiting Elk Island, check out these resources.