Elk Island National Park - Mini Guide

Elk Island National Park, located just east of Edmonton, Alberta, was the first place I visited outside the city after the move from North Carolina. From metropolitan Edmonton (population 1,000,000) it only takes about 35-40 minutes to arrive at this wild gem where forests meet prairie. This protected area is home to a variety of amazing wildlife, pristine lakes, and is an excellent place to view and photograph the northern lights. 

Location & Terrain:

Elk Island National Park is located approx. 50 km (35-40 minute drive depending on city traffic) east of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada just off Alberta Highway 16 (the Yellowhead Highway). The highway divides the park in two and is lined on both sides with high wire fences to keep bison and other wildlife from walking into traffic. This separation also keeps the herd of wood bison on the south side and the plains bison on the north side to keep them from interbreeding.

The terrain within the park boundaries varies, but is generally flat and partially wooded with birch and spruce groves. There are several large lakes and countless smaller ones, making this park perfect for canoeing and kayaking. There are various well-maintained (though often muddy) hiking trails at Elk Island and well-kept washrooms and camp grounds as well. The only major downside to this park is the mosquitos, which can be extremely frustrating to deal with during the summer months (bring plenty of strong bug spray for the love of pete!). 

Recreational Opportunities:

Elk Island provides nature lovers with loads of opportunities for recreation. In addition to hiking trails of various lengths, the park boasts excellent kayaking, paddle boarding, and canoeing opportunities (rentals are available seasonally). The most popular area in Elk Island is Astotin Lake, the second largest lake in the park and the most accessible with paved parking. This area is often really packed in the summer, but it's worth the visit. There is actually a sandy beach area and a few small floating docks. There are good trails around the lakeside, and several small islands within the lake that can be reached by your trusty non-motarized vessel. 

Camping in the nearby RV or primitive campsites is popular. People also come to spend the long summer evenings and enjoy the sunsets over the lake. There are picnic tables, covered picnic areas for larger groups, washrooms, and grills for grilling. There are also a few fire pits that are often already in use no matter how early you arrive. 

 Canoeing on Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Canoeing on Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Wildlife & NighT Sky:

What drew me to Elk Island initially was the opportunity to see and photograph wild bison. I had, until June of this year, never seen bison in the wild. That first summer trip to Elk Island provided me with lots of great photo opportunities with this iconic North American species. I've been back several times over the last few months, and seeing these majestic creatures never gets old. 

Bison can generally be found grazing in the open fields, but occasionally make their way into the woods and even into the parking lot at Astotin Lake. There are hundreds of bison at Elk Island, and as I mentioned before, the two species are separated by fences along either side of Highway 16. The wood bison to the south can often be seen along the fence near the highway. There is a hiking trail through the woods (Wood Bison Trail), but I've yet to see bison along it and haven't completed the trail due to mosquitos, so I can't provide details for wood bison sightings. 

The best places to see plains bison (including their adorable calves) are along the Bison Loop Road (see map above) and from a new gravel lot across from Bison Loop Road. The latter is not yet marked on google maps, but you can't miss it. When driving north into the park, Bison Loop is on the right and the new gravel lot is on the left. My best experiences with the large herd have been at this new (yet to be named) pull off. Use caution when in bison country. Never approach bison, especially large bulls in the fall. They can charge suddenly and without warning. Always give them adequate space and use a long lens for pictures. 

 Bison Portrait, Elk Island National Park, Canada (500mm lens)

Bison Portrait, Elk Island National Park, Canada (500mm lens)

 Bison calf in spring, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Bison calf in spring, Elk Island National Park, Canada

I have yet to see Elk Island's elk. A park ranger told me there was actually an overpopulation of elk in the area, but they are rarely seen because they keep to the woods away from the park roads. I have, however, heard elk bugle on an autumn night as I watched the northern lights dance above - that was a magical experience I'll never forget.

In addition to bison and elk, Elk Island is home to dozens of waterfowl species, song birds, hawks, beaver, deer, moose, fox, and the occasional black bear...just to name a few.

Elk Island is a popular spot for northern lights (aurora borealis) viewing as well. It's far enough away from the city lights that the sky is clear of light pollution. It's also easily accessible from town, so when the aurora forecast is strong and the skies are clear, the parking lots can fill up with folks hoping to get a glimpse of the north's most famous celestial phenomena. Unlike in Scandinavia or even farther north in Canada, you don't have to wait until long winter nights to see the northern lights. I photographed the aurora for the first time in mid-July! See my article on how to photograph the northern lights here

Go. Do. See.

Elk Island National Park is one of the lesser known natural gems of Canada, but it definitely deserves to be on your list. I've had some of my most memorable nature experiences there on my own terms without having to go hundreds of kilometers from home. It's great to have such an amazing natural place so close to the city...it's my "escape room" you might say ; ) For more information on Elk Island National Park, including regulations and park rules, visit the Parks Canada website

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Elk Island National Park, Canada Mini-Guide