Edmonton

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

Why Edmonton is Awesome

EDMONTON IS AWESOME.

I'm a travel writer and photographer. I also call Edmonton, Alberta my home. I'm proud to. A writer in association with a certain well-known travel guide publisher has ruffled some feathers among Edmontonians of late (including the city mayor) with an article that casts unfair, negative judgment on Canada's most northern provincial capitol. Because said publisher's writing has become increasingly juvenile and under-researched, and their printed guides are more useful as fly swatters, it doesn't surprise me really that the author gave Edmonton little chance to show what a colorful, diverse, and exciting city it really is. 

WHY EDMONTON IS AWESOME:

Full disclosure: when my wife said she was offered a job in Edmonton, Canada, I had never heard of it. I imagined for some reason it was in New Brunswick. Looking at the Canadian map on my office wall, I was surprised to find a major city north of Calgary. We flew up in a few days, and over the course of less than a week during that initial visit, I became excited about the relocation. Edmonton is just the right size for me; it has some world-class restaurants, something interesting and fun is always going on, and it's surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful. 

YEAR-ROUND FESTIVALS

Edmonton is Canada's festival city. There is something going on all the time, all year-round. Edmonton experiences more sunny days on average than any other Canadian city (Calgary included) and though winters are bitterly cold, one doesn't have to stay huddled indoors watching netflix for entertainment. There are over 60 events in the winter lineup this year, including but not limited to: the Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival, the Winter Wine Festival, New Year's Eve Downtown (featuring fireworks, food trucks, and live music), Luminaria ("a quiet oasis of peace and light"), the Ice on Whyte Festival ("Grab winer by the snowballs!"), and Flying Canoe Volant (a "creative, interactive, and cultural event that celebrates local history and everything that is great about a long winter's night"). Oh, and did I mention nature's own celebration of winter's majesty: THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, which can be seen just outside of town if not within the city itself on clear winter nights? I've even seen the aurora light up the sky in mid-July. Beat that one Toronto.

Canada Day Fireworks Celebration, Alberta Legislature, Edmonton, 2017

Canada Day Fireworks Celebration, Alberta Legislature, Edmonton, 2017

Not hardy enough for Edmonton's winter festivities? Come for summer and fall. There is literally and without any exaggeration something for everyone. This town is way more than hockey and the West Edmonton Mall (but if you love hockey and shopping, what better place to be?). Edmonton celebrates its diversity through dozens (and I mean dozens) of festivals. There are well over 75 different events and festivals happening all over the city, which means that there are several going on simultaneously through the summer and fall seasons. Some of the more popular include: the Alberta Craft Beer Festival, the Edmonton Pride Festival and Parade, Edmonton Folk Music Festival, K-Days, Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, the huge SERVUS Heritage Festival, and the Edmonton Latin Festival

Latin Festival, Downtown Edmonton

Latin Festival, Downtown Edmonton

Chinese Community Float, K-Days Parade, Edmonton 

Chinese Community Float, K-Days Parade, Edmonton 

Street Performer, Street Performers Festival, Edmonton

Street Performer, Street Performers Festival, Edmonton

FOOD

It didn't take me long to find some really great restaurants in Edmonton. I'm hard-pressed to think of any region of the the culinary world that isn't covered here, or any new-fangled trend that isn't represented either (Chinese Crepes?!). The city's ethnically diverse population provides a variety of restaurant choices. Thai, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Italian (both fancy and not so fancy), Korean, Ethiopian, Ukrainian, Czech, French, Chilean, Lebanese, Greek, American BBQ, authentic Chinese, it's all here! A couple of my favorites so far are Japonaise Bistro (a clean, modern sushi place that serves killer bento boxes), Tokiwa (a real all-Japanese ramen joint with a minimalist atmosphere and the best soups you'll get outside of Tokyo - say some reviewers), Bistro Praha (authentic and hardy Czech cuisine), and Meat (a delectable southern-inspired BBQ spot just off trendy Whyte Avenue). I'm actually about to meet my wife in an hour at a very popular Vietnamese restaurant she loves that is always packed.

Japanese Ramen, Tokiwa, Edmonton

Japanese Ramen, Tokiwa, Edmonton

Pulled Pork, Garlic Fries, and Fresh Lemonade, MEAT, Edmonton

Pulled Pork, Garlic Fries, and Fresh Lemonade, MEAT, Edmonton

On a budget? There are food trucks everywhere on seemingly every corner of downtown, especially near the attractive Legislative Grounds. The diversity of food truck options is no less overwhelming than the amount of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Whether you want Indian street food, burgers, poutine, tacos, or just an old-fashioned Canadian "Beaver Tale", YEG's got you covered. 

If you're traveling to Edmonton and you're smart like me, you'll get a very reasonably priced Airbnb with a kitchen in downtown or in Old Strathcona. That way you'll be able to take advantage of the vast array of seasonal goodies at Edmonton's two largest year-round farmers markets. The market downtown is located on 104th street during summer and fall and moves into city hall for winter months. Summer is obviously the best time to take advantage of local fruits, vegetables, and sustainably sourced meats, but there's still lots of product available in winter. The Strathcona market is indoors year-round, and is conveniently located near the trendy shops and restaurants of Whyte Avenue. 

AMAZING NATURAL SURROUNDINGS

The aspect of the Edmonton area that carried the most weight for me in our decision to move here was the natural beauty both in, and surrounding, Edmonton. An unbroken chain of park-land ten times the length of New York's Central Park runs along the North Saskatchewan River dividing Edmonton in half. Popular activities on it's trails include hiking, running, cycling, snowshoeing, skiing, picnicking, kayaking, paddle boarding, and even golfing (if you're into that...). The river valley park system is only 3 blocks from my apartment and provides a welcome connection to the natural world when the city hustle and bustle starts grinding on my nerves. It has a feel much like the large parks of European cities- very calm and quiet. 

My wife on the Boardwalk to the River Valley Park System, Edmonton

My wife on the Boardwalk to the River Valley Park System, Edmonton

Just east outside the city limits by about 35 minutes is the nearest national park, Elk Island. Elk Island is home to large herds of free-ranging bison and elk. The park is peppered with beautiful lakes and hosts abundant waterfowl. There are miles upon miles of hiking trails and huge lakes for canoeing. Elk Island National Park is also a great place to view the northern lights.

Northern Lights Over Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park

Northern Lights Over Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park

Just down the road from Elk Island National Park lies the historic Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village with real Ukrainian reenactors. The scene is set in the late 1800's and provides a glimpse into an interesting part of Canada's history. The village itself is located in the peaceful natural prairie among tall grass, birch groves, and native wildlife. 

Young Farmer with Chickens, Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, Alberta

Young Farmer with Chickens, Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, Alberta

Just over three hours west of Edmonton via the Yellow Head Highway (16) lie the majestic Canadian Rockies and Jasper National Park. I've been fortunate enough to visit the rockies several times this summer and I don't think I'll ever tire of them. I've been able to photograph more wildlife (between Jasper and Elk Island) in the short time I've been in Edmonton than I did in 10 full years living in the Appalachian woods. Simply put, the natural surroundings of Edmonton, Alberta are a photographer's paradise. 

Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the Horizon, Jasper National Park (for more images of the Canadian Rockies,  click here .)

Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the Horizon, Jasper National Park (for more images of the Canadian Rockies, click here.)

EMBRACE THE NORTH

Edmonton has loads of character - more so than many other North American cities I've been to of similar size. It doesn't usually strike people as a hip and trendy place, like say Toronto or Montreal, but maybe that's partially because it doesn't "insist upon itself." It might not be the most striking city architecturally (though I find the hodge podge mosaic of architectural styles visually interesting), but it's got all the essentials like shopping, world class museums and art galleries, innovative chefs, and live music venues both large and small. It's a blue-collar town with hardworking locals and immigrants trying to build comfortable lives. There's some money here for sure, because of the oil industry and other growing sectors of the economy, but Edmonton is not glamourous. It's real. What you see is essentially what you get, but as every good travel writer should know, it sometimes takes a little digging to find out what is truly special and worth writing about a place. This is the north, it's not for everybody, but it works for me.