Elk Island National Park

Exploring Elk Island National Park

Exploring Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada
(Recent Images)

I’ve made several posts about my excursions to Elk Island National Park, located just 45 minutes east Edmonton. It provides me with the occasional escape from city life that I require. On this most recent trip I was hoping to photograph bison during the rutting season (aka mating season). I was surprised to find that the rut hasn’t quite started yet. The big males were still lumbering around in isolation grazing on wet grasses (it’s been raining more than usual). Females and their calves were still clustered in their own little herds on the fringes of the landscape where they find solitude from the park’s human visitors.

I did have a few good encounters with bison and even spotted a few elk. At one point, I was filming a herd of bison cows and calves when they suddenly started walking toward me. I gathered my tripod and gear and walked back to my vehicle. The herd soon caught up with me. Soon I was pinned to the side of the car with only my tripod separating me from the herd! Dozens of bison were gathered around me close enough to touch! I was afraid to move. I was concerned they might stampede if I spooked them. They seemed calm enough at my presence, but I’ve seen them cut and run before at the sight of a human outside of their car.

After a few tense minutes, the herd moved on and I was able to film them a little while before they moved into the bush for the night. The ironic thing about this experience is that I had a 500mm lens on my camera, but the bison got so close I couldn’t even photograph them for most of the encounter.

Below are a few images from the last couple days in Elk Island. For more info and images, check out my other posts about this natural gem in the middle of Alberta:
Alberta’s Elk Island Bison
Elk Island National Park - Mini Guide
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park

Alberta's Elk Island Bison

Somewhat ironically, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park is more famous for its bison than elk. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot the elusive elk on a few occasions (there are approximately 400-500 elk in the park and yet they are rarely seen by casual visitors), but it’s the bison herds that make themselves known with their gigantic bodies dotting the landscape. They are often hanging out in herds of several dozen in the open fields and along the gravel roads that penetrate the dense boreal forests. I’ve made many trips to Elk Island NP, it’s located only a 40 minute drive from downtown Edmonton, Alberta. I love it there in all seasons. It provides me with necessary breaks from city life, for which I may ultimately be ill-suited.

A Brief History of Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta. It is composed of 194 square kilometres of boreal plain, forest, and wetland. Several large lakes are in its protected boundaries, as well as seemingly countless smaller lakes and ponds. The area was established as a big game sanctuary in 1906, after several Albertans petitioned the government to protect some of the last remaining elk herds in Canada. It is also the first federally protected wildlife area in Canada. In 1930, Elk Island became a national park. The name “Elk Island” refers to the elk for which the area was established to protect, as well as the islands that dot Astotin Lake.

In 1906 there were only 24 elk, a few moose, and a dwindling number of mule deer within Elk Island’s boundaries. Bison were reintroduced from Montana and arrived in Elk Island in 1909. The eradicated population of beaver was also reintroduced in 1942. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations of wildlife proliferated. Elk Island National Park is a conservation success story. Today thousands of visitors come from all over Canada to enjoy birding, camping, canoeing, hiking, northern lights viewing, and to see bison in the wild. The elk population has rebounded to over 400, and moose are a fairly common sight near the lakes in fall and winter.

There are two major herds of wild bison in Elk Island: plains bison and wood bison. The plains herd is located in the northern section of the park, north of Alberta Highway 16. The wood bison herd is located in the woodland to the south of the highway. This separation keeps the two groups from interbreeding. At present there are around 400 plains and 300 wood bison in Elk Island. Elk Island’s population has helped repopulate bison in other parts of North America as well; they were recently reintroduced in Banff National Park and have been used to increase herds in the United States. According to Parks Canada, “If you see a bison in Canada, chances are they came from Elk Island National Park at some point!” For more information on the parks history, visit the Elk Island National Park webpage.

Photographing Bison in Elk Island National Park

Despite their size and relative abundance, bison can sometimes be hard to find in Elk Island. The roads and trails within the park only provide visitors with easy access to a small part of the protected area. Most of the time a large herd of plains bison can be spotted grazing in the fields near the gravel road labelled “Bison Loop.” They are also often seen near the forest edge in the newly opened turnout across from the Bison Loop. I’ve had much better luck locating plains bison than wood bison, as they are usually out in the open. Wood bison can only be accessed by a trail that loops through the forest (accessible on the south side of the highway).

The plains herd can often be photographed from the safety of a vehicle. You don’t want to approach bison (approaching a bull is illegal). It is against park regulations to get any closer than 100 metres on foot. Bison will often get pretty close to your vehicle. They don’t seem to be very skittish of cars, but people on foot can freak them out. They seem docile, like cows grazing in a field, but they are very dangerous and surprisingly fast animals. I’ve watched a spooked herd of a few dozen bison cut and run in a thunderous dusty rumble across the fields and roads of Elk Island simply because a person got out of their car. You don’t want fifty 2,000 lb bison running at you!

For the best photographic results, I use either a 70-200mm or 200-500mm lens. Often large bulls will be hanging out alone near the road sides, so the shorter telephoto is sufficient. My bison portraits have been made using the Nikon 200-500mm VR, most of them handheld from my SUV. I’d like to point out here that I’m very ethically conscious when it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in winter when animals shouldn’t be stressed out because their energy and food supply is low; a picture is never worth disturbing the subject. The few times I’ve photographed bison on foot were from a safe distance on a hiking trail or a stand of trees at least 100 metres away from the nearest animal. Don’t make a lot of noise, sudden movements, and never approach directly. If an animal changes it’s behaviour at your presence, you’re too close!

Go Out, Stay Out

Elk Island National Park is an amazing place. It really is a privilege for me to be so close by. Some of my favourite images that I’ve ever made were made there. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from listening to loons calling and elk bugling while the northern lights dance above me, to watching large bison walk across vast frozen lakes. It’s a special place.

Want to see more from Elk Island National Park? Here are a few other articles I’ve written:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park Mini-Guide

A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park

I don't take the privilege of living so close to Canada's wild places for granted. Every moment in nature is a fleeting gift.

In late January, I spent a few days in Alberta's Elk Island National Park attempting to photograph the resident bison herds in the frigid landscape they call home. Though my bison shots fell short of what I hoped for, I came away with some atmospheric, pastel-colored images of the vast, winter landscape. Day one was a a bit of a bust, but by day two a freezing fog had rolled over the land, crusting all the tree branches with a thin layer of ice that lingered for two days. The fog hovered, and kept a lot of the light out, but on the first evening, my efforts (hours of trudging through two feet of snow on frozen lakes) were rewarded when the faintest hues of pink were allowed to creep in on the horizon, just beneath the freezing fog. It was just enough to color the atmosphere. 

During the earliest hours of day three, I had the privilege of observing several elk, both bulls and cows, sharing an open meadow with several bison. Unfortunately, the elk and bison had both moved quite far away and into the woods before there was enough light to photograph them. If I had tried to approach, the skittish elk of Elk Island would likely have been frightened by the sound of my footsteps crunching through the hard snow. I thought it best not to stress them during this lean time of year when food is scarce. I then turned my attention to the frosted trees and frozen lakes. 

Freezing fog cloaks the forest in ice during a soft pink sunset at Astotin Lake (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

Freezing fog cloaks the forest in ice during a soft pink sunset at Astotin Lake (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

Out for a family walk on frozen Astotin Lake (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

Out for a family walk on frozen Astotin Lake (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

A bison grazes by the forest edge (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

A bison grazes by the forest edge (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f5.6 VR)

Hoar Frost covers tree branches on the boreal plain (Nikon D750, 24-120mm f4 VR)

Hoar Frost covers tree branches on the boreal plain (Nikon D750, 24-120mm f4 VR)

Hoar Frost covers tree branches on the boreal plain (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f 5.6 VR)

Hoar Frost covers tree branches on the boreal plain (Nikon D750, 200-500mm f 5.6 VR)

Read my guide to Elk Island National Park here. Find out what's in my camera bag here.

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