I never thought we’d find a national park just minutes from one of Canada’s biggest and most industrial cities. Elk Island National Park, the lesser-known national park in Alberta, is just east of Edmonton. After visiting for the first time last weekend, I think the park is totally underrated. While it doesn’t have dramatic mountains like Banff and Jasper, the wildlife, opportunities for adventure, and feelings of peacefulness and serenity are just as prominent.
First, let’s talk about the camping. The main campground is at Astotin Lake, which is also the main day-use site, but the campsites are tucked away from the noise and traffic of the day-use area. At Astotin Lake, there are walk-in tent sites, a more nature-oriented tent/trailer campground with privacy between each site, and an RV loop. We got stuck in the RV loop because the other area was booked solid. Nonetheless, we set up a cozy little site where we had a fire, meals at our picnic table, and shelter from the rain showers that breezed through while we were there. Firewood is free with a camping permit, there is potable water on-site, and there is an on-site free RV dump station. We would absolutely camp here again.
Next, let’s talk about the wildlife. Elk Island is known for the bison– wild, free-roaming bison all throughout the park, which is one of the largest fully enclosed parks in the country. Wood bison, one of the two species of bison that live in the park, are the largest land mammals in North America and at Elk Island National Park, you can just happen upon them during your walks, hikes, and other adventures. According to the Elk Island Visitor Guide, there are more bison in the park today than there were in all of North America in 1890. Their conservation efforts are spectacular. We didn’t see too many bison during our trip, but most people tell us that visitors typically see many, many bison throughout their trips to the park. We drove the Bison Loop (which I highly recommend) and saw a herd in the distance. We also saw some lazy bison sleeping just off the main road as we drove through.
Throughout our time at Elk Island, we also saw a variety of birds, including the most adorable baby geese (goslings?) and pretty robins. There are plenty of insects also (insert eye-roll here) and you might even get lucky enough to see a beaver. There are beaver homes and beaver dams all throughout the park.
Hiking: Elk Island National Park has over 90 kilometers of trails perfect for walking, hiking, and biking. We tackled three hikes during our first visit to the park. We started with Lakeview Trail, which is accessible from the Astotin Lake day-use area. This 3.7 km loop, as the name implies, offers gorgeous views of Astotin Lake, as well as marshy and woodsy areas. It’s a moderate walk with a few steep sections. Nothing too outrageous.
Next, we did the Amisk Wuche trail, which is an easy 2.7 km loop that features a boardwalk across a beaver pond. If you like geocaching, there’s a good one to find along this trail. Look for “Mack & Char” in the log book! Sadly, we didn’t see any beavers, but the brisk 30-minute walk was a good warmup for the hike we were about to embark on.
Finally, we did the Moss Lake Difficult Trail, a 12.6 km loop through forest and across grasslands. It was challenging due to the length, but the terrain itself wasn’t too tough at all. Mostly flat, with some rolling hills, this was a beautiful afternoon hike. We had a cool breeze to help us beat the heat, but not enough to beat the wasps– those buggers chased us around most of the loop. That said, we really enjoyed our hike and we really felt it in our hips and ankles the next day! These trails are accessible to most, just pack lots of water, bug spray, and your camera.
Finally, let’s talk about the Astotin Lake day-use area. With a sandy beach, grassy field, playground, and lots of picnic tables and fire pits, this makes a perfect spot for a family fun day. There’s a boat launch for canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards, and even a rental shack during non-Covid times. You can even row out to the island. I’d also highly suggest checking out the Living Waters Boardwalk. We went later in the evening and saw ducks, a pelican, and lots of marine life– it’s pretty cool for biology buffs and makes for a great photo op.
We’ll definitely return to Elk Island National Park before the summer ends. It’s an easy drive from our community and there are so many more hiking trails to check out. We just need to get our hands on some second-hand kayaks!