Elk Island National Park is located in the state of Alberta, Canada, just 30 minutes east of the city of Edmonton. The reserve is famous for its rich flora and fauna. Nearly 250 species of birds, 44 species of mammals and some 450 species of plants can be found here. The most popular, of course, are the buffalo, whereby some people call this place a buffalo park, or not an elk park.

Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada
Author Ezra Jeffrey, source Unsplash.


The origins of Elk Island National Park date back to 1906, when five local men asked the government to create a refuge for elk and, on occasion, also for other wildlife. The government agreed to such a proposal and sectionalized an area of 41 kilometers for the future Elk Island reserve. A year later, a couple of dozen plain bison that were brought here were also taken under protection in order that protect the species. When the number of animals approached to 400, most of them were later relocated, but about 50 bison remained and formed a herd count today of about 300 individual. Today, the reserve supplies and transports surplus bison to other wild places in Canada, where their population is not as numerous. A herd of several hundred wood bison, which are unfortunately in danger of extinction, is separated from the plain bison south of Highway 16, which runs through the park. In 1911, the park was officially incorporated to of Parks Canada, an organization which deal with for example protecting and caring for national parks in Canada. The reserve became Canada’s sixth national park in 1913, however the area south from of Highway 16, was annexed in 1947. Elk Island is 75 square miles (194 square kilometers), what, making it one of the smallest national parks in Canada.

Elk Island National Park is located on terrain the Beaver Hills Biosphere (more information here). It is also part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, which is 300 square kilometers (116 square miles). In short, Dark Sky Reserves deal with protect the night sky and coordinate activities, related to the infrastructure of a particular region with local authorities, so that artificial light does not “litter” the night sky over particular areas. In practice, this aims to minimize the light emitted by, for example, buildings, lamps, road lighting, etc. suchly in order that the beauty of the night sky can be enjoyed in a particular region. Thanks to this, for example, just in Elk Island National Park, we can admire, with a cloudless sky, beautiful stars, and, if we are lucky, also nebulae and galaxies. However, in winter, we can observe a sky-high dance of lights in the form of the northern lights. The video below shows just how phenomenal the Elk Island sky can be.

Elk Island Reserve has a hilly terrain with an elevation fluctuation of between 30 and 60 meters. This landscape was formed as a result of the glacier melting in place and leaving behind so-called moraine, that is rock sediment carried by the glacier or ice sheet, as well as sediment left by it (melted from its ice). Layers of glacial debris left behind by the glacier have shaped the local terrain into rolling hills and numerous depressions in the form of lakes, as well as wetlands of various sizes and shapes.

Source Google Maps.



Wildlife is one of the key features of Elk Island National Park. The plateau here is home to the largest population of ungulate mammals in all of Canada. These belong plains and wood bison, elk, deer and white-tailed deer. No other reserve has a denser ungulate mammal population per square kilometer than Elk Island. Other large wildlife species that can be seen in the park it is black bear, coyote, lynx and wolf. Of the smaller animals, it is the beaver and shrew. The reserve is shelter for around 250 species of birds that nest or migrate through the park. Herons, hawks, ducks, seagulls, terns, grebes, owls, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and swallows are popular bird species that can be found here. On the other hand, due to low oxygen levels, few fish inhabit the waters here.

Elk Island has been very successful in increasing its ungulate mammal population. This success has been used to export various species of animals for reintroduction and settlement in other regions of North America.

Nearly 450 plant species grow in the park. The most multiple species are: trembling aspen, balsam poplar, black spruce, white spruce, tamarisk, silver birch, horsetails, calendulas, willows, orchids and asters.

Bison on the road, Elk Islan National Park, Alberta, Canada
Author Jake Osborne, source flickr.



The park has conditions typical of a continental climate. The mountains in the west tend to block the air from the Pacific, whereby the air that crosses the mountains is largely stripped air of moisture. The resulting dry air makes that this the area is susceptible to large temperature fluctuations. Southern air masses from over the United States and Arctic air masses from the north make, that summers are hot and winters very cold.



The best months to visit Elk Island National Park are May, June, July and August. The weather is the most reliable then, but keep in mind that this is also when the trails and campgrounds have the highest number of tourists. Winter is also a great time of year for sightseeing. Edmonton winters bring plenty of snow, transforming Elk Island National Park into a paradise for those who enjoy snowshoeing.

Astotin Lake, source Gaia GPS.



Park, past a rich flora and fauna, it is also known for many lakes. The largest of these is Lake Astotin in the north. The lake has 21 islands that can be visited. The best way is to rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboard. Equipment can be rented at Astotin Lake Recreation Area, usually from June to August (largely dependent is from the weather). It is also possible to sail on Lake Astotin, but not in motorized sailboats. At the northern end of the lake there is a landing pier. Many people will enjoy certainly the Living Waters Boardwalk: A 300-meter boardwalk leading across the water. On warm summer evenings, the shores of Lake Astotin are a favorite barbecue spot not only among tourists, but also among Edmonton residents. You’ll find a variety of picnic areas, toilets, showers and tables, which are available free. A nine-hole golf course is located near the lake.

Astotin Lake, Elk Islan National Park, Alberta, Canada
Author Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, source flickr.



Elk Island has 11 different trails, from an easy half-mile track to a more challenging 15-mile trail. Here, on the official website, you can become acquainted with the trails what await for tourist in Elk Island National Park.



Elk Island National Park’s equipped campgrounds give you the opportunity to camp without the hassle of necessity to bring your own gear. The campgrounds offer tents, pillows, a dining area, camping chairs, a gas stove and cooking equipment. Also, available are oTENTiks-a cross between a tent and a lodge. The oTENTiks can accommodate up to six people with one double bed, two single beds and a bunk bed. The most popular camping spots are Astotin Lake Campground and Oster Lake Backcountry Campground. Remember, that campgrounds on the reservation area are usually open from May to October. Here, on the official website, you can read the details of the offers for a specific campground.

Entering from Yellowhead Highway, Elk Islan National Park, Alberta, Canada
Entering from Yellowhead Highway, author daveynin, source flickr.



The calm sheet of Lake Astotin is ideal for canoeing. In addition to a kayak, you can also rent a paddleboard or canoe boat.


When you go out on the lake, always wear a life jacket.

Choose a trip that is appropriate to your experience level and current weather conditions. Try to sail in groups, count of at least two kayaks.

Return to the marina with all your trash, which should be reprocess.

“Amateur Astronomy”.

As part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Reserve and the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve, Elk Island National Park is a great place to enjoy the night sky. The park is open all day, every day. Visitors can admire the sky at any time.


If you will be observing the sky near Astotin Lake, be aware that the night in this place can be windy. Dress appropriately for the prevailing weather.


A harbor for boats is located at the northern end of Lake Astotin. The water level change from year to year, what making, that shallow sailboats is an ideal choice. When sailing on Lake Astotin, remember that emergency services and medical assistance may take time to reach you in an emergency. You should have completed basic courses and have sailing experience.


Boats with a motor are not allowed on Lake Astotin.

Check your boat and equipment before you go.

Monitor the weather while planning your trip and during the day.

Leave your boating plan and contact information your family member or friend.

Boating under the influence of alcohol is prohibited.


Elk Island National Park can boast one of the best wildlife viewing in North America. To increase your chances of seeing bison, elk, birds and other creatures, plan your visit around dawn and dusk. Then there are the best chances of seeing Elk Island’s wild inhabitants. There are exhibits and viewpoints along most of the trails. Some of the most spectacular views can be experienced along the shores of Lake Astotin and Tawayik, especially at sunrise and sunset.


Do not surround animals, crowd around them or follow them.

Do not pose for photos with wild animals in the background.

Don’t lure wild animals of food or by simulating their sounds.

Don’t honk.

Be patient!

Commercial photography or filming

Professional photographers and filmmakers working on projects in Elk Island National Park must have a temporary business license. To that end, contact the Visitor Center to get to know more about the film permit and about the aforementioned business license.


Elk Island National Park is a paradise for birdwatchers. In a zone between coniferous forest and aspen forest, there are several habitats in a small area. This vast wetland area provides many species of birds opportunities to feed and breed.


Plan your visits at dawn to ensure themselves a better chance of observing birds in their natural habitat.

Spring and autumn migrations are a great opportunity to experience diversity of bird species.

Come on in on the Amisk Wuche or Lakeview trails, where birds and other wildlife can often be seen.

It is illegal to feed, lure or disturb wild animals in the park. Persons who breach of these regulations can pay a fine of up to $25,000.


During the winter, the Astotin Lake Area offers ice skating and hockey.

Skating is dependent on the weather.


At Lake Astotin there is a beach where you can relax and have a picnic.

Remember, that you may experience swimmer’s itch while in the water in Lake Astotin. It manifests itself as a rash/dermatitis, caused by parasites. To prevent itching and other symptoms, limit your time in the water, and after swimming in the lake, rinse thoroughly in the shower, which is available at the beach.

Night in Elk Islan National Park, Alberta, Canada
Author Chong Wei, source Unsplash.


If you want to buy park maps and guidebooks, stop by the Visitor Information Center near the southern entrance gate to the park.

Remember, that some services and facilities are limited in winter.

Wildlife can be viewed from comfortable vehicles, whereby the park is “friendly” for people with disabilities.

Hunting and fishing are prohibited.

Pets must be kept on a leash at all times.

Highway 16 crosses Elk Island National Park on section 10 km. Watch out for plains bison and forest bison, which often cross the local roadway.

During winter, make sure the ice is thick enough before entering a frozen lake. Steam over the ice, or sounds of creaking and cracking, indicate at poor ice cover.  The thickness of the ice must be at least 15 cm in order that walking and skating on the ice safe. The thicker the ice, all the better.

The nearest international airports from Elk Island National Park:

Name City Distance
Edmonton International Airport
Edmonton, AB
73 km
Calgary International Airport
Calgary, AB
330 – 360 km

The distance data comes from Google Maps.

Nearest domestic airports from Elk Island National Park:

Name City Distance
Bonnyville Airport
Bonnyville, AB
196 km
Lloydminster Airport
Lloydminster, AB
205 – 235 km
Fort McMurray Airport
Fort McMurray, AB
386 km
Peace River Airport
Peace River, AB
528 – 545 km

The distance data comes from Google Maps.



Bison are wild and strong animals. Although they look gentle, they are dangerous, unpredictable and can attack without warning. Visitors have a responsibility to know how to visit the park and observe the animals in a way assuring safe as well as tourists and wild creatures.

Follow these tips to enjoy every encounter with bison in Elk Island National Park.

In the car:

  • Drive slowly and the bison will move out of your way.
  • Don’t honk or drive aggressively. Attacks on vehicles are rare, but can happen.
  • Stop and view bison from a distance only when it is safe. Always stay in your vehicle.

Walk or bike:

  • Be aware of your surroundings and watch for wild animals.
  • When approaching blind curves, drive slowly in case a bison is just around the bend.
  • Never pass across a herd on the road. Wait until the herd to move on or turn around.
  • Frightened bison often run away and then stop and look back. Go around any bison that remain in the area. Wait for the bison to move, walk around them and leave room for them to escape or slowly retreat.
  • Don’t do tourism in any form (walking, biking, etc.) with headphones in your ears.
  • Do not approach a bison closer than 100 meters, and never try to shoo.

Use your thumb:

How does it “work”? The visitor raises his thumb to embrace the bison. This method indicates that the visitor is at least 100 meters away from the animal.

In practice

Keep your fist extended in front of you and raise your thumb. Embrace the bison (which is standing sideways) with your thumb. If the bison is completely covered, you are at a safe distance of about 100 meters. If your thumb does not cover the entire bison, back away slowly until your thumb covers at completely animal.

Keep extreme caution:

  • In May and June, when female bison are very protective versus of their newborn calves.
  • In July and August, during the mating season, when males are aggressive and dangerous.
  • With dogs. Pets must be on a leash and under control at all times, as they can challenge the bison and provoke them to attack. It is a good idea to have a muzzle on one, in case the dog starts barking and thereby causes stress to the bison.
  • On the trails. Avoid approaching bison along trails. They may then attack more easily. Make them aware that someone is there by talking loudly or clapping. If the bison don’t move, retreat slowly.
  • Never enter a herd of bison on foot or step between two animals, especially between a mother and her offspring.

Bison warning signs

Be alert and aware of bison warning signs and back away slowly when a bison:

  • It snorts, shakes or tosses its head.
  • Raises its tail.
  • Taps its hooves against the ground.
  • Falsely charges.
  • If bison stop grazing to explore their surroundings, immediately start backing away until the animals return to grazing.
  • Bison often give a shout, cautionary, when someone gets too close.


Call Parks Canada dispatch 1-877-852-3100 if you notice incidents with wildlife, disrupting the peace at the campsite, fire, poaching or first aid.  For emergencies, call 911.

Bison, Elk Islan National Park, Alberta, Canada
Author Ted Drake, source flickr.



Park staff successfully re-established Elk Island’s beaver population in the 1940s, after trappers had almost completely eliminated them from the area in the mid-19th century.

In the park, we will found more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) of hiking trails.

European fur traders arrived in Alberta between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Unfortunately, they soon contributed to the near extinction of bison, elk and beaver.


Running away from civilization doesn’t always require hopping on a plane to get to an exotic destination thousands of miles away. Sometimes enough a 30-minute driving a car to immerse yourself in nature for a few hours or days. Such a place is certainly Elk Island National Park, where tourists can see a myriad of different species of birds or mammals. Elk Island is at second place in terms of ungulate mammal density per square kilometer, and “loses” in this regard only to Serengeti National Park. The park also worth going to the reserve at night to admire the beautifully starry Canadian sky.

Ardrossan near Elk Island National Park, author Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau, source Unsplash.

Chong Wei, source Unsplash.

Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau, source Unsplash (photo edited).

Pelicans flying in convoy at Elk Island National Park, author Chaplain143, source commons.wikimedia.org

Fort Saskatchewan near Elk Island National Park, author Redd, source Unsplash (photo edited).



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