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Discovering Elk Island National Park Over A Long Weekend

On Friday I wrote a blog entitled Thank Heavens for Long Weekends. And I can now say that after two nights away from the routine of the house and garden plus unplugging from the computer I feel somewhat rejuvenated. If only all weekends were long weekends – perhaps that will happen in my old age.

John and I took two days to explore and discover Elk Island National Park, located just 45 minutes east of Edmonton. I’d never even heard of this place until I read an account of what a peaceful place it was to cross country ski. We’d planned to visit in the winter but somehow that never happened. The next opening was the May long weekend and voilá.

"Beautiful aspen forest"

Beautiful aspen forest

"Wildflower season has started"

Wildflower season has started

"Unusual looking plant - no idea what it is"

Unusual looking plant – no idea what it is

"Another can you guess what it is because I don't know flower"

Another can you guess what it is because I don’t know flower

We hiked and explored Elk Island National Park for two full days. And after thirty kilometres of hiking on over a third of the available trails, I can tell you that we’ve got a pretty good handle on the park.

On the first day we hiked the 16 kilometre Wood Bison trail. Starting off tentatively because of all the bison warning signs, we eventually felt we’d be lucky if we saw anything bigger than a squirrel. Granted we saw hundreds of poop piles so we knew the bison were around. It wasn’t until we were a solid half way into the hike before we spotted 15 of them off in the distance. Good for safety, bad for photography.

We had two other one off sightings…until we were in the car yesterday on the drive home and across from us right beside the highway were two big brutes. It figures.

"Flyingshot Lake seen from the Wood Bison Trail"

Flyingshot Lake seen from the Wood Bison Trail

"Beaver pond with house in early evening light"

Beaver pond with house in early evening light

All the hiking is easy on primarily flat, grassy trails – in fact very reminiscent of the Cross Conservation area I’d hiked the previous weekend. Look for dozens, perhaps hundreds of types of wildflowers that are just starting to put in an appearance. It’s a great spot for birders too – with over 250 recorded species. My husband identified a few new ones including the Tennessee warbler and the horned grebe. I was thrilled to see the avocet.

On Sunday evening we did a lovely 2.5 kilometrehike – the Amisk Wuche trail which boasts a few sections of boardwalk in the area of beaver-dams. Beavers and muskrats were both seen hard at work and many species of ducks were about.

Yesterday we hiked the Shirley Lake Trail. The mileage on the map is under-represented. It says its 10.5 kilometres but its actually 12.6 kilometres. You hike through a lot of aspen forest and meadows but I’d say the Wood Bison trail is more scenic and more interesting. On both trails there is supposed to be good viewing of bison, moose and elk. We saw no elk whatsoever but we did find the bones of a moose.

"Wood bison - unfortunately off in the distance"

Wood bison – unfortunately for photographs – off in the distance

"Wood bison hair"

Wood bison hair

"One of hundreds of frogs seen in a boggy section of the trail"

One of hundreds of frogs seen in a boggy section of the trail; it’s just over an inch long

"Beaver on a mission"

Beaver on a mission

"Squirrel keeping a very close eye on our movement"

Squirrel keeping a very close eye on our movements

"A beautiful avocet - first time I finally saw one"

A beautiful avocet – first time to see one – finally

After twenty plus kilometres of hiking, we were both tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

But there was one last treat in store for us.

When was the last time you fell asleep to the haunting cry of a loon AND the whocooksforyou call of the great horned owl?

That’s exactly what happened on Sunday night and what a delight it was. Granted the campground was on the busy side but I can overlook that sort of thing for a night. If we hadn’t slept in the park, chances are we wouldn’t have seen the amazing sunset in the photos below either.

"Canoeing Astotin Lake at sunset"

Canoeing Astotin Lake at sunset

"Ever changing light"

Ever changing light

"It's about 9:40 pm om May 20th"

It’s about 9:40 pm on May 20th

Elk Island National Park might be underwhelming to some, especially if you’re used to the bold, beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery. But the park has its charms if you’re prepared to look and you can appreciate the prairie landscape. It’s a wonderful place to introduce your kids to the outdoors and it would be particularly lovely to explore by canoe in the evening or early morning.

Useful Elk Island National Park information

  • The park is accessed via Highway 16 East – the Yellowhead Highway.
  • You need a valid parks pass for entry. Its $7.80 per adult or $19.60 per family good for 5 days I believe. (though possibly a week)
  • The Sandy Beach campground is open May to September. Make reservations in the summer and on weekends.
  • Fees for a single tent including the reservation fee are $36.30 per night – on the pricey side if you ask me.
  • A fire permit – with wood provided is $8.80 per night.
  • There’s a golf course open from May to September, weather permitting.
  • There’s an onsite cafe sort of restaurant by the golf course.
Leigh McAdam

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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure – & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project – a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 55 Comments

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic says:

    That avocet is really cute – I’d never heard of them before! And, uhm, DANG – that third to the last photo of kayaking at sunset is *gorgeous*.

    • @Christy I once had an avocet watch/altimeter- then realized it was a bird. It’s a beautiful bird and I just wish I could have got closer. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic says:

    That avocet is really cute – I’d never heard of them before! And, uhm, DANG – that third to the last photo of kayaking at sunset is *gorgeous*.

    • @Christy I once had an avocet watch/altimeter- then realized it was a bird. It’s a beautiful bird and I just wish I could have got closer. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  • Wow on those stunning sunset photos! All postcard worthy, Leigh. I love those wildlife shots too. I had to google avocet and how a wood bison was different from the Yellowstone buffalo here in the US =) What a wonderful way to spend a long weekend.

  • Wow on those stunning sunset photos! All postcard worthy, Leigh. I love those wildlife shots too. I had to google avocet and how a wood bison was different from the Yellowstone buffalo here in the US =) What a wonderful way to spend a long weekend.

  • Beautiful photos – those lookalike birch trees are incredible.

  • Beautiful photos – those lookalike birch trees are incredible.

  • Pete says:

    I grew up really close to Elk Island and loved going out there for the day. That image with the canoes at sunset is stunning. I hope you don’t mind me pinning it to our Canada travel page :)

    • @Pete I think it must be a very popular spot for the Edmonton crowd but off the radar for the rest of Canada. Definitely worth exploring. And pinning is great. Thank you.

  • Pete says:

    I grew up really close to Elk Island and loved going out there for the day. That image with the canoes at sunset is stunning. I hope you don’t mind me pinning it to our Canada travel page :)

    • @Pete I think it must be a very popular spot for the Edmonton crowd but off the radar for the rest of Canada. Definitely worth exploring. And pinning is great. Thank you.

  • Laurel says:

    I’ve always wanted to go here, but never made it – got too distracted by the Rockies. I like the idea of seeing bison while hiking. My favorite national park is Waterton – I’ve seen more bears there than anywhere else. It’s also close to my home town, so perhaps I’m a little biased.

    • @Laurel We’ll be heading to Waterton for three days of hiking over the Labour Day long weekend. I am very much looking forward to exploring that area – though I know the concentration of grizzly bears is very high there.

  • Laurel says:

    I’ve always wanted to go here, but never made it – got too distracted by the Rockies. I like the idea of seeing bison while hiking. My favorite national park is Waterton – I’ve seen more bears there than anywhere else. It’s also close to my home town, so perhaps I’m a little biased.

    • @Laurel We’ll be heading to Waterton for three days of hiking over the Labour Day long weekend. I am very much looking forward to exploring that area – though I know the concentration of grizzly bears is very high there.

  • Sophie says:

    So many great photos here, Leigh: the flowers, the amazing closeup of that squirrel, the sunsets…

  • Sophie says:

    So many great photos here, Leigh: the flowers, the amazing closeup of that squirrel, the sunsets…

  • Shannon says:

    Hello from Prince Albert National Park. We are in the same field unit as Elk Island and I asked one of our plant specialists what the photo is of that you weren’t sure about.

    He said it’s a horse tail but he couldn’t be sure which sub-species.

    Glad you had such a great visit!

    • @Shannon Thank you for going to the trouble to clarify that. Prince Albert Nayional Park is on next year’s travel wish list – well really this year but I think I’ll run out of long weekends.

  • Shannon says:

    Hello from Prince Albert National Park. We are in the same field unit as Elk Island and I asked one of our plant specialists what the photo is of that you weren’t sure about.

    He said it’s a horse tail but he couldn’t be sure which sub-species.

    Glad you had such a great visit!

    • @Shannon Thank you for going to the trouble to clarify that. Prince Albert Nayional Park is on next year’s travel wish list – well really this year but I think I’ll run out of long weekends.

  • Alouise says:

    Beautiful photos. I’ve been to Elk Island a couple times, but I’ve never camped there. If I got a chance to see a sunset like that I’d definitely spend the night.

  • Alouise says:

    Beautiful photos. I’ve been to Elk Island a couple times, but I’ve never camped there. If I got a chance to see a sunset like that I’d definitely spend the night.

  • Ashleen Moreen says:

    The Island look strange but it is beautiful. I love the view and it looks like it has a good atmosphere. I love it.

  • Ashleen Moreen says:

    The Island look strange but it is beautiful. I love the view and it looks like it has a good atmosphere. I love it.

  • caryl says:

    Breath-taking photos! Just gorgeous. I’m looking for a weekend getaway and am considering Elk Island but can’t get my husband on board. He’s really into stunning mountain views, etc…I’d love to see Bison!

  • Ayelet - All Colores says:

    The word “underwhelming” was not something I expected to find under these stunning sunset photos. Maybe I need to spend more time at the Rockies :) Then I was in for another surprise – When I clicked on this post on the home page, I didn’t notice it was an “old” post until I reached the comment section. Guess that explains the mixture of the words “May” and “yesterday”, which I read today, on…. April 1.

    Anyway, good thing I clicked through because it looks like yet another gorgeous Canadian spot. Beautiful photos as always!

    • @Ayelet Elk Island shoes best I think at sunset. It’s a lovely place to visit but it’s not an in your face kind of beauty that some people are seeking. We enjoyed our weekend and one year I’d also like to cross country ski there.

  • James Abroad says:

    You took some beautiful photos on this one! Especially that sunset, love it! My trips to national parks have almost never disappointed and this one looks like it wouldn’t either :)

    • @James I was racing to get the sunset and ended up being quite pleased with the results. I love my visits to National Parks and hope to discover many of the ones in eastern Canada this summer.

  • Stunning photos. I love your sunset shots!

  • Jody Robbins says:

    Looks amazing! I’ve only driven through once – in winter. Spring looks like a great time to visit here. Love the buffalo hair snap!

  • Jody Robbins says:

    Looks amazing! I’ve only driven through once – in winter. Spring looks like a great time to visit here. Love the buffalo hair snap!

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