What Is Special About Elk Island National Park?

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Elk Island National Park during the fall

When it comes to special places, Elk Island National Park deserves some attention. Unfortunately, this spot isn’t near the “big name” parks that steal the show.

With only 400,000 annual visitors, it’s a hidden gem waiting for you. But what’s so special about it? Today, we’re stepping out into the wilderness to share why you don’t want to overlook Elk Island National Park. 

About Elk Island National Park

Just east of Edmonton, Alberta, sits Elk Island National Park. At roughly 75 square miles, it’s not the smallest but far from being the largest. As you might expect, it has many elk. However, you’ll also see bison, moose, and many other creatures.

It has earned a reputation for its conservation efforts. Natural habitats that many vulnerable wildlife depend on have been preserved and restored, allowing them to flourish and visitors to enjoy them in their natural habitat. However, it is more than just a wildlife sanctuary.

You’ll find it easy to get lost in nature as you explore all it offers. Whether you want to experience a heart-pounding hike or relax on a sandy beach, you can do it here. Luckily, there’s a campground that makes it easy for you to stay close to all the action.

When Is the Best Time to Visit Elk Island National Park?

Most people come to Elk Island National Park to experience wildlife. For the best chances, you’ll want to visit during the early morning in spring. This is your best chance to glimpse the incredible amount of animals that live here.

In addition to the impressive wildlife, the park tends to wake up from its winter slumber. You’ll see trees and flowers blooming throughout the area. In addition, the trails tend to be less crowded, allowing you to enjoy nature in peace.

However, like many national parks, there’s never a wrong time to visit. Each season offers a unique perspective. Snow blankets the landscape throughout winter, and the leaves paint the trees in the autumn. No matter when you visit, nature will show.

What Is Special About Elk Island National Park?

Do you still need convincing to add this item to your travel plans? Let’s look at what makes Elk Island National Park worth visiting. 

Wildlife Viewing

You have the chance to witness a herd of bison grazing over the plains. Officials took action when these massive creatures were nearly extinct. Today, this national park has some of North America’s most genetically pure herds of bison.

Besides bison, you’ll also see elk, moose, deer, beavers, foxes, and coyotes. Officials have done a great job maintaining the natural habitats of these animals.

As a result, there are plenty of opportunities to get up close with wildlife. However, don’t forget to follow the “look, but don’t touch” policy and keep your distance. They’re not as friendly as they appear.

Wildlife walking in a grassy area in Elk Island National Park.

Dark Sky Preserve

Elk Island sits far enough outside Edmonton that you don’t have to worry about light pollution. On a clear night, you’ll see countless stars, constellations, and details without an expensive telescope. Just find a spot to lie back and enjoy the view.

You can also participate in ranger-led programs, including a “Snowshoe and Stargaze,” to enhance the experience. A trained professional can walk you through the nighttime skies. They’ll point out specific things that the untrained eye would easily overlook.


If you love birdwatching, you won’t find many better places to do it than here. More than 250 bird species reside here throughout the year. You’ll have no problem finding something special, whether a novice or an expert.

The park also has several popular trails that frequently see aviary action. Amisk Wuche Trail, Wood Bison Trail, and Hayburger Trail provide excellent options for birdwatching. Just make sure you do not feed, entice, or disturb them. If you do, you could end up in court with a $25,000 fine.

Keep in Mind: Now that you’ve learned what Elk National Park has to offer, learn about the rest of the Canadian National Parks!

Natural Beauty and Landscapes

Elk Island National Park has a lot of natural beauty. Enjoy tranquil lakes, wetlands, thick forests, and rolling meadows as you explore. They’re beautiful, but add a sunrise or sunset, and the views are nearly perfect.

Much of the land here is relatively undeveloped, allowing you to experience the area with minimal human alterations, connect with nature, and revel in its elegance.

View of Elk Island National Park at sunset.

Recreational Opportunities

With 11 trails that combine for more than 50 miles of hiking, you have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the wilderness. Take it to the next level and book a campsite to spend even more time in nature.

You’ll find plenty of spots for canoeing and kayaking in summer and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during winter. 

Some of the best trails in the area include the Tawayik Lake Trail, Hayburger Trail, and Wood Bison Trail. While these trails have minimal elevation gains, they have loops between seven and 10 miles long. If you’re not careful, you may do far more than anticipated.

Cultural Significance

Indigenous people occupied the lands for thousands of years before it was designated a national park. Tribes in the area include Cree, Blackfoot, Nakota, and Métis. Each tribe had an extremely close connection with the land, which continues to have spiritual significance. 

You can attend ranger-led interpretive programs and read various displays for further learning. We strongly encourage you to stop and read these signs to learn as much as you can about the cultural significance of the area.

If you’re lucky, you may witness a cultural celebration with music, dancing, and various types of art.

Best Places to Stay When Visiting Elk Island National Park

To maximize your time in the park, you’ll want to pick your campsite wisely. Here are a few great places to stay to help you make the most of your time.

Astotin Lake Campground

Astotin Lake Campground has 75 campsites open from mid-May through Thanksgiving day. The campground gives you quick and easy access to the beach, soccer field, and even a playground. However, this is a dry camping experience.

You’ll need to provide your own power and manage your water tanks. If you want a rustic camping experience, you’ll enjoy staying at this campground. 

Pro Tip: Campgrounds can book up quickly! If you’re struggling to snag a reservation at a busy campground, try these Expert Booking Tips!

Elk Island Retreat

This private campground offers a very unique experience. While you have RV sites and cabins available, we recommend booking one of their more adventurous options. Why not stay in a yurt or geodesic dome?

While the yurt provides a more apartment-like feel, the geodesic dome makes you feel like you got put on another planet. Whether you stay for a night or several days, these both provide an unforgettable natural experience.

Oster Lake Backcountry Campground

If you want a rustic wilderness experience, you’ll want to stay at Oster Lake Backcountry Campground. You can reach these sites by hiking Shirley Lake Trail for approximately 3.7 miles. While it may be a bit of effort, the remote location allows you to enjoy dark skies and zero vehicle noise. 

There are only five campsites, and you need to make a reservation. If nature calls, you’ll need to use the on-site pit toilets. Thankfully, you can purchase firewood at the campground, so you don’t have to worry about carrying it the whole way. Just be sure you bring plenty of potable water as you won’t find any at the campground.

Elk Island National Park

Is Elk Island National Park Worth Visiting?

Nature is the star of the show at Elk Island National Park, and the conservation efforts here help them shine.

While the park is small, it provides an unforgettable experience to connect with wildlife. If you travel through the area and want to fill a day, you should consider stopping. 

Would you stop and visit this national park? 

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