Elk Island National Park

Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: July 2022

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta and is the only fully-enclosed national park in Canada. It was initially established as a wildlife refuge to protect one of the last big elk herds in the region. Despite its name, Elk Island is actually famous for its bison and plays a key role in their conservation. It is the only national park that maintains both plains and wood bison. As such, it is one of the best places in the world to see bison.

After spending the day in Drumheller, we arrived at Elk Island in the evening just before 9:30p.m. Thankfully we still had some daylight left so we didn’t have to set up our tent in the dark. We were also able to spot some bison as we entered the park.

As we were approaching the Astotin Lake Campground, we could see the sun starting to set across the lake and pulled over in the day-use area to get a better view. Our visit to Elk Island was off to a great start.

Our campsite, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. There was zero privacy between our site and the one next to us. It also didn’t help that the people next to us were loud, which perhaps wasn’t all that surprising considering it was the Canada Day long weekend.

We woke up the next morning feeling a bit grumpy and tired. What better way to get over our frustrations than by seeing some wildlife. So we went for a drive along the Bison Loop Road. While the bison roam “freely” within the enclosed park, this road is reputed to be a great spot for seeing the plains bison. And it did not disappoint. The nice thing about getting up early was that there were no other cars on the road, so we could take our time.

We then drove to the trailhead for the Tawayik Lake Trail where there’s a picnic area to make and eat breakfast. We had zero interest in returning to our crummy campsite next to our crummy neighbours. This is when we found out that our flight would be departing a day earlier than expected, which meant that our visit to Elk Island would be cut short. Our flight wasn’t until midnight, so we still had the full day to enjoy the park, so we might as well make the most of it.

After eating breakfast, we headed back to our campsite to pack up. We also touched base with the park office and they were able to give us a refund for the additional night that we had booked. We then hiked the Amisk Wuche Trail (2.7km loop, rated moderate), which winds through the forest, crosses a series of floating boardwalks and passes a few small lakes and beaver ponds. The mosquitoes were out in full force, but we came prepared with bug spray in hand.

Afterwards we hiked along the Living Water Boardwalk (400m loop, rated easy), a floating boardwalk that passes over part of Astotin Lake. Along the way there were a few signs that provided more information about some of the animals found in the area, like beavers and magpies.

We then headed to the Visitor Centre to attend the ranger program on Bison Backstage to learn more about the history of bison conservation at Elk Island. The program starts at the Heritage Barn and consists of a 1-hour walking tour that leads to the Plains Bison Handling Facility where the plains bison are regularly monitored for diseases.

Millions of bison once roamed across most of North America, but were hunted to near extinction. In the early 1900s, the Canadian government purchased one of the last and largest herds of plains bison from Montana. The bison were shipped to Elk Island, where they planned to temporarily stay until the newly created Buffalo National Park was up and running. While most of the herd was relocated, a few bison evaded capture and remained in Elk Island. This turned out to be a good call as many of the bison that were transferred to Buffalo National Park became diseased, were overcrowded or interbred.

Elk Island also contains a herd of wood bison, which are larger than the plains bison and were commonly found in colder climates in North America. In 1965, 22 wood bison were transferred to Elk Island in an effort to better preserve their population. They were placed in a separate enclosure south of the highway, away from the plains bison, in an effort to establish a healthy herd.

Thanks to the conservation efforts at Elk Island, many bison in Canada can trace their origins to the bison from this park.

All this talk about bison left us wanting more, so we decided to hike the Wood Bison Trail (15.6km loop, rated difficult), the longest trail in Elk Island. It is also reputed to offer the best chances of viewing the wood bison and other wildlife in the park. While we were starting a bit late in the day, we had the whole afternoon to take our time on the trail.

The trailhead is located on the south side of the Yellowhead Highway. The trail loops through the shaded forest and passes Flyingshot Lake, marshlands and wide open grasslands. The path is relatively flat and narrow in a few places, but is very straightforward to follow. There are also a few markers along the way to help with navigation and to help keep track of the distance covered.

There were a few boggy sections where we had to balance across some logs to prevent our boots from getting wet and muddy, but overall the trail was in pretty decent condition for the early summer. While we saw a lot of bison scat and footprints through the mud, we unfortunately didn’t see any actual wood bison. We did, however, encounter a lot of mosquitoes. We should have applied a fresh layer of bug spray before our hike as those mosquitoes were relentless, especially near the end when they could probably sense that we were getting tired.

Overall it took us just over 3.5 hours to complete the Wood Bison Trail. From there we headed back to the day-use area at the Tawayik Lake trailhead to make dinner, clean out our car and pack all of the camping gear into our suitcase. It was then time to head to Edmonton to catch our flight back home.


93 thoughts on “Elk Island National Park

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! If we weren’t flying out of Edmonton, I doubt this park would have even been on my radar. I’m glad we were able to visit as it was a great spot for seeing the bison and learning more about their history. There’s also a lot of different hiking trails in the park.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I didn’t know that either. It’s pretty neat how Parks Canada has played a key role in the conservation of bison in North America. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy attending the ranger programs. They are typically very interesting and educational. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Linda

  1. Rose says:

    I didn’t realize there were different types of bison in North America. It was neat to learn that, it led me to do a bit of research on both plains and wood bison. Too bad about the neighbors and mosquitos. I love how you made your photos look wonderful despite the pests!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. I didn’t know that there were different types of bison either. I’ve only ever seen plains bison before. It was neat to learn more about their history and how they are being protected. We had no issues with the noise during our time out west except for our last night in Elk Island. It’s unfortunate because it’s really turned me off from camping.

  2. wetanddustyroads says:

    A bison (and what great photos) … that’s pretty awesome! And what an amazing sunset! That would definitely make me forget about the noisy “neighbours” – for a while ☺️. I like the floating boardwalk (but not the mozzies!)

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s funny because we saw more bison than we did elk at Elk Island National Park. We had perfect timing when we arrived at the park and got to see a bunch of bison at the side of the road and catch the sunset. It’s too bad about our campsite and loud neighbours though. We had no issues with the noise until our last night of camping. Go figure.

  3. salsaworldtraveler says:

    Alberta seems to be blessed with an array of fantastic national parks. Elk Island offers a pleasant contrast to my recollection of Jasper and Banff NPs. I love the photo of the sunset and the floating boardwalk. I’m glad you found out that the flight was leaving a day early.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Oh I know. Out of all the provinces we’ve visited, we seem to have the best luck with wildlife encounters in Alberta. The landscape in Elk Island is completely different than in the Canadian Rockies, but is still very beautiful. I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if we didn’t receive the flight notification! It’s too bad we had to cut our trip short, but it’s better than missing our flight and having to scramble at the last minute to book something else.

  4. Lynette d'Arty-Cross says:

    Too bad about the noisy neighbours. And the bugs! That area is known for them (although the worst I experienced was in Inuvik). I carry a small bug spray in my pocket and I wear No Fly Zone clothes (here’s a link: https://www.marks.com/en/shop/tick-mosquito-repellent-clothing.html ). I hope you can find something that works for you there or somewhere else (there are lots of suppliers). It’s terrific seeing these huge animals isn’t it? There are lots of wood bison in NWT, so I have seen them a lot.
    Your flight was moved up a day?? Good thing you didn’t have something critical to do on your last day!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We didn’t have any issues with the bugs (or the noise) in the mountains, but that’s probably because they were all in Elk Island. I’ve learned the hard way when it comes to mosquitoes and clearly need a refresher. I’ll have to check out that line of clothing. I like that it’s also tick repellent. And yes, bisons are such magnificent creatures. I’m so glad we were able to attend the ranger program to learn more about their history. While I’ve seen a few plains bison, I have yet to see a woods bison. I guess this means I’ll just have to visit NWT sometime. It was too bad we had to cut our time short in Elk Island, but it could have been worse. At least we got the message and didn’t miss our flight or anything!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Bison are such majestic creatures. It was interesting to learn more about their history and conservation efforts. It’s funny because we saw more bison than elk in Elk Island National Park. We didn’t have any issues with the bugs when we were in the mountains, but it seems like Elk Island more than made up for it. Thank goodness we had bug spray!

  5. Little Old World says:

    What a beautiful park! Your photos are awesome, especially the photos of the bison. It must have been incredible to see them in person (and hopefully made up for the rubbish neighbours and mozzies).

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for commenting. It was incredible to see the bison so up close and from the safety of our car. It’s incredible how massive they are. They definitely more than made up for our lousy night’s sleep.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. The scenery in Elk Island was so beautiful with all the lush forests and greenery. It was also really neat to see some bison. There are a few sets of the red chairs in the park, but we ran out of time and couldn’t find them. Next time. Take care. Linda

  6. Ab says:

    What a beautiful outing you had, Linda! Bisons are such beautiful animals and those were good shots you got. Although this was just a few weeks ago, it does feel like a long time ago with the fall weather now in play. I sure miss it being 9:30 pm and still having so much light out. Ahh, already dreaming of next summer!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We’ve seen bison before at a few national parks like Yellowstone and Waterton Lakes, but we had the best viewings at Elk Island. It’s incredible how massive and majestic they are. I wouldn’t want to get in their way! It’s crazy how quickly it gets dark now that it’s the fall … and it’s only going to get worse. Ugh. I’m dreaming about next summer too and how I’m going to use all of my vacation days! Are you still thinking about going to Banff next year?

      • Ab says:

        Banff and Utah are on our wishlist next year. We’d likely be able to do just one so will lean towards local and away from the unstable US at this point. Can’t wait for summer again!

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        That makes sense. Both are good options. We’re actually leaning towards Utah for next spring. It’s crazy how much more expensive plane tickets are becoming though. I guess everyone is travelling again!

  7. kagould17 says:

    We have been going here for over 40 years as it is in our back yard. We have walked most of the trails here and cross country skied the Wood Bison Trail in our younger years at -18 C. Cold and long at that point. Elk Island Park bison have been used to help repopulate herds in some U.S. states, other provinces and First Nations areas. On one walk, a few years ago, we met a bison on the trail and he would not move. We Googled what to do and it said to sing. So I burst out into a rousing chorus of Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight. You never saw a bison move so fast. I think that may have been a comment on my singing quality. They “bink” like rabbits and are blazing fast. You never want to have one charge you. You will not outrun them. Glad you enjoyed Elk Island Park, Linda. It is a gem, except for the campsites. Allan

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I was surprised Elk Island wasn’t busier when we visited given its close proximity to Edmonton and the fact that it was a long weekend. I can see why you’ve come here so often as the landscape is so lush and there are great odds of spotting the bison. The ranger program we attended was very well done. It was so interesting to learn more about the conservation of bison within Canada. Elk Island really is such a special place. That’s too funny about your tactics for getting the bison to move!!

  8. jmankowsky says:

    Interesting post, as usual. There is a bison farm in the next town over from mine, and bison are out roaming in enclosed fields. Even when they came close to the fence, they were a bit scary. In the wild as you saw them, do they just stay far away from you?

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. That’s neat how there’s a bison farm not too far from where you live. We found that the best chances to spot the bison were either early in the morning, or later in the evening. In some ways I’m glad we didn’t spot them on the trail. I was perfectly content to just see them from my car window.

  9. Vanessa says:

    Thanks for sharing! My partner and I are supposed to go to Edmonton soon, and this place has been high on the list of places I want to visit while there! It’s nice you were able to see some bisons! Just sad the camping experience wasn’t great.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That’s exciting that you’ll be travelling to Edmonton soon. Elk Island is definitely worth visiting, especially now when the mosquitoes are gone for the season. There’s a lot of great hiking options and it’s one of the best places to spot bison. The campground on the other hand, wasn’t the greatest. I’m sure it would have been different if we visited on a weekday instead of on the weekend.

  10. grandmisadventures says:

    What a beautiful place to walk through today with you! I always love seeing bison just making their way down the road. Although I always have to cringe when I see people trying to get their picture right next to them. I want to just run and pull them away because they are so much faster than they appear.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. It was such a treat to spot the bison so close to the side of the road. I could just roll down my window and take some pictures. Agreed, It’s crazy how some people try to get super close to the wildlife. And unfortunately it’s usually the wildlife that has to pay for it.

  11. usfman says:

    I seen firsthand evidence at Yellowstone NP how unpredictably agitated, bison can be in proximity to a human presence. Did you see evidence of that behavior here? What does this park do to discourage such confrontations

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Bison can be aggressive, especially during mating season. While bison attacks on humans are very rare, they do happen. A few years ago a man was gored by a bison in Elk Island while he was going for a run. The park seems to take bison management very seriously. There are signs to remind people to keep a safe distance. The park has even been testing out smart collars to find out where they roam. There’s only so much the park rangers can do though. A huge part of the responsibility is left up to visitors to ensure they are keeping a safe distance from the wildlife. Unfortunately we know that doesn’t always happen.

      • usfman says:

        I would add I’ve seen lots of questionable human behavior at Yellowstone that could be better enforced like those who dare to cross to lose to red hot geysers and others who attempt to feed the wild animals in the park.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        Agreed. That kind of reckless behaviour is terrible. It makes me wonder why people who have very little respect for nature or the wildlife, even bother with visiting a national park. Unfortunately it’s typically the wildlife that suffer.

  12. Laura says:

    These photos are so wonderful- especially of the bison. I’m so happy to know that the conservation efforts of the park have been fruitful. I would love to visit this park one day ❤️

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. It was so incredible to see the bison up close. They are such majestic creatures. It was neat to learn more about the bison conservation efforts by Parks Canada and that so many bison in North America can trace their heritage back to the herd in Elk Island. Hopefully you’re able to visit someday. Take care, Linda

  13. leightontravels says:

    What a fascinating park. The only time I have ever seen bison in a natural setting was at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. This place looks great for them what with the right to roam. Excellent photos as usual, love the sunset shot at the beginning.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for leaving a comment. It’s kind of funny how we saw more bison than elk at Elk Island National Park. We actually didn’t see a single elk. It was so interesting to learn more about their history and the conservation efforts Parks Canada has been making. It’s hard to believe that the bison nearly went extinct.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The bison are definitely the star of the show at Elk Island. I’m glad we got to see them while driving and I could just roll down my window and take some pictures. I’m not sure what we would have done if we had encountered them on the trail.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. Bison are such magnificent and majestic creatures. It’s hard to believe that they almost went extinct. It was interesting to learn more about their history and how Parks Canada has been protecting them.

  14. Bernie says:

    We almost always spot some as we drive through on the highway. I had zero idea that there were walks within the park. How the heck? I would not want to walk around with those bison and have an encounter like Allan did! I wondered about people hiking in Grasslands and the huge herds there. Sorry about the crappy next door neighbour’s but there always is one in a crowd. We find our provincial parks super quiet as it is strongly enforced with rangers doing rounds to ensure it.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I’ve only ever seen bison in a national park before. It’s neat that you’ve been able to see them while just driving along the highway. There are actually two separate enclosures in Elk Island to separate the two herds of bison so they don’t interbreed. In some ways I’m glad we didn’t encounter any bison while out on the trail as I’m not sure what we would have done. The trail was pretty narrow and in many cases, the area on either side was marshy, so we couldn’t exactly just easily walk around. And yes, noisiness over a long weekend is to be expected while camping. Thankfully it was just for the one night. We’ve dealt with worse at some of our provincial parks in Ontario.

  15. rkrontheroad says:

    The sunset was gorgeous, and the cloud reflections in that blue blue sky are lovely. Glad you got to see some bison. There’s a herd not too far from where I live and sometimes they are visible grazing from the highway. Amazing to see them with their young once in a while!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. We had wonderful timing with the sunset and bison sightings. That’s neat that there’s a herd close to where you live and that you can sometimes see them from the highway. They are such majestic creatures.

  16. ourcrossings says:

    What a wonderful place for a hiking adventure. Not to mention the possibility of seeing a bison. I am so amazed by the beauty of these animals ever since I was little, they are fantastic animals and I respect them just like I do the bear, wolf, elk, deer and all wildlife. Yet it still saddens me that millions of bison were slaughtered for sport, for their hides, to clear the plains for settlers and their livestock and to control the Plains tribes. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was such a treat to see so many bison in Elk Island, especially so close to the side of the road. They are such majestic (and massive!) creatures. It was sad to hear they were almost hunted to extinction. They are considered a keystone species and helped create the habitat on the Great Plains. I’m glad that Parks Canada stepped in to do more in terms of their conservation. It makes you wonder how much different our landscape would have been if bison were still allowed to roam freely across North America. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Hope you had a wonderful weekend. Linda

  17. Lookoom says:

    Visiting Elk Island is something I would love to do one day; getting close to the bisons is so exciting, it gives a good sense of the force they are capable of generating. It reminds me of visiting the Kruger Park in South Africa and sharing the road with elephants, giraffes and rhinos.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That must have been such an amazing experience to have seen the elephants, giraffes, rhinos and other animals in their natural habitat. Bison are so majestic (and massive). We’ve seen them before at a few national parks like Yellowstone and Waterton Lakes, but we had the best sightings in Elk Island. It was also really interesting to learn more about their history and impact on the land. Hopefully you’re able to visit someday.

      • Lookoom says:

        I also saw bison in the wild in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories. They are indeed massive and although peaceful, the potential threat is obvious, like a dormant volcano that must not be awakened.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        No kidding. It also doesn’t help that you hear stories of people getting gored and attacked by bison in Yellowstone. It’s unfortunate because it’s usually the tourists’ fault for getting too close and being dumb.

  18. annemariedemyen says:

    I don’t know about those ‘easy’ floating boardwalks. I could see myself hitting the drink. (I get verigo walking near water much less crossing it on a walkway with no railings. ) 😧

  19. Josy A says:

    It is such a shame about your crummy neighbours! Especially when you are camping in such a gorgeous place, it is so sad that inconsiderate folks can really spoil a campground for everyone around them 🙁

    I am glad that it doesn’t happen often, but it is rubbish when it does happen!!

    Elk Island looks incredible though!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I love camping, but I’m so over dealing with the noise. We’ve had some really awful experiences the last few years as parks and campgrounds are becoming busier. I think we’re going to stick to camping in the offseason or the backcountry from now on. Besides the noisy campground, Elk Island itself exceeded our expectations with all the bison sightings.

  20. Darlene says:

    Elk Island National Park is one place I have not been to in Alberta. I enjoyed your pictures and travelling along with you. How great you got to see some bison!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I was surprised at how close Elk Island is to Edmonton. If we weren’t flying out of there, I doubt we would have visited. But I’m glad we did as it was such a great place to see and learn more about the bison.

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