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.