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Things to Do in Elk Island National Park- Visitor Guide

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Just 35 minutes east of Edmonton is Elk Island National Park, a place where bison roam the landscape, trails meander through the forest, and ponds and lakes are animated with beaver and bird activity.

Watching bison graze in the meadows is a one of the top things to do in Elk Island National Park.
Bison in Elk Island National Park

There are so many things to do in Elk Island National Park that make it easy to appreciate the joys of nature, whether it be hiking in the shade of towering aspen trees, paddling across a quiet lake at sunset, or watching the northern lights dance across the night sky.

Sun setting behind a forested island on Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park.
Sunset at Astotin Lake

Things to Do in Elk Island National Park

Nature lovers and outdoor adventurers will find plenty of fun things to do in Elk Island National Park. If you’re visiting on a day trip from Edmonton, or spending the weekend camping under the stars, you’ll discover an abundance of enjoyable outdoor activities in Elk Island National Park. 

Bench overlooking Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park.
Viewpoint on Elk Island

Hiking and Nature Walks

Hiking is one of the main things to do in Elk Island National Park and a great way to experience the park’s scenery of lakes, beaver ponds, forests, and meadows.

Hiker on a forested trail beside a lake.
Shirley Lake Trail

There are 11 trails in Elk Island National Park of various lengths from short boardwalk paths to half-day hikes around big loops. In total, there are over 83 km of trails you can explore in the park, making it one of the best places to hike near Edmonton.

Hiker on a tree framed trail.
Trail going through a meadow.
Tawayik Lake Trail

No matter which route you choose, you can expect to see lakes, ponds, aspen trees, and some grasslands. Beaver lodges are a common sight and you might also spot bison grazing in the meadows.

Beaver lodge beside a boardwalk trail in Elk Island National Park.
Amisk Wuche Trail

The trails in the park are all fairly flat, just a few small hills here and there, so even beginner hikers can enjoy hiking in Elk Island.

Read more: Elk Island National Park Trails and Hikes

Kayaking and Canoeing

Another one of the top activities in Elk Island National Park is paddling on Astotin Lake. 

Couple kayaking on Astotin Lake.

From the water you’ll get to enjoy close-up views of the lake’s forested islands and peninsulas, watch waterfowl swimming in the quiet bays, and even pass by beaver lodges. The scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities make Astotin Lake one of the best places to go kayaking near Edmonton.

Kayaking toward an island on Astotin Lake.

If you bring your own kayak or canoe, there’s a drive-up boat launch where you can conveniently access the lake. If you don’t have your own boat, canoes, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards can be rented at the kiosk on the beach. 

Read more: Kayaking Astotin Lake

Relax at the Beach

Astotin Lake has a sandy beach where you can relax lakeside, as well as a grassy day use area with picnic shelters, tables, and fire pits. There’s not a playground at the beach, but there is one very close by.

Beach at Astotin Lake.

If you decide to go swimming in Astotin Lake, just be aware that there may be a risk of swimmer’s itch. There’s a fresh water shower near the beach so you can rinse off after being in the water.

Since hanging out at the Astotin Lake beach is one of the most popular things to do in Elk Island National Park, plan to arrive early on summer weekends to secure a parking spot.

Island across from the dock on Astotin Lake.

Wildlife Viewing

Elk Island National Park offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in Alberta, especially when it comes to seeing bison, North America’s largest land mammal.

Bison in Elk Island National Park.

There are approximately 700 bison in Elk Island National Park- 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison, but the amount fluctuates year to year. The bison population is protected and managed by Parks Canada and the fence that surrounds the park has been effective at keeping the bison free from outside disease.

Bison in Elk Island National Park.

Even though Elk Island is Canada’s only completely fenced national park, the bison are free to roam throughout the park as they wish. Plains bison can be found north of Highway 16 and wood bison are exclusively in the park’s territory on the south side of Highway 16. 

Bison in Elk Island National Park.

The most common place to see plains bison in Elk Island National Park is in the vicinity of Bison Loop Road. They’re also often spotted grazing beside the main road that runs through the park. You might even see bison while hiking the park’s trails. 

Bison beside a car in Elk Island National Park.
Bison Loop Road

In addition to bison, some other animals that live in Elk Island National Park are moose, elk, deer, black bears, foxes, beavers, frogs, and 250 species of birds. 

As for the best time to see wildlife in Elk National Park, large mammals are most active at dawn, dusk, and on overcast days. When the sun is blaring and hot, bison and other large animals shelter in the shade of the forest. If you’d like to see bison calves, plan to visit in June. 

Herd of bison in Elk Island National Park.

Camping

Elk Island National Park has two campgrounds- the Astotin Lake Campground and the Oster Lake Backcountry Campground.

Caping sites at the Astotin Lake Campground.
Campsites at Astotin Lake Campground

The Astotin Lake Campground has 75 non-serviced sites that can accommodate RVs and tents (there are 15 walk-in tent sites), plus a group camping area. If you don’t have any camping equipment you can stay in one of the five oTENTiks, which are a cross between an A-frame tent and cabin, that are already set up for comfort camping/glamping.

oTENTik for glamping in Elk Island National Park.

For a backcountry camping experience, you can hike to the Oster Lake Campground via Shirley Lake Trail. This picturesque campground has six tent sites on the west shore of Oster Lake.

Lakeside campsite at the Oster Lake Campground.
Campsite at Oster Lake Backcountry Campground

Have a Picnic

There are many scenic places to enjoy a picnic in Elk Island National Park, from out on the trails to designated picnic sites.

Red chairs and picnic table overlooking Astotin Lake.
Beaver Bay

The main picnic sites in Elk Island can be found at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area and at the Tawayik Lake Recreation Area. There are more quiet and secluded picnic sites at Beaver Bay, which can be accessed via Shoreline Trail. 

Picnic site at Beaver Bay.
Picnic site at Beaver Bay

The picnic sites in the park are equipped with picnic tables and fire pits or wood stoves for cooking. Firewood can be purchased at the Visitor Information Centre and the Astotin Lake Campground kiosk.

Picnic sites at the Tawayik Lake Recreation Area.
Picnic sites at the Tawayik Lake Recreation Area.

Picnic shelters are only at the Astotin Lake and Tawayik Lake recreation areas and are first-come first-served. A nice picnic shelter to check out is the Pavilion along Lakeview Trail, which dates back to the 1930’s, making it the oldest picnic shelter with a chimney in Canada’s national parks. 

Picnic shelter at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area.
Picnic shelter at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area

Other places you can find picnic tables in the park are at some trailheads (there are several at the start of Hayburger Trail), and along a couple of the hiking trails. The picnic tables you’ll find on the hiking routes are typically not in great condition, so it can be a good idea to bring a blanket to lay out on the ground for your picnic instead.

Picnic table overlooking a lake on Shirley Lake Trail.
Picnic table on Shirley Lake Trail

Bike Riding

Cycling/bike riding is welcome in Elk Island National Park, both on the road and trails.

Tree framed hiking trail in autumn.
Wood Bison Trail

A popular place for cyclists to ride is Elk Island Parkway, the main road that goes through the park. Just be aware that the road has narrow shoulders and sees a lot of traffic, especially on weekends.

Another option for cycling is along the paved Shoreline Trail, which runs along the southern shore of Astotin Lake. This ride is approximately 6 km round trip and takes you from one side of the lake to the other. 

Pond beside Shoreline Trail.
Shoreline Trail

Mountain bikers are allowed to ride on the trails in Elk Island National Park, since they’re multi-use. Not every trail is ideal for biking though, especially ones that are grassy with softer ground. If you’re looking for a gravelled route for biking, head out on the Oster Lake access road, which will take you to the backcountry campground.

Gravel road to Oster Lake.
Oster Lake Road

Golfing

The Astotin Lake Recreation Area isn’t just for picnics, camping, and beach fun- you can also go golfing. 

The Elk Island Golf Course is a 9 hole course with wide fairways and a lot of rolling hills for an extra challenge. It isn’t operated by Parks Canada though, so it’s best to consult the golf course directly for hours of operation and to book a tee time.

Interpretive Programs

There are several interpretive programs and tours available that can teach you about Elk Island National Park’s history, wildlife, and more. 

Beaver lodges in a pond.
Beaver lodges in a pond beside Moss Lake Trail

Most programs take place on summer weekends, but if you’re unable to attend feel free to stop in at the Astotin Theatre where you can look at artifacts, watch educational films, and chat with a Parks Canada interpreter. 

Astotin Theatre.
Astotin Theatre

Watch the Sunset

After a fun day of activities in Elk Island National park, a great way to end your visit is by watching the sunset.

Sunset at Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park.
Sunset at Astotin Lake

In the summer there are some fantastic sunsets at Astotin Lake that fill the sky with warm colours. The most popular place to watch the setting sun is at the beach or from the end of the dock, but the Living Waters Boardwalk by Astotin Theatre provides a beautiful view as well. Heading out on the lake for a sunset paddle is another enjoyable way to experience the beautiful light of sundown.

Living Waters Boardwalk at sunset.
Living Waters Boardwalk at sunset

Admire the Night Sky

Elk Island National Park is part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, so after the sun goes down and night settles in, the park becomes a great place for stargazing. Elk Island is also a very popular spot to watch the northern lights dance on nights when they’re active.

Couple watching the northern lights in Elk Island National Park.
© Parks Canada/Ryan Bray

If you come to Elk Island to admire the wonders of the night sky, remember to minimize your light pollution by turning off your car headlights once parked and limiting your use of bright flashlights. The darker it is the brighter the stars look!

Review of Elk Island National Park

With so many things to do at Elk Island National Park, you could visit numerous times and have a unique experience each trip. 

Wetlands in Elk Island National Park.
Pond beside Lakeview Trail

There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from, and although they don’t differ too much scenery wise, it’s nice that you could hike a different trail each time you come to the park. Astotin Lake is also large enough that you might need a few paddling excursions to explore all areas of the lake.

Island in Astotin Lake.
Astotin Lake

One of the best things about Elk Island National Park is that you don’t have to travel far from Edmonton for some incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. The bison are especially impressive and an animal you won’t regularly see in most recreation areas in Alberta.

Bison beside Bison Loop Road.
Bison Loop Road

Tips for Visiting Elk Island National Park

Location: Elk Island National Park is located east of Edmonton, approximately 49 km from downtown. 

Getting There: From Edmonton, go east on Highway 16 until you reach the main/south entrance to the park (the turn off is marked with signs). 

Admission and Fees: A park pass is required to visit Elk Island National Park. At the gate you can buy a single day pass, an annual pass, or a Parks Canada Discovery Pass (provides admission into all Parks Canada sites in the country for 12 months).

  • Additional fees are charged for camping, firewood, registered interpretive programs, and equipment rentals.

Opening Hours: Elk Island National Park is open year round 24 hours a day. Some facilities and services, such as the Visitor Centre, are only open during typical business hours.

Best Time to Visit Elk Island National Park: Elk Island National Park is busiest in July and August, especially on weekends. To avoid some of the summer crowds, visit during the week. One downside of visiting during the summer is that there can be a lot of mosquitos, which makes hiking here less enjoyable. 

  • Spring can be a good time to visit the park, especially in June when you’ll see baby bison. However, the trails are sometimes quite wet from snowmelt and rain.
  • Autumn is a great season to visit the park because temperatures are usually pleasant, trails are dry, and the forest is filled with colourful leaves.
  • Winter is the least popular time to visit the park because of the cold temperatures, but you’ll still find plenty of things to do.

Trail Maps: Elk Island National Park trail maps can be found here.

Visitor Guidelines and Safety: Stay on the trail while hiking, dispose of your litter in garbage bins, don’t remove natural or historic objects from the park (antlers, wildflowers etc.), and don’t approach or feed the wildlife. 

  • For tips on how to stay safe around wildlife in Elk Island National Park, visit this page on Parks Canada’s website. ​​
Tall aspen trees with yellow leaves in the fall.
Autumn in Elk Island National Park

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