A Relaxing Visit to Elk Island National Park in Alberta

Alberta Canada is home to five national parks. The most famous, of course, and the busiest by far, is beautiful Banff National Park. It was Canada’s first national park, and it’s beautiful.

But in the spirit of a mojotraveler and in a effort to take the road less traveled, we chose to visit Elk Island National Park. And we loved it too.

Entrance to Elk Island National Park in Alberta Canada

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Visiting Elk Island National Park

Located just about 45 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta, Elk Island is not an island. For that bit of quirkiness alone, it’s worth investigating Elk Island. And while there are elk here, that’s not what makes this national park so special.

This is also Canada’s only fully fenced national park, which is interesting and adorable for reasons I’ll explain later.

Elk Island National Park Visitors CenterSo here’s the story: Elk Island was founded in 1906 as a preserve for the last remaining large herd of elk in Canada. They had just about been hunted to extinction in western Canada, so the government recognized the need for protection. It was the first wildlife refuge in the country. And they put a fence around it to keep the elk in and people/predators out.

Elk Island is located in the Beaver Hills area of Alberta on beautiful Lake Astotin. The land the park is on is a small peninsula and at one point contained an island. But no longer.

So that’s where the name comes from. But most people coming to Elk Island don’t come for the elk. They come for the bison. That’s what Elk Island is all about.

The Bison of Elk Island National Park

Big bison at Elk Island National Park in Alberta CanadaAbout a year after the park was founded, the Canadian government bought a large herd of plains bison from a ranch in Montana in an effort to protect bison from extinction as they had elk. About 40 of the bison went to Elk Island and the rest were distributed to other parks in Canada.

Backstage Bison Tour at Elk Island National Park in AlbertaAs a result of the fencing, the Elk Island bison have become genetically pure and among the healthiest in North America. The Backstage Bison Tour at Elk Island is one of the most popular things to do at the park. In the summer months, visitors are allowed to walk around and climb over the facility used each winter to provide for the care and well-being of the bison.

But, as animals tend to do, they have babies and eventually the park gets crowded so those bison are sent off to other parks. And here’s the cute story: Back in the 1930s, a bunch of bison from Elk Island were shipped off to Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, about 440 miles to the east.

Apparently, the bison liked things better at Elk Island, because one morning, a few weeks after they were sent to Prince Albert, park rangers found these renegade bison hanging out at the fence, wanting to be let back in to Elk Island. Something about that story, I think is so cute. Those big bison apparently got homesick.

Single bison at Elk Island National Park in Alberta

But here’s something else to be looking for. Bison were re-introduced to Banff National Park in 2018. Officials took a herd of 31 bison from Elk Island to an enclosed pasture in Banff’s high country where they were supposed to adjust to their new home. In the summer of 2019, they were released to roam freely around Canada’s first national park. We’ll see if they make their way back to Elk Island.

Today there are about 700 plains and woodland bison at Elk Island National Park.

Things to Do at Elk Island National Park in Alberta

Astonin Lake at Elk Island National Park in Alberta CanadaElk Island National Park is home to a nice golf course, but we don’t play golf. There’s also beautiful Lake Astotin for canoeing, kayaking and bird watching.

But Bruce wanted to see wildlife and get photos, so we drove around looking for bison, elk, deer, black bear and beaver that make the park home.

The bison, for all of their popularity, were hiding from cameras. We could see large herds in the distance.

So we sat and waited for them to show up.

Red Adirondack Chairs in Alberta Canada's Elk Island national park

If you’ve spent any time in Canada’s national parks, you’ve probably seen these red Adirondack chairs. It’s adorable. Parks Canada places them in remote, yet scenic locations to encourage people to sit down, relax and connect with nature. I love it. And it makes a great Instagram photo, but that’s not at all the point.


Camping at Elk Island National Park in Alberta

Elk Island is a Dark Sky Preserve, so camping and starlight activities are among the reasons people from around the world show up here. We talked with two couples from Germany who were so delighted to be experiencing Canada’s national parks.

Otentik at Elk Island National Park in Alberta CanadaWe spent the night in something new to us — an Otentik.  They are all the rage in Canada’s national parks. but we had never experienced one. As you can see, it’s on a solid platform and has a door. The front and back walls are solid, but the rest is a canvas-like tent material.

This is not glamping. We had sleeping bags, which we spread out on hard wooden bunk beds without mattresses inside. There was a table and a light and that was it. Outside there was a nice fire pit, a screened in area to eat outside, and a grill. We had to walk down the path to the bathrooms. It was beautiful, so peaceful and relaxing.

But here’s something kind of nice. We flew to Edmonton. We wanted to spend time in the park, but we didn’t want to fly with our sleeping bags and other gear. There’s a company in Edmonton called Mountain Equipment Coop that rents sleeping bags and other gear for people like us.

Campsite at Elk Island National Park in Alberta Canada

And that’s what going to a national park is all about. Getting outside, away from people and stress, smelling fresh air and watching a beautiful, starlight sky. Sitting in red chairs and waiting for bison to show up. It doesn’t get any more low key and relaxing than that.

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