At Elk Island National Park, you can paddle, hike, watch wildlife, stargaze, and more! Here’s how to spend a fun weekend at this beautiful park just 45 minutes east of Edmonton, Alberta.
Fun Things to Do at Elk Island National Park
1. Take a Hike
|Lakeshore Trail, Elk Island National Park|
With over 80 kilometres of trails, it’s easy to get away from it all – and everyone. Hike Lakeview Trail (3.7 km loop) for panoramic views of Astotin Lake and keep an eye out for beavers at work in the ponds. Amisk Wuche Trail (2.7 km loop) is a fun marsh and forest walk on a series of floating boardwalks. The Lakeshore Trail (3 km one way) is paved and perfect for little kids learning to bike; it also offers great views of the lake. See the complete list of trails in the park here. Pack a picnic – there are pretty picnic areas and picnic shelters along Astotin Lake and Tawayik Lake – and look for the Red Chairs!
2. Drive the Bison Loop
The 5-minute drive through the Bison Loop is best done around dawn or dusk if you want to see dozens of bison. Watching “bison in the mist” was the highlight of our trip to Elk Island park. If you don’t see any bison while driving the loop, look for them in the meadow across the street.
|Red-necked Grebe, Elk Island National Park|
With over 250 species of birds spotted in the park each year, you are sure to check some off your list! We saw red-necked grebes, American White Pelicans, Canada Geese, and several others. I recommend downloading a birding app like Merlin Bird ID for easy identification.
4. Paddle around Astotin Lake’s many islands
|Stand up paddleboarding at Astotin Lake|
According to the Canoeing Around Edmonton blog, High Island is the best island to visit. For more helpful tips on paddling at Astotin Lake, visit Canoeing Around Edmonton | Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park. The water tends to be calmest in the mornings. Canoe, kayak, and SUP rentals are available at Astotin Lake Day Use Area. Note that motorboats and fishing are not permitted at Astotin Lake.
5. Watch a movie at Astotin Theater
Watch a movie at Astotin Theater and learn about Elk Island National Park’s significant contributions to bison conservation. Did you know Elk Island bison may be found in Siberia, Banff, and Waterton?
6. Sign up for an interpretive program
Make the most of your visit by taking part in one of the park’s interpretive programs. The park’s flagship program is the Backstage Bison Tour offered on Saturdays and Sundays on the hour from 12 pm to 5 pm. Meet at the Historic Barn near the Visitor Centre.
Elk Island and nearby Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area are part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, so on a clear night, star gazing is phenomenal. If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to the northern lights. Sign up for aurora alerts from Aurora Watch, so you don’t miss out!
Seven Things to Do with Kids at Elk Island Provincial Park
1. Living Waters Boardwalk
Walk the 300-metre long Living Waters Boardwalk behind Astotin Theatre and see how many kinds of birds you can spot!
2. Borrow a Discovery Kit Backpack
Borrow a Discovery Kit backpack from Astotin Theatre and learn about pond life, the night sky, nature, or how to geocache. Free rental with credit card deposit.
3. Dress up like a bison, beaver, swan, or elk at Astotin Theatre
|Little Elk at Elk Island National Park|
4. Play at Astotin Lake Playground
The Astotin Lake Playground is near the picnic area and theatre.
5. Visit the Discovery Dome
|Discovery Dome, Elk Island National Park|
On weekdays, visit the Discovery Dome in the Astotin Lake Rec Area from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. for free activities with parks staff.
6. Complete the Parks Canada Xplorer book to win a prize
Get a Parks Canada Xplorer book from the Visitor Centre at the south entrance to the park or Astotin Lake Campground Kiosk & complete the activities to earn a prize.
7. Play in the sand at Astotin Lake Beach
The sand at Astotin Lake Beach is great for building sandcastles! Note that the lake is prone to swimmer’s itch and has leeches, so it is not a swimming lake.
Camping at Elk Island National Park
|Astotin Lake campsite|
- Camp at Astotin Lake: The campground has 60 unserviced tent and RV sites, 15 walk-in tent sites, equipped camping (includes gear rental and everything set up for you!), five oTENTik A-frame cabins, as well as a group camping area that can accommodate 10-60 campers. Campsites are on the small side, but all have a fire pit. Amenities include potable water, showers, flush toilets, kitchen shelter, and a dishwashing sink. Reserve your site early as this campground is quite popular.
- Backcountry camp at Oster Lake: It is a 4 kilometre hike to Oster Lake’s six campsites. Listen to birds (the lake is a waterfowl sanctuary), stargaze, and watch for wildlife (bison often roam near the campground) as you enjoy the solitude at this backcountry campground. Firewoods and firepits are available; purchase a fire permit in advance.
Know Before You Go
Elk Island is a National Park, so parks fees are in effect. You may purchase your Day Pass or annual Discovery Pass at the Visitor Centre when you arrive.
Although the park is fenced, the wildlife is wild, so you must give them space (at least 100 metres!). Bison weigh 680-1100 kilograms and can easily toss/trample you. If you see bison or elk while driving, please remain in your vehicle and do not honk/yell at them or drive too close to them. Harassing or feeding wildlife could result in fines up to $25,000.
Location / Getting Here
Elk Island National Park is located three hours north of Calgary or 45 minutes east of Edmonton.
Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is 5 minutes east of the park entrance and is fun for all ages. Speak with costumed staff who are in character. You will feel like you’ve gone back in time and get a taste for what life was like for Ukrainian settlers in east central Alberta from 1900-1930. After, enjoy delicious perogies, sausage, and cabbage rolls.