“We will return to canoe and visit the bison”
I cannot count the number of times Charlotte and I passed by the sign Elk Island National Park commenting we should stop in sometime. Having just returned from our son’s wedding and a week of camping in Calgary, Alberta, we were ready for a northern camping trip.
Other than the busy streets in Calgary our RV stay was great spending one night at Beaver Dam Golf and RV resort just outside of Calgary at Madden. A private campground, very clean large sites, great facilities and campground hosts that were the most. Can’t complain about the next two nights spent in Pat and Nel’s (Charlotte’s brother and sister-in-law) driveway in Chestermere Lake just outside of Calgary. Free power supplied and camp fees were reasonable. We ended up staying the rest of the week at a small campground in Okotoks south of Calgary. Okotoks Lions Campground is run by a dedicated number of club members, great spots again, clean washrooms and showers. We would also recommend staying here.
Getting back to our Elk Island National Park experience. It’s late September and we need that northern fix and being our home is founded on democracy, the vote to finally check out Elk Island was unanimous. Taking the four-lane Yellowhead Highway from Saskatoon was easy travelling and the park is located approximately 22 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta, saved us some “big city driving”.
We were not sure what we would find but were totally impressed by this small National Park. We had determined this would be a site seeing trip so we did not hook up our Jeep or trailer to haul our canoe. We should have checked out the park more before going as no canoe was a big mistake, one we will not repeat. Yes canoe and kayak rentals were available, but it gave us a chance to check out the rest of the park by camper and hiking. If I was not so cheap we would have rented a canoe and spent the entire time on the lake, saving that for our return trip.
The long paved drive in was beautiful in September with the colour of the aspen, spruce and birch trees native to the park. Our first stop was at the under renovation visitor center where we got our directions and bearings in the park. We drove by a few marked hiking trails which we would return to check out, and a nine hole golf course. Nearby we found the Astotin Lake Campground. Not having a reservation, as it was later in the season, we were surprised to find a very full campground.
A RV accessible campground, (approx. 40 sites) we could only get a site for the Thursday night as for the weekend the campground was booked. However we could move to a paved pull through/back in parking lot style RV site for the rest of our visit. The site was definitely larger RV designed but very pretty with all the trees bordering it. NOTE TO SELF: If returning to Elk Island during the peak camping season June to end of August best reserve a site. (Parks Canada Reservation Center). The campsite features large clean washrooms, hot showers and flush toilets. Central camp kitchens, water taps throughout the campgrounds, firewood (permit required, at a cost of course), RV dump and fill stations. Each campground in both RV style camp spots feature tables, firepits and raised gravel (Astotin) or paved pads. For those wishing to tent, which in our travels is becoming very popular, there are many great tent sites. Oster Lake Backcountry Campground is one that features six tent sites, is a hike in only campground. Also lots of school groups were utilizing the group camping spots. Winter camping is also possible as the park is open all year, one would have to check that out.
Astotin Lake is near the campground and features many interesting learning, picnic areas and paved walking trails around the lake. It’s a non- boating lake (right on!) and is full of a lot of islands making canoeing and kayaking very interesting for exploring. A peaceful lake not having to be swamped by wake boats and seadoos and was fully taken advantage of by many paddlers even late in the season.
This park is all about the animals. As we trespass in their environment one has to be very careful as all the animals are not only wild but not fenced in. Only the outside of the park boundary is fenced to keep them in. On one of the many trails or in the park one may come face to face with a huge buffalo or elk.
The Park is situated in the Beaver Hills region first settled by the Sarcee and Plains Cree First Nations. These first people along with European fur traders in the late 1800 and mid 1900s hunted elk and beaver in this marshy lake-dotted area with hills rising like beaver lodges from the ground. When the animals become nearly extinct they moved on. In 1906 the Park was established at the request of five local area ranchers wanting to preserve the small elk herd and in 1907 bison were introduced. Now the small park 194 sq. km or 75 sq. mi is home to 660 elk, 300 bison and a small herd of approx. 200 wood bison, a near extinct breed. The park is now utilized as not only a safe haven for these animals which are also shipped to many other North American Parks to start new herds. Sharing the park are moose, whitetail deer, mule deer, beaver and Alberta lynx. Not sure what makes Alberta lynx different than any other, but this is Alberta. The birds not to be outdone have moved to the park and boast nearly 250 different varieties, so bird watchers are not left out. This is all accessible and can be viewed along one of the many hiking trails we tried and are very well marked and totally natural.
One feature of the park we did not check out is the Beaver Hills Dark Light Preserve which is a 300 sq. km or 116 sq. mi area encompassing Elk Island and the nearby Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. All artificial light has been eliminated or reduced in this area allowing a night sky viewing opportunity that many never see in out lit up world. We will have to check the annual night sky party in September.
As mentioned above during peak season reserving a camping spot would be a must. We would probably go back May until end of June or September as the colour is beautiful.
Park is also great for snowshoeing or cross country skiing during winter. Although winter camping is available I would check the weather as in Edmonton -40 C can be experienced.
Travellers who are not RVers or campers Edmonton is only 22 miles away with a lot of hotels.
Take good hiking shoes and stay a day or a while, we like this park and will go back. Camping sites are not a priority at this park but ok as it’s really for the animals (4 legged) and day use by hikers, paddlers and picnics, a lot to see and learn.