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Elk Island National Park in Winter

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Winter is a great time to visit Elk Island National Park. It’s an easy place to access as a day trip from Edmonton, if only for a few hours. There’s plenty to do – just not a whole lot in the way of services. Here are suggestions based on my experience traveling with Priscilla from HaskinCanoe. She spends a lot of time in the park and has a wealth of knowledge about what you can do in Elk Island in the depths of winter.

Snowshoeing in Elk Island National Park in Alberta
Snowshoeing in Elk Island National Park in Alberta

Elk Island versus Yellowstone National Park in winter 

My trip to Elk Island National Park made me think of a time when our family traveled to Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter for some cross-country skiing.

Glorious country with geysers and hardly a soul around, it too is home to plains bison. Despite their size, they seem to disappear into the trees. On one trail, my son who was lagging behind, came as close as you ever want to get to a bison; nose to nose is a pretty accurate description.

The bison blocked the path between us and him, a scary proposition when you’re 11 years old, or any age for that matter. It all ended well, and became one of our great family stories. The point – I wondered if I would have such a spontaneous encounter in Elk Island National Park. 

Fortunately I did not.

I saw at least 10 bison on my visit
In Elk Island National Park I saw at least 10 bison on my visit

Look for bison in Elk Island

Within minutes Priscilla and I spotted bison, just in from the road. Hopping out of the car, we ventured as close as we dared, keeping in mind that bison can travel from 0 to 50 km/hour in just a few strides.

Ideally you should stay at least 30 metres away – which we definitely did.

Hike or snowshoe the Wood Bison Trail if you’re on the lookout for wood bison. They’re south of the highway, while the plains bison are found north of it. 

Go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing

Usually Elk Island National Park has lots of snow so snowshoeing and skiing are great activities. But if it’s a light year just do a winter hike instead, taking poles for support.

There are a huge number of trails to explore but be prepared to break trail. Think of it as an amazing winter workout.

The 13 kilometre Moss Lake Trail, the 12.5 kilometre Shirley Lake Trail and the 16.5 kilometre Tawayik Lake Trail are typically good spots to see elk and plains bison.

The 12.2 kilometre flat Hayburger Trail takes you through aspen forest and meadows. Both moose and plains bison can often be seen.

For a shorter trail try the 5 kilometre Simmons Trail, the 3.5 kilometre Lakeview Trail or the 3.5 kilometre Beaver Pond Trail.

Trees provide protection from the wind in Elk Island National Park
Trees provide protection from the wind in Elk Island National Park
Looking for bison and we found a mouse on another winter weekend
Looking for bison and we found a mouse on another winter weekend
One lone woodpecker was the only bird we saw
One lone woodpecker was the only bird we saw

Skate on Astotin Lake

Don’t forget a thermos of something hot to drink if you plan to go skating in Elk Island. You can skate around Archer Island, enjoy a game of pond hockey or even throw on a headlamp and skate under the stars.

Check in with the Visitor Centre to get an up to date report on ice conditions.

A skating track cleared on Astotin Lake
A skating track cleared on Astotin Lake

Have a red chair moment

You’ll find Parks Canada red chairs in five scenic locations in Elk Island National Park. If it’s not too cold, why not enjoy a hot drink and lunch while admiring the winter scenery from your red chair. On Twitter you can post a picture using the hashtag #ShareTheChair but don’t forget to tag @ElkIslandNP.

Waiting for summer in Elk Island National Park
Waiting for summer

Sign up for a star gazing experience at Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve. It’s considered to be an amazing place for star gazing. Be sure to dress warmly if you want to enjoy the night outside.

The park does offer a stargazing program that includes a combo of snowshoeing and stargazing. It sells out quickly so plan in the fall to sign up for one of the winter nights. 

Enjoying a winter bonfire by Astotin Lake
Enjoying a winter bonfire by Astotin Lake

Elk Island National Park offers a peaceful getaway from the city. Combined with a very high chance of seeing bison, it’s a destination where an outing on foot, snowshoes or skis can make winter a whole lot more fun.

Further reading on things to do in Alberta in winter

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

A winter visit to Elk Island National Park

 

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