When it comes to Alberta’s national parks, the gorgeous mountain locations of Banff and Jasper always take the spotlight, but just 35 kilometres east of Edmonton is the hidden gem that is Elk Island National Park. This conservation area is over 115 years old, covers 194 square kilometres and offers plenty of fun summer activities.

Day trips, golf games and multi-night camping trips to Elk Island are always part of our family’s summer fun. We are fortunate to live less than a half-hour drive from a national park and we take full advantage of our local woodland refuge when we need some nature therapy. It’s always a highlight for our out-of-town visitors as well.

If you want to enjoy the great outdoors in Alberta’s Capital Region this summer, here are five reasons to visit Elk Island National Park:

 

1. Wildlife Watching

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Visitors often wonder why this stretch of wilderness isn’t called “Bison” Island National Park because it’s home to hundreds of bison, along with other animals including elk, beaver, deer and moose. Driving through the two-kilometre Bison Loop is a safe and accessible way to get up close to these magnificent beasts, but if you are lucky enough to spot a herd, be prepared to spend some time in a bison traffic jam. These big bovines are often in no hurry to cross the road. With more than 250 species of birds in this natural refuge, the park is also an excellent spot for birdwatching.

 

2. Hiking

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Elk Island is home to 11 different trails ranging from an easy half-kilometre stroll to a more strenuous 15-kilometre hike. Hikers can choose from terrain including aspen forest, wide open grasslands and carpets of moss and peat—many with water view and wildlife spotting. Because it’s paved, the Shoreline Trail is a popular, accessible pathway. The six-kilometre roundtrip hike has shoreline views, picnic spots, and parking lots at either end. The Living Waters Boardwalk is a 400-metre accessible stroll over Astotin Lake with views of islands and aquatic life along with waterfowl like ducks and geese.

 

3. Paddling on Astotin Lake

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Whether it’s swimming, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding, Elk Island offers many ways to have fun in the water. The beach and picnic space at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area is a popular spot for families with convenient outdoor showers and washroom facilities. Motorized boats aren’t allowed on the calm, quiet waters of Astotin, but visitors can kayak or canoe around the 21 islands located in this almost seven-square-kilometre lake. Paddleboard and kayak rentals are available at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area during the summer months and there is a boat launch at the north end of the lake.

 

4. Golfing with a View

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It’s not unusual to be joined by wildlife like deer when teeing off at the 86-year-old Elk Island Golf Course. This gorgeous 9-hole course offers wide, tree-lined fairways with a few fun undulations. The Elk Island course was designed by Stanley Thompson, the well-known architect of other national park golf courses in Western Canada including Banff and Jasper. With few sand traps or water hazards, it is suitable for all skill levels. Weekday mornings are often the least populated, and the best time to book a round if you want some quiet time to enjoy the surroundings.

 

5. Camping

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Camping in Elk Island National Park is a great escape because though it’s only a half-hour drive from Edmonton, it feels a world away from the city. Pack your tent and make the six-kilometre hike in to the Oster Lake backcountry campground on the shores of Oster Lake. The front-country Astotin Lake campground offers over 50 campsites for tents and RVs with accessible washrooms and showers, and a kitchen shelter equipped for dishwashing. There are also oTENTik A-frame tent cabins for those wanting to camp with no setup required. All camping accommodations are reservable through Parks Canada.

 

Getting away from it all doesn’t always require hopping on a plane or taking a long road trip. Sometimes a 30-minute drive is all the distance needed to retreat into nature for a few hours or a few days. Maybe I’ll see you on one of the Elk Island trails this summer.