Elk Island National Park, Alberta

I kept seeing photos of animals spotted at Elk Island National Park but wasn’t sure where it was. When I looked it up and found it was close to Edmonton, I thought it might be a good place to visit.

Edmonton is about 3-hours drive from Calgary, so can be done in a day trip, but we thought we might want to spend a couple of days in the park. There is a driving route and hiking trails, so we decided to stay overnight, just outside Edmonton to make the most of it.

We set off in the morning and took the most direct route which is Highway 2. It is not the most picturesque journey, but it is relatively quick, so got us there by lunchtime.

We entered the park from the south entrance and stopped at the visitor’s centre to pay and pick up a map. It cost just over $15 for the two of us, so not too bad. We then had some lunch which we took with us, and set off to explore the park.

The park is quite small by National Park standards (194 sq km) and is the largest fully fenced National Park in Canada. It has herds of American bison and plays a big part in their conservation. The park is made up of grasslands, parkland, lakes and boreal forest and is home to the largest – bison, and the smallest – pygmy shrew, terrestrial mammals in North Ameria.

We had decided to drive the length of the road which runs through the park, then hike some trails, but ended up following our noses which took us to the first drivable loop called Bison Loop road. Unfortunately, we did not see any bison, or indeed anything along this road, so we carried on.

Our next stop was to look at a lake but spotted a trail called Shoreline Trail, which we decided to take. It was described as an easy walk of 6 km return which as its name suggests hugs the lake. Well, we hadn’t gone too far along the pathway when we heard what sounded like baby birds cheeping. After tracking down the sound we found a hole in a tree which was soon visited by a female yellow-bellied sapsucker. These are a type of woodpecker that peck at trees to get to the sap. We used to have some at our house in Ontario and during mating season the male would hammer away on our metal satellite dish pole, usually in the early hours of the morning!

We stood and watched the female pop into the hole and feed the babies then fly off again. Soon a male also appeared with lots of grubs for the young ones and he too fed the babies. We watched them for quite a while and they were back and forth constantly feeding their brood. In the photos, the male is the one with a red head. Chris took these, his photos turned out better than mine!

We carried on down the trail and saw a squirrel hanging on a tree. He was licking the sap from the tree where the sapsuckers had pecked out the bark. You can see the characteristic shape the sapsuckers hammer into the wood. I also spotted a really pretty flower and a tiny frog.

Further along the trail, we got some nice views across the lake as well as spotting a waxwing feeding a chick, a white admiral butterfly and a song sparrow.

After this trail, we got back into the truck and carried along the road. We stopped off at Astotin Lake, which is the main area in the park, but there were lots of people here, so we decided to carry on up the road. We then spotted another trail called Beaver Pond Trail which was 3.6 km long and promised views of beaver ponds and grazing bison. This trail started off well, but as it was not paved, it soon became very boggy and we had to navigate around large areas of mud, then the bugs found us. Oh my God, were there ever bugs, mosquitoes buzzing here, there and everywhere. They were relentless, so we ended up turning back about halfway along as we couldn’t stand it any longer. Managed to get a few photos though.

Throughout the day, the clouds had been getting darker in the sky and then it rained. As most of the trails were unpaved, we thought that from experience of the last one, before the rain, the rest might be really, really boggy, so looked for a paved trail to explore. We saw there was a boardwalk trail back at Astotin Lake, so went back to take a look.

By now, the rain had stopped and it was pretty warm, so we wandered around the Living Waters Boardwalk. This extends into the lake and meanders along the edge of the marshland. We didn’t think we would see too much, but we were wrong.

We first saw some ducks, with babies swimming around the lake, We later found out these were red-necked grebes. The babies were constantly chattering, making squeaking noises and the parents, diving under the water, coming back up with weeds they would then feed to the babies.

Next, we saw a lot of coots with chicks of various sizes swimming and wading through the marshland. The chicks are completely different from their parents with fluffy black and orange feathers and bald heads. The grebe and coot photos are Chris’.

We also saw, very quicly before he dived into the water, a muskrat. This was followed by a beautiful white pelican.

After this, we decided to make our way out of the park and had given up seeing any bison. However, as luck would have it, we came across three grazing at the side of the road as we were leaving. Wow, that really made our day.

So, after this very exciting day, we made our way to the hotel in Fort Saskatchewan which is between Edmonton and Elk Island. We are staying at the Hampton Inn there, but that will be another blog post.