When I visited Edmonton in Canada, I wanted to get a general feel for the city but I also wanted to experience some things to do in Edmonton in winter specifically. So I visited the Silver Skate Festival and headed out to Elk Island National Park.
There are plenty of things to do at Elk Island National Park, some more specific to winter than others. Here's how I spent my (too short) time there.
Things to do at Elk Island National Park
1. Drive the bison loop
The first thing we did, was drive around the bison loop to see if we could spot some bison. In the beginning of the 20th century, bison were almost extinct in North America and so a bunch of them were brought to Elk Island to secure their survival and grow their numbers. The program worked and today most of the bison in Southern Canada are descendants of ancestors at Elk Island. The park is very proud of this success and so it organizes a Bison Festival every August.
It wasn't nearly August yet when I visited, though, and so we tried spotting bison in the snow – and we did! While we were driving, we suddenly spotted two big brown spots against a forest backdrop. There they were.
Big, utterly relaxed looking animals that could run you over in a heartbeat. Luckily for us, they were too busy grazing and lazing about. I didn't have a telelens with me, but still managed to capture them from afar. One guy got pretty close to them and I'm sure he managed to get some great shots, but I didn't really feel like risking it that day.
2. Spot wildlife
So we spotted bison, but the park isn't called “Bison Island”, now is it? In fact, there's a bunch of hoofed wildlife running around Elk Island. Their numbers are so big, they're only second to the hoofed wildlife living in the Serengeti. Driving around you can spot not only bison, but also deer, moose, coyotes, lynx and elk, although especially the elk are notoriously elusive.
In summer, Elk Island is also a great place for bird spotters as even the trumpeter swam drops by here.
We only spent about three hours at the park and spotted two bison and one coyote (from afar).
3. Go snowshoeing for a treat
After our little drive around the bison loop, our guide took us snowshoeing around and on the lake. There are a ton of trails at Elk Island ranging from very short to day-long hikes. We only walked around for half an hour or so, until our guide sat down in the middle of the frozen lake to prepare us some maple syrup toffee while we admired our surroundings.
How that works? She heated up the maple syrup, then poured it onto the ice for it to harden a bit so she could roll it up onto a little stick and it became like a popsicle. So sweet. So sticky. So good.
4. Spot the red chairs
In all Canadian National Parks, you can find these beautiful red chairs facing the most amazing natural vistas. Sit down, relax and enjoy the view… or use them as photo models :-) They're just one of the many photo-worthy sights at Elk Island National Park, though. The silence and vastness of this place works inspirational and I'm sure outdoor photographers have the time of their life here.
And that's it! I hope this helps answer the question of what to do at Elk Island National Park in winter a bit. Unfortunately, we were only there for a few hours but we did manage to do some cool things in that time. I think that, if you can do Elk island as a day trip from Edmonton, that would be a great little winter getaway.
Practical information for visiting Elk Island
It takes about 40 minutes to get from Edmonton to Elk Island National Park by car and I highly recommend getting a rental car when you make the trip, as you'll be able to use the car inside the park as well to drive to different points of interest and around the bison loop.
RentalCars.com has a best-price guarantee and lets you compare tons of rental car offers.
At the Elk Island Visitor Center you can get trail maps and other information but if you want to prepare beforehand, take a look at the Elk Island National Park website as there's plenty more to do than just snowshoeing.
We did a guided snowshoe tour to learn a bit more about the park, but you can also go hike or snowshoe by yourself. For what concerns the bison, we only did some spotting, but if you're really interested in them, you can book a “Backstage Tour” and visit the bison handling facility where you'll learn about bison conversation, among other things.
If you go in winter, like I did, make sure to wear proper snow boots. Preferably knee-high ones, as those will allow you to plow through the snow to get closer to whatever wildlife you spot. Snow boots are also best for strapping on snowshoes.
You should also dress warm as the wind can make it feel even colder than it already is, especially on open plains. I was fine with my two merino woolen base layers underneath two fleeces, merino woolen socks, a merino woolen legging underneath my jeans and snow boots. I also wore a warm hat and gloves.
If you want a full list of what I packed for Edmonton, you can find it here.
Where to stay near Elk Island National Park
Budget: The Kanata Fort Saskatchewan
This is a bit of a lucky find – situated in Fort Saskatchewan, roughly between Edmonton and Elk Island National Park, it’s great value for money and has several perks. The rooms have a stylish quality, clean and modern with coffee and tea making facilities, free WiFi, a fridge and a microwave. The hotel has a restaurant, an indoor hot tub and a buffet breakfast.
Mid-range: Heartland Hotel
Heartland Hotel is located in Lamont, just to the north of Elk Island. The rooms have a classic feel and the hotel has an outdoor barbecue area, free WiFi and free parking, a shared chill-out area and a communal garden.
Chain: Courtyard by Marriott Edmonton Downtown
City and riverside views, an on-site restaurant and gym, and only a stone’s throw from Central Light Rail Station, the Courtyard Edmonton Downtown is a perfect city-centre option if you want to explore Elk Island National Park from a base within Edmonton. The hotel is bright and airy, and the rooms are equipped with free WiFi, a mini-fridge and a coffee-maker.
Luxury: Chateau Lacombe
Located in Downtown Edmonton just a few steps from the river, Chateau Lacombe is a luxurious corner of tranquility to retreat to after a heavy day exploring Elk Island. The revolving rooftop restaurant is one of its highlights, with spectacular views across the city and fine dining. If that’s not enough, there are two other eating options at the hotel, and the suites are large and chic.
Apartment: Modern Downtown Loft near Rogers Place
Another Downtown Edmonton option, this apartment is a great base to use for both city exploring and dipping into Elk Island National Park. At an elevated height, it’s a wonderful escape from the bustling streets and has a light, modern but cozy atmosphere that will make you feel immediately at home.
Airbnb’s a good place to head to for more apartment options. While I use Booking for hotels, I always check for apartments on Airbnb as they have such a great selection.
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I was invited to Elk Island by Edmonton Tourism. The choice to enjoy myself was entirely mine.
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