Heading east from Edmonton  on Highway 16, you’ll reach Elk Island National Park in well under an hour. This small, fenced, 194-square-kilometer (75-square-mile) park preserves a remnant of the aspen parkland that once covered the entire northern flank of the prairie. It’s also one of the best spots in Alberta  for wildlife-watching; with approximately 3,000 large mammals, the park has one of the highest concentrations of big game in the world.
Set aside in 1906 to protect a herd of elk now numbering around 1,600, the park also provides a home for moose, two species of bison, white-tailed and mule deer, coyotes, beavers, muskrats, mink, and porcupines. The many lakes and wetland areas in the park serve as nesting sites for waterfowl, and approximately 230 species of birds have been observed here.
Park entry for one day is adult $7.90, senior $6.90, child $3.90 to a maximum of $20 per vehicle; if you’ve purchased an annual pass, you’ll be waved straight through the fee station (but stop to pick up park information anyway).
Twelve hiking trails, ranging in length from 1.4–18.5 kilometers (0.9–11.5 miles), cover all areas of the park and provide excellent opportunities to view wildlife. A park information sheet details each one. Make sure to carry water with you, though, because surface water in the park is not suitable for drinking.
The paved Shoreline Trail (three km/1.9 mi one-way) follows the shore of Astotin Lake from the golf course parking lot. The Lakeview Trail (3.3 km/two mi round-trip) begins from the northern end of the recreation area and provides good views of the lake. Hike this trail in the evening for a chance to see beavers.
The only trail on the south side of Highway 16 is the Wood Bison Trail (18.6 km/11.5 mi round-trip), which has an interpretive display at the trailhead. In winter, the trails provide excellent cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The day-use area at Astotin Lake, 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) north of Highway 16, is the center of much activity. There’s a pleasant beach and picnic area; canoes, rowboats, and small sailboats can be rented; and the rolling fairways of adjacent Elk Island Golf Course (780/998-3161, $36) provide an interesting diversion for golfers.
Sandy Beach Campground, on the north side of the Astotin Lake day-use area, is the only overnight facility within the park. It has fire pits, picnic tables, flush toilets, and showers; $26 per night plus $9 for a firewood permit. If you’re traveling in the peak of summer (especially on weekends), it is strongly recommended to use the Parks Canada Campground Reservation Service (877/737-3783, www.pccamping.ca ) for a nonrefundable $11 reservation fee. A concession selling fast food and basic camping supplies operates May–October at Astotin Lake, and the golf course (780/998-3161) has a casual restaurant.
The Park Information Centre (780/992-5790, weekends only May and June, daily 10 a.m.–6 p.m. July and Aug.) is less than one kilometer (0.6 miles) north of Highway 16 on the Elk Island Parkway. For online information, click through the links on the Parks Canada website (www.pc.gc.ca ).