I’ve been feeling pretty antsy lately. While being back in the first year of a program again is exciting, it’s also frustrating and has sparked a feeling of stagnation. I’ve been eager to hit the fast forward button on life and get to the part where I’m graduated and working in my field, but that’s not possible. This pent-up energy has been coming out physically instead, as I’ve been itching to go hiking more and more often and move forwards at least in space since I can’t in time. While the mountains are by far my favourite place to go, Jasper is a bit of a drive for a day trip so I’m thankful to have Elk Island National park right next door. About 40 minutes east of the city is a much more flat but beautiful and entertaining natural area flush with wildlife, most notably the bison. Depending on how busy the park is during the day you may not see them but in the evening when it quiets down, they venture farther into the visitor areas. As I’m sure you could guess from the name, you may also spot an elk, along with coyotes, cougars, beavers, and other animals.
In regard to hiking, they boast a tally of 11 trails adding up to 86.2 total kilometers of walkability. Trails range from easy to difficult so whether you’re looking for an easy-breezy boardwalk loop like Amisk Wuche Trail to keep you busy for an hour or the Wood Bison Trail to keep you busy all afternoon, you’re covered. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, you can still hangout by the lake, snap some pictures on the dock, and enjoy the view. There’s also 8 geocaches in the park to hunt for, or you could check out The Living Waters Boardwalk, which is only a 400m loop that takes you right over the water.
If that doesn’t float your boat and you’d rather hangout on the water, you can rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board ranging from $20-$60/hour depending on your choice. They also offer Sunset Tours, a scenic evening paddle where you can enjoy the sunset and the stars. The rental shop is unfortunately temporarily closed for the 2020 season, but hopefully they will be able to reopen next year.
In terms of facilities, they have fully functioning washrooms as well as portable toilets, and outdoor shower faucets to rinse off if you’ve been in the lake. There’s also a golf course, visitor’s centre, and even a theatre which is used for wildlife education. If you’re feeling like committing to a more outdoor experience, they have the Oster Lake Backcountry Campground, accessed via the Shirley Lake Trail, as well as three other campgrounds. One of these consists of oTENTik cabins in the Astotin area which offer a combination tent and cabin structure for greater comfort.
There are multiple gazebos, fire pits and picnic benches, and a playground for the wee ones, making it a great option for an out-of-town family get together.
Even in the winter you can come and enjoy the trails whether by walking or cross-country skiing, or you could go for a skate in the Astotin Lake Area. They also keep a campsite open in the winter if you’re willing to brave the chill.
Essentially, Elk Island is a balanced sweet spot with something for everyone. I’ve had very different kinds of days there, from hiking for hours to lounging on a picnic blanket in the sun and later enjoying a fire. Whether you feel compelled to move, feel like experiencing a new environment or are looking for a relaxing day of sun on the weekend, everyone can benefit from having such an accessible oasis from the city, right in our backyard.