The Beaver Hills form a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Edmonton Capital Region of Alberta, Canada. The Biosphere Reserve is centred on Elk Island National Park which is located less than an hour's drive east of Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway, and a half hour's drive west of Vegreville in East Central Alberta. Spanning across parts of five of Alberta counties, the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve is a large area of rolling and marshy terrain containing scattered farms and a few small bedroom communities, but no towns: all accommodations here are either camping with a tent or RV, or else short-term rentals including in a cabin or teepee.
Famous as a refuge for grazing animals, Elk Island National Park has a high density of hoofed mammals per square area, so wildlife viewing is relatively easy: no safari required! Visitors can see over 40 species of free-roaming mammals including plains bison, wood bison, "elk" (wapiti), moose (true elk), white-tail and mule deer, beaver, and muskrat. Over 250 species of birds live here, making it a good place for birdwatching. This is one of the last remaining large areas of natural aspen parkland, one of the most endangered habitats in Canada, that is undisturbed by agriculture and other human activities. Open year-round, park visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, golfing, picnicking and overnight camping.
Also located in the Biosphere, and with a similar range of wildlife (except for bison) are Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, the Ministik Lake Game Bird Sanctuary, and the Strathcona Wilderness Centre. Also found here is Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, an outdoor, living-history museum detailing the lives of Ukrainian immigrants to Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Beaver Hills became a UNESCO Biosphere in 2016 due to the work of the local municipal governments, Parks Canada staff, and local community groups. This recognizes the region around Elk Island Park as a cohesive whole where land use decision making is integrated to preserve the local landscape and wildlife.
Because there area was not well developed agriculturally, it never developed any towns of any size, so most tourist services are of the rural and rustic type. Aside from stand-alone farmsteads, the only settlements inside the Biosphere Reserve are exurban commuter homes around the hamlets of 1 Ardrossan and 2 Uncas as well as clusters (some of which are second homes) near lakes, like 3 Antler Lake, 4 Collingwood Cove, 5 Half Moon Lake, 6 Hastings Lake, 7 North Cooking Lake, 8 South Cooking Lake. For more urbane accommodations and meals, however, Sherwood Park and Edmonton are close by.
Prior to joining Canada in 1870, the Beaver Hills had been an important hunting and trapping area for the indigenous peoples of the area. By the time Canada began inviting Europeans to settle in the area after 1872, however, the region had become "trapped out" of beavers (they were locally extinct due to over-harvesting) because of the commercial demand for beaver pelts in England for making top hats.
The areas on all sides of the hills are good farmlands and were part of the general wave of settlement of this part of Alberta during the 1890s. However the park is composed of rocky, wet land not well suited for wheat growing. It was used for grazing, lumber, and hunting by surrounding farmers, but not much tilled.
The Canadian government started a timber reserve here in 1899 to preserve the remaining forests, making this one of Canada's oldest protected areas. At first it was only the trees that were deemed worth of protection from development but in 1906 the area officially became an elk sanctuary, then a federal park in 1916, and was a founding part of the Canadian national parks system when it began in 1930. Part of the old timber reserve then became the Cooking-Lake Blackfoot Grazing Reserve.
The area's claim to fame (the bison) originated in 1907, when the park was used as a temporary holding area for plains bison. This was a wild herd purchased by the Canadian government in Montana, one of the last such herds in existence. The bison were supposed to be shipped on to another park, but an estimated 40-70 bison evaded recapture, and their descendants have been there ever since.
Wood bison were thought to be completed extinct (or interbred with plains bison) at one point, but in 1957 a small, genetically pure herd was discovered in Wood Buffalo National Park. Then in 1965, 23 of those woodland bison were moved to Elk Island Park to start a second herd. The two subspecies are kept apart by the fences and highway to maintain genetic purity.
Elk Island is Canada's only entirely fenced national park, and home to Canada's most famous herds of wild bison, also known as "buffalo" (but not closely related to the Eastern hemisphere's water buffalo or African buffalo). These two herds are used as breed stock to repopulate other famous parks, in Canada (for example, Banff National Park in 2017), the USA (Yellowstone) and even Russia. Elk Island is a small park by Canadian standards at 194 km² (75 sq mi) and is an "island" (metaphorically, only) of protected forest surrounded by farmland. Because this is the closest park to the city of Edmonton and located on a major highway (Alberta 16, the "Yellowhead" route of the Trans-Canada Highway), it sees many Canadian visitors but because it lacks photogenic mountain vistas, it's not a common part of the itineraries of international visitors to Western Canada, unlike the more famous Banff National Park to the south.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Alberta was undergoing an economic boom fuelled by high prices of oil and gas, and development pushed eastwards from Edmonton rapidly into the region. Staff from Elk Island National Park conceived of the "Beaver Hills Initiative" as a way to connect the local region together and encourage preservation. Ultimately the decision was made to peruse UNESCO designation has other Canadian regions near national parks had done, including Waterton Lakes in southern Alberta 1979. In the end 14 local, provincial, and national government agencies and local groups signed the application to become a Biosphere with dozens more signing letters of support, and on March 19, 2016, the designation was made official. Since that time, new websites, trail maps, and signage have started to give a sense that the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve actually exists as a place on the map, rather than just a collection of ideas.
The biosphere reserve protects the "Southern Boreal Plains and Plateaus" natural region - a transitional zone between the aspen parkland to the south and the boreal forest to the north. The region has a "knob and kettle" topography rising 30-60 m above the surrounding plains of Alberta. The elevation is around 750 to 800 m above sea level which, while not high by Alberta standards, is significantly higher than the North Saskatchewan River's valley bottom at around 600 m just a few kilometres to the northeast of the hills.
Elk Island National Park is an island, not in the geographical sense, but in terms of its landscape of small hills and depressions surrounded by flat plains. When the glaciers retreated from the area, they left debris clustered around chunks of ice that formed the knobs, while the melting ice made shallow ponds or kettles. These are eutrophic ponds, meaning they have a very poor oxygen supply, but they contain rich accumulations of nutrients, making them an excellent habitat for plants and wildfowl. The park has more than 250 lakes, ponds and wetlands over 20% of its surface area.
Astotin Lake, near the park's north end is 3.9 km long, almost 3.1 km wide and 0.5-10 metres deep, and is the park's largest body of water, but the largest waterbodies in the Beaver Hills are Cooking Lake and Hastings Lake. Nearby is Beaverhill Lake, which, despite the name, is on the flat plains just east of the hills proper.
The climate of the area is continental (dry) and temperate (varies by season); the park is usually a degree or two cooler than Edmonton on a typical day, no matter the season.
Flora and Fauna
- See also: North American wildlife
The star attraction here are the two different sub-species of bison (also known as "buffalo"), wood bison on the south side of the highway, and plains bison on the north. As well there are the eponymous "elk" (a.k.a. wapiti), moose, other types of deer, coyotes, fishers, lynx, and so on.
Visitor information centres
- 1 Wahkotowin Visitor Information Centre. Tourism information, public toilets, and a gift shop in Elk Island just off the highway.
- 2 Miquelon Park Centre, ☏ . Tourism information, public toilets, and a gift shop in Miquelon. Only open seasonally.
- 3 Strathcona Wilderness Centre, ☏ . Nature centre and skiing rentals. Open year-round.
Elk Island National Park is approximately one hour's drive east from Edmonton city centre by traveling on Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway). It is open 365 days a year.
The Elk Island Parkbus offers daytrips from Edmonton in the summer months.
Fees and permits
Daily/Annual (December 1 to March 31)/Annual fees:
- Adult $7.80/$31.40/$39.20
- Senior $6.80/$27.40/$34.30
- Youth and children under 18 free
- Family/group $15.70/$78.50/$78.50
Parks Canada Passes
The Discovery Pass provides unlimited admission for a full year at over 80 Parks Canada places that charge a daily entrance fee. It provides faster entry and is valid for 12 months from date of purchase. Prices for 2022 (taxes included):
- Family/group (up to 7 people in a vehicle): $145.25
- Children and youth (0-17): free
- Adult (18-64): $72.25
- Senior (65+): $61.75
The Cultural Access Pass: people who have received their Canadian citizenship in the past year can qualify for free entry to some sites.
Remember that camping fees are in addition to entry fees.
Entry to provincial and local parks and are free. However, there is a charge to use the ski trails at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre. The Ukrainian Village charges: for a family (2 adults + youths, to maximum of 8 people), $40; for a single adult (18-64), $15; for a senior (65+), $13; for a youth (7-17), $10; for a child (0-6), free; for members of the Canadian military and their families, free (with CFOne card); for members of the Friends of the Ukrainian Village Society member, free.
This is a huge and mostly rural and wilderness region, so you will be hiking, canoeing, and biking mostly for pleasure, but mostly like taking a car for getting from accommodation to attractions and back.
No car rentals are available here, so plan ahead. There are several refilling stations scattered around, and repair shop in Ardrossan, however. There's only one, Y-shaped road going through the northern half Elk Island Park so it's hard to get lost inside the park in your car.
- 1 Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, Highway 16 (25 minutes east of Edmonton, and 3 km east of the national park entrance), ☏ . Daily May long weekend to Labour Day (early Sep): 10AM–5PM. This award-winning provincial historic site showcases Ukrainian settlement in East Central Alberta. There are over 30 historic buildings including three churches, a fully-functioning grain elevator, blacksmith shop, and sod hut, all enlivened by costumed interpreters. Weekends are busier, however the crowds can be worth it with more interpreters on hand and often more things going on. Adult (18-64) $15, senior (65+) $13, youth (7-17) $10, child (0-6) free, Canadian military and family (with CFOne card) free, Family (2 adults + youths, maximum of 8 people) $40.
- 2 Astotin Theatre. Public programming happens here daily in the summer.
There are several walking/hiking trails in Elk Island Park, most in the 1-3 hour range, but a longer trail exists south of Highway 16 to see the Wood Bison (distinct from the Plains Bison north of the highway).
- 1 Tawayik Lake Recreation Area. Parking lot and trail head for the Tawayik Lake Trail, Shirley Lake Trail, and Simons Trail.
For trails that begin and end at a parking lot that doesn't require a national park admission, locals prefer to use the trails in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Recreation Area just to the south of Elk Island. Its three main parking lots (somewhat grandly called "staging areas") serve as trail heads for a number of hikes and skis, and even allow horses and snowmobiles on certain trails.
- 2 Waskahegan Staging Area. Parking lot and trial head on the west side of the Blackfoot.
- 3 Blackfoot Lake Staging Area. Parking lot and trail head on the northeast side of the Blackfoot.
- 4 Islet Lake Stating Area. Parking lot and trail head on the southeast side of the Blackfoot.
- 5 Strathcona Wilderness Centre, 52535 Range Road 212. Mostly known for its cross-country ski trails, which double as easy hikes in the summer, and for its school programs. Also includes disc golf, limited accommodations (a small hostel space and just four campsites) and rentable meeting space. free.
- Beyond hiking, canoeing, golfing are other good options here.
- 6 Haskin Canoe, Astotin Lake. Canoe rental.
- 7 Elk Island Golf Course, ☏ . A 9-hole golf course fenced off from the bison roaming all around it.
- 8 Beaver Hills Biodiversity Trail. Free easy hike with interpretive signage about local flora and fauna.
Buy, eat and drink
The only retail store in Elk Island is in the visitor's centre near the south park gate, it only sells souvenirs, not food (beyond a few snacks) or only the most basic camping equipment. Everything else available in nearby Sherwood Park (to the west), Lamont (to the north), or Mundare (to the east). There are also gift shops at the Ukrainian Village and Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, and a food kiosk at the Ukrainian Village. There is a small shopping centre in Ardrossan opening in 2023 which will have basic amenities like a pharmacy. There are also a food kiosk at the indoor skating rinks in Ardrossan and Fulltonvale (open seasonally) and drinks available at the curling rinks in Ardrossan and Fultonvale.
During the summer, Elk Island offers a semi-serviced campground. Hotels, motels, bed & breakfasts, gasoline, groceries, and other services can only be access communities surrounding the Beaver Hills.
- 1 Astotin Lake Campground, ☏ , (TTY), toll-free: (12 hours/day).
- 2 Elk Island Retreat, 54371 Range Road 205 Fort Saskatchewan, ☏ , email@example.com. Private campground just outside the park boundaries, featuring yurts, tipis, and cabins for those without a tent of their own or just wanting a "glamping" experience. $40-159/night.
- 3 Miquelon Lake Provincial Park Campground. A provincial campground a little to the south of Elk Island Park but still in the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve.
Safety for visitors:
- Safety first - view wildlife from a safe distance and vantage point.
- Remain in your vehicle to view wildlife on roadways.
- Slow down when wildlife are near the roadside.
- Observe the 60 km/h speed limit on the Elk Island Parkway.
- At all times, maintain a distance of 100 metres from moose, elk, deer and bison.
Visitors are discouraged from bicycling on park trails in wet spring weather conditions and during the rut (breeding season for ungulates) from late July through to the autumn.
- Become familiar with the natural hazards of the park, be properly equipped, and well prepared (knowledge, skills, fitness) for wildlife viewing activities such as hiking, walking, and cross-country skiing.
- Report aggressive wildlife to Parks Canada staff. Check with Parks Canada staff for information and safety warnings. Respect area and trail closures. Trails and areas are occasionally closed due to aggressive wildlife, poor trail conditions, on-going management activity, or other hazards. Entering a closed area is an offence under the National Parks General Regulations.
Safety for the wildlife:
- Do not feed the wildlife. Poor health and premature death can result from wildlife consuming food other than their natural food supply. It is forbidden to feed, touch, or attract wild animals with food or bait.
- Resist the temptation to pick wildflowers, cattails, berries, mushrooms, or any other plant item. Plant matter and natural objects such as antlers and bones are part of the natural food supply for wildlife.
- Dogs and other domestic animals must be kept leashed and under physical control at all times when in a national park. Loose domestic animals present a hazard to wildlife, as they are prone to chase and molest wildlife; they also present a public safety hazard.
- It is an offence to lure, disturb, chase or molest wildlife in a national park; penalties can range as high as $5000 or six months in jail.
|Routes through Beaver Hills|
|Edmonton ← Sherwood Park ←||W E||→ Vegreville → Lloydminster|