Seeking a place to explore in Alberta and/or the Northwest Territories where you can enjoy a varied experience? Consider checking out Wood Buffalo National Park. With 44,741 square kilometers, the park is the largest National Park in Canada.
The park offers excellent opportunities to view wildlife; the world’s largest wood bison population can be found in the park, grazing within the boreal plain. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wood Buffalo National Park is the home of the last remaining natural nesting site of the whooping crane and offers one of the most concentrated nesting environments worldwide for geese and ducks. Black bears, moose, wolves and beavers also reside in the park.
You will have the chance to enjoy a variety of landscape in the park to include boreal forest, salt plains and gypsum karst landforms. The Slave, Peace and Athabasca rivers flow through the park, offering the opportunity to take a trip down the river or the chance to relax and enjoy the sound of the flowing water. Hiking is a popular activity at the park, where you can explore the salt plains or a forest with spruce, aspen, jackpine and poplar trees and during warmer weather, you can take a swim in a water-filled sinkhole.
With plenty to see and do, Wood Buffalo National Park is a great choice to explore, regardless of the time of year. Get ready to hit the road in your RV and experience all that this Canadian park has to offer!
As Wood Buffalo National Park is so vast, there are multiple ways to get to the park, even by water! While the park does not have gates and there is no cost to enter, all visitors are asked to check-in at the visitor center in Fort Smith or Fort Chipewyan in order to get the most updated safety information as well as to pick up camping permits if needed.
Visitors are able to access the park by paved highway year-round. If you are coming from the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, you can take Mackenzie Highway/Highway 1 north for about 83 km (51.5 miles). Then, make a right onto Highway 2 N, where you can follow the signs for Fort Smith. After 25 km (15.5 miles), turn right onto Highway 5/Wood Buffalo Parkway, continuing for 264 km (164 miles). Highway 5/Wood Buffalo Parkway was recently resurfaced and should be passable throughout the year.
If you are coming from Yellowknife, take Highway 3 South for 338 km (210 miles). You will then connect to Mackenzie Highway/Highway 1, proceeding the same way described above.
There is a winter road (usually open for about three months) that connects Fort Smith with Fort Chipewyan and For McMurray. The road requires that you take special precautions to ensure your safety. There is not an all-weather access road to Fort Chipewyan.
Looking to take a flight? Flights to Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan are available from Edmonton and you can also fly directly from Yellowknife to Fort Smith.
Plenty of parking is available within the park for passenger cars and RV's.
There is no public transportation available to Wood Buffalo National Park.
Pine Lake also offers four rustic cabins that are available for reservation. The cabins offer a double bed and bunk beds, along with a kitchen sink, hotplate and kitchenware. Bedding is not provided, so you'll need to bring your own. The cabins do not have running water, but flush toilets are located in the campground.
Pine Lake Campground is the park’s only road accessible campground, accommodating visitors from the end of May until the end of September. The campground is a 45-minute drive from Fort Smith and includes 36 campsites (two of which are wheelchair-accessible) with fire pits, tent pads and picnic tables, as well as a playground and outhouses. Nestled in the trees, the campground offers easy access to the aquamarine Pine Lake and its lakeside day-use area and swimming beach. You can camp in an RV or tent on a first-come-first-served basis. While water is available, there are no hook-ups at the campground.
Groups of eight or more people may choose to make a reservation for Kettle Point Group Camp, which is at the south end of Pine Lake. The group camp, which is wheelchair accessible, includes a large log shelter, tenting area, beach, fire circle, picnic tables outhouses and a playground.
Backcountry camping is available in the Wood Buffalo National Park. Park use permits are required for overnight stays in the park with some restrictions.
No matter your ability, Wood Buffalo National Park offers a hiking trail (or more) for you! Easy trails include Karstland, a 780-meter loop that will take you through a karst forest and Salt River Meadows, a 2.2 km (1.3 miles) loop that follows a stream and takes you through forest and meadows. There are a number of moderate hiking trails; for example, Rainbow Lakes, which is 6 km (4 miles) each way, will take you through the forest, while Benchmark Creek (8.5 kilometers/5 miles one way), follows a stream and takes you through forest, meadows and salt flats. Those looking for a difficult trail and who have experience navigating waterways can take on the challenge of Sweetgrass (14km/ 8.6 miles one way), a backcountry trail where you can explore the forest and meadows.
Wood Buffalo National Park has a lot to explore and doing so on foot offers an up-close and personal view of its spectacular scenery.
As a result of karst topography (formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks), Wood Buffalo National Park offers one of the continent’s most fascinating collections of natural swimming holes. Pine Lake, for example, is a series of sinkholes filled with water. From above, the sinkholes look like massive, water-filled craters. As a result of the blue green algae that develops in the bottom of the sinkhole, visitors will see a cerulean hue when looking at the water from the beach. The lake is easy to get to from the Pine Lake Campground or Pine Lake Day Use Area.
There are numerous opportunities to get some paddling in during a trip to Wood Buffalo National Park. Seeking a relaxing experience on the water? Take a canoe out on Pine Lake where you can explore the lake at your own pace for as long or as little as you choose. Experienced backcountry paddlers may want to embark upon a wilderness adventure on the Peace, Athabasca and or Slave River. During the spring run-off, check out the Buffalo, Little Buffalo and Salt Rivers. Canoeing can be a part of a larger back country adventure; if intending to stay overnight in the backcountry, make sure to get a permit.
Just because the weather becomes cooler does not mean that you can’t have an adventure in Wood Buffalo National Park. In fact, during the fall, winter and spring the sky is very dark, meaning that the park is a great place to be to view the Northern Lights. In 2013, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada designated the Wood Buffalo National Park the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve, a designation that preserves habitat for nearly a dozen species of owls, bats and other animals that are nocturnal. With limited artificial light, the park is perfect for viewing the constellations and the Milky Way and you can hear the sounds of owls, loons and wolves while you gaze at the sky above.
Wood Buffalo National Park is home to a variety of wildlife; in addition to bison, wolves, lynx, snowshoe hares, owls, ptarmigans can be seen when driving along the winter road. Driving slow is recommended in order to have the best chance see wildlife. Looking to see a herd of bison? Drive along Pine Lake Road or around the Nyarling River Pull-off for the best opportunity to view a herd. Challenge yourself to try and determine the patterns of movement of an animal as you encounter fresh animal tracks in the snow and keep your eyes out for fox, lynx, wood bison and moose as you explore the park.
Enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with being in Wood Buffalo National Park when there is snow on the ground. With a pair of snowshoes, you can explore untouched trails throughout the park. For example, a 9 km (5.6 mile) loop will take you by Grosbeak Lake or you can leave Highway 5 and take the 11 km (6.8 mile) road to the Salt Plains on foot. Anticipate needing a break? Snowshoe around the Salt River Day Use Area cabin and stop for some relaxation time; bring along an axe, matches and firestarter (firewood is provided) to make the cabin nice and cozy.