Prince Albert National Park has almost 4000 square kilometres that it calls its own, and that means it’s very much a transitional landscape where you can see pockets of grasslands, aspen parkland, and boreal forest – as well as more water coverage than any other national park. Robin and Arlene Karpan walk us through how to get the most of a visit to this unforgettable Canadian national park.
Prince Albert National Park is one of the largest and most popular parks in Saskatchewan. Situated almost smack in the middle of the province, it’s less than an hour away from the city of Prince Albert and about 2.5 hours from Saskatoon.
The park preserves an accessible wilderness where you enjoy everything from lounging on the beach to wildlife viewing and exploring amazing ecological diversity on scenic drives, hikes, and canoe trips. We can even visit the home of a Canadian legend.
A Bit More About Prince Albert National Park
Covering around a million acres (making it even larger than Grasslands National Park), the park preserves a transition zone with aspen parklands and patches of fescue grasslands in the south and boreal forest in the north.
What really makes this park special are its many lakes, wetlands, and rivers – with more area covered in water than any other national park in Canada.
Many park activities are centred on Waskesiu Lake (derived from the Cree word for red deer or elk), with well over 100 kilometres of shoreline. Watersports are big including swimming, fishing, canoeing, waterskiing, paddle boarding, and even kite-surfing. The centrepiece of the park’s townsite is the immensely popular sandy beach, with other smaller beaches scattered around the lake, and on other lakes as well.
What Should You Have on Your Radar at Prince Albert NP?
Waskesiu townsite is home to almost all of the services in the park such as accommodation, shops, restaurants, and park visitor centre.
The largest campground, Beaver Glen, is on the outskirts of town, along with Red Deer Campground intended for RVs. Of the three other road-accessible campgrounds, our favourite is the small, more secluded one at Namekus Lake.
If you’re tenting, snag one of the prime walk-in sites situated right on the lake’s sandy beach. Several backcountry campsites are available along canoe routes and some longer hiking trails.
Hiking at Prince Albert NP
We come to Prince Albert National Park primarily for the hiking since there’s trails to suit everyone from short lakeside strolls to challenging overnight backcountry treks.
Because the diverse landscapes range from lakeshore to river valleys, wildlife-rich wetlands, forest, and scenic viewpoints, we can take in something different each day. On every visit, we always walk the delightful Boundary Bog Trail, where boardwalks wind through a fascinating wet environment of bog, tamarack forest, and insect-eating pitcher plants.
Have just an hour to spare? Mud Creek Trail, despite its less than enticing name, packs a lot into just two kilometres – Waskesiu Lake shoreline, forest, and a pretty creek valley.
For a bit longer hike, it’s hard to beat the Spruce River Highlands Trail, an 8.5-kilometre loop through the forests and along hills overlooking the Spruce River Valley. This is our go-to hike during fall colour season when the golden leaves of deciduous trees brighten the landscape.
Some longer trails in southern areas are popular with cyclists and can be part of a multi-day excursion.
Looking for critters is another popular pastime. Prince Albert National Park is in a class by itself when it comes to seeing wildlife, everything from black bears, moose, elk, wolves and plenty of foxes and more. The park has one of the few populations of free-ranging plains bison in its historic range in Canada. While they are free to wander throughout the park, this herd tends to hang out near the Sturgeon River on the less-visited west side of the park.
The Valleyview Trail network through aspen forest, sedge meadows and fescue grasslands takes us through prime bison country.
The different habitats attract birds from bald eagles to loons, several ducks, mergansers, and large, showy pileated woodpeckers, to mention only a few. Canada jays are so prevalent and gregarious that you have to keep a close eye on your picnic lunch.
Lavallee Lake in the remote northern reaches of the park has the largest and only totally protected pelican colony in Canada. While Lavallee Lake is closed to public access, the great white birds wander widely so it’s not unusual to see them on almost any lake.
The Legend of Grey Owl
The top backcountry excursion in Prince Albert National Park is to Grey Owl’s Cabin, where this larger-than-life though controversial character lived, wrote his bestselling books, and was finally buried.
After years of trapping, Grey Owl turned to conservation, encouraged in large part by his wife Anahereo. The park built a cabin for him on Ajawaan Lake, and in 1931 he became the first Naturalist in the Dominion Park Service (later becoming Parks Canada). It was here that he wrote wildly popular books such as Pilgrims of the Wild and Tales of an Empty Cabin. He became an international celebrity, went on book tours to England, and lectured royalty on nature conservation.
When Grey Owl died in 1938, news of his real identity came as a shock. He didn’t have the Indigenous background that he had claimed but was an Englishman named Archie Belaney who became so enamoured with the Canadian wilderness that he invented an identity to go with it. At first the park was disappointed, but as time passed, his messages of respect for nature, such as “Remember, you belong to nature, not it to you,” became more important than his facade. Nearly a century later, his restored cabin still remains a key drawing card.
Visiting Grey Owl’s Cabin
You can hike to Grey Owl’s Cabin which is 20 kilometres one-way. Or take a canoe trip – our preferred method because we combine it with a paddle along the Bagwa Route, three picture-perfect small lakes off the southwest side of Kingsmere Lake.
The trip starts with a paddle on the short Kingsmere River where we bypass the rapids by loading our canoe on a cart and pushing it along the kilometre-long rail portage. Then comes the Kingsmere Lake crossing, followed by another short portage into tiny Ajaawan Lake.
The cabin was built right on the water’s edge so that Grey Owl’s pet beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Roll, could come and go as they pleased. Another cabin up the hill was used by Anahereo, and a small cemetery marks the graves of Grey Owl, Anahereo, and their daughter Shirley Dawn.
When Should You Visit Prince Albert National Park?
Summer is definitely the height of tourist season in Prince Albert National Park, while crowds drop off considerably at other times of year. We particularly enjoy the fall when the mix of forest types add to the diversity of colour. Fall also coincides with the elk rut when bugling males strut their stuff and make a big fuss as they gather their harems. Elk frequent the townsite, and are often seen near the golf course and along park roadways.
Cross-country ski trails and snowshoeing have long been the main draws in winter, with winter camping becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Two picnic sites on Waskesiu Lake are designated for winter camping and equipped with enclosed warm-up and cooking shelters complete with firewood. What could be better than finding a perfect lakeside campsite with a view at a bargain price, and not a mosquito in sight?
Prince Albert is a year-round destination, which means whenever you come here, there will be plenty here awaiting you and, generally speaking, it’s always a great time to visit.
Robin and Arlene Karpan are award-winning writers, photographers, bloggers, and authors of several travel books, including Canadian Bestsellers. Their work has appeared in over 100 publications around the world. While their travels have taken them to all seven continents, they find that some of the most compelling destinations are close to home in Canada. They have a special interest in the natural world and outdoor photography. Robin and Arlene publish the travel blog Photo Journeys which looks at travel through a photographer’s lens, and is rated by Feedspot as among the Top 100 Travel Photography Sites.