Wood Buffalo National Park holds the title of the largest national park in Canada, covering nearly 45,000 square kilometres. It’s actually the second largest national park on the planet. We Explore Canada contributor Carol Patterson walks you through how to make the most of your visit to this remarkable park.
Is a visit to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park, on your bucket list?
About 5,000 people each year make the trek (about what Banff National Park sees in half a day) so you won’t run into crowds but getting there takes effort. Fort Chipewyan near the park’s south-east edge is a fly-in community with an ice road each winter. For summer visitors, many chose to drive Highway 5 into the northern section of the park.
Why Visit Wood Buffalo National Park?
Wood Buffalo National Park, located in the northeastern part of Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, was created in 1922 to protect bison herds but turned out to be important for so much more. When it received World Heritage status in 1983 it wasn’t just because it holds North America’s largest wild wood bison population, but also because it’s the last natural nesting area for whooping cranes, it holds the freshwater Peace-Athabasca Delta (one of the world’s largest), karst landforms, salt plains, and large swathes of undisturbed boreal forests.
Unfortunately, it’s a park struggling to stay off the list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Industrial development, agricultural practices, water diversions, and climate change threaten the delicate park ecosystems. Fortunately, governments are funding an action plan and conservation groups are talking about the park to make sure it isn’t forgotten.
10 Travel Tips to Help Guide Your Visit to This National Park
In September 2022 I drove 2,800 kilometers round-trip from Calgary to Wood Buffalo National Park, a time when biting bugs are dying, campgrounds are still open, and northern lights come out relatively early.
If you’re interested in making your own trip to the park, my top travel tips are:
Pick Your Season
Wood Buffalo National Park straddles the 60th parallel and the border between the Northwest Territories and Alberta. Hours of daylight and temperatures vary widely by season as shown on Park Canada’s summary. Insect populations are legendary in summer so if you can delay your visit to early fall, you’ll have fewer bug bites.
For keen birdwatchers, spring is best. Fall and winter offer long dark nights for northern light viewing.
Be Intentional About Your Mode of Transport
Will you fly and rent a car or a RV? Most people fly to Edmonton or Yellowknife and rent a car or RV for the drive to the park (12 or 6.5 hours respectively).
You can fly to Fort Smith, population 2,600, on the edge of the park but there are no rental cars and no tour agencies making park exploration difficult. Fort Smith is also home to the park headquarters and most visitor amenities.
Reserve Your Accommodation Ahead of Time
There are cabin rentals and a good front-country campground at Pine Lake (open May long weekend until September 30), but there’s no power for charging batteries and water is not potable.
Queen Elizabeth Territorial Park, on the outskirts of Fort Smith, has 24 power sites and is open mid-May to mid-September. It’s popular so reserve ahead. If you’re planning on staying in fixed roof accommodation, again, plan ahead. Fort Smith has two hotels and a guest house at the time of writing, and you will need to contact them directly to book.
Plan Out Your Meals
There’s a Northern store for groceries but restaurant choices, like accommodations, are limited. Berro’s Pizzeria boasts the best pizza in the north. I’d say it might also be the best pizza in the south, east and west but they’re not open every day. Ditto for Anna’s Restaurant.
There is a Tim Hortons at the gas station if you’re craving fast food.
Get a Campground or Fishing Permit
Even though there’s no attendants at park entrances, you’re required to buy a permit if camping or fishing in the park.
Even if you need neither, allow time to browse the Wood Buffalo Park Visitor Reception Center in Fort Smith to learn about the park’s creation, threats, and its outlook.
Do the Hike to Grosbeak Lake
If you do only one hike in the park do this one. It’s short – a 4.0-kilometer loop – with no major elevation gain. Hundreds of boulders sculpted by natural erosion dot the shores around the lake.
Stay Up Late
Wood National Park is the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve and hosts an annual festival for stargazers at Pine Lake. You can find a wooden bench specially designed for laying back and gazing upwards.
Fort Smith boasts 85 – 95% aurora activity, meaning you can see aurora borealis on almost any clear night but remember, in summer, nights are short.
Early fall can be a better time to visit if you’re looking for northern lights.
Check Out the Salt Plains
If you park at the Salt Plains Viewpoint you can take a short (350 meters one way) and steep hike down to the salt plains but it’s worth the effort. The white salt is what’s left of an ancient sea and is damp in places so you can search for animal tracks. Scan the sky for large white birds.
Endangered whooping cranes nest in the park and are wary of people but it’s possible to spot them. I did manage to watch a pair picking their way across a marsh but it took several hours of looking and I needed binoculars.
Visit a Sinkhole
They’re part of the karst landscape and one of the reasons the park was created. They change a lot – the Karstland Trail is permanently closed because a sinkhole collapsed recently. A large sinkhole on Highway 5 even has a name – Angus.
You can visit Angus on your way in or out of the park and the pull off is a good place look for some of the 214 bird species that live in or pass through the park.
Hang Out in a Bison Jam
If you come across bison on the road, you need to stop but who wouldn’t enjoy a bison-caused traffic jam? The park is home to approximately 3,500 bison so there’s a very good chance you’ll see them along the road.
They might be close enough you feel like you can reach out and touch them. But don’t. Stay in your vehicle and give them space. If the bison jam is lasting too long SLOWLY move your car forward and they will get the hint, moving out of the way so you can get by. Don’t honk or shout.
Enjoy Your Trip to Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park, despite its size and stature, isn’t as firmly on the radar of travellers as it could (and should) be. Part of that is that it’s not the easiest to navigate and explore, but with these tips, I hope your trip goes smoothly, and is filled with memories to last a lifetime.
Carol Patterson is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and an award-winning journalist seeking out North America’s best wildlife viewing experiences. You’ll often find her and her camera following the seasons and the birds that come with them. She’s been a pilot, an accountant, a university professor, and an avian tourism consultant, but says her best gig is writing stories for curious travelers.