While we are visiting Canada’s Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park is another one of our beautiful and remote national parks in Canada. Sharing a border with Alberta, this national park was established in 1922. It was designed to protect one of the last surviving herds of Bison so you are safe to assume that this is the top draw. However, there are plenty of things to do here from hiking and paddling to enjoying stargazing and searching for the Northern lights.
It is the largest national park in Canada and it is also a national historic site.
Canadian Taiga (1.04.03)
Dates and History of Establishment
1922: Designated a National Park (2,600,000ha) under the Forest Reserves and Parks Act;
1926: Extended to its present area, which covers all but 230,000ha of the Crane summer range;
1964: The National Parks arm of the Department of Internal Affairs assumed authority over the Park.
Government of Canada. Administered by Parks Canada.
217 to 945m
Physical Features of Wood Buffalo National Park
The Park stretches across a vast undisturbed wilderness of the Northern Boreal Plains, crossed by the Peace River which joins the Athabaska River in a huge conjoint delta to form the Slave River which flows north along the eastern boundary towards the Great Slave Lake. The Park has five main topographic areas: the forested glacially eroded Alberta Plateau; the low Birch and Caribou Uplands in the south and west respectively; glaciated plains of gypsum karst in the northeast; the delta in the southeast; and alluvial river lowlands along the eastern border.
The Buffalo and Lake Robertson Plains are characterized by flat poorly drained topography between 210-300 metres above sea level, underlain by impervious shale and discontinuous permafrost, resulting in a mosaic of wide areas of muskeg bog, shallow lakes, meandering streams and boreal forest. The limestone uplands of the Birch and Caribou plateaus have been eroded by rivers into long incised gorges which reveal dense fossils and cross‑sections through the bedrock, and end in wide alluvial fans.
The great delta on Lake Athabasca and Lake Claire forms the largest inland freshwater delta in the world, from three rivers, the Athabaska (1,970 sq.km), the Peace (1,684 sq.km) and the Birch (168 sq.km). The delta, with the lowlands and floodplains of the Peace, Athabasca and Slave Rivers exemplify classic fluvial landforms, with a complex series of meander scars, oxbow lakes, former river terraces, and well-formed birdsfoot deltas. Downstream the Slave River lowland is a well‑drained plain lying on porous bedrock with an extensive karst topography. The uniform relief, porosity and solubility of the bedrock result in a drainage primarily vertical and percolating rather than flowing across the surface. This has created karst landforms in areas of gypsum bedrock which include sinkholes, sunken valleys, caves, submerged rivers, classic small anticlines and a complex recharge-discharge hydrology of swallow holes and cold springs, some being saline. Salt mounds build up round saltwater sprigs and during dry periods, the mudflats of one plain in the northeast are dominated by mineral evaporites, forming a 250 sq.km area of salt plains unique in Canada.
Geologically the plain is underlain by a thin sequence of Middle and Upper Devonian sedimentary rocks with glacial deposits of varying thickness covering much of the area. The plateaus are of Lower and Upper Cretaceous age in which gypsum and anhydrite are abundant and minor amounts of salt, potash, dolomite and limestone occur. The eastern boundary of the Park is almost coincident with the Precambrian Canadian Shield – Palaeozoic contact along the Athabasca and Slave Rivers.
Wood Buffalo National Park Climate
The climate is boreal continental with long cold winters and short warm summers. Temperatures range from daily means of ‑25°C in January (when the temperature can fall below -40°C) to 16°C in July. The annual precipitation is about 310mm, annual evaporation is 410mm though snowfalls decreased between 1994 and 2004, drying the delta habitat of much wildlife and diminishing the spring floods. This moisture deficit, coupled with an average 40 thunderstorms per season, puts the Park into an extreme forest‑fire weather zone. The brief frost‑free period extends from early June to early September but much of the area is permanently underlain by discontinuous permafrost. The length of daylight between December and January is 7 hours but the midsummer days are over 20 hours long. The Aurora borealis is often visible.
Wood Buffalo National Park Vegetation
Most of the Park is a flat mosaic of boreal forest and taiga plain of muskeg, meandering streams, shallow lakes and bogs. Vegetation is typical of the boreal forest with white spruce Picea glauca, black spruce P. mariana, jack pine Pinus banksiana and tamarack Larix laricana predominant. Many watercourses have stands of balsam poplar Populus balsamifera and some uplands have nearly pure stands of aspen P. tremuloides. Extensive forest stands of white spruce cover the banks of the Peace, Athabasca and Birch Rivers. Lodgepole pine Pinus contorta var. latifolia occurs along the slopes of the Cretaceous plateau on the western edge of the Park and on its upper levels it supports a spruce‑willow‑birch upland tundra community. Some areas of prairie occur, the dominant grass species being Calamagrostis canadensis, Deschampsia caespitosa, Poa spp. with sedges, Carex spp. The biologically productive Peace‑Athabasca delta has marshes of cat‑tail Typha latifolia and sedges Carex rostrata, C. atheroides and C. aquatilis. Shrublands of willow Salix spp. and alder Alnus sp. occur where wet marsh soils meet drier forest soils. There is also extensive muskeg in the west and north, an association of black spruce, sphagnum moss and northern heath plants. Halophytic vegetation more characteristic of seashores is found round the salt flats, for instance red samphire Salicornia europaea. The Park contains some of the largest undisturbed grass and sedge meadows in North America. About 1% of the park burns each year, about average for boreal forests in this part of Canada.
Conservation Value of Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest game preserve in North America. It protects both its largest population of wild bison and the last nesting place for the internationally threatened whooping crane. It also contains the world’s largest inland delta, the biologically rich Peace-Athabasca delta. It also lies within a WWF global eco-region and contains most of two Ramsar wetland sites.
Cultural Heritage of Wood Buffalo National Park
A series of different hunter‑gatherer cultures have occupied the area continuously for more than 8,000 years and a few families still preserve this way of life in the longest existing tradition of native subsistence use in Canada. They preserve a holistic view of the world with man in a symbiotic relationship with nature. The Beaver and Slave tribes moved west in the 18th century and the Cree and Chipewyan gained ascendancy. In the late 18th century European explorers, hunters and fur traders sent out by the rival North West and Hudsons Bay Companies began to exploit and settle the region, integrating with the native people. The former company founded Fort Chipewyan in 1788 (the first settlement in Alberta), and the latter, Fort Smith in 1874.
Local Human Population of Wood Buffalo National Park
The local Cree and Chipewyan tribes are now organised into the Mikasew-Cree First Nation and exercise fishing, hunting and trapping rights in the Park. There are up to eleven native stakeholder groups with interests in the Park’s resources and six First Nation land selections have been set apart as reserves within the Park. Approximately 6,600 people live in the three communities of Fort Smith (population 2,185 in 2001) in the northeast, Fort Chipewyan (1,200) 228km south of it in the southeast, and Hay River, 30km north of the Park border. The aboriginal community of Garden Creek (350) is located on the Peace River 7km inside the southwest side of the Park (Park Canada, 2004). This area will be excised and made a reserve for the Little Red River Cree First Nation. In 1995 approximately 600 permits were issued for hunting and trapping and some trapping permit holders live in the Park during the winter (Parks Canada, pers. comm., 1995). The indigenous management practices, with a higher population and modern techniques may lead to some overharvesting but are inherently more sustainable than those of the incomers, ranchers and former Park staff who have heavily criticised them (Nepal, 2000).
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
6,200 people are said to have visited the Park in 1994. Between 1998 and 2003 visitation averaged around 1,200, and in 2003 the total number was 1,296. All visitors must check in and out at checkpoints. Supplies, services and accommodation are available in the towns of Hay River and Fort Smith. There are visitor centres at Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. The Pine Lake Road runs south into the interior of the Park, passing Salt River where there are four karstland interpretive hiking loops and two longer trails, and the Angus Tower day use area. Rainbow Lake trail and Pine Lake 60 km south of Fort Smith have 36 campsites with group camping at Kettle Point. Some 70 km beyond its terminus at Peace Point is Sweetwater Station on the northern edge of the delta. Canoe trail guides to nine river waterways, boating, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are available. Native guide also provide expert local knowledge. The main access is from the MacKenzie Highway and railhead at Hay River 280km northwest of Fort Smith. A winter ice track exists between Fort Smith, Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacMurray 200km south of the Park, but Fort Chipewyan is normally only accessible by air or water. The Park is open May to September but from June to August, clouds of mosquitoes make life uncomfortable (Parks Canada, 2006).
Towns & villages in Wood Buffalo National Park
There are no towns located within Wood Buffalo National Park
1 Fort Chipewyan (Alberta) – located on the shores of Lake Athabasca; accessible by air and seasonal ice roads
2 Fort Smith (Northwest Territories) – located just north of the Alberta/Northwest Territories border
Preparation to Wood Buffalo National Park
Bug spray, lots of blackflies and huge mosquitoes.
Bring any food and potable water you intend to consume in the park; there are freshwater streams, but stream water must be boiled before use.
Keep a full tank of fuel in your vehicle; fuel is available in Fort Smith village but you will often be travelling vast distances.
There is a road from Hay River through the park to Fort Smith, a three and a half hour journey. As of January 2019, the road into the park is now fully paved.
Northwestern Air has 5 flights a week to Fort Smith from Edmonton
The Slave River is navigable in summer from Fort Chip to Fort Smith, but obstructed further north by rapids. The Athabasca River continues further south through Fort McMurray. There is an ice road in winter but no all-season road. A portage at Fort Smith was part of the journey in the 1930s Yellowknife gold rush.
Fees and permits
Fishing permit daily $9.80
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.
Portions of the site are on or within hiking distance of roads. Access to more distant points is by small aircraft; once the outfitter drops you off, you’re on your own until the plane returns – usually days later. Until then, it’s just you and the bears enjoying nature together.
Activities in Wood Buffalo National Park
- Hike through the Salt Plains, explore the Peace-Athabasca Delta and view wildlife
- Paddle a canoe or a boat
- Swim in a sinkhole
- Go fishing
- Bike the Park
- Join a scheduled tour (weekly, mid-June to end-August, $13.70/person, register at the Visitor’s Centre at least 15 minutes before the 1PM departure time. Salt Plains Guided Tour on Tuesdays, Grosbeak Lake Guided Tour on Thursdays and Guided Canoe Tours at Pine Lake on Saturdays.
- Xplorers Program for kids (1PM every other Sunday, July-August, meet at Visitors’ Centre, no fees). Contact the park office for themes and location.
- Campfire programs
- View the aurora borealis on the bitterly cold, dark Arctic winter nights from the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve.
There are picnic grounds at these locations within the park:
- Angus Fire Tower and Day-use Area near the entrance to the park off Highway 5
- Salt Plains Viewpoint and Day-use Area. Access from Highway 5
- Salt River Day-use Area on Pine Lake Road.
- Rainbow Lakes Backcountry Campsite is a 6 km hike from Pine Lake Road.
- Kettle Point Group Camp, . Eight-person minimum group, reservations required. Lakeside beach facility with large, cosy log shelter, outhouses, tenting area, playground, picnic tables, fire circle and firewood. per group $39.20.
- Primitive campsites are available at Pine Lake for $15.70/night (2018).
Overnight backcountry camping (as of 2018) is $9.80/person per night:
- Rainbow Lakes Backcountry Campsite is beside a beautiful sinkhole lake, a 6 km hike from Pine Lake Road. Tent pad, picnic table, outhouse and bear cache.
- Pine Lake Campground and Day-use Area. Kettle Point Group Camp, 60 km south of Fort Smith on Pine Lake Road.
Any fees for park entry, tours or programs are additional to the campsite prices.