Photograph by Mike Grandmaison, All Canada Photos
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Spruce Creek winds through Prince Albert National Park, ablaze with fall color.
Photograph by Mike Grandmaison, All Canada Photos

Prince Albert National Park

Here in Saskatchewan's heart lies a million-acre park, where vast prairies meet parkland and boreal forest, and free-roaming plains bison mingle among a diverse collection of wildlife, including timber wolves and 195 species of birds. No wonder this is the most popular of Canada's 54 national parks. Outdoor lovers flock here in summer to sample its ample lakes and hike backcountry trails, but off-season visitors have the place to themselves to see the aspens turn color in fall, horseback ride, or cross-country ski. A year-round, full-service resort town within the park's borders, Waskesiu, provides creature comforts.

When to Go: As with most parks in Canada, Prince Albert is busiest in the summer months of June to August. Catch the forest's fall colors in September, when the crowds thin and the weather is still mild. "One of my favorite spots is the 5.2-mile Spruce River Highlands Trail," says park interpreter Bradley Muir. "It's one of the only places where you can get above the trees to see the crowns of the hills and surrounding panoramas, which play best in the fall. Golden aspen leaves on the crowns, orange and gold tamaracks in the lowlands—it really reflects one of the core messages of the park, which is the transition from south to north." The park welcomes cross-country skiers, lake skaters, backcountry snowshoeing, and ice fishermen in winter, although accommodation and amenities are limited.

How to Get Around: Prince Albert contains extensive hiking trails for all levels, although you might prefer a guided horseback and wagon ride with an operator such as Sturgeon River Ranch. Horses allow you to cover more ground, and the Sturgeon River guides are experts at tracking the elusive bison, which typically graze in remote meadows buffered by thick woods. Traveling single-file on horseback is the best way to navigate through the brambles, mud, and other obstacles, and venturing into the backcountry increases the likelihood of seeing moose, mule deer, and black bears.

Where to Stay: Camp at vehicle-accessible campgrounds, open mid-May to early October, or try your hand at "random backcountry camping"—essentially anywhere that is more than 0.6 miles (a kilometer) from a public highway, designated lake, or campground. Prefer creatureless comforts? Check into Elk Ridge Resort, Hawood Inn, or Lakeview Resort, all located in the resort community of Waskesiu. Those entering the park from the west will find accommodation and amenities in the town of Big River. For something different, rent a yurt at nearby Nesslin Lake. "You can see the stars almost every night," says Gord Vaaderland, a local rancher.

What to Eat or Drink: Big River's Third and Main is popular with locals. A fine-dining option is the upscale lodge-style Copper Ridge inside Waskesiu's Elk Ridge Resort, with choices like Elk Ridge Cut of the Week, bison rib eye, and pan-roasted Queen Charlotte halibut.

What to Watch Before You Go: The movie Grey Owl (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan, tells the real-life story of writer-conservationist Grey Owl, who pretended to be First Nations but was actually English. Beyond the history, watch mostly for the scenery: Some of the movie was filmed in Prince Albert National Park, where Grey Owl lived in the 1930s.

What to Buy: The Northern Exposure Trading Company in Big River has an eclectic stock of "Made in Saskatchewan" products, including leathers, furs, and natural cosmetics.

What to Read Before You Go: Portraits of the Bison: An Illustrated Guide to Bison Society (University of Alberta Press, 2005), a detailed look at the history, social structure, and life cycle of the bison by Canadian national park warden and bison rancher Wes Olson and his photographer wife, Johane Janelle.

Fun Fact: The bison roaming the southwestern corner of Prince Albert National Park are descended from 50 individuals released in 1969 in the province's Montreal Lake region as a food source for First Nations. That herd split up, and while many animals were recaptured and relocated, at least ten settled in the park, forming the nucleus of what is now one of the world's few remaining free-ranging bison herds.

Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.