Photograph by Klaus Nigge, National Geographic
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A remote corner of Wood Buffalo serves as the nesting ground for the endangered whooping crane.
Photograph by Klaus Nigge, National Geographic

Wood Buffalo National Park

Location: Alberta and Northwest Territories
Date Established: 1922
Size: 11,070,000 acres

Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest national park. Covering more territory than Switzerland, it sprawls across northeastern Alberta and juts into the southern part of the Northwest Territories. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is home to one of the last remaining free-roaming wood bison herds in the world, the nesting habitat for endangered whooping cranes, and the world’s largest beaver dam.

Park Facts

Flyway Central The southern portion of the park features the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world. All four North American flyways converge over the delta each spring and fall. The last remaining flock of migratory whooping cranes nests in a remote corner of the boreal forest every summer.

Protected Area In 1982, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognized Wood Buffalo for protecting the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the whooping crane nesting area. The two areas were designated as Ramsar sites under the Ramsar Convention, which focuses on identifying and protecting critical habitat for migratory birds.

Landscape The park’s varied landscape includes boreal forest, salt plains, and gypsum karst landforms. The boreal plains near the Northwest Territories town of Fort Smith are the most accessible and popular area of the park. Day hikes take visitors through boreal forests of spruce, jackpine, aspen, and poplar to see salt flats, underground streams, sinkholes, and saline streams.

Hard-to-Find Wildlife Wood Buffalo is home to such elusive species as black bears, wolves, moose, foxes, beavers, and sandhill cranes. But seeing these shy creatures is completely left to chance.

River Country The Slave, Peace, and Athabasca Rivers flow through the park. Opportunities for backcountry hiking and camping include a trip down the Peace River followed by a 7.5- mile hike into Sweetgrass Station, which features a restored warehouse and former bison corrals.

How to Get There

The park has two main gateway communities, Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. To reach Fort Smith, home to the park’s headquarters, take Mackenzie Hwy. from northern Alberta. Connect to Hwy. 5, an all-weather road of partly hardpacked gravel that starts near Hay River, Northwest Territories. Watch for black bears and bison that sometimes lumber across the highway.

The park office in Fort Chipewyan is only accessible by air or water, except for a few months every winter when an ice road links it to Fort Smith and Fort McMurray. Northwestern Air Lease offers commercial flights from Edmonton, Alberta. Flight-seeing tours into the park can also be arranged.

When to Go

The best time to visit the park is between the Victoria Day weekend and Labour Day, when the Pine Lake Campground is open. Summer temperatures range from 68°F–86°F. Community events include the Pine Lake Picnic in mid-July and the Paddlefest Flotilla in early August. Contact the visitor center for regularly scheduled programs and activities.

The park is open in winter. January and February are the best months for viewing the aurora borealis, due to the long nights. Temperatures hover between minus 13°F and minus 22°F. The winter road from Fort McMurray, up to Fort Chipewyan and through the park to Fort Smith, is an experience in itself. Driving the winter road requires proper preparation. Contact the park for road conditions and details.

How to Visit

A car provides the best means to see the park. A few pull-offs just past Hay River as well as the Salt Plains Lookout give visitors a chance to start experiencing the park before reaching the visitors center in Fort Smith. Be sure to spend some time exploring Fort Smith. It was on the fur-trade route during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the administrative center of the Northwest Territories until 1967. The town is a mix of mostly Chipewyan, Métis, and nonaboriginal people. Spend another day in the Salt River Day Use Area hiking, then head to Pine Lake to camp.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada