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Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest national park in Canada, is home to the largest population of wild bison in North America. The park was founded in 1922 to protect the country’s last remaining herds. Today, the park showcases the beauty of Canada’s Northern Boreal Plains.  

Where is Wood Buffalo National Park located?


Wood Buffalo National Park is situated in northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, Canada, between Lake Athabasca and Great Slave Lake. 

How to get to Wood Buffalo National Park

Alberta gravel road in Canada

There are two main gateways into a park: Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. If you want to reach Fort Smith, where park’s headquarters are, take the Mackenzie Highway from northern Alberta. Then connect to Highway 5, a partly hardpacked gravel road that starts near the Hay River. Watch out for wild animals such bear or bison, that sometimes wander across the highway.  

Fort Chipewyan is accessible by air or water only. Northwestern Air offers commercial flights from Edmonton, Alberta

General information about Wood Buffalo National Park

  • Size – 44,807 sq km (17,300 sq mi) 

  • Location - Northwest Territories, Canada 

  • Established – 1922 

  • Best time to visit – May-Sep 

  • Number of visitors – 3,941 (2019/20) 

  • Activities – Hiking, Canoeing, Wildlife Watching, Fishing, Skiing, Snowshoeing 

What is Wood Buffalo National Park known for?

Highlights of Wood Buffalo National Park


Wood Buffalo National Park was established in 1922 to protect a few remaining herds of free-ranging buffalo. It covers an area of 17 300 sq. mi. (44,807 sq. km.), which makes it the largest national park in Canada and one of the largest in the world.  

It is a vast region of northern-central plains and forests. Besides the magnificent wood buffalo, here you can find bears, moose, deer, caribou, and beavers. It’s the world’s only remaining nesting place for the whooping crane, a species of large bird that’s dangerously close to extinction.   

Due to its unique animal populations and natural environment, in 1983 Wood Buffalo National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

History of Wood Buffalo National Park

Archeological findings indicate that Indigenous people have lived in the region of what is currently Wood Buffalo National Park for over 8000 years. The first fur traders came into territory in the early 1700s. The community around the park mostly consists of Cree, Chipewyan, Metis, and non-indigenous people.  

Interesting facts about Wood Buffalo National Park

  • It is home to the largest free-roaming bison herd in the world. 

  • Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest and one of the world’s largest national parks. It’s even bigger in territory than the country of Switzerland! 

  • Bison, weighing more than 900 kilograms, is North America’s largest terrestrial animal. 

  • Wood Buffalo National Park holds the largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world. 

What to do in Wood Buffalo National Park

Man in the fields watching sunset in Canada

When it comes to outdoor adventure, Canada’s largest national park has plenty to offer. Hiking, camping, boating, or incredible wildlife viewing are all popular activities. 

Hiking in Wood Buffalo National Park

As the largest national park in the Canada, Wood Buffalo has a lot to offer when it comes to hiking trails. There is a huge variety of hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to challenging adventures. Most of the park is undeveloped, which offers an excellent opportunity for backcountry exploring.  

Easy trails: 

  • Karstland – a 780-meter loop through karst and forest. 

  • Salt River Meadows – a 2.2 km loop that passes beside streams and through forest and meadow areas. Suitable for biking.
     
  • Lakeside – a 3.1 km one-way trail that takes in lakeshore and forest. The trail is suitable for biking. 

Moderate trails: 

  • Salt Plains Access – a 350 m one-way path through salt flats and forest. 

  • Rainbow Lakes – a 6 km path through forest, accessible from Pine Lake Road. 

  • Lane Lake – a forested 6.5 km trail. 

  • Salt Pan Lake – a 7 km trail through karst and forest. 

  • Benchmark Creek – a 8.5-km trail through forests, meadows, and salt flats. 

Difficult trails: 

  • Sweetgrass – it is a remote 14-km backcountry trail through forest and sedge meadows. It requires some wilderness experience or hiring a licensed park guide.  

Canoeing in Wood Buffalo National Park

Happy couple canoeing in Canada

Whatever your paddling style, Wood Buffalo has something for you. Pine Lake is great for an easy paddle, while the Peace, Athabasca, and Slave rivers provide a challenge for experienced wilderness paddlers. The Buffalo, Little Buffalo, and Salt rivers are best enjoyed during spring run-off. 

Wildlife Viewing in Wood Buffalo National Park

Buffalos in Canada

Wood Buffalo National Park is home to many wildlife species found only in the northern boreal forest. Wolves, bears, wolverine, lynx, moose, fox, and beaver are just a few of the species that can be encountered here.  

Wood Buffalo National Park is best known for its population of free-roaming wild bison. The Park was created to protect this species, and today it has the largest bison herd in the world.  

There’s no guarantee that you’ll see these wild animals, but there are some places where it’s more likely. These are the key spots for wildlife watching: 

  • Salt Plains Viewpoint 

  • Grosbeak Lake 

  • Sweetgrass 

Fishing in Wood Buffalo National Park

Man fishing in the river of Canada

The best places for fishing within the park are its major rivers: Slave River, Peace River, Athabasca River, Rivière des Rochers, and Chenal des Quatre Fourches, which are all home to  whitefish, walleye, northern pike, and goldeye. The muddy and silty water can make it more difficult to fish. 

You need a fishing permit is required to fish in the park. You can purchase a permit at the Visitor Reception Centres in Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. 

Boating in Wood Buffalo National Park

Boats in the river of Canada

Recreational boating is allowed in the northern part of Pine Lake and along the major river corridors, which include Athabasca River, Slave River, Peace River, Embarras River, Rivière des Rochers, and Quatre Fourches River. When paddling through rivers, watch out for natural hazards such as high and low water, inclement weather, unmarked channels, and submerged rocks.  

Winter activities in Wood Buffalo National Park

While summer provides plenty of amazing opportunities to enjoy the park, nothing beats watching the incredible aurora borealis displays in winter. The best time to visit Wood Buffalo National Park is from late winter to early spring, when the days are a bit longer and the temperature is warmer.  

Watch the Aurora Borealis

Northern lights above snowy forest of Canada

Grab your camera and head to Pine Lake or Salt River Day Use Area – the best spots to watch aurora borealis. Winter roads through the park offer great viewing opportunities as you travel. The Peace River crossing, open delta grasslands, and the ice crossing into Fort Chipewyan provide the best views. 

Wildlife viewing

Winter is the perfect time for wildlife viewing, and there are plenty of wild animals roaming about the park during this time. If you’re lucky, you might see lynx, wolves, bison, snowshoe hares, ptarmigans, and owls.  

The Winter Road

The winter road is 228-kilometer road between Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan. On the way, you will encounter several ice bridge crossings and, possibly, hazardous weather conditions. You must observe road safety precautions.  

Snowshoeing

Happy children making a snow angel in Canada

Snowshoeing is among the best ways to explore untouched trails. Take the Grosbeak Route to admire Grosbeak Lake’s charm or undertake an 11-kilometer trek to the magnificent Salt Plains. Watch out for any animal tracks in the snow while you’re on your way! 

Cross-country skiing

Grab your skis and embark on a real wilderness adventure. Skiing on trails that are neither groomed nor track-set allows you to truly revel in the raw beauty of nature – and sweat a lot! We recommend the trail to Pine Lake and returning via the scenic Kettle Point Road.  

Best time to visit Wood Buffalo National Park

Family forest camping in Canada

The best time to visit the park is from late May to early September, when all the campgrounds are open. Summer temperatures range from 68°F–86°F. Most events also happen during the summer, including the Pine Lake Picnic in mid-July and Paddlefest Flotilla in early August.  

Wood Buffalo National Park is also open in winter. January and February are best times to see aurora borealis. Temperatures during the winter can range from -13°F to -22°F.   

Where to stay in Wood Buffalo National Park

There are few accommodation options available within the park. The most popular are front-country camping, backcountry camping, and cabin rentals.  

Front country camping

Campervan Canadian forest

Front-country camping is available at Pine Lake Campground, which is a 45-minute drive from Fort Smith.  

Kettle Point Group Camp is also recommended. It includes a cozy log shelter, beach, tenting area, fire circle, picnic tables, and a playground. 

Backcountry camping 

Backcountry camping is permitted throughout the park, although permits are required for overnight stays. Backcountry campsites are located at Rainbow Lakes and Sweetgrass Station, with Sweetgrass being the prime backcountry destination.  

Pine Lake Cabin Rentals 

Historic log cabins are another popular accommodation type in Wood Buffalo National Park and open year-round! The cabins, overlooking the shores of Pine Lake, provide a rustic, woodsy experience. The cabins are a perfect base for those engaging in outdoor activities, such as swimming, biking, hiking, paddling, or stargazing. 

Attractions near Wood Buffalo National Park

  • Lake Athabasca