It’s called a highway but you’re more likely to see a bison quintet than crowds of cars. It is, after all, the paved road that threads its way through Wood Buffalo National Park. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself humming Oh give me a home/where the buffalo roam as you wait for the bison jam in front of your vehicle to disperse. This park is meant to be experienced at your own pace, in your own space.
Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest national park and the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. From late August until October, the park sometimes has a hard time demonstrating that it’s an island of darkness whenever the aurora borealis light up the sky. It does prove, though, that you don’t have to freeze your buns to see the northern lights.
In fact, they often pop in for a visit during the annual Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival at the end of August. Camp out at the Pine Lake dark sky observation site and play find-the-constellations under the stars at this family-friendly event for novice stargazers and seasoned astronomers. No need for binoculars to see the guest speakers. They’re standing around the campfire swapping stories with you.
Get ready for your Mission to Mars – no spaceship required. Hike through the boreal forest, which opens up for the big reveal: Grosbeak Lake. Take off your shoes and squish your toes in the red mud in this out-of-this world landscape. Pick your way around funky, porous orange rocks that have been eroded over time. Keep an eye out for animal tracks. Is it a bird? A bear? A bison? Perhaps all three. Enjoy your solo mission – or join a Parks Canada guided hike.
What’s that white stuff? Don’t worry, no winter jacket needed. You’re looking at mounds of salt that an ancient sea left behind on the Salt Plains as it receded. Hike down a brand new trail to the salt flats. Take off your shoes and walk across the cracked soil that looks like Mother Nature laid down some tiles. Scan the horizon and admire the salt-tolerant red samphire poking up amid the vegetation. See if you can spot bison tracks. North America’s largest land mammal uses this place as one big salt lick. You can, too, when you taste the salt from a saline spring.
You’re forgiven if the turquoise colour of Pine Lake reminds you of the Caribbean. Feel your feet sink into Pine Lake’s soft, white sand beaches.
Go for a swim in a body of water that was created when several sinkholes joined together. Then return to your cozy rental cabin where park wardens once stopped on patrol. If you happen to be here in mid-July, join the community of Fort Smith at the Pine Lake Picnic, the North’s largest picnic.