A surge of traffic — both human and vehicular — has Parks Canada taking the unusual step of urging people to stop visiting Elk Island Park on weekends.
Prized for its resident bison herds, the national park 40 kilometres east of Edmonton has struggled with capacity issues since last summer.
With the arrival of warm spring weather, the high number of vehicles in the park is causing a public safety concern, parks spokesperson Regan Coyne said Thursday in a pre-long weekend statement.
"We're seeing lots of unsafe parking that gets in the way of visitors enjoying the park as well as wildlife," she said.
"It started happening last summer and we anticipate that it will continue to happen this summer. Last summer, we had 214,000 visitors enter Elk Island, which is significantly more than we've seen in the past."
Avoid rush hour
Last weekend, about 450 vehicles were turned away, Coyne said. Elk Island has capacity for 600 vehicles at a time.
The park gates will remain open every day but people who try to visit during the weekends risk disappointment, she said. The best bet, she said, is to arrive before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
The park is also urging visitors to follow the current COVID-19 guidelines on social distancing and social gatherings.
Elk Island issued a similar advisory in August 2020. The park took the unusual step of urging to delay their visits until the fall.
At the time, park officials said a summertime surge in visitors, triggered by pandemic travel restrictions, had created operational problems beyond the parking lot.
There were concerns about the strain on park facilities, crowding on the trails and in the campgrounds, litter and a surge in emergency rescue calls.
Elk Island is among many Alberta parks and recreation spots experiencing an unprecedented surge in visitors as Albertans, hemmed in by the pandemic, plan adventures closer to home.
Jasper crowd control
In western Alberta, Jasper Park is preparing its own crowd-control plans for the May long weekend.
Parks spokesperson Steve Young is expecting a rush of campers and day-trippers, especially if the weather in the Rockies turns warm.
Young said camping within the park is booked solid and he expects some visitors will be staking out the few remaining spots.
He said park officials will be monitoring for congestion and issuing advisories or closing roads as needed. He said visitors should try to avoid peak times and have a backup plan in case parts of the park hit capacity.
Ditch your car, bring a bike
Visitors to Jasper Park are also being encouraged to ditch their vehicles and use their bikes whenever possible to cut down on potential parking problems.
"We realize not everybody can load up a van with three or four families right now ... so parking is at a premium," he said.
"It's just that's the way it's worked out because of COVID-19 so we've asked people to bring their own bike. We appeal directly to campers."
Young urged common sense and kindness this long weekend. He said visitors need to keep COVID protocols in mind, even when out in the wilderness.
He said it's especially important that people are safe while exploring the mountains, as emergency rescue calls could put unwanted pressure on the local hospital.
"There is some enthusiasm to get out into nature and certainly we encourage that because that's one of the reasons national parks exist. We just want you to do it safely."