Elk Island National Park sees jump in visitors with free Parks Canada passes

WATCH ABOVE: Elk Island National Park has seen a 20 per cent increase in visitors so far this year compared to this time last year, thanks to more people taking advantage of free Parks Canada passes.

Plenty of Canadians have made their way to the mountains since receiving free national parks passes in the mail, but what about the park closer to home?

It turns out, plenty of people have been making their way through Elk Island National Park’s gates. The park is located just east of Edmonton.

READ MORE: Free 2017 Parks Canada pass only good for national parks, Ontario warns 

Compared to last year, the park has seen a 20 per cent increase in visitors from January to March.

Robyn O’Neill, the partnering, engagement and communications officer for the park, said the free Discovery Passes have been helpful in bringing more people to the area.

“We’re kind of considered one of the hidden gems,” she said.

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“We’re a lesser-known park, so it’s really good to get the exposure and this increase in visitation.”

READ MORE: Parks Canada hoping visitors will get a free 2017 pass, even though they don’t need one

However, the number of people visiting the parks has been increasing for a while.

Two years ago, Elk Island National Park saw more than 244,000 visitors come through its gates, according to O’Neill. Last year, that number jumped above 360,000 — a 47 per cent increase in visitation.

The free Discovery Passes Canadians received in celebration of the country’s 150th birthday have pushed even more people to visit the park.

“(Visitation rates) have been increasing over the years, but definitely with the Discovery Passes and free admission, it’s increased,” O’Neill said.

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While park officials are happy to have more people visiting the area, the high influx of those coming through has made it difficult to find camping sites at peak times.

“Our weekends are pretty much booked up here, (but) there are still sites available during the week,” visitor services team leader Kathryn Tathum said.

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READ MORE: ‘Free’ Parks Canada passes actually costing taxpayers $5.7 million

However, O’Neill said park officials “have a number of tools in our toolbox to address the increase in visitation.”

For example, registration for campsites opened in January, unlike in previous years when the earliest that people could only start booking sites was in April.

Park officials expect to see another spike in visitors in July and August and they hope those numbers continue to grow so more people can appreciate Elk Island National Park.

“Elk Island specifically is just such a unique place with its great history and bison conservation,” Tathum said. “It’s a way for Canadians to connect with Parks Canada and all that it has to offer.”

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