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Athabasca Sand Dunes

Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve - image courtesy of & copyrighted by Chris Salvo

Here, wind and sand combine to create Alberta’s moving desert and your destination for nature based outdoor recreation and adventure. Shifting up to 1.5 metres a year, these powerful dunes bury forests and fill in lakes, leaving behind a flat, barren plain. The sand dunes and the surrounding landscape of forests, lakes and marshes make the area an outdoor adventurer’s paradise.

The Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve is surrounded by the Maybelle River Wildland Park and protects the largest of these active sand fields. Within its boundaries are impressive natural features: 12 metre tall sand dunes and 60 metre high kames among the largest in the world.

The Reserve also protects an abundance of flora and fauna. Significant plants include American dune grass, bladderwort, Huron tansy, rush and starwort. Jack pine forests and bogs, where black spruce, tamarack, Labrador tea and pitcher plants thrive, cover the surrounding area. Beaver, muskrat, black bear, red fox, lynx, wolf, moose, river otter and mink frequent the area while red squirrels are common sights. On the lakes dotting the area are nesting loons and other birds including the common tern, common nighthawk and willow ptarmigan. Accessing the Athabasca Dunes is an adventure. A winter road from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan provides ATV access to the edge of the Wildland Park.

For those looking for an afternoon of backcountry hiking, the area provides scenery unequalled anywhere else in the province. For ATV enthusiasts, the Richardson River Sand Dunes Access Trail offers hours of adventurous riding. Located west of the Richardson River, the trail follows the eastern perimeter of the Richardson River Dunes Wildland Park. The park itself is a protected area, preserving paleo-longitudinal dunes whose size and development are not recorded elsewhere. Motorized access in the park is prohibited. The Access Trail into the Richardson River Sand Dunes is well marked during the summer months.

Follow signs off the winter road heading west to Embarrass Portage and watch for the access path into the Richardson Dune Complex. From here, you have nothing to do but head north,enjoy the scenery and enjoy yourself.

The Richardson Backcountry is also ideal for camping and fishing enthusiasts. Rustic, lake side campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. These are user maintained sites with no major facilities and visitors are required to pack-out what they bring in. Anglers are also asked to check local fishing regulations before casting a line.

Come out and enjoy what Alberta’s Sahara has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

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