Bucket List Trip: Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park
Canada’s most renowned sand dunes are located in Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park in Saskatchewan’s northwest corner. These are the world’s most northern sand dunes and it’s an adventure in itself just to reach them. They cover about 2,000 sq. km along a 100-km stretch of shoreline on the southern edge of Lake Athabasca.
It’s been a bucket list destination of mine for years. On my 10-day trip last summer, I experienced the most spectacular views of windswept dunes. They were comparable to far-flung destinations like the Sahara or Namib Desert. But this unique ecosystem is not a desert. Tucked between the Lakeland region of Alberta and the northern boreal forest, there is no lack of rainfall or water here.
Most dramatic of all are the dunes in the William Dune Field. They rise upwards of 33 m in elevation and extend as far as 1.5 km in length. Each one is part of a series of 40 dunes that stretches 10 km from the lake’s edge to the southern horizon. Their formation began when the glacier receded 10,000 years ago. The low-lying plains of the Athabasca formation were exposed to prevailing winds. These winds created the ridges of parabolic, rolling, linear, beach and underwater dunes seen today.
But it’s not just about the dunes out here. A rare and delicate pebbly veneer called gravel pavement covers swaths of the area. It’s home to unique sandblasted and polished rock structures called ventifacts.
Protruding from the sand in the Thompson Dune Field are the jagged remains of ancient trees – part of an exhumed forest. Years ago, the forest was engulfed by the moving sand and, over time, it’s been uncovered again by the relentless wind. There are nearly a dozen endemic plant species not found anywhere else on earth. They are specifically adapted to survive in this harsh sandy environment.
The blue jewel next to the golden dunes is Lake Athabasca. With 2,140 km of shoreline and a depth of 124 m, it’s considered an inland sea. It’s notorious for its high winds and waves and famous for its monster lake trout and northern pike. Most spectacular is the William River Delta (one of three rivers) that spills 3,000 tonnes of sand into the lake. It forms an intricate braided pattern of strips of dark river channels juxtaposed against swirls of caramel-coloured sandbars – an incredible sight best seen from the windows of a floatplane.
There are no amenities and no cell service in the area. Options to get here include boating in or landing a floatplane along the southern shore of Lake Athabasca. Access communities include Fort McMurray, Stony Rapids, Fond du Lac and Uranium City. The park can also be reached from the William River and the MacFarlane River by paddlers with whitewater canoeing experience. A trip to Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park is a genuine wilderness destination for the truly adventurous.
Author and Photographer: Ashlyn George
Ashlyn George (B.A, B.Ed) is an award-winning travel writer, photographer and content creator behind The Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World. She is a go-to travel expert in Saskatchewan but is no stranger to trips abroad. Having travelled solo through more than 60 countries on all 7 continents, she’s a passionate storyteller in pursuit of adventure, learning and discovery. Find her online @thelostgirlsguide.