Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve

Athabasca Dunes, about 160 km north of Ft. McMurray, is the province’s largest Ecological Reserve. It contains part of Alberta’s largest active sand dune system, which is slowly migrating southeast.

Athabasca Dunes Site Map. (Government of Alberta)
Athabasca Dunes Site Map. (Government of Alberta)

Map of the Area

Any maps and map views are for general information only. Do not rely on them for navigation or to determine legal boundaries.

Other Information

The reserve was created in the late 1980s as part of the Wildlife ’87 project [1] and is the province’s largest Ecological Reserve. It contains part of Alberta’s largest active sand dune system stretching approximately 8 km from north to south and 1.5 km wide.

The active dunes are a series of sand ridges. They are slowly migrating southeast, burying jack pine forests and filling small lakes. There are large areas of kame and kettle. The kames, over 60 metres high, are among the largest in the world. Peatlands range from relatively dry bogs dominated by jack pine, black spruce, Labrador tea and reindeer lichen to wetter peatlands with black spruce, tamarack and peat moss. Shoreline areas include mixed forests of aspen, balsam poplar and white spruce.

Arctic terns, not known to nest elsewhere in Alberta, nest in the reserve. Total wildlife species and populations are not extensive, as a result of the lack of habitat diversity; Red Squirrels are very common, and Beaver, Muskrat, Black Bear, Red Fox, Lynx, Wolf, Moose and Mink are known to frequent the area.

WHERE DID THE SAND COME FROM? The dunes are approximately 8,000 years old and their origin can be traced back to the last ice age and the granite, gneiss, and sandstone bedrocks. The glaciers eroded these rocks on their advance and then torrents of water solidified the fields upon the glaciers’ retreat. As the lakes drained, the sands dried and accumulated into the present dunes. The dunes advance about 1.5 m each year. Any vegetation that stabilizes the sand is often destroyed in the all-too- common wildfires in the area. It is speculated that the dunes will only advance as far as the Maybelle River [2].

WHAT IS A KAME OR KETTLE? Kame and kettle topography are typically found together. Kames are mounds where till is deposited and kettles are depressions formed by ice being trapped under till and then melting. Together, they form a hump and depression landscape often containing many lakes [3].

Political Hay in 1987. 1987 was the designated Year of Wildlife Conservation in Canada by provincial and territorial wildlife ministers and their agencies. In Alberta, Wildlife ’87: Gaining Momentum was spearheaded by Cam Finlay, a well-known Alberta naturalist. More than a dozen new Natural Areas and several Ecological Reserves were designated during this period [4].

Site Statistics

Site NameAthabasca Dunes (ER)
Site TypeEcological Reserve
SubtypeOrder-in-council (OC)
Natural Region(s)Athabasca Plain
O.C. No. (Land Ref. Manual)614/88
PASite ID (Map Ref #)399
Site # (Parks Website)9315.13
Total Area3769.78 ha. (9315.13 ac.)
Recreation ActivitiesBirding, Hiking – backcountry, Wildlife viewing
Operated ByParks Division
Notes and Comments
Statistics and Details for Athabasca Dunes (ER)


The following links are provided as a courtesy but are not verified or endorsed by SAPAA. Clicking on the link will cause you to leave the SAPAA website. Primary source of information is: Government of Alberta – Information & Facilities – Athabasca Dunes Ecological Area | Alberta Parks. All websites accessed 2022-10-15 unless otherwise indicated.

  1. History of Natural Areas and Ecological Reserves 1977-1994, SAPAA Newsletter #41, January 2022.
  2. Mussieux, Ron, and Marilyn Nelson. A Traveller’s Guide to Geological Wonders in Alberta. Repr. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2005, pp. 58-59.
  3. Kame et kettle – en – Géologie Québec (
  4. History of Natural Areas and Ecological Reserves 1977-1994, SAPAA Newsletter No. 41 January 2022 pp. 3-4.

Further Reading

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