Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bow Valley Provincial Park - Where the Wild Winds Blow

Last weekend we went camping in Bow Valley Provincial Park with 17 other families.  You can read the full story, Group Camping - the Chaos and the Glory here.  I wanted to do a second post on the weekend though and actually focus on the park itself.  Bow Valley Provincial Park is a very convenient place for Calgarians to go camping and popular campgrounds are almost always booked solid through out the summer season. Though I found our campground to be insanely windy, I did discover why locals make the trip out on weekends to camp here and was reminded of how beautiful the park is.

Mt. Yamnuska reigns over Bow Valley Provincial Park

Bow Valley Provincial Park - gateway to Kananaskis:

Bow Valley Provincial Park falls within the boundaries of Kananaskis and the main Bow Valley Campground is located just off the Trans Canada Hwy between Calgary and Banff.  The park is only an hour away from the west end of Calgary and makes for an easy trip out Friday after work.  It's actually feasible to camp here even if you have to return to the city for a birthday party as one friend did last weekend.  You could commute back in to work if one parent had to do a Saturday shift or you wanted to head out on Thursday night for a longer weekend.  The proximity also allows for an early return on Sunday so that you can get a start on laundry and cleaning up before the week begins.

Beautiful Kananaskis:  Barrier Lake from the Prairie View Trail


Extended camping and recreation season in Bow Valley Provincial Park:

Bow Valley can also boast of having a longer camping season than most parks in Kananaskis.  Located in the front ranges, this park sees less snow and warmer temperatures than parks located further in the mountains.  Some campgrounds are open as early as March and stay open into late October.   The Bow Valley Campground doesn't open until early May but if you choose to visit before May, you will enjoy traffic-free roads for family biking and solitude on the hiking trails.  There is a beautiful 7km loop that circumnavigates the campground area starting from the winter gates at The Middle Lake Day Use Area. It's perfect for early season hiking. 

Hiking on the Many Springs Trail

Campgrounds in the Provincial Park:

There are several campgrounds located within the provincial park boundaries but the Bow Valley Campground is clearly the crown jewel of the park.  Reservations can be made online at Reserve Alberta Parks up to 90 days in advance.  It's advised that you book early and pay attention to that booking window for long weekends or even most weekends in summer.  If you aren't on the ball that far in advance, you can usually get spots in Willow Rock Campground across the road.  For spontaneous families, this will be your campground of choice because they don't take reservations.  Both campgrounds have sites with power as well as unserviced sites and rates start at $23/night which is pretty standard.  Note that in the provincial park campgrounds, wood is not included in your fee and can be pretty expensive if you buy it on site.  It's usually best to bring your own.  Both campgrounds have showers, playgrounds, interpretive programs and basic amenities but Bow Valley also has a general store on site.

Willow Rock Campground
Throwing rocks in the river beside the Bow Valley Campground


Group Camping in the Park:

We chose to stay at the Elk Flats group campground last weekend which is located in the same area as the Bow Valley Campground.  This group camp can accommodate up to 35 units including 15 trailers or RVs - according to the website anyway.  I'm pretty sure you could fit close to 40 tents in the field as there are no official camp sites but you'd be hard pressed to fit 15 large trailers into the parking lot along with cars/trucks.  We had 5 trailers and it was comfortable.  We could have fit in a few more, but after that we would have had to become a bit creative.  As I said, there are no individual campsites in the group campground.  There is a parking lot for the trailers/vehicles and then a big grass field for the tents.  At the far end of the field there's a playground, two large fire pits, and a cook shelter in case you get rain.  The shelter has a pot belly stove in it along with picnic tables and an enormous pile of wood (included in the price of the campground). 

If you are planning on booking the group campground, I have a few suggestions for you:
  • Bring wagons to help pull gear across the field.  If you are set up at the far end, it's a rather long walk when hauling coolers, tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment.
  • Don't bring wood - you won't need it.  We all brought ours home with us at the end.
  • Set your tent up close to the trees or even in the trees.  There are a few clearings and little nooks tucked away within the campground that make for private tenting spots.  They also protect your tent from the crazy winds that blow through the park.  We experienced winds up to 94km/hour and some of the tents (our screen tent included) didn't fare so well.

A typical group camp:  Canoe Meadows on Hwy 40
The Elk Flats Group Campground
The private playground in the Elk Flats Campground (the only group camp I know with a playground)

Recreation in the Park:

There's lots to do while camping in Bow Valley Provincial Park but our favourite things are biking and hiking the scenic roads and trails.  There are 9km of natural trails inside the winter gates where the Bow Valley and Elk Flats Campgrounds are located.  These trails are closed to bikes and are a bit too narrow for Chariots (except for the Many Springs Loop).  For hiking though, they are fabulous for shoulder season when most mountain trails are still under snow.  The trails are below:
  • Middle Lake Loop (2.2km)
  • Elk Flats Trail from the winter gates at Middle Lake to the Many Springs trailhead (2km)
  • Many Springs Loop (1.6km)
  • Bow River Trail from the Many Springs trailhead to the junction of the Moraine Trail (1.8km)
  • Moraine Trail connecting the Bow River Trail with the Middle Lake Day Use Area (1.1km)

Our favourite of these trails is the Many Springs Trail.  It is short, toddler friendly, Chariot friendly, has many interesting flowers that you won't see in other parts of the Rockies, has a boardwalk section around a pond, and has a viewing platform where you can see one of the springs the trail is named for in the pond.  It's definitely one of the more interesting trails in Kananaskis for young children.

If biking is more your speed, the roads of the park are quiet and perfect for a family bike ride.  The riding is scenic with a gentle grade.  One steep hill takes you down to the Many Springs Trailhead and Whitefish Day Use Area by the river but aside from that, it's relatively flat.  There is also a 4.4 km paved bike path according to park maps (wish I'd seen that before our trip last weekend!) that goes between the Bow Valley Campground and the Information Centre. 

If you happen to be camping in the Willow Rock Campground, there's another hiking trail there called the Flowing Water Trail.  It's only 2km return and is also extremely interesting for small kids.  It's worth a bike ride over there from the other campgrounds.  It also has a section of boardwalk, a pond viewing area, and has an added bonus of taking hikers through beaver habitat.  You will notice beaver lodges and dams around the pond area.  The trail is also very scenic as it climbs above the Bow River.

I'll leave you with my favourite hiking and biking photos from within the park:

Biking at Middle Lake between the Elk Flats and Bow Valley Campgrounds

Hiking around Middle Lake

Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchid on the Many Springs Trail

Columbine on the Many Springs Trail

Shooting Star on the Many Springs Trail

Viewing platform on the Many Springs Trail

Our family on the Many Springs Hike

As I said, the best hike for small kids in Kananaskis:  Many Springs Trail
Spotted Orchids on the Many Springs Trail
Striped Coral Root Orchids on the Many Springs Trail
Flowing Water Trail

View Point on the Flowing Water Trail

Beaver habitat on the Flowing Water Trail

I'd love to hear from you if you've camped in Bow Valley Provincial Park before.  Maybe you have a favourite campground, hiking trail, or place to go biking. 


  1. Hi, Tanya! I just want to thank you a million times for you blog! I have read it front and back time and again, it's very helpful. PLaces you describe tips you give are so immensly helping us to become more of an outdoor family and it's so awesome I found your blog.
    Thanks for posting some info on the campground, I have already booked it for a couple of nights in July, I think we'll like it and it's very convinient too.
    All the best to you and your family!

    1. Thanks Ksenia. I'm glad this blog has been so helpful to you.
      Have a wonderful summer and have fun at Bow valley.

  2. Hi Tanya,

    I'm a newcomer to your blog (saw your article in Calgary's Child) and think it is going to be a great resource for our family. As for this particular post, I love all of the ideas for hikes and activities near the park. We've really enjoyed camping at Bow Valley before and will probably enjoy it even more with these tips. One tip that I have to pass along to other families camping here is to try to book a site far away from the train bridge. Insanely loud (and a surprising number of trains in the middle of the night!)


    1. Yes, Paige I agree 100%!!
      I might have forgotten to mention in my posts on this camping trip how loud it really is there. Between the train and highway noise, it isn't exactly isolated. I guess you have to choose between proximity to Calgary and peace/quiet. Last time we camped there at Willow Rock and I don't remember the trains there.