Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Perfecting the art of group camping

Last weekend's adventures took us South East to Cypress Hills Provincial Park on the Saskatchewan border.  This was our first time camping on the Alberta side of the park and we lucked out in finding the best group campground ever!!  It even had a babbling creek right behind where we set up our tent with tons of gooey mud for the kids to play in.  I knew we'd picked the right campground when I saw that creek promising endless amounts of fun.

Fun in camp

Campground Info:

Campground Name - Willow Creek Group Camp
Location in Cypress Hills - Roughly 5km South of Elkwater Lake, up the Ferguson Hill Road
Number of sites - 20 (though you could comfortably fit 10 families in our opinion)
Power - No
Showers - No
Bathrooms - Bathroom house with separate sides for men and women, two stalls per side, and tile flooring!
Shelter - Yes.  The Kitchen Shelter had picnic tables and a stove inside.
Wood - Not provided.  Bring your own.
Reservations - Made online at Reserve Alberta Parks

Willow Creek Group Camp

Why we LOVED this campground:

One -  Everything was very central!  I don't know if most group camps are set up like Willow Creek but it was truly designed by somebody who likes group unity.  There was a ring road that went around the camping area with tent/trailer sites scattered around the outside of the circle.  On the inside of the circle was a large fire pit, a handful of picnic tables, the kitchen shelter, and the bathrooms.  Everything was all together for optimal group use.  We found that we could all cook and eat together with ease. 

Two - Because of the ring road, we could park our vehicles right beside our tents.  Friends in trailers were also able to camp right beside us.  Last weekend in Bow Valley Provincial Park, there was a parking lot and a giant field.  Trailers had to stay in the parking lot while tenters spread themselves out around the field.  It was essentially a walk-in campground.  Willow Creek however was set up for true car camping.

Three - Did I mention the creek?! Any time we needed to find something for the kids to do, we'd send them down to the creek to play.  My husband also chose the spot closest to the creek so that we got to listen to it at night as we fell asleep.  This was quite the difference from Bow Valley last weekend when we fell asleep listening to trains and traffic from the Trans-Canada Hwy.

Four - The campground was very private.  We heard no traffic, we had the whole area to ourselves, and it was like nobody else existed other than our friends and their children.  For a group campground, there was also a fair bit of privacy.  You didn't have to pitch your tent out in an open field as we did at Bow Valley.  There were many individual camping spots located around the ring road with trees separating them from the next site.  Each spot had its own picnic table for one or two tents/trailers.

Five - We had the sense to go camping with close friends and to limit the size of this trip.  We went camping with 17 other families last week.  This time, we only went with 2 other families.  The trip was originally planned for 5 families, hence the group camp, but we ended up with a much smaller group in the end.  My son was only too happy with the small group size.  He is easily overwhelmed by large groups of people and I actually saw him laughing this weekend, playing with the other kids, having fun, and interacting with the others in the group.  Quite the difference from the grumpy child I had to deal with last weekend.

Our tent site with the creek behind us

You can see the separation between sites here

Other things we enjoyed while visiting Cypress Hills:

Elkwater Lake has a sandy beach with a roped off swimming area.  It wasn't extremely hot but it was warm enough for the kids to splash in the water and play in the sand.  There were two playgrounds on the beach as well and we enjoyed a lovely bike ride on the Shoreline and Soggy Bottom Trails. End to end it makes for a pleasant 5km walk or ride return, much of it on boardwalks over marsh areas.  Unfortunately, these were the only short trails we discovered that were paved or suitable for pulling a Chariot.  The guys took a spin down the Mitchell Creek Trail from our campground to the lake but difficult single track trails don't exactly scream "Chariot friendly."

Elkwater Beach

Biking along the Shoreline Trail

General opinion of Cypress Hills:

We really loved our campground and although it wasn't exactly in the heart of the main camping area, it was still worth making the drive back and forth to get to the lake.  Cypress Hills however didn't really jump out at me as being a place I'd be willing to regularly drive 4 hours to visit.  It was very pretty and if we lived further South, we'd go there every summer.  We are blessed however, living in Calgary, and we have many other beautiful places to go camping that are far closer.  Cypress Hills reminded me a lot of the area along the Cowboy Trail so I think we'd just go there next time if we wanted to see green rolling hills.  As a meeting point though, Cypress Hills worked for us because we were camping with friends from Saskatchewan.

Playing in Elkwater Lake

The best part of the weekend - FRIENDS:

In the end, it really wouldn't have mattered where we camped this weekend because we were camping with some of our best friends and we had a fabulous time with them.  I had to choke back the tears each time I'd look out to see my son chasing the other kids around the field, laughing with them in the hammock, or just happily playing WITH them instead of merely NEAR them - as is usually the case.

Fun in the hammock

 I loved watching Noah kicking a soccer ball back and forth with Amelia, a 5 year old who practically adopted Noah for the weekend as her younger brother.  She spent endless time pushing him in the hammock and rocking with him as she made up little games to keep him happy.

Amelia teaching Noah to play soccer

Thanks to his buddy Brody's incredible skill and confidence on his balance bike, Noah is now finally sitting down on his seat and trying to glide down short hills.  The progress he made over the weekend was amazing.  Thank you Brody!

Noah and Makenna on their bikes (Brody was too fast to catch)

We were blessed to have Noah's friend Makenna along as well.  Makenna and her family join us on most of our backcountry adventures and you've definitely seen photos of this spunky outdoor spirit before on my blog.  A trip wouldn't be the same without her. 

Makenna covered in mud from the creek
No better way to spend an afternoon

 It was great watching the kids all playing together, learning from each other, and  inspiring each other to engage in outdoor play.

Noah crossing the creek after watching his friends doing it
Makenna following the older kids down the creek

Meanwhile, us adults had a wonderful time each night after we tucked the kids into bed.  Camping is the best way to truly connect with your friends once you have kids.  In the city you don't exactly have family sleep-overs where the parents get to come too and spend the night.

Story time
Floating wooden boats down the creek


Do you like group camping or do you prefer quiet getaways with your immediate family?  I'd love to hear your stories.


  1. Hi Tanya! I have been following your blog for awhile now and love it. You are lucky to find good friends to camp with! I love to take my family as we just love the time for US but sometimes I really wish we could do a big group camping trip too! (By big I mean 2 or 3 other families) We just don't know anyone who wants to camp with very little kids, wants to tent camp, and wants to leave the gadgets (ipods, dvd players etc..) at home. We have a set of friends we like to camp with but they bring out the dvd player all the time and it drives me nuts! Your trips with friends sound wonderful!


    1. Guaranteed you wouldn't want to camp with us either then. Expect a post on technology and nature soon.

    2. Suzy, you wouldn't be in CA would you? would love to find group campers with kids. But my daughter is 12. I love group camping. we take turns cooking dinner - I make a mean chili. Play horseshoes, hike...

      Thank you for the review on the site, Tanya. Gotta love a good camping spot. And earmarking great places for future visits.

    3. Suzy and Christine,
      The best way I've found to find other friends with shared interests is by creating groups. Last summer there's no way I would have known enough people to plan a camping trip for 18 families. Now I "know" 200 some people I can invite. I created a page on facebook for the Calgary community here called the Calgary Family Adventure Community. Friends told friends, they told friends, and it has spread. I also run an outdoor playgroup for toddlers and we now have close to 200 members in that too. People are searching for others to join on trips. They just need a leader.

      One suggestion I had for the technology, respecting you might not want it in camp, is to limit it to tent or trailer use only. Tell everybody coming with you up front that you prefer all gaming systems, i-pods, DVD players, etc. be restricted to quiet time use only inside sleeping quarters. If people want to join you they'll have to respect that. Limiting it 100% though and saying people can't have any gadgets, will certainly mean you have few people to choose from on your adventures. We for example would love to go camping with other tenters. And restrict our trips to that group. However, we'd lose out on great friendships as most of our friends are switching over to trailers. I choose my friends over my personal preferences for how to camp or how not to camp.

  2. As soon as I read this:

    Camping is the best way to truly connect with your friends once you have kids.

    I thought, yes, yes it is.