Thursday, July 26, 2012

Camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis has always been a premier year-round destination for us.   It has some of the best cross-country ski trails near Calgary and there are few trails in the park we haven't explored in summer.  We've backpacked across the park, climbed its mountains, paddled Upper Kananaskis Lake, and explored the most remote corners that few visitors to the park ever see.

Lower Kananaskis Lake

We went out this past weekend with the goal of finding out why this park is so incredibly popular with families.  We wanted to know why you had to book 90 days to the day, first thing in the morning, and be religious about it in order to get a reservation for the Boulton Creek or Elkwood Campground.  We explored the bike trails,  conquered the interpretive trails, sought out playgrounds, threw rocks in the Lower Lake and even went for a short canoe ride.

Hiking around Marl Lake

Trying to find a campsite!

We were a little naive heading out Friday with no reservation, assuming we'd easily find a campsite.  We knew we'd never get into Boulton Creek or Elkwood but we thought we'd have no problems getting one of the 100+ sites at Lower Lake.  Along with the smaller Interlakes Campground, there are 150 campsites that don't take reservations in PLPP and we aimed to grab one. (note, as of 2018 Lower Lake now takes reservations as well.)

The first sign that maybe we were in trouble was upon entering the park when we saw a sign saying all campgrounds were full.  The optimistic person I am, I thought maybe they hadn't updated the sign yet since it was early in the afternoon and campsites had to be vacated by 2pm.  We drove to the Visitor Centre and they confirmed our fears that yes, we'd most likely find no free campsites in the park.  We began the unpleasant task of driving towards the Lower Lake to find out first hand if this was true.  We chose loop B with trailers behind us choosing A and C - let the games begin!  Who would find a spot?  Would anybody?

Driving around the loop we were frustrated by the amount of sites clearly claimed earlier in the week - a lawn chair here, a tent hastily thrown up there.  The Drop and Go Game has become quite a problem in local campgrounds here with locals driving out earlier in the week, paying for a site, and going back home until the weekend. 

It makes it almost impossible for those rule-abiding campers like us to actually find a site.  Park rules prohibit such behavior but campground attendants have to catch you in the act to really do much and can't touch your private property once you've paid for a site.  Fail to show up by the time your renewal payment is due though and expect to find your tent shoved into the trees by the site's new occupants - and this is actually encouraged by Park Staff. 

Surprisingly, we did find a free site near the end of our loop and I'm pretty sure it was the only vacant site in the whole park after talking to other campers who had been trying as early as Wednesday to find a site.  Apparently, spending a night in overflow is common practice as you wait for a site to clear the next morning.  Thank God we didn't have to go that route.

Our campsite at Lower Lake

I find it sad that it's so hard to be spontaneous about camping.  The days of making a last minute decision to go camping, packing up Friday after work and driving out to a nearby campground are gone.  We're generally pretty good about making reservations but you get tired of planning out every weekend of summer back in April.  We left a few holes in our calendar on purpose so that we could play things by ear.  I hate to think that next summer we might actually have to book a campsite in advance for every weekend - just in case we want to go out.

If you are available to go camping mid-week or are ok with shoulder season camping (Spring/Fall), you'll have fewer problems getting a site.  Also, If you are willing to seek out more remote campgrounds or places off the beaten path, you'll find something for sure.  Guaranteed though, if you want to camp where all the other families are camping (usually for good reason,) start with a reservation and plan ahead!

Happy Camping Moments

I'd also love to hear from you if you know of a great local campground within a two hour drive of Calgary that's actually easy to get into without a reservation.

Continue on to part two of this story:  Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for Families
In the next post I'll cover the interpretive trails, biking trails and best ways to explore the park as a family.


  1. It is really sad that you need to plan your weekends in April and cannot take advantage of a beautiful weekend. We went to Sandy McNabb last weekend and noticed the same thing many "tents" left to occupy a site. I think that perhaps if there is no vehicle/people present at 11pm the site should be charged triple since it is clearly not occupied. Our whole family was dismayed at the number of people who do this.

    1. Yes, Jennifer, it is sad. Agree. Camping is not as simple as it once was.

  2. I have heard of people who go out and pitch a tent on Thursday night, drive back home and then return on friday to stay for the weekend.

    I'm finding it hard too .. I dont want to plan to go somewhere 2hrs away from home, have the kids be all excited, only to show up and find it full.

    This weekend I got one of the last 2 reserved spots in Bow Valley. $35 for the spot and $12 for the reservation. $50 for a night of camping seems a little out of touch too, IMO.

    1. Yes, the Thursday drop and go game.
      Not cool. It's actually against park rules but hard to enforce.

      Agree, it would be super disappointing to arrive at a campground only to find out there are no spots anywhere in the area. Thought we were all going to start crying last weekend as we rounded the last corner of our loop and didn't see anything.

      And yes, $50 for a night of camping is crazy. It's supposed to be an affordable option for family vacations after all.

  3. There are simply not enough camping sites in Kananaskis to deal with a city of 1.1million an hour away. If they developed another area or 2 into a Boulton-type setup it would start to relieve some pressure. There are other areas that can be built out as they are already have some facilities and are not green-field (say Buller area along Spray Lakes road, or around the Boundary Ranch area).
    But the only way that sort of infrastructure will get built is if all those who are tired of struggling to get campsites write their MLA and the Alberta Parks department.

  4. Lucky you found a spot!
    Because of our 2 toddlers we never go anywhere without reservations. And we never trust non-reservation campsites, especially if we go somewhere like BC. However we are very well known for spontanneous adventures for example at 3 pm we might decide we want to go somewhere NOW and usually I am still trying to find out an available reservation somewhere, even if is hours prior to arriving. Calling non reservable campgrounds to get the general idea of available lots is also a good idea. If you keep your options open you are bound to find something that would work for you. Once we kept them way too open and ended up ariving at BC Wasa Lake campground 10 min before the gates closed at 11pm - not something I am keen to try again. But we have never been left without a spot and that's the most important part for me.
    BUt I also have to say that my husband works shifts so his days off might or might not be on actual weekends, I think that helps a lot too.

    1. I'm with you. I'm very skeptical of non-reservation campsites. We've spent hours driving around the Okanagan looking for a campsite in the past and it's just not fun. Once you have kids it's even worse. In the past, we've had to camp at trail heads, at rest stops on highways, and off on forestry roads just pulled off to the side of the road. It helped that we also just slept in the back of our truck. Now that we need a tent, it's harder to do that.

    2. Try driving 2,500 miles from Ohio while attempting to maintain a flexible schedule. The drop and go set-up does not allow for a level playing field. I do appreciate the input however. This just means that I need to be more proactive. Destiny is matter of choice, not just a matter of chance. I will be sure to reserve a spot for my 2017 vacation