Friday, April 05, 2013

Summer Planning: The Best Provincial Park Campgrounds in Southern Alberta

We're on the doorstep of spring here and we've been thinking about camping for months now!  If you like camping as a family you know that the May long weekend has long been booked solid for campsites across the province and that we are now booking for the beginning of July in provincial park campgrounds.  It's pretty crazy when you think about it.  I mean it's hard to think about campground reservations when you are still skiing.  That aside though, reservations must be made now whether you like to plan ahead or not, so I'm going to give you a list of our favourite provincial park campgrounds to help you out a bit.  I've already got my Dinosaur booking made so I'm no longer worried you'll steal my spots.  ;) 

The campgrounds I'm about to list are not ranked by order.  I like all of the campgrounds on the list below for various reasons.  Also, it should be noted that while we may have had a fabulous time at one of these campgrounds, camping experiences can vary depending on the season, weather, bugs, and even noise around your site. I've also focused on Southern Alberta and the Rockies because that is where I live and it's what I write about.  I have very limited experience with camping in Central or Northern Alberta.

Camping along the creek in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Dinosaur Campground, Dinosaur Provincial Park

This is one of those early season campgrounds for May and June when snow still blankets the ground in the mountains.  Avoid summer months when mosquitoes will suck you dry and hot temperatures will leave you wishing for an air conditioned trailer.  The May long weekend is always crazy busy here but if you choose any other weekend in spring, you will have few problems getting a power or non power site in this campground.  

Dinosaur Provincial Park Badlands (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Reasons to camp here:
  • Hiking trails through the campground that wind their way through the hoodoos and badlands of Southern Alberta.  
  • I think it's prettier than Drumheller, personally, but you'll find the same badlands landscape
  • There's a creek that runs through the campground and if you camp near it you'll have a small  beach for your children to play at
  • Cool dinosaur themed playground
  • Interpretive programs, guided fossil hikes, and dinosaur themed family activities that you can sign up for along with an educational museum on site
  • It's an UNESCO world heritage site
  • There's enough to do that you don't have to get into your car and drive anywhere while camped here
  • Paddling opportunities on the Red Deer River
  • Early season camping (and if you time it right, there will be no bugs yet)
There's nothing that we disliked about camping here last year.  We honestly found it to be the!  That being said however, I have heard different stories from families who went in the summer and couldn't hike or do anything for the heat.  I've heard of bugs so thick, families had to hide in their trailers.  And I've heard of giant bull snakes hanging out in campsites.  Go in spring however, and hopefully you'll have the same glorious experience we did last year.  (and we didn't see a single snake)
To read the story I wrote last May when we stayed at Dinosaur, follow this link to Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park.  It has a LOT more photos.

Hiking on one of the Hoodoo Trails

Little Bow Campground, Little Bow Provincial Park

This is another popular campground in Southern Alberta that we visited last year for the first time.  Situated on the Travers Reservoir, this campground is beach and water paradise.  While the beach may not be as great as the sandy beaches of the Okanagan in BC, it's a good beach for Alberta and your children will be quite content with the swimming area and sandy play area.  Campsites are very open with little separation or privacy between them so long weekends will feel very crowded.  Go with a group of friends though and you'll appreciate how close the sites are together.  We rented two double sites back to back last year on the September long weekend and felt as if we had booked a huge group site.  We managed to fit 8 families on the two double sites.

Paddling on the Travers Reservoir in the morning (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Reasons to camp here: 
  • Camping near a lake with a beach and roped off swimming area provides hours of entertainment every day
  • Opportunities for boating, paddling, and even wake-boarding or other water sports if you have a motor boat
  • You aren't in the mountains so you won't need mittens on while you cook breakfast or a a down jacket on to sit by the campfire at night

What we don't like about Little Bow:
  • The amount of motor traffic on the lake.  We did find however that the morning and evening hours were quieter for paddling
  • The playground was old and needed a serious upgrade
  • Lack of privacy between sites and general noise in the campground
To read the story I wrote last year after our stay to Little Bow, follow the link to Two Campsites and Eight Families.  There are more photos there as well.

Playing at the beach

Elkwater Campground, Cypress Hills Provincial Park

We haven't camped at this exact campground but we have camped in Cypress Hills Provincial Park and it's definitely one of our favourite parks for family fun.  We had a group site last year and while it was awesome, finding a group of other families to go camping with isn't always possible.  Were we to return to Cypress Hills again this year, this is the regular campground we would choose to use.  And we definitely plan to return!!

Biking along the shore of Elkwater Lake

Reasons to camp here:
  • The lake is awesome with a huge sandy beach and modern playground right beside the beach
  • The bike paths through the marsh along the edge of the lake are a lot of fun.  Think boardwalks that you can actually ride your bike on!  They would be a lot of fun for kids on balance bikes too
  • Paddling opportunities on Elkwater Lake

What we don't like about Elkwater:
  • You have to drive or bike to the main beach from the campground  (it's close, but not a short little stroll)
  • There are no easy family friendly hiking trails that we found

To read the story I wrote last year when we were camping at the Willow Creek Group Camp, follow the link to Perfecting the Art of Group Camping.  There are a lot of photos of the Elkwater area.

Playing at the beach at Elkwater Lake

Boulton Creek  and Elkwood Campgrounds, Peter Lougheed Provincial Provincial Park

I have no opinion over which of these campgrounds is better, Boulton Creek or Elkwood.  They are both awesome and insanely popular!!  If you don't get online exactly 3 months to the date that you want to go camping, and get online right at 9am, you won't get a spot.  Period. 

Honestly, all of the campgrounds in the park are great but these are the only two that take reservations.  Without a reservation you are limited to camping in shoulder season (before July or after the September long weekend), or you need to go out on a Monday or Tuesday to secure your spot.  Go on Wednesday and it's hit or miss.  Any closer to the weekend and you need to be very very lucky!  Last year we wanted to camp at the Lower Lake Campground, drove out on a Friday afternoon, and lucked out.  People all over the campground though told us they had spent a night in overflow in order to get a spot.  This year I booked a the Lower Lake Group Campground so I am already secure in the fact that we have a great campground and it's been booked for months now.

Hiking along the edge of the Lower Lake

Reasons to camp in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park - wherever you can find a spot
  • The Marl Lake hiking trail leaves right from the Elkwood campground and is a great 1.5km loop for families
  • The 4.5km Boulton Creek trail can be accessed from Boulton Bridge, just a short bike ride or walk from the Boulton Creek campground
  • Many other short interpretive hikes can be found throughout the park and if you have a bike, you can access all of them for a great bike and hike combo trip.  Our favourite ones are along the Lower Lake from Canyon Day Use Area or the William Watson Lodge
  • There are 12km of paved bike trails along the Lodgepole, Wheeler and Lakeside trails
  • There are many other options for natural biking on winter ski trails, some of which would be good for kids on balance bikes
  • Paddling on both the Upper and Lower Lakes
  • Interpretive programs at the Visitor Centre and evening amphitheater shows for families
  • The Boulton Creek Trading Post sells snacks, basic groceries, and ice cream!  It's a popular stop on any hike or bike ride
There isn't really anything we dislike about Peter Lougheed but be prepared for mountain camping.  There may still be snow on the ground until early June and it gets cold at night even in July or August.  You also won't be swimming in the lakes here unless you fancy swimming in glacier fed water.  

To read the story I wrote last year after camping at the Lower Lake Campground, follow the links to Camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for Families.  You'll find a lot more photos than I could include here.  If you are interested in backcountry camping, you can also check out the story I wrote after camping at the Point, How to Fit 7 People in a Canoe, a great campground for paddlers.

Canoeing on Upper Kananaskis Lake (Photo:  Jen Sollid)


Bow Valley and Willow Rock Campgrounds, Bow Valley Provincial Park

Everybody from Calgary was waiting for this one.  Bow Valley Provincial Park is popular for a few reasons, location being at the top.  Your child has a bad night and you just want to go home in the morning?  No worries.  45 minutes and you're back in city limits.  Sick family member?  Bad bugs?  First camping trip with a baby?  It all doesn't matter because you are so close to home you could pack up in the middle of the night if you really had to and be back in your beds in an hour.  For many families this is a strong incentive to try camping.  We've camped here a couple of times now and it's a great place for early season camping.  Willow Rock Campground is already open in fact!  It opened on the Easter weekend this year.  And it was warm enough you really could have gone camping.

Both campgrounds are great but the big difference comes down to reservations.  You need to book ahead for Bow Valley - and don't miss the booking date or you won't get a spot - but you can just show up for Willow Rock.  They don't take reservations.  For that reason, we love Willow Rock because it isn't as busy either as the popular Bow Valley Campground.  Go early on Friday and it's not usually too hard to get a spot.  Usually.  Long weekends or gorgeous summer weekends are busy everywhere!

Biking in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Reasons to camp in Bow Valley Provincial Park: 
  •  There's a great 5km hiking loop that circumnavigates the Bow Valley Campground made up of the Bow River Trail, Moraine Trail and Elk Flats Trail.  Add on the Middle Lake Trail or the Many Springs Trail and you have a LOT of hiking options for families
  • There's a 4km paved bike trail that runs through the campground
  • Across the highway in the Willow Rock Campground you have the Flowing Water Trail, a 1.5km loop that is awesome for kids!
  • Great interpretive programs and evening amphitheater shows at both campgrounds
  • These campgrounds are in the front ranges of Kananaskis so you can camp as early as April at Willow Rock.  Bow Valley opens in May.

What we don't like about Bow Valley:
  • It can be very windyMake sure you choose a spot that's sheltered.
To read the story I wrote last summer after camping in the Bow Valley Group campground, follow the link to Bow Valley Provincial Park - Where the Wild Winds Blow.  You can also read about our adventures camping with 17 other families in Group Camping - The Chaos and the Glory.  As always, you'll find lots of photos there and more information.

You can also find out more information on the Flowing Water Trail and Willow Rock Campground in the story I wrote this week:  Spring in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Hiking on the Many Springs Trail

Other Great Campgrounds Worth Checking Out

Writing on Stone Campground, Writing on Stone Provincial Park 

We haven't camped here before but have a reservation at the group site already booked for this summer.  If you've been to Dinosaur Provincial Park and liked it, this should go on your list to visit as well.  Located in Southern Alberta, You'll get the same badlands experience as at Dinosaur. Hike the Hoodoos Trail, Canoe the Milk River, Play at the beach, visit the interpretive centre, and look for ancient petroglyphs on the sandstone walls along the hiking trails.  In the meantime until I get a story written for this fascinating area, visit the Travel Alberta website or the website. 

Typical Badlands Scenery (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Kinbrook Island Campground,  Kinbrook Island Provincial Park

Another campground that we haven't visited yet still needs to be listed here because I've heard wonderful things about it.  For help on this one I recruited a friend who loves this park and wanted to share the following words with you: 
We love camping at Kinbrook Island because it's surrounded by water, something we miss since moving from Ontario. There are marshes to explore both on foot and by kayak as well as a great beach with a playground for hours of fun. We also like that it's close to Dinosaur Provincial Park for some additional day hiking.
I've also heard that when Dinosaur gets too mosquito infested, Kinbrook Island can be a good option. We hope to visit this campground soon, if not this year then next year for sure.

For a blog review of Kinbrook Island, follow this link to Camping Adventures:  Kinbrook Island Provincial Park.  

Sunset over Lake Newell (Photo:  Suzi Smart)

For information on reserving campsites in any of these campgrounds please go to the Alberta Parks Reservation website.  You can also find more information about the parks below at the main Alberta Parks website.  

Campsites can be booked 3 months in advance of the date that you wish to camp starting at 9am.  The reservation site is currently booking to July 4th.  The welcome page has a counter that lets you know what date you can book for.  Group bookings opened for the season in February.

 Have a favourite provincial park that I missed?  Please leave a comment below.  I'd love to hear about a new campground to check out this summer.


  1. Interesting to see you being able to travel so much with children! Glad that it can be done. Looks like some interesting things to do.

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. Thank you for this blog post! I just got into camping two years ago and absolutely love it. I stayed at Dinosaur campground for two nights the first week of September last year. My experience could not have been more perfect. I went solo with a tent. This year I would like to try Writing on Stone and I had never heard of Kinbrook so will look into both of those for a quieter time in early September.

    1. Thanks Alexandra. Glad you loved Dinosaur too. Hope you get a chance to visit Writing on Stone. We'll be going this summer for our first visit. And let me know if you get to Kinbrook. I don't know if we'll get there this summer but it's on our list.

  3. Great list, I have only been to the Kananaskis lakes campgrounds of this entire list. My family finds the quiet of the backcountry campgrounds to be more to our liking than the drive-in campgrounds.
    Elbow lake is our favourite and the 1km walk in is kid and Chariot friendly (though a little steep). Go in July or August since there is often still snow on July 1 weekend. Many of the families that go there regularly bring garbage bags to sled on the Rae Glacier.

    1. Couldn't agree more that Elbow Lake is awesome! We went there with our son when he was 1 with the Chariot. Hope to return there some day. Sledding on the Rae Glacier - that sounds fun. Presuming it's not crevassed? I hope...
      The other backcountry campground we like is the Point on Upper Kananaskis. We canoed there last year. This year we are trying Jewel Bay on Barrier Lake. We have the whole campground booked and also plan to paddle in with 6 other families.

  4. If we ever get to Canada again (hope and pray for a Lottery win), I am SO going to some of these places. As we don't have majestic mountains like that here, I find that scenery hugely appealing!!! So any camp site with views like you have in the photos above (mountains/lakes)....makes me want to go, and go now!

    1. You are welcome to come camp with us any time! :)

  5. Really nice post and great to read this kind of blog post. great info to read. thanks for sharing this one

  6. Hi Tanya... love your blog! And thank you for the info. Have you aver done Waterton - whats your views with kids? I have a 1.5 year old and a 12 yr old. Thanx

    1. Love Waterton. Type Waterton into the search bar on my blog, right hand side. I've got 3 stories at least written about camping there. We always camp at Waterton Springs.

  7. Great article about Summer Planning.Images are fantastic.

  8. Thanks Tanya for posting this! Very informative and helpful:) Brightened my day! I think Bow Valley will be the one we get to- close by. Good information; I was beginning to swim in too much of it and we want to go to different places than the ones we have gone to. Thanks and please realize you have made a difference in my day:) I will keep my eyes open for freelance writing opportunities for you. :)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate it!

  9. Kinbrook Island is nice, but very very popular and now all reserved. Good luck. Nearby (just a few km away) is another nice campground with similar amenities (on a reservoir, playgrounds, etc): Rolling Hills Reservoir Campground. They offer seasonal lease sites which eat up a good portion of their sites, but they do allow basically "day-of" reservations; you can call them and if they have anything open, they charge your credit card and you've secured a spot. The B-loop (the one at the bottom of the map) had a tree disease go through a few years back and destroyed most of the trees, so that loop is lacking in shelter and visual separation, but the rest is beautiful. NOT recommended for those with tents, or even tent trailers, as this campground runs automated irrigation (read giant sprinklers) and everything *must* be kept on the gravel pads or it'll get soaked (they also get mad). Even then, our truck camper got directly sprayed every night so I'm not sure it would be comfortable in a fabric-sided camping unit. As with Kinbrook, this area is prone to wind, so if you want to go boating, it can be really good for boating or days and days of high winds.