Friday, May 31, 2013

Camping in Kananaskis: The Elbow Valley

Up until this spring we had camped throughout Kananaskis Country but had always passed over the Elbow Valley for some reason.  With its close proximity to Calgary I guess we always figured we could just head out for day trips and that there was no strong reason to say overnight.  Having kids changes things though and you start looking for campgrounds that you can use as a base camp for weekend adventures.  You could just go out for a cute little 2km hike on Saturday - OR, you can go out for the whole weekend and do a couple of short hikes, add a bike ride, have a picnic, play in the Elbow River, and just chill a bit.

The Beautiful Elbow Valley

Choosing a campground before the May long weekend was relatively easy since we only had two options to choose from:  McLean Creek or Gooseberry.  And, since I'm fairly terrified of camping near an off-road vehicle area, the choice became even easier.  Gooseberry it was!  Gooseberry Campground is the first campground you pass by when you enter the Elbow Valley past Bragg Creek.  Located right beside the visitor centre, it's a great campground for newbies to the area and makes for a great staging area to explore the whole valley.

A typical campsite at the Gooseberry Campground

What we liked about Gooseberry Campground:
  • Early season camping possibilities - the campground opens at the beginning of May
  • The campground is open into October for those wanting to extend their camping season through Thanksgiving  (note to self - turkey frier and Thanksgiving camping trip at Gooseberry)
  • There was a playground with a wide open meadow area for playing in - and we found no ticks when we were there. (always a plus!)
  • If you are with a group it would appear from our experience that any number of trailers, tents and vehicles can share a site!  This was a negative for us because it made for a noisy campground at times.  However, it could be a plus if you were the noisy group wanting to cozy up on adjoining sites. 
  • No reservations required - something I look for in early season camping because I'm too scared to book ahead for fear it might be snowing.
The meadow and playground at Gooseberry Campground

What we did not like about Gooseberry:
  •  As mentioned above, the campground got noisy at night because the general rule of one trailer per site was not enforced - at all! I kid you not that we counted up to 5 or 6 vehicles on some sites with up to two trailers and multiple tents.  (and no, these were not double sites) 
  • There are no hiking or bike trails accessible right from the campground so you have to drive to do anything.  (it's a short drive to trailheads so not a big deal in the long run, but it is still a negative strike.)
Testing out our new trailer

Our original plan was to camp at the Paddy's Flat Campground or Beaver Flats Campground further up the valley until I discovered that the highway wasn't open yet past Elbow Falls.   Were we to return now with everything open for the summer season, we would definitely choose one of these campgrounds.  Both campgrounds feature trailheads for hiking and biking so you could potentially stay at your campground all weekend and never have to get into your car - something I look for when choosing the "perfect" camping destination.  And as with Gooseberry, both campgrounds are non reservable so you can show up on any nice weekend and "hopefully" get a site.  (go early on hot summer weekends and consider leaving on Thursday night if you want to ensure you get a site.)

Taking a walk in the Paddy's Flat Campground

If you are looking for a reservable campground so that you can drive out with peace of mind that you have a spot, The Little Elbow Campground is the only one that takes reservations in advance.  While we have never camped here, trailheads abound from the campground and you could easily entertain yourself for a weekend without leaving camp.

Little Elbow Campground

No matter which campground you choose in the Elbow Valley, there are trails in abundance to explore on foot or on bike, rocks to throw in the Elbow River, waterfalls to visit, ponds to fish in, equestrian trails to ride on, designated areas for your off-road vehicles, and even secret little beaches.

Playing in the Elbow River at the Elbow Falls Day Use Area

Below are my top picks for family-friendly activities in the Elbow Valley.  Head out for a day trip or bring your tent and set up a base camp for the weekend.  I guarantee your family will not be bored!  I have used the campgrounds mentioned above as a jumping off point for the activities below.  I've also included links for trail directions, distances and additional information. 

Hiking on the Sulphur Springs Trail

Gooseberry Campground:

Allen Bill Pond

Rest stop on the Fullerton Loop Hike

Paddy's Flat Campground:

Biking on the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail
Secret beach on the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail

Beaver Flats Campground:
Playing in the ponds on the Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail
Biking on the Beaver Flats Trail

Little Elbow Campground: 

Chariot Hiking on the Big Elbow Trail
Hiking on Powderface Ridge

McLean Creek Campground:

Biking Note:  The Paddy's Flat and Beaver Flats Interpretive Trails are not official bike trails.  They are recommended for small slow-moving children only that will give way to pedestrians and who can handle some very easy mountain biking.  The best family biking trail would be the Riverview Trail.

Final shot of the Beaver Flats Hiking Trail

Do you have other things you like to do in the Elbow Valley?  We are always looking for fun new hikes and things to do close to home. 

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