Thursday, May 28, 2015

Our New Favourite Alberta Camping Destination

I've written a lot about the best campgrounds and camping destinations in Alberta but we are starting to realize that most of our favourite ones are in Southern Alberta.  Dinosaur Provincial Park, Writing on Stone Provincial Park, AND Cypress Hills Provincial Park.

I'd written about Cypress Hills before and even listed it as one of the best camp destinations in Southern AB.  Then I removed it from my story on the best provincial park campgrounds in Southern Alberta because I realized I just didn't know enough about the area and needed to explore more.  We only camped there once when my son was quite young and all I could say was that the beach was nice.  However, there are closer beaches to access from Calgary and we always seemed to end up at Dinosaur Provincial Park every time we headed south for the weekend.

Cypress Hills Provincial Park and Elkwater Lake

We've now visited Cypress Hills a second time and LOVE it!  I can't wait to plan another trip next summer.


What's so Awesome About Cypress Hills Provincial Park

The Lake and Shoreline Trail

Elkwater Lake has a beach with sand to play in, a roped off area for swimming, and boat rentals.  There's also the awesome Shoreline Trail that passes by three playgrounds, leads you to a free mini golf course (payment by donation,) and that navigates through several marsh areas where you get to cross on wooden boardwalks.

Biking towards the West Day Use Area on the Shoreline Trail
Boardwalks on the Shoreline Trail in Cypress Hills Provincial Park

The boardwalks were a lot of fun to hike and bike over, and the Shoreline Trail is very easy for young children.  The section from the Marina to the East End Day Use Area has no boardwalks which would make it good for kids on scooters. 

Easy Biking on the East part of the Shoreline Trail


The Mountain Biking

We are always looking for new mountain bike trails and Cypress Hills definitely delivered! We tried a few trails during our three day weekend and came up with one clear favourite!

Starting off on the Horseshoe Canyon Trail

The Horseshoe Canyon Trail is one of my new fav. bike trails in the whole province. The trail is 4.1 km in length and can be ridden one way in the downhill direction in less than an hour (set up a shuttle with friends or have somebody drive down to the lake to meet you at the end.)  It's rated as an intermediate trail for biking and this seemed like a fair rating to us.

Easy double track riding on the Horseshoe Canyon Trail

We started from the Horseshoe Canyon viewpoint and after riding some rolling terrain on an old road, we proceeded to lose 190m of height as we rode down to lake level, coming out in the Old Baldy Campground.  There was one short section of single track riding near the end through a wide open meadow, but most of the ride was definitely on an old road and double track the whole time.  This made it easy for novice riders despite some bumpy hills, loose rocks, and a few interesting bits where the trail would turn sharply or become eroded in spots.

Riding across open meadows on the Horseshoe Canyon Trail

I would definitely say that a 20" bike with gears and hand brakes is the minimum requirement for this trail, but one of my son's friends did the ride with coaster brakes and no gears.  This also isn't the best choice for "first mountain bike ride."  Capable kids with previous mountain biking experience will love the ride though. 

The Horseshoe Canyon Trail is a great Evening Ride

Other Bike Trails we "Tested"

The Shoreline Trail and Soggy Bottom Trail - Easy, paved with wooden boardwalks, both follow the lakeshore.

The Sunset Trail - A continuation of the two easy trails above,  this 1.1 km long trail is not paved and serves as a great introduction to easy mountain biking for children.  It is not especially narrow as seen in the photo below as well.

Biking on the Sunset Trail

The Plateau Trail - We renamed this one to "Root City."   Do not bike this trail with kids.  We were mislead by the "easy" rating but that's clearly for hikers and not bikers with small 20" wheels.  Even I found the trail to be unpleasant on a bike. 

The Trans Canada Trail - This is another one that I can't entirely "recommend" with kids for a few reasons. The full length of trail is 8.3km one way with 127m of height gain.  It's rated as intermediate and the description mentions an old road.   We took that to mean it would be double track and relatively easy. We started from the Reesor Viewpoint and biked one way down to Reesor Lake.

The challenge with this trail is that we started off biking a few km across a wide open cow pasture.  It was beautiful as you can see from the photo below but it was bumpy, rough, and very unpleasant.  None of us enjoyed it.  It was also poorly signed near the beginning and we spent a bit of time trying to figure out where the trail went when we came to a ravine.  (Don't  go down into the ravine.  Stay high and bike around it.)

Scenic Riding on the Trans Canada Trail (not the same as "fun" riding)

We finally entered the trees and left the cow pasture behind only to find out we were now on a horse trail, equally bumpy and rough, and still not very pleasant.  Again, it was still pretty so I guess that's something...

Bumpy riding on the Trans Canada Trail

And the ending:  Finally smooth, finally some awesome riding, BUT - single track and very challenging.  My six year old was able to ride the full length down to Reesor Lake but I was not.  I found the trail to be too narrow, too twisty, and entirely too scary for my liking at this point.

The Descent down to Reesor Lake

We got down to the lake and then had to send my husband back up for the truck which was still at the viewpoint.  Not a fun way to end a ride, climbing uphill on the road.  If you're going to do this trail, set up a shuttle!

Next Time:

Next time we go to Cypress Hills, we want to try the Rangers Trail, Ridgetop Trail, and the Lakeside Trail at the Spruce Coulee Reservoir.  Let me know if you have experience biking any of these trails with kids please.

We rode the kids pretty hard

The Hiking Trails

We went for a lovely hike on the Old Baldy Trail up to a beautiful lookout over the lake.  Then we descended via the Firerock Trail past a glacial erratic that was fun to climb on.

Hiking on the Old Baldy Trail to the View Point
Great way to spend a chilly morning in Cypress Hills

Thanks to the awesome folks at the Visitor Centre, we also had these great scavenger hunt sheets to check off as we hiked.  The kids got pretty excited every time we found something on the list and we all learned more about the unique landscape around us.

For more information on trails in Cypress Hills, visit the Alberta Parks website.   All trails are multi-use for hiking and biking so make sure you pay attention and look out for bikers when hiking on narrow trails.

One of these is a "White Spruce" Right??
Climbing on the Glacial Erratic we found on the Firerock Trail

The Visitor Centre

It's always good to have an indoor place to retreat to when weather gets miserable.  The Visitor Centre in Elkwater is an amazing place to spend an hour or two.  There's two rooms full of interpretive displays, a toddler play area, and there's a restaurant next door.  The staff were also very welcoming and helpful.  They got us set up with scavenger hunt maps, maps of the disc golf course, information on everything to do from mini golf to biking and hiking, and spent a good deal of time highlighting recommended hiking loops and directions on maps for me.

Looking at the displays at the Visitor Centre in Cypress Hills
The kids were totally fascinated by the interpretive displays

The Campgrounds

We stayed in a group campground so I have no first hand information or opinion on which regular campground is "best."

I have theories though.
  • The main Elkwater Campground has a big open meadow for playing in with a playground.  It would be a great place for families to camp.  Best sites would be in loop C around the playground.
  • Old Baldy Campground is right at the bottom of the Horseshoe Canyon Trail.  This could be convenient if you were biking back to camp after being dropped off at the top.
  • Beaver Creek Campground has a playground and a nice little hiking/biking loop around it.
  • Firerock Campground is very close to the lake and a giant playground at the West End Day Use Area.  Loop A and AA are closest to the water and playground. 
For information on the campgrounds, go to the Alberta Parks website.  Reservations can be made in advance and many sites have power for RVs.

Camping in Cypress Hills

More Campground Reviews for Cypress Hills

Camping in Cypress Hills Provincial Park - Play Outside Guide

Firerock Campground Review - Play Outside Guide

Have you camped in Cypress Hills?  Which is your favourite campground?   Also, what did you enjoy doing best in the park?  I'd love to read your comments.


  1. Love it! You look like you and your family had a great stay and that you may be an Alberta Parks Ambassador in the making. Please check out

  2. You really haven't explored the whole park yet, the Interprovincial aspect with Fort Walsh on the Saskatchewan side, the fishing at Spruce Coulee Lake and Reesor Lake. Not a biker so can't comment on the trails for biking. There are also some wonderful drives around the back country of the east side of the park into Graburn Gap and to see the Survival Tree, we often see the Elk back on these trails. I grew up spending my summers in the hills and every time I return I still find something new.
    Since it is the same elevation at the top of the hills as the townsite of Banff the flora here is alpine and amazing when the wild flowers are in bloom.
    Hope you return often to continue to explore this amazing location.

  3. This is exactly the type of post I look for on a travel blog when I'm researching my own trips - good info, very clear, and lots of pictures. I'm going to Cypress Hills for the first time in a couple of weeks and your website is really helping me out.

  4. Great post - we have little kids and are looking to try out Cypress Hills. Thanks for taking the time to post all the details and to include pictures. Really appreciate it!

  5. What group camp site did you stay at? And would you recommend the group site? Was thinking of booking the main group site this summer. Love your reviews.

    1. We were at Willow Creek. It's not right down by the lake but we loved it. It's a beautiful campground, very big, and extremely private. There are no other campgrounds nearby. It has a big cook shelter too and a large fire pit.