June 2011

My family loves camping and we try to do as much of it as possible. While we like to venture far and wide, there are times when we just want to get out of the city and not drive forever to do it. Fortunately for us all there are many great campgrounds within a 2 hour drive of the city that are totally spectacular, really family friendly and just generally great places to be.

But before I start talking about some of the close ones and a few of our favorites, I wanted to talk about the differences between privately owned campgrounds and government run (Provincial Parks or National Parks) campgrounds. My family prefers the government campgrounds over private campgrounds, but both have their pros and cons.

Government campgrounds offer incredible scenery, educational programs, hiking paths, reasonable washroom facilities, basic but nicely maintained sites and little variation in the level of service between different campgrounds. Whether you go to a National Park campground in Ontario or one in Alberta, you know you will get generally the same level and quality of service.  Private campgrounds do not offer the same consistency: you can get anything from a site that is merely a roughed out patch of dirt with some rocks ringing the fire pit to fully serviced, paved lots with cable TV and hot tubs, or anything in between. Essentially they are a crap shoot and you have to do a little more research to know what you are getting. Keep in mind that fully serviced sites, in both Private and Public campgrounds have less spacing between then, and therefore less privacy.

Privately owned campgrounds also tend to supplement their business with permanent sites; sites that are leased or sold to people for their exclusive use, either on a weekly, monthly or annual basis.  Often these are very family oriented developments.  People buy a trailer lot because it’s cheaper than a cottage and they can go there with their family. However there are some campgrounds where permanent sites are used as affordable housing and there are very questionable people hanging around (think Trailer Park Boys).  The other downside to this, as we experienced recently is owners will often erect different fences, put out flower pots, install lawn ornaments or generally decorate their sites in a way that makes the park look like a hodge podge. These items will often impede access to the trailer sites, making it difficult to maneuver.

Picking a campground is like going out to eat.  Government campgrounds are like eating at McDonald’s: it may not be gourmet but you always know what you are going to get. Private campgrounds are akin to a local boutique restaurant; the food may turn out to be phenomenal, but you have no clue what you’ll get until your order has arrived and now you are committed.

Speaking of commitment, reservations are always a good thing to have, especially on a long weekend.  The reservations system for the National Parks is good, but I love the Alberta Parks system. It has photos and 360 degree panoramic virtual views of all the campsites. You can see how close to the dump, main road, etc you are and if your site will accommodate your unit. Having said that, it doesn’t usually give directions to the campgrounds, which I find annoying. Private campgrounds range from great online reservations to spotty telephone service.  And keep in mind that no one (neither private or public) seems capable of making a campground map that is to a reasonable scale; the sites always look bigger and farther apart then they really are…

As promised, here are some campgrounds about a 2 hour drive of Calgary.

Mount Kidd RV Park and Campground is a private campground that offers year-round Kananaskis camping in the Canadian Rockies. It can accommodate everything from tents to massive RV’s and has both fully serviced and no hook up sites. Other amenities include tennis courts, children’s play areas, a kids wading pool, riverside picnic sites, paved bicycle path, walking paths, and an amphitheater. There is also a craft and activity hour for children. Unfortunately, the hot tub is closed indefinitely 🙁

Directions: Take 22x west to 22, also known as Cowboy Trail.  Stop at the Chuckwagon in Turner Valley for the Best. Breakfast. Ever! Take AB 549 West and this will eventually lead you to Mount Kidd Drive.

Stay and Play at Calaway Park is extremely close to the city.  This may not be your first choice to camp, but it does have its appeal a for proximity to the park. At least you can wake up with a view of the mountains and be just a short walk away from Western Canada’s Largest Outdoor Family Amusement Park!

Directions: Go west on Highway 1.  Take the Exit for Springbank Road and head south to the park.

Old MacDonald’s Farm is on the south shore of Buffalo Lake near Stettler.  Okay, so maybe this one is almost 3 hours from town but it’s certainly worth the trip. This facility has campsites suitable for tents to RV’s and many different group sites (definitely worth it if you like to go camping with large groups of friends or family).  Full service, partial service and unserviced sites available.  Old MacDonald’s also has go karts, a petting zoo, a ‘train’ that goes around, and a beautiful beach.  Even Melissa, the anti-camper, enjoyed her stay at Old MacDonald’s last year. (It might have been due to the cappuccino bar on the premises).

Directions: Take Hwy 2 North, then East on Highway 12 to Alix then East (left) on Highway 601.  Follow the signs to the resort.

The 3 campgrounds at Tunnel Mountain are another great choice mostly for the amazing views and proximity to Banff (there is even a transit bus that runs to the campground) although we personally don’t like the sites at the Tunnel Mountain Village II.  The great thing about national parks is you pay $8.80 per day for a fire permit and they provide all the wood you can burn.  Because we often go with other families, we usually only get one permit and we all sit around the same fire for hours on end.  The downside is there are no playgrounds.

Directions: Head West on Highway 1 to Banff, take the first exit.  Turn left at the Tunnel Mountain Road Signs.

Aspen Beach Provincial Park includes the Brewers and Lakeside campgrounds on the shores of Gull Lake.  Brewers has a huge playground right on its wonderful beach.  The spots are lovely and the location is great.  One year we got totally rained out, so we took the opportunity to drive a little over an hour into Edmonton to spend the day at the mall.

Directions:  Go straight up Highway 2, then west on Highway 12.

Bow Valley Provincial Park is one that I must have driven by a thousand times and never realized was there. It is just east of Lac Des Arcs and nestled in Kananaskis country.  Close proximity to Canmore and Banff are a plus, the river is nearby and they have entertaining interpretive programs.  I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the different types of squirrels on one trip…

Directions: West on Highway 1 to the Highway 40 (Seebe) Exit.  Also known as the 1x because this is a connector road between Highway 1 and the old Highway 1A.  The road to the campground is on your left hand side, and is almost immediately after you exit.  The first time I went here I drove right past it and didn’t realize it until I hit 1A…

Wyndham -Carseland Provincial Park is another great Alberta campground, but it’s first come first serve so it definitely makes sense to go out early for the weekend. Loop C has a great playground and open field bordered by about 7 sites so that is where we like to set up our camp. There is also great access to the river if you like fishing or wading, but watch out because the river is high and fast at the beginning of the summer.  However, in August it is a lot lower and we did enjoy it immensely when my children found some mud… There are Saskatoon bushes everywhere in the campground and the kids had a ball picking the berries for snacks.

Directions: Take Highway 22x East, then South on Highway 24.  It is your first right as soon as you cross the bridge over the Bow River.

Helen and Billy Playing in the mud by the Bow River in Wyndham Carseland Provincial Park

My kids playing in the mud they discovered by the Bow River in Wyndham Carseland Provincial Park

As I said, these are just a few of the ones we have been to or heard about.  www.gorving.ca has a great “Find a Campground” tool that you can use!

So if you feel the need to get out of the city, but don’t want to go too far, give one of these a try!

Happy Camping!