If Crown Land camping is heaven for blue collar Central Albertan RVers, then Aspen Beach Provincial Park is the stairway they climb to get there. Aspen Beach is a massive campground and resort located on the southern shores of Gull Lake a few short kilometres east of Bentley, Alberta. With plenty of amenities, outdoor activities, and a reasonable two hour or less drive from anywhere along the Calgary to Edmonton QEII highway corridor, it is one of the premier family-friendly lake camping locales in the province.
Premier Family-Friendly Lake Focused Campground in Alberta
Or so I presume. Nothing taints a camping trip quite like poor weather and that’s exactly what we encountered during our stay at Aspen Beach in mid-to-late August of 2014. Alberta has a surplus of great assets, awesome summers is not one of them. And so it was that on our camping weekend we were greeted to daytime highs in the bottom teens and overnight lows of only +2 celcius. That’s a tad on the chilly side; more oh-crap-it’s-nearly-winter than I-wish-summer-would-never-end. I’ll try my best not to let this unfortunate climatic curve ball colour my review.
First and foremost, Aspen Beach is big. There are two large multi-loop campgrounds able to accommodate hundreds of campers with all varieties of camping gear from a simple tent to the most ridiculously large recreational vehicular mobile palace. To the south is Brewer campground which I infer was the original camping development. Brewer is fully unserviced but in my opinion has the nicer campsites, all back-in, surrounded by mature trees and shrubs and having a more free-form distribution. It is also closest to the main park amenities and day use area. To the west is Lakeview which I infer is a newer development thought hardly right off the showroom floor. Lakeview has over 200 sites 151 of which only have power while 77 are fully serviced, all pullthrough, and though mature trees abound it remains far less private than Brewer and is far less imaginative in its layout.
In addition to all this campground space, there is a large day use area complete with a modern, impressive beach-located playground, boat dock, and restaurant serving typical summer BBQ fair as well as ice cream. That ice cream window, which we did patronize despite the chilly temps, is surely a hopping place on hot summer days. There is also a large marsh area separating the two campgrounds, several large group camping spots (basically fields), and a handy path system connecting all points of the park. Many of these paths are paved which makes them ideal for cycling as well as hiking but there are many off-road trails for those seeking a walking adventure. The dump station is convenient and free plus $8/bag firewood is also offered.
We camped in Lakeview to accommodate our friends who wanted power for their trailer air conditioning. I had wanted to camp in Brewer to be closer to the large beach and playground but was content to acquiesce. Oh the irony, then, of August turning into October upon our arrival three months after having to book our campsites. I was somewhat surprised that Lakeview was not filled to overflowing on one of the final weekends of the summer but I suspect that more than a few campers stayed home on account of the chilly temps. We sucked it up and managed to have an enjoyable weekend even if we needed to bring out the campfire jackets midday.
Lakeview has a couple of smaller playgrounds that remain fun for the kids despite paling in comparison to the behemoth at the large beach in Brewer/Day Use Area. There is also a ball diamond by the one playground which is somewhat unique for campgrounds these days and would be a great spot for a group of campers with kids to play. As well, a small sandy beach is located near a picnic area alongside the other playground. This beach too is small by comparison to its Brewer brethren but sufficient for the kids to make sand castles or parents to catch a few rays. The main entry road into Lakeview also has wide ditches which the kids have turned into bike jumps. This was quite the draw for the kids in the campground that weekend, far more so than the beach or playgrounds. I imagine this improvised enjoyment gets a little hairy on days when the campground is packed and vehicle density at its peak.
Oddly, Lakeview has only one shower house for the entire campground. There are plenty of clean but dated bathrooms around yet only the one shower house and it is located a fair walk from most of the campsites. Brewer, by contrast, had four shower houses (if I recall correctly) for fewer campers. We were also in a power only site but there was a fresh water tap present in each loop.
The sites themselves are decent enough, though hardly beautiful. Ours was mostly packed gravel which made installing tent pegs a nearly impossible chore. Some sites have a bit more grass but lush lawns just aren’t happening here. Each site has a decent firepit with rough iron cooking grate on the side. And the large poplar trees offer shade (as if that was needed with the temps we endured) but as the picture shows, privacy between sites is minimal.
We didn’t swim (did I mention the weather?) but there were a few boats on the water while we were playing at the beach. This probably increases exponentially when the sun is out and the temperatures are climbing. Fun for those with boats, I imagine this gets a bit noisy on some days. I’d hope it diminishes into the evening. As for swimming, this lake looks like most other Alberta prairie lakes; decent enough if you’re eager enough to swim but a far cry from the Ontario Great Lakes I grew up with. To each their own.
Overall, I quite like Aspen Beach Provincial Park and Lakeview campground in particular. Disappointing weather notwithstanding, we all enjoyed our time there and as such I’d be willing to go back again. I’d certainly like to try out Brewer which despite the lack of services strikes me as more appealing campground. I like the less rigid layout and more privacy between sites. That being said, considering the activity in the day use area on a cold August weekend, I am quite certain this place would be an unmitigated gongshow on hot summer days! That would be a huge turn off for me and sticking to Lakeview might prove wise just for the cushion it would provide between our trailer and the hoards.
A Great Location That Likely Gets Too Busy
The location of Aspen Beach can’t be beat. An easy drive from either Edmonton or Calgary and within biking distance of Bentley, pretty much anything you need or forgot is easily obtainable. Kraay’s Family Farm, a fun place to entertain the kids for a few hours, is only a short drive away (more on this in an upcoming post). The amenities in the campground are easily sufficient for all but the most high-maintenance of campers. The marsh is a unique and appealing addition and makes for cool bird watching or a nice stroll on the boardwalk. The trails and wilderness provided ample geocaching opportunities which the kids loved.
I give Aspen Beach Provincial Park a provisional 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. As a family camping spot it seems pretty much perfect. I say provisional, though, because the place is so big I think it might take a couple visits to get a true feel for the place. At the very least, camping in both campgrounds seems fair before judging too harshly or optimistically. And the anomalous weather we encountered certainly affected our experience. If my concern about noise and crowding on sunny days is correct, this certainly would be a less appealing place for me personally. But I’m more finicky than most and I’m quite sure many Albertans are quite fond of this spot. I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough to find out.