Victoria Day. The long weekend with the antiquated name, unless you use the more colloquial May Two-Four, marks the unofficial start to summer for Canadians. There are spring cleaning and summer projects, sure, but more importantly BBQs and camping. Unless, of course, you live in Alberta where we’ve become all too familiar with everything from freezing temperatures to rain to even snow on this beloved weekend. So familiar are we that some of us (cough, cough, me) no longer even plan camping trips for the May long weekend, having been disappointed too many times by a moody Mother Nature.
This difficult but justified stance has served me well. Or it had, until this year when my curmudgeonly stay-at-home May Two-Four strategy was upended by a spectacularly sunny, pleasant weekend. You can imagine my apprehension at what weather awaited us the following weekend; a weekend I had planned our first camping trip of the year. It felt all too probable that Mother Nature would turn the tables on my scheming and send a late blast of winter our way. Thankfully, she is either in abnormally chipper spirits this spring or is setting us all up for a wildly unpleasant summer because the final weekend of May 2017 was another absolute winner by anyone’s definition.
And so it was that on that last weekend of May, the earliest we’ve ever tried, we loaded up our freshly de-antifreezed trailer and headed south from Calgary onto the open Prairies for a two night stay at Little Bow Provincial Park. Little Bow is a relatively small provincial park located on the north shore near the western end of Travers Reservoir. The closest town is Champion. We had never camped here before but have heard about it through the city grapevine. An easy 1 ½ hour drive from Calgary, Little Bow is a convenient campground and day use area for those looking to do something a little different than the usual mountain adventure or the busier lakes in the Calgary to Edmonton corridor.
There is no cell service here, or at least not down in the valleys where the campground and facilities are located. That’s one of the first things you’ll notice and it might spook those of us with unnatural attachment to our mobile devices. Fear not, if you hike up any of the hills to the plateau, a reasonable chore for most typically pudgy Westerner, you will be able to obtain cell service with most major carriers. The strength of signal varies depending on your provider, but it’s there and will enable you to check in with the latest kitten memes on Facebook or, umm, the office.
Fishing is a big draw at Little Bow, along with other boat related activities. There is a double boat launch and large boat parking lot available and we discovered several boats hitting the water first thing Saturday morning. A large floating dock complex is installed next to the launch with a main walkway and several spots to tie up your boat. Here you’ll find a hodgepodge of water lovers loading/unloading their boats, Seadoos and Kodiaks. Others simply fish off the dock, which we did for a couple hours each day. We are not seasoned fishers by even the most generous of parameters and came away empty handed on Saturday but others were catching fish from the dock. Sunday proved more eventful for us as we managed to catch not one, but TWO fish with a simple spoon set-up. They were decent sized fish, though I have no idea what they were; Walleye or Rocky Mountain White Fish the most likely candidates. This both excited and disappointed the kids who were left wishing they had caught the fish themselves.
Fishing at Boating at Little Bow
Seadoos and water-skiers are also found on the water but not in big numbers the weekend we camped here. Of course, despite the gorgeous weather this was still May so perhaps the die-hard water-skiers and tubers are waiting for warmer water in the summer. I bet on a hot, summer long weekend there’s plenty of noise.
The beach is the other big draw and it’s, well, kinda meh. It’s big enough, I guess, though its size depends on the water level. This is a man-made lake and the reservoir feeds a large irrigation network in the surrounding farmland so as the summer wears on the water level drops exposing more beach. As you can imagine, this is not a soft, sandy beach even by Alberta standards. It’s mostly gravelly, glacial till beach where the vegetation has been cleared exposing the earth. It’s kept clean and you can dig in it and lay on it well enough, but don’t expect to build much in the way of sand castles or expect to leave with happy feet if you forget sandals or shoes.
The lake looked clean with only a few spots of seaweed. Some branches and debris were strewn across the water from a recent wind storm but nothing that would gross out a squeamish swimmer. It’s also quite shallow in the designated swimming area so little ones can play safely and walk out a fair distance. An old, worn dock, presumably for swimmers to jump from, is located near the apex of the swim area roped off from the boaters. In all it makes for a nice bay with a horseshoe shaped beach. For prairie farmers starved of lake recreation, it may seem like paradise, but for anyone who’s actually spent time at a real beach, it’ll disappoint.
The large day use area associated with the beach is well suited to group activities with lots of shade trees and picnic tables. There is lots of parking here as well plus a large picnic shelter with four walls and a wood stove inside. The area is very grassy though this might dry out in the heart of summer. There are numerous paved paths between and within the campgrounds and day use area. These are handy but are in very rough shape and aren’t terribly smooth. They are okay for walkers and perhaps joggers but bikers might find them unpleasant, especially if you have a tender bottom.
There is a group camping area here as well, over by the day use area. Not sure how many big trailer units you can fit into it, but it’s another option for those looking to have their own space though it’s hardly private like at Miquelon Lake Provincial Park. Picnic tables and fire pits are plentiful as well as another large enclosed picnic shelter.
The biggest disappointment at Little Bow has to be the playgrounds. The park maps indicate two playgrounds, both located in the large day use area. This seems both logical and enticing to would be family campers and day trippers. However, when you finally see what constitutes a “playground” you’ll be terribly disappointed. The northern playground is a duo of small wood structures, neither of which will entertain kids for long. There also appears to be a large, former sandbox here but it is fully overgrown with weeds.
Venture south towards the boat launch, beach, and concession stand and you’ll find the second playground. It’s a large, metal swing set. Yup, that’s it. It looks like it was installed in 1960 and never touched since. Now, swinging can be fun, don’t get me wrong, but by modern standards this is a HUGE letdown. We’ve seen some massive playgrounds at various provincial parks throughout this province. Those located at day use beach areas tend to offer a significant adventure to the many kids at these lakes with their families. This was easily the weakest offering we’ve seen in this type of family oriented park.
Everybody Loves Ice Cream!
Hey now, did I mention a concession stand? Yes, I did. One starts to wonder how popular Little Bow Provincial Park gets. We were here at the end of May, so early in the season, and the campground was not filled. The electrical serviced loop, which we were in, was almost full but the non-serviced loops were sparsely populated on what was a beautiful, warm, and sunny weekend. I suspect during the summer holiday months, the place is much fuller but that is just a guess. The point is I can’t see any other reason to have a concession stand by the beach here. It’s modest, for sure, but you can get a selection of burger/hot dog fare plus ice cream. ICE CREAM! There are about a dozen flavours available with your choice of regular or waffle cones. However, when you consider that the Pigeon Lake Provincial Park concession stand is abandoned, and that’s presumably a bigger park nearer large urban areas, it’s a little shocking that Little Bow has one. And it was even open on a Friday night in late May. In addition to food, there is a small selection of beach toys and camping necessities. You won’t be doing your grocery shopping here but in an emergency, you can likely find a Band-Aid, sand bucket, or pop.
As for the camping itself, there were no surprises one way or the other. The three campground loops are decent. The sites are smallish but not obscenely so. There are plenty of large cottonwoods, Manitoba maples, and willows providing delightful shade for most sites. This is nice and desperately needed in the summer but these are old, haggard looking trees that won’t inspire photography. Hey, the serve a purpose.
None of the loops have water or sewer service, and only one loop has electrical service. Instead, there is a dense network of drinking water stations and pit toilets none ever too far from any site. There is one large, centrally located shower building which has flush toilets, sinks, and several shower stalls plus urinals in the men’s. My one gripe about this is that only a single, solitary flush toilet exists while there are six or more shower stalls. Another one would have been nice for those of us not inclined to use the stupid pit toilets.
All toilets, pit or otherwise, were clean. Then again, it was May so the season was young. Plenty of time remains to build up unpleasantness in the pit toilets as the summer heat builds. Still, you won’t be left feeling disgusted here if you’re a bit of a lightweight when it comes to real camping. A couple times each day we witnessed camp staff arriving at the various bathroom buildings to clean and stock up supplies. The showers are coin operated.
With so many campers hauling mobile homes these days, and no sewer service, the dump station is a key requirement and Little Bow has one just outside the park boundary. It’s your basic setup with two dump spots. The only reason I mention it specifically is that it costs a whopping $6 to use. I’m not sure what they think is so fancy about this dump station to justify that cost, but it seemed excessive to me.
All sites have fire pits and firewood can be purchased at the main office for $11 per bag. Ah, good ole inflation, though admittedly we are in the middle of the bald ass Prairies so this wood has to be shipped in from greener pastures to the west. Still, at $11 a bag, campfires can get expensive if you’re planning on cooking with them all weekend.
On the other hand, some things are free. As you near the entrance, one of the more noticeable fixtures of the horizon is the dozens of large wind turbines to the south of the reservoir. When you get down into the valley you will notice the upper portions of the blades slicing through the sky as you walk around. This is a bit startling at first as you are liable to think there are giant people scurrying along the ridge tops. More importantly, though, the presence of these turbines means one thing; wind. There is a near constant flow of air at Little Bow, even down in the valleys. It ranges from a peaceful breeze to a steady, gusting wind. I’m personally not a fan of wind, hate it in fact, but it does offer relief from the heat and bugs. Conversely, it poses a risk to awnings and tents. You don’t want to wander off from your site with your awning left up. Storms can rip through here with little warning and even when there is warning, as there was Saturday night, you can still get caught with a busted awning when a quick gust blasts through the campground. Always camp or boat cautiously.
Nature’s Wonder at Little Bow Provincial Park
The absolute highlight of our trip to Little Bow Provincial Park was the wildlife. There are deer and gophers, sure, but the birds are incredible. My son and I wandered over to the main office to buy some wood on the Friday evening as the sun was beginning its descent and while we were walking back to our site I heard a peculiar sound from in the trees overhead. I stopped to take a look at what bizarre creature might have made such a strange sound and discovered in the large cottonwood above, a mother Great Horned Owl and two of her owlets! Never in my life have I seen owls in nature like this. It was an incredible sight. We quickly gathered the rest of our family and all spent a good twenty minutes observing these incredible birds as they, in turn, observed us. This experience alone was worth the trip to Little Bow.
Based on our one May weekend experience, this is definitely an ideal family campground and park. There were several large family groups camping here with multiple units and multiple generations present but none got out of control. We were quite delighted at how quickly they quieted down as the bell tolled 11, the designated quiet time. People enjoyed themselves but were respectful of others. Kudos to park staff.
I didn’t mind our weekend at Little Bow Provincial Park but I did leave a bit disappointed with the state of the park. There’s a sense of dilapidation creeping into the park. There are information signs on the trails that are completely ruined leaving campers wondering what they once shared about the park’s ecosystem. This worn down ambience spills over to worn pathways, old, rotting dock, and overgrown sandbox among other things. The place is not in ruins, yet, but it sure could use a sprucing up. And a new, bigger playground is certainly warranted considering how many kids are coming here.
I give Little Bow Provincial Park 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. If you are expecting the grandeur of a mountain campground or the recreational facilities of an Aspen Beach or other major park in the Calgary to Edmonton sweet spot, you’ll be disappointed here. That said, it still offers a decent camping experience that’s great for families. It’s small but pretty in a uniquely Prairie river valley kind of way. It could be so much more with a little effort and some money. I’m sure we’ll come back here in the future thanks to its convenient location close to Calgary, but it won’t be our first choice each summer.