Drive almost anywhere in British Columbia and you’ll quickly come to realize that there are a LOT of trees there. You thought I was going to say marijuana, didn’t you? Well, there’s a lot of that there too, but it isn’t quite as obvious as the trees. From spindly lodgepole pine in the east to towering douglas fir in the west, the entire province is blanketed with forest.
Judging by the number of logging trucks you’ll inevitably pass on your travels, these trees are being cut down at a remarkable rate. Judging by the news from recent summers, these trees are being burned down in alarming volumes. Judging by the swaths of red or black you’ll see blotting the scenery in all directions, these trees are being killed by insects in staggering numbers. And yet, despite all this carnage, you will still be amazed by the endless sea of green cloaking the mountains, plateaus, and valleys of this beautiful province.
Which makes it all the more surprising when you arrive in a town like Smithers, in the heart of the gorgeous Bulkley River valley, and find a municipal campground completely barren of trees. Seriously, it looks as if they simply cut an open field in the midst of a forested park, beside a river, and installed a campground. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just, you know, expected trees.
Smithers is probably not the first place you think of when planning a summer camping vacation. Actually, it’s likely not a place you think of at all. Located roughly midway between Prince Rupert and Prince George in north-central BC, it’s a pretty little city nestled beneath the peaks and glaciers of Hudson Bay Mountain. This isn’t exactly prime tourist territory for Albertans, or anyone, save for the local communities unable or unwilling to head further south to renowned summer hotbeds like the Okanagan.
For us, however, it was the final destination of our two week 2017 BC camping adventure thanks to an uncle who has made Smithers his home for more than three decades now. That’s as good an excuse as any to make the 1700 km trek to a gorgeous, underappreciated part of the country, though I’m sure the locals would be happy to keep it that way. Some secrets are best not shared.
We had a five day stay planned for Smithers so we decided to break it up into two segments with the first few days camping in town, enabling us to visit and check out the local attractions. The last couple days we would head down the road a few clicks and camp at a provincial park in neighbouring Telkwa. More on that in an upcoming review.
The decision to stay within Smithers town limits was made easy by the existence of Riverside Municipal RV Park, a nice little campground tucked away near a meander in the Bulkley River on the east side of town. Operated by the town of Smithers, Riverside also serves as the gateway to a forested park area full of trails that residents use to walk their dogs, jog, and even fish in the river. We even saw evidence that the younger folk do other things down there as well (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
As I mentioned, there are no trees in the campground, so it is essentially a field with gravel roads and gravel lanes to demark the campsites. There are some shrubs along some sites and the grass is all mowed and such so I hope I’m not giving the impression this is a makeshift enterprise. It’s very much a proper campground, just very different from the wooded examples we’ve been camping in everywhere else in British Columbia.
The sites themselves vary in size but none feel cramped. You aren’t exactly reveling in privacy but you won’t feel like sardines either. The gravel pads are level and can accommodate a great range of RV sizes. A mobile picnic table and a fire pit accompany each site. All 28 sites have electrical, water, and sewer which was a luxurious break from tradition on this trip. Additional fresh water taps are located at several spots around the facility. There are an additional six tent campsites plus two overflow areas which are basically grassy areas that double as activity areas for those wishing to toss or kick a ball around.
There is no store or office here as you would expect being actually in a city. A quick drive, or even a walk, up the hill will get you to all the retail services you need for emergencies or otherwise. A campground supervisor does live on site in a trailer and he will get you registered and paid up. He’s a bit, umm, grumpy but otherwise helpful.
Washrooms come in two varieties, with pit toilets located in a couple spots around the perimeter of the campground while a modern shower house with two showers, one toilet, and a sink is found near the entrance. The shower building itself looks dated and unremarkable, but the interiors appear to have been updated relatively recently. All were clean and provided warm, cleansing showers free of charge. These, too, are of the push button style but the shower is roomy and the water temperature consistent. Oh, and the shower head is actually in a convenient location so kudos to Smithers plumbing community.
The playground at Riverside Municipal RV Park was a huge hit with our kids, as it was for all the other children camping here. It’s a unique, custom-built, wooden playground, presumably made from the trees they cut down to create the campground. There are large, robust climbing contraptions in the shape of a large train, a large airplane, and a fort making for terrific imaginary play. It was a novel divergence from the typical metal playgrounds found almost everywhere nowadays and we had a tough time getting our kids to leave it.
Free WiFi is available but it’s finicky depending on your location. We were at the far end of the tiny campground and reception was intermittent, often requiring me to leave the trailer and wander around our site area until I picked up the signal. Of course, if you just need a quick check of email or wish to look up a place to eat, it’s not such an inconvenience to stroll a bit closer to the WiFi source, presumably located in the attendant’s trailer. There is also a 75mb limit to this free WiFi so you won’t be streaming Netflix with it.
Riverside, as its name suggests, is situated on the west bank of the Bulkley River next to a large forested area. The trail system along the river and into the bush is wide and well-loved by locals and you’ll be drawn to it for a walk or hike during your stay. Loving to collect river rocks like we do, this is a perfect spot with a large, stony point bar an easy stroll from the campground. You’ll find an endless supply of beautiful igneous and metamorphic stones to enchant your inner rock hound.
Despite being in the midst of a city, you’d never know it while in the campground. Being down in the river valley, surrounded by park and trees, you don’t actually see the civilization all around you. It’s also surprisingly quiet at night. It was a perfect setup for campers like ourselves who enjoy a more natural setting but desired easy access to touristy amenities while visiting family.
Now, when I booked this campground I was expecting it to be a bit of a dump. It wasn’t. I also expected it to be sparsely used. It wasn’t. We arrived on a Saturday in mid –August and I estimate it was 85% full. The next morning the campground almost completely emptied out aside from the attendant, us, and a couple other units. Yet, but that evening it was nearly full again suggesting Riverside gets a lot of campers passing through doing the one night stand deal. If travelling to or from the coast, I can see this being the perfect overnight spot on such a trip.
As a basecamp for our Smithers adventure, Riverside Municipal RV Park turned out to be a delightful surprise and suited our needs perfectly. It would be nicer if it had some trees but it’s not like trees are hard to find nearby. I’ll give it 3 ¾ Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a great spot if you’re visiting Smithers or just passing through. Not so sure you’d choose it as an actual vacation spot; there are lots of options around outside the city for that but otherwise it’s a pleasant, pretty spot to stay for a night or two.