As of this exact moment, we have camped in eight of Canada’s national parks. We’ve also stayed in two others (hotels) and driven through four others, since we’re keeping stats. With each new national park we visit, our affection for these Canadian treasures grows exponentially. So too does our expectation, I suppose, which is why there was a tinge of shock accompanying our disappointment with Kouchibouguac National Park.
Kouchibouguac is the second of two national parks in the province of New Brunswick and coincidentally it was the second stay on our East Coast Mega-adventure. Prior to planning this trip, I never would have guessed the relatively small New Brunswick would have two, fairly large, national parks within its borders. Saskatchewan, many times its size only has two national parks. Manitoba, also much larger, also two parks. I was intrigued by this blessing of parks bestowed upon the first Maritime province we encounter when traveling east and not wishing to choose one or the other, we structured our travel plans to camp at both Fundy National Park and Kouchibouguac. With friends living in Moncton, conveniently nestled between the two (how fortunate for those folks), time at both parks fit well with our plans to take in the sites of that city as well (Magnetic Hill anyone?).
In retrospect, following Fundy was a fool’s errand in many ways. With the bar set so high right off the bat, whichever park came next was almost bound to be a letdown. Still, our experience with national parks had been so universally positive, I really didn’t expect Kouchibouguac to be any different. Sure, it may not quite reach the pinnacle of Fundy, but it would still be pretty great. And in a way it was. But it also wasn’t. Every rule has an exception after all.
The weather didn’t help matters. The day we moved our trailer from Fundy to Kouchibouguac, the early July heatwave that had dogged us starting in Ontario reached its apex with a smothering humidex surpassing 42 degrees Celsius. Good Lord, it was hot. That had me crusty from the get go.
Our second day it rained. Not that rain in and of itself is a bad thing. I actually quite enjoy camping in the rain. Being cooped up in a trailer playing board games and eating treats while rain patters on the roof and water sheets down the windows, makes me feel like a kid again. But it does limit your ability to explore and enjoy a national park.
And finally, our third day the winds picked up causing plenty of discomfort on the beach. As I will elaborate upon in a bit, the beach is the primary attraction at Kouchibouguac and this became our first exposure to the ability of ocean-born winds to sandblast your body. Hey, it’s cheaper than an exfoliation treatment at a spa. But that would all some later.
Our first day continued on the wrong foot when arrived at South Kouchibouguac Campground and had our wood confiscated by the curt staff person minding the entry kiosk. Our onboard firewood that we brought with us from Fundy was a risk for the importation of invasive insects. Never mind the fact it was wood purchased at a national park in the very same province. Never mind that it was the very same kiln-dried, plastic-packaged firewood they were selling at this very national park. It was from outside the park and was a risk. The park employee exited the kiosk with a giant, clear garbage bag and ensnared our biohazard wood within it before depositing it all in a locked, metal cabinet. It was not the best start to our visit.
Located southeast of MIramichi on the eastern shores of New Brunswick (if you had superhero eyes you could see the western tip of PEI), Kouchibouguac National Park has two campgrounds; the aforementioned South Kouchibouguac and Côte-à-Fabien. Oddly enough, the two campgrounds are essentially across a river from each other and yet it requires a half hour drive to get from one to the other. You require a backtrack to the park entrance in order to find a bridge over the river. As such, the smaller Côte-à-Fabien is considered to be isolated. It is also smaller, has no services, and eleven of the thirty-two sites are walk-ins.
South Kouchibouguac, by comparison, is a monster of a campground with over two hundred sites of every configuration and atmosphere imaginable. Okay, that might be hyperbole, but there really is a wide variety of sites to choose from ranging from un-serviced to fully serviced and densely forested to wide open. There are even multiple versions of oTENTiks located in the wooded areas, some with outside electrical and others without power. You can also rent a fully equipped campsite which is a good way to cut your camping teeth with limited expense. Concerned about mosquitoes and humidity when we booked, we chose a compromise site that was partially shaded, nearer the shoreline, and had full services.
Our site ended up being quite nice. It was level, with an open centre surrounded by trees providing a decent amount of privacy. It was spacious and to the rear we backed onto a large open green space which provided a great place to play catch. The site was level and came with a picnic table. Unfortunately, the firepit here was the same as in Fundy, a rectangular box with flip-top grill. I still don’t like these types of pits as they are really lame for sitting around watching a campfire.
Some of the sites were truly open and these also tended to be the bigger sites in the campground. Some were legitimately huge; leaving me to wonder if they’d simply forgotten there was space for more campsites in some areas. Conversely, the forested sites were definitely that; forested. Cut into thick mixed woods, though dominated by conifers, these sites were dark and humid. As we wandered around the campground we convinced ourselves that we’d made the right decision reserving in the more open area. I typically love well-shaded campsites, but in this heat and humidity, these forested sites were just too suffocating. I can only imagine what the mosquitoes are like in them.
If I could change one thing about our lovely site, it was the potable water tap directly on our site, alongside the road. Convenient, sure, but when a couple of unsupervised kidlets start fighting with each other as they play with the water tap, it gets tiresome. These taps provide drinking water and are located at regular intervals around the campground but I’d have preferred not having one quite so close to me.
There is also drinking water available at the dump station for RV’ers using un-serviced sites. Located near the campground entrance, the dump station has two lanes and two stations. This is becoming repetitive in my reviews, but there you have it. It’s also free to use. Not sure how busy it gets on Sundays, but hopefully the high number of sites with sewer service prevents lines from getting too long.
The bathrooms are fully functional with flush toilets, sinks, and showers. The flush toilets are massive, old-school seven gallon suckers that’ll lower the ocean level when flushed. I haven’t seen those in a long time. The showers are push button, non-adjustable units. They were free but a bit underwhelming in warmth. The sinks, conversely, were hot as the blazes, so it’s not a shortage of heating capacity resulting in lukewarm showers! If only there was a way for people to adjust the heat to their own liking.
Several washrooms in the campground were closed during our stay and we discovered they were being renovated; completely gutted and rebuilt. Thankfully the washroom closest to our campsite was still open. Had it not been, I would have been significantly upset since bathroom location is something we take seriously when reserving sites and there was no indication these renovations were happening when we booked. I’m sure once finished and re-opened, these new washrooms will be slick but for now they are an inconvenience to campers.
Outside our bathroom (and presumably with the renovated ones as well) are dishwashing stations with large stainless steel sinks. And again, there are cook shelters next to the bathrooms, in this case directly attached to them. I really like this setup. These picnic shelters are rustic and perfectly fit the ambiance of the parks they are in. Having a central spot with picnic tables, washrooms, and cleanup station is great for groups of campers, be they family or friends, to gather for communal meals. I haven’t seen anyone use them yet, and the weather and time of year probably plays into that, but it would be a shame if these great facilities are left untouched.
One conundrum we faced was the garbage stations which are located in several spots around the campground. It seems we are expected to separate our refuse into three types of waste but they aren’t necessarily the same waste categories we were familiar with. Furthermore, the labelling on the bins wasn’t clear as to which bin some items should go, like glass. Never mind the fact that we are in a small trailer and have a single garbage pail rather than a suite of refuse containers. I’m all for recycling, but we found these stations more confusing than helpful and like many others just put everything in the trash. Insert frowny face.
You can buy firewood at the campground entrance which I had to do after ours was confiscated. It is only $4 per bag (2018 pricing) here despite being the exact same firewood you buy for 50% greater cost at Fundy National Park two hours away. I really don’t understand any of this.
What you can’t buy at the campground entrance is anything else. It is just a kiosk and there is no store here. But fear not, unlike other parks out east, there is a store in the campground, or very near it. Just outside the eastern boundary of the campground, on the way to Ryan’s Rental Centre where there was nothing available to rent, is a store. You can easily walk there or bike but you can also take a less direct drive there as there is a parking lot for vehicles. This is most relevant to those coming to launder their clothes as there is also a laundromat in the other half to the store.
The store is surprisingly large but it was sparsely stocked when we were visiting. They have a selection of groceries and I was able to purchase an overpriced bottle of BBQ sauce that I’d forgotten to get during our grocery shopping earlier in the day. There is a small selection of camping gear and vacation toys. Chips and pop can be bought and they have a selection of slushie machines which I’m sure are popular during the summer. As for cold treats, well, they have a freezer in which you’d normally find popsicles and freezies but it was empty … in July … when it was thirty-six degrees outside. Maybe the store was managed by the same folks who abandoned the canoe rental business. Or maybe this park is just incompetent when it comes to retail (even the gift shop was strewn with unopened boxes of knickknacks). Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for a poorly stocked ice cream freezer!
The laundromat is convenient and, importantly, air conditioned. There are 3 washers and 3 dryers and they each cost $2. This is a dollar less than Fundy and seems a very reasonable price these days.
If you walk to the store/laundromat through the campground itself rather than the riverside trail, you will likely pass the outdoor theatre along the short piece of trail connecting the campground to the store parking lot. It’s a cute little theater with a stage, a lighting/projection building, and several wooden benches for sitting. I couldn’t find much advertising for any productions at the theatre so I’m not sure how regularly it is used, if at all. It would be a shame if it wasn’t, but considering the condition of the other venues here it wouldn’t be surprising.
I suppose I should say something nice about the place, so here’s an oddity that was most welcome. South Kouchibouguac Campground has free Wi-Fi. It is strong in some places and weak in others, but it is present there. We were able to (barely) get it at our site and we were nowhere near the source of the signal. It is password protected and you get daily passwords at the entry kiosk. If you are staying more than a night, they can give you several passwords at once, each lasting a day. It was an unexpected perk out there in the wilderness.
Also odd for such a large campground, there was only one playground and it was located off to the north-western edge. A mix of vintage swings and a small, more modern plastic and metal slide and climbing apparatus, our kids were unimpressed and ignored the thing which is too bad because it was an easy walk from our site. Many other kids were less finicky and kept that playground busy much of the day when the weather cooperated. Perhaps another, newer, more imaginative playground on the other side of the campground is warranted?
Our kids weren’t bored, however, with that large open space plus a rather unique park program that was offered during the mornings. A couple loop roads away from us, the campground opens fully up and in there is another grassy area in which a portable canopy has been set up. Here park staff entertains children with multiple games and activities for a couple hours. We thought it was worth checking out and ended up staying for most of an hour playing ball hockey on grass. Hey, you do what you have to during off season.
Inside the tent, arts and crafts were available to the creative types along with simple board games. A game of bingo was eventually played for all interested and the morning finished with an educational scavenger hunt around the immediate area. We didn’t do any of that because, well, HOCKEY, but it’s a great way to amuse the kids and have some family time.
We attempted other forms of entertainment and that’s when our disappointment with Kouchibouguac started to show. We had arrived the first week of July, the beginning of the peak summer season. Our kids were keen to do some canoeing, as a Canadian is want to do in the summer, but were stunned to discover that the canoe rental facility was barren. There was staff in the building but they had no canoes to rent whatsoever. I couldn’t believe it.
I immediately did what everyone does these days and I made a snarky comment on Twitter. Parks Canada replied that they had an issue with a third party vendor and would be getting their own canoes available to rent in the coming weeks. A better reason than simply being unprepared, I guess, but not the best look for a national park in a country that claims to have invented canoes.
Fat tire bikes were also available to rent but again, supply was lacking. There were only three such bikes actually there. Even had we wanted to rent bikes instead of canoes, there weren’t enough for us to go as a family. This just left us bitter.
Another family had a better idea for enjoying Ryan’s rentals as we saw a father and kids fishing on the dock where the canoes once launched. We didn’t stick around to see if they caught anything, but they were having more fun that we were at that moment. I suppose had we brought our fishing gear, we could have joined them.
Speaking of bikes, even at this early stage of our trip we were regretting our decision not to haul our bikes across the country. We had taken them on previous long camping trips and rarely used them so this time, going further than ever before, we left all our bicycles at home. What a mistake. The national parks in the Maritimes are remarkably cycle friendly with many wide, finely graveled bike trails connecting points of interest throughout campgrounds and parkland. Nowhere was this more obvious than at Kouchibouguac where lines of bike racks at Kellys Beach were filled with bikes.
What’s Kellys Beach, you ask? Well, it just happens to be the primary reason Kouchibouguac is a park at all. One kilometer offshore lays a string of barrier islands, one of which hosts Kellys Beach. Boasting the warmest Atlantic waters north of the Carolinas, the beach is an endless ribbon of white sand. But don’t let that boast fool you. It’s more a testament to how cold the north Atlantic is everywhere else in the Maritimes. We didn’t swim in these waters and when the winds picked up on our third day they were downright frigid.
Others aren’t so wimpy, and with the hot weather there were several folks out swimming. It was early July so there was time yet for the waters to warm as summer progressed, but I still don’t think I’d be rushing to swim here. These may be the warmest waters north of the Carolinas, but you aren’t visiting a Myrtle Beach twin.
I should also mention that while we were on the beach, yet another park program was taking place a few paces away from us. Park staff was teaching the art of sand sculpture and many families and couples were happily constructing turtles, sharks, and octopi with sand and water. Our kids were too shy to partake, but what a great idea for a program and the perfect setting as well.
The beach is quite pretty and is no doubt lots of fun on calm, sunny days, not to mention busy on long weekends. It is attached to the mainland by a wonderful kilometer long boardwalk that winds its way across the lagoon and onto the barrier island. There are two pitstops along the boardwalk, one which is a pit toilet that honestly must be the single most disgusting toilet on the planet. It just sits out there baking in the sun. I can’t imagine how desperate one must be to use such an abomination.
The other is a gathering place with displays teaching about the local wildlife of the park. At certain intervals during the day, a park ranger mans this spot and gives a short presentation on a specific animal (the animal in question changes daily) and answers any questions you might have. We stopped to chat on one of our visits, and learned about the Great Horned Owl. Other animals we read about but missed the presentation for were the river otter and the moon snail. Google moon snail. It’s a nasty little bugger.
On the mainland, at the origin of the boardwalk are large changerooms, a small canteen and a picnic area. You can buy the usual grilled pub foods and soft serve ice cream treats. The entire canteen complex is wooden with boardwalk paths leading you to various portions of the picnic area. All of this under the comforting shade of large trees. It’s quite a nice little area and obviously popular judging by the number of bikes and cars there even on a less than stellar day weather-wise.
Callanders Beach is another spot for water fun but its name is a bit misleading. A few kilometers up the road from Kellys, Callanders Beach is mostly just the lagoon behind the barrier island. It’s calm back here but still windy and there were people trying to windsurf and parasail along the lagoon. The shallow waters are also good for wading and, presumably, the water might be warmer back here. You can even dig clams with a permit. We had a look at it but didn’t really understand why it was called a beach. We didn’t venture out for a wade or a walk either. What we did do instead was sit in on the First Nations Heritage interpretive program that is offered at Callanders Beach.
When you drive into this area you’ll quickly notice the two large tipis and the skeleton of a wigwam sitting off in an open field. A young member of the Mi’kmaq, dressed in colourful beaded robes, gives a lengthy presentation on traditional hunting techniques, beading, and social customs of the first peoples to populate this area. Visitors are asked to join in the dancing and practice their hunting prowess by walking silently with bells on their ankles. It was an interesting and potentially fun presentation but ultimately it fell flat and we soon left. The whole production was slow and stilted while at other times rambling and incoherent. Few props were used. Being able to see actual tools, even if reproductions, would have been helpful in understanding the hunting weapons rather than trying to interpret vague gesticulations. These Parks Canada programs are often done by volunteers and they do so out of passion but this one just seemed too amateur to enjoy. It was another disappointment.
Beyond the beaches, there are other sources of outdoor pleasure at Kouchibouguac including hiking. Several trails wind their way around the park taking you to natural points of interest. These hikes are all pretty easy as the lay of the land is mostly flat in this part of New Brunswick. Distances are also fairly short, with only the trail along the river getting beyond a couple kilometers in length.
We chose to venture out onto the Bog for our hike during a break in the rains. This two kilometer trek begins in the forest but quickly turns to a raised, peat bog which is all but barren of anything much higher than your knees. At the transition from forest to bog stands six meter lookout tower offering a wonderful view of the sizable bog. The dirt trail takes you to the centre of the bog and along the way you will pass lots of flowering shrubbery and carnivorous Pitcher Plants. It’s an eerie yet beautiful place and we all enjoyed the hike.
Enjoying our time outside, we next went to La Source, a day use area a few kilometers further west of the campground. You can drive here or you can hike/bike there directly from the campground. We drove since no bikes. We ventured into the woods on a geocache hunt, which we did find but quickly abandoned as the mosquitoes in there were a nightmare! Good ole swampy, damp forest is a haven for those damned flying evils and they were thrilled to see us wander in there unprepared. With proper attire and sprays, these forest trails would be nice strolls so don’t discount them. Just come with correctly equipped.
As a day use spot, La Source is uninspired. It’s basically a grass field beside the river with a pit toilet, some picnic tables, and a set of the infamous Parks Canada red chairs. As a picnic spot there really isn’t much to do other than sit around and eat, maybe toss a Frisbee. There’s no beach or playground to keep everyone entertained. Then again, such peaceful simplicity has its own merits.
Eventually the rains halted our exploration and we decided to have a look at the impressive Visitor Centre. It is located at the entrance to the park which meant a slow, thirteen kilometer drive from the campground. I wish these facilities were more easily accessed from the campground. I understand the need for a park office at the park gate but the majority of the guests are inside the park, many at the campground and beaches. The displays, museums, and gift shops would be more regularly frequented and even a tad more lucrative if park visitors could actually walk or bike to them.
Nonetheless, Kouchibouguac has a great Visitor Centre with helpful park staff to answer questions, a gift shop to pick up some keepsakes, and a large museum detailing the history of the peoples who have called Kouchibouguac home over the centuries. This includes both First Nations peoples and Acadians, many of whom were encouraged to abandon their small towns when the park was established. Another area has interactive displays, both manual and digital, teaching about the wildlife and flora of the park. This was a great way to spend an hour while the rains poured.
I struggle to grade Kouchibouguac National Park. It wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it was the only stop on our trip that disappointed us. Many of those disappointments are easily remedied, and issues like the bathroom reconstructions will cease to be problems soon enough. The landscape of Kouchibouguac, aside from the barrier islands, isn’t quite as majestic or picturesque as other parks in this part of the country but that’s not the fairest of critiques either. Nature’s beauty comes in many fascinating forms and not all of them are postcard worthy. As it was during our visit, I give Kouchibouguac a 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. The lack of rental canoes and general appearance of being unprepared for summer in July wasn’t up to the standards we expect from Parks Canada. With some TLC, this park can easily get back above 4. Were we to hit a reset button on our trip, I would certainly spend more time at Fundy National Park and sacrifice Kouchibouguac. Hopefully it improves in the years to come.