Hanging out in a trailer while it rains during the day is one of the most underappreciated joys in life. That may sound counterintuitive since most campers are hoping to be outside enjoying the sun and warmth and beauty of the natural world. That is, presumably, the entire purpose of camping. But the odd daytime rain shower can make for wonderful family time as everyone squishes around the table to play games, drink pop and eat chips, and talk and laugh and revel all while being far more aware of the life-giving rain than one would be at home. I love it.
Hanging out in a trailer while it rains during the night, however, is a different experience altogether. Far less romantic than daytime rain, nighttime showers are an unending hell that all but eliminate any chance of slumber thanks to the constant ratta tat tat of rain drops on the paper thin fiberglass shell coupled with the constant worry that your lawn chairs are getting drenched, that the awning will sag or burst if water pools in it, and that your site will eventually flood.
Our first night at Crimson Lake Provincial Park was unfortunately one of the latter types of rain, thanks to summer abruptly ending this past September long weekend. The days had been nice all week, with mostly sunny skies, but temperatures were noticeably slow to elevate and there’s been a definite fall-ish bite to the breeze. The nights, conversely, have been pushing unfavourably close to the zero mark so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this would eventually lead to rain. It just would have been nice had it waited to arrive until after the final summer long weekend.
I suppose it is fitting that school and hockey started up immediately after this weekend. The weather is certainly on board with the switch to autumn activities and multiple layers were needed around the campfire to keep warm. But there’s part of me that feels this has come all too quickly. Our massive east coast trip that began the moment school adjourned in June ate up a full half of our summer. And though it was a fantastic trip, the swimming lessons and camps that followed our return to Calgary in August left me with an unsettling sense of having completely missed summer. This despite the near constant wildfire smoke from BC always reminding me just what time of year it is.
That smoke had us worrying about our final camping trip of the season. Located a few, short kilometres north of Rocky Mountain House, Crimson Lake Provincial Park is on the door step of the Rocky Mountains and their pine beetle and spruce budworm ravaged forests. When BC wildfire smoke is blanketing the Prairies, the idea of camping closer to the source, even if only a couple hundred kilometres closer, feels foolish. As our trip neared and a westerly wind delivered hints that the smoke would return, we seriously debated whether to cancel our camping weekend.
We steeled our nerve and by the time we hit the road Friday morning that hint of smoke evaporated. Our weekend was smoke free, save for that which billowed up from our evening campfires. Yes, campfires. Much to the delight of our fire-starved children, this area of Alberta had remained wet enough (or recently received enough moisture) that no fire bans were in place and we were free to enjoy, with no shortage of irony, smelling like smoke all weekend thanks to our warm, sparkling, s’mores-cooking campfires each night.
And so it was that we spent our Labour Day long weekend at Crimson Lake Provincial Park, a park we have wanted to camp at for a few years now. When I discovered it early in our camping careers, it looked like an ideal family camping spot. It was not too far from home but far enough to feel like we’d actually gone somewhere and it had a lake and a beach and lots of spacious, wooded campsites. But plans never seemed to work out and as year after year passed the closest we ever got to camping at Crimson Lake was driving past it at the tail end of BC trip that finished up with us meeting friends at Gull Lake.
I’m glad we finally made it even if the cool nights and rain tempered our enjoyment of the lake. We made the best of our stay and it was obvious that the lake is the focal point for most visitors to this provincial park. With surprisingly clear water and long, sandy beach, not to mention a sandy lake bottom, Crimson Lake is located an hour west of its more famous siblings Sylvan, Gull, and Pigeon. While not as big as those three mainstays of Alberta summer leisure, Crimson nonetheless holds its own as a fun, family camping destination.
There are two campgrounds at Crimson Lake. The smaller, located in a separate block of the park, has 39 un-serviced sites. The much larger campground located within the main park boundary, is Crimson Lake Campground, a sprawling, wooded behemoth consisting of six loops with upwards of 25 sites each. The sites are large and spacious with a precious few being exceptionally large and isolated from neighbours. Others are closer together though not quite double sites; ideal for friends preferring closer proximity. Most campers will appreciate the privacy and shade provided by the mixed conifer and aspen forest that surrounds you though sunny spots can be found on most sites. The plentiful underbrush around many sites will also keep nosey neighbours and peering eyes from too easily intruding on your weekend.
That all being said, we were a teensy bit surprised to hear some traffic noise from our campsite. Not constantly, mind you, but when things were quiet you could hear large trucks driving by on the secondary highway running along the eastern boundary of the park. This didn’t ruin the camping experience but it was a reminder that we weren’t as far into the boonies as we thought.
None of the sites have water or sewer and with over 160 campsites clearing out it’s possible the dump station could be a bit of a nightmare on Sunday mornings. It is located outside the campground alongside the main road into the campground and consists of only two stations. Our wait was only one trailer upon our early departure Monday morning, but it undoubtedly backed up in the subsequent hours. There is a fee to use the dump station, but it requires you to pay at the campground office and there is no impediment at the actual station preventing you from using it. I suspect many campers don’t bother paying.
I should note here that eleven sites in loop A are winterized. I’m not sure what that means exactly since they only have electrical power and none of the services in the campground are available over the winter months but I suspect this is an appreciated option for those who love snow. I see on the website that they have a skating area in the winter along with groomed cross-country ski trails and non-groomed trails for snowshoeing or fat tire biking. All of these are no doubt well-appreciated activities for the local residents.
Fresh water is aplenty, with taps conveniently located near all the pit toilets in the campground. You can also fill up your RV at the dump station prior to entering the campground.
And there is no shortage of pit toilets. Did you sense my face scrunching up and my throat gagging a bit as you read that? My one serious gripe about Crimson Lake is that the official park map does not properly show that all the bathrooms are pit toilets, not flush toilets. Most Alberta park maps differentiate between the two. Crimson Lake’s map does not. Instead it uses the flush toilet symbol for all bathrooms in the campground, all but one of which are pits. Ugh! Had I know this when booking, I would have reserved a site much closer to the shower house with its fully functioning flush toilets. Instead, thinking flush toilets were in every loop, I had us camping just about as far away from the flush facilities as possible. I was not impressed … nor regular.
I needn’t describe the pit toilets to you. They were gross, as they typically get on long weekends at the end of summer. Staff tidied them up daily but there was no escaping the mounting stench within their walls. My olfactory system, not to mention my colon, was delighted when we returned home.
The shower house slash bathroom, on the other hand, was a wonderful facility with showers and toilets and urinals and sinks all neatly packaged in a large, modern building somewhat central to the entire campground, save loop F. Guess where we camped? Showers are coin operated with a $2 coin earning you approximately seven minutes of water. As you rightly guessed, you cannot adjust the temperature in the showers. Otherwise, these bathrooms are just great for proper grooming and I can only wish we had been closer to it.
The shower building also houses a small laundromat, which is a nice touch. You don’t see too many of these in provincial parks but we did see them regularly at national parks. They’re a convenient amenity for folks enjoying longer duration camping trips.
If you’re interested in a group camping experience, there is one group area currently available with three more on the way. The existing group site is located outside the Crimson Lake campground and is accessed via a road off the dump station entrance. This group site is pretty basic with room for ten units. It has pit toilets and a picnic shelter and running water. There isn’t much else and while it is wonderfully isolated from the rest of the campground allowing for privacy and perhaps more rambunctious celebration, it is also nowhere near the lake or other facilities. You will need to drive or bike to use the lake, beach, and boating area.
Three additional mini group sites are currently being constructed next to loop E and F. They are nothing but cleared earth at the moment so I’m not sure what they will offer to small camping groups other than being somewhat closer to the campground and lake.
The main registration office is located right at the entrance to the campground. In addition to checking in and getting any questions answered by park staff, there is a modest store selling treats, grocery basics, plus some souvenirs including shirts, mugs, and some books. Snacks range from chips and pop to a cooler full of ice cream treats, jumbo freezies, and a selection of slushie machines. There’s even a coffee machine for those needing a caffeine hit. You also purchase wood here. A large caged shelter contains a robust selection of feed bags stuffed with wood. Each bag costs $8 which is a pretty good price.
One oddity available at the main office is the borrowing of lifejackets. Down at the boat launch a sign indicates that the free lifejacket sharing station has been closed due to vandalism and that you must now borrow them from a locked cage at the office. Fair enough. But why would you need to borrow a lifejacket when the park does not rent boats? It really is too bad they don’t because we would have been keen to rent a canoe for an hour or two. A sign in the store tells of a local outfit that will rent and deliver a canoe along with lifejackets, but the cost was $25 per hour plus $5 per lifejacket which seemed a bit steep so we didn’t bother to pursue further.
Tucked behind the main office is an amphitheatre. I have no idea if this gets used at all.
Boating is certainly popular on Crimson Lake and there were several beautiful motorized versions on the water towing tubes and water-skiers when the sun was shining. You can launch your boat from the day use area which has a nice, floating dock beside a concrete launch. The dock is also good for fishing. There appear to be no restrictions on this lake so prepare for a noisy day during the peak summer season.
And it won’t be just day users with boats; the local cottagers have them too. Winding up the west side of the lake is Cabin Road which is the access road for dozens of private, lakeside cabins, many of which are being razed and replaced with second homes. This is all the rage in affluent Alberta and it bothers me some. I don’t understand the presence of cottages in provincial parks for one thing, though I suppose a campground with 160 trailers isn’t much better if you think about it hard enough, but this fascination with giant “cottages” just baffles me. Stay home if you need a 2000 square foot cabin on the weekends.
If you don’t have the luxury of a boat and are just looking to enjoy a beautiful day at the lake, the beach is likely where you’re headed. A large day use area encompassing two parking lots, a park area, picnic areas, a playground, and a volleyball court can all be found next to the long, sandy beach of Crimson Lake. I’m not 100% sure, but this beach appears to be natural or at least partially so judging by the evidence of old dunes beside the beach.
The beach is segmented, with three separate chunks found running south from the boat launch. The southernmost portion is the biggest and offers a nice sandy beach with plenty of space for sunbathing, digging, and playing. It is bounded by trees to the east and the crystal clear waters of the lake to the west. A roped off area of the water keeps boats away from swimmers but there are no lifeguards. As I mentioned, the weather during our stay was not the warmest leaving the beach only sparsely populated most days. Sunday was a little nicer and a few more families ventured down for some fun in the sand. I do imagine it gets much busier in July and August.
I was pleasantly surprised by the clearness of the water and the homogeneity of the sand. There weren’t many rocks at all and the water in the beach area, at least, looked free of weeds and gunk. It was quite unexpected. But the water is nonetheless cold, and I didn’t venture in for a swim. The kids waded out knee deep but even they said it was pretty cold and they have far greater tolerance than I. Considering this was the first weekend of September, I don’t imagine this lake ever gets very warm, which also surprised me a little.
The various picnic areas in the day use are appealing. The enclosed picnic shelter has a wood stove inside along with multiple tables. It’s not exactly new but will work fine. Outdoor picnic areas surround the shelter and have tables, benches and fire pits.
If the kids grow tired of the beach or the weather just isn’t cooperating, Crimson Lake has a total of three playgrounds to enjoy. This is a park that knows its target audience! One playground, as I mentioned above, is located in the day use area next to the beach. A second playground is located in the campground near the shower building. Both are fairly modern plastic and metal affairs and most children should find them both enjoyable.
A third playground is found along the sandpit trail between loops D and F. This is a nifty nature playground and is comprised of several robust wooden structures and an off-road bike trail. There are a couple traditional slides in the mix but for the most part this is a rustic alternative to typical playgrounds. I thought it was a great idea and reminded me of the bike tracks available at Tyhee Lake Provincial Park near Smithers BC. More parks need to incorporate these types of play areas for older kids and/or those who prefer a more organic play experience.
If the lake and the beach and the playgrounds haven’t fully exhausted your recreational energy, then the trail system at Crimson Lake is the final remaining avenue for fun. Crimson Lake isn’t a terribly large park but it has a surprisingly elaborate trail system. Bits and pieces of trail web through the various campground loops providing access to each loop, major amenities, and the entire day use area. Additional trails, all named and marked, radiate outwards to the north and west of the campground allowing you to explore the natural surroundings. And finally a long 10 km trail circumnavigates the entire lake. You’ll even find unofficial trails fingering here and there off the official trails.
We spent some time hunting geocaches along the trails and were pleased to find three. All were in good condition and regularly maintained. A fourth cache is located on a small island in the lake. The first two caches took us along the east side of the lake on Boardwalk and Amerada trails through forest and bogs. It was a delightful walk. The third cache was located on the west side of the lake where the Amerada trail intersects Cabin Road. That portion of the trail is equally nice and forested and takes you past Beaver Pond. This small pond, presumably an isolated remnant of a once bigger Crimson Lake, has a small floating dock enabling you to walk out into the lily-pad filled waters. We saw lots of snails and dragonflies but, ironically, no beavers.
We didn’t hike the entire ten kilometres of Amerada Trail, but the portions we did use were delightful, well groomed, and wide. I’m sure the winter cross-country skiers enjoy them just as much as summer strollers. At one point we came across an information display telling all about the oil wells located in the park and how they are compatible with a provincial park and are eventually returned to nature. This is Alberta, after all, and this particular area is hardcore oil country. It gave me a little chuckle that this was the only informative displays in the entire park. So very Alberta.
The trails are typically gravel and wide enough for bikers and hikers to pass each other with ease. Some even have rest areas with benches or even the odd wooden shelter. The spontaneous trails are narrow and dirt but regularly used based on the lack of overgrowth.
We didn’t find too much in the way of park programming at the Crimson Lake. The only activity advertised during our stay was arts and crafts at The Hearth. The Hearth is an enclosed picnic shelter with a stone fireplace near the entrance to loop A. It is immediately across from the campground host and said host supervises this two hour arts and crafts activity for kids. There are printed pages of animals to colour, construction paper to make origami, and some feathers, googly eyes, and glitter glue to make crafts out of pine cones and such. Our kids played a bit and made a couple little things but really didn’t get much out of it as they are likely too old. At the end each child got a small bottle of bubble mixture which you are never too old for.
During my stroll to take pictures of the dump station (yes, this is how exciting my life gets) I passed a building called The Environmental Learning Centre. I had hopes it was a Visitor Centre of some kind with displays teaching about the local wildlife and ecosystems but it was not. I’m not really sure what this place is, actually. It was closed up tight with curtains drawn. Outside was parked an Alberta Parks trailer so I suspect all these facilities are for school trips and programs.
While educational opportunities are absent, warnings abound in the campground. Several signs caution that this is bear and cougar territory; two predators for the price of one, yay! We didn’t see evidence of either but remained vigilant with our food storage. We did see some woodpeckers and hear the haunting cries of loons regularly. It was late in the season and perhaps wildlife is more visible in the spring or early summer.
Or maybe it was just the abundance of people that kept critters away. We were unfortunate enough to have a weekend long birthday party taking place in two neighbouring sites. These folks got quite loud as the day turned to evening. But I must admit that they quickly shut up once the 11:00 quiet hour struck. We’re typically early to bed so falling asleep as we normally do was tough but thank god they didn’t continue the rowdiness into the wee hours of the night.
So how would I rate Crimson Lake Provincial Park? That’s a tough one. I fear my perception of the place is unfairly biased by our recent east coast national parks experience coupled with exhaustion from that same trip. We went to Crimson Lake still tired from the trip and not wholly in a camping mood. The ending of summer weather also dampened enthusiasm. That all being said, we had an enjoyable time at Crimson Lake. It’s a great place for families with lots to do inside the park and nearby (Rocky Mountain House is just minutes away). As an alternative to the popular lakes in the Edmonton to Calgary corridor, it’s ideal and I highly recommend it. The pit toilets and the misleading map symbology were disappointing. I’d certainly go back, but I’d look for a site nearer the washrooms. Some more programming would be nice and maybe some additional information placards along the trails too. But I’m being nitpicky. I give Crimson Lake Provincial Park 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.