CLERK 1: Do you need firewood.
ME: Yes, please.
CLERK 1: Oh good, how many bags?
ME: Umm. Well, how much is it?
CLERK 1: $10 per bag.
ME: Hmm. Two bags, I guess.
CLERK 1: It’s supposed to rain tonight. Are you sure you don’t want three?
CLERK 1: [smile]
CLERK 1: [smile]
ME: Why would I want more wood if it’s going to rain?
CLERK 1: [smile]
CLERK 1: [smile]
CLERK 2: Some people like to put up a tarp and watch the fire in the rain.
CLERK 2: [smile]
CLERK 1: [smile]
CLERK 2: [smile]
ME: Two bags will be fine.
This was the inauspicious beginning to our 2019 camping season. A beginning that was three weeks late, thanks to baseball conflicts and terrible weather. We were desperate to finally go camping come hell or three-bags-of-firewood rain forecasts. And it did rain. Several times throughout the evenings and nights of our stay, though not long enough to ruin our adventure.
McLean Creek Campground was another first for us which is a bit of a surprise considering how close it is to our home. At less than one hour’s drive from garage to campsite, such proximity should make McLean Creek an easy last-minute getaway for Calgarians. It is, of course, but so are a dozen other similar spots which speaks to the luxury of living on the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains.
This was also our first stay in a Provincial Recreation Area (PRA). The world of government jargon is a tortuous one and I honestly don’t know what the difference is between a ‘public recreation area’ and a ‘provincial park’ but I trust a Google search will inform you quick enough. I can’t be bothered because, by and large, our camping experience at McLean Creek Campground in McLean Creek Provincial Recreation Area was identical to what we’ve experienced at every Provincial Park we’ve ever visited, save for the off-road vehicles.
Entering the McLean Creek PRA via highway 66, a few short minutes west of Bragg Creek, you first come to the Mclean Campers Store, a one stop shop for campers using this east-central part of Kananaskis Country. The camper registration office is located inside, so all camping trips begin here.
The store is crammed full of food, supplies, and paraphernalia. Campers of all types will find everything they need here which, I must say, shocked me. The offerings here are unlike any I’ve seen at campground stores in a long time. Considering how close they are to the services of Bragg Creek, not to mention being only half an hour from the western edges of Calgary, I never expected to find such a fully stocked store. You can buy axes!
Laundry, shower, and flush toilet facilities are also available here making it ground zero for cleaning up during a busy weekend in Kananaskis. The showers and washrooms are very nice and appear to be relatively new and well kept. There are several showers for each gender, all requiring tokens to use that can be purchased at the adjoining store. I didn’t shower so I can’t tell you how well the shower heads function or whether the hot water is reliable.
The laundry room features a handful of the usual pay-per-use white washers and dryers. Again, we didn’t use this facility but it’s a great amenity to have in a recreation area featuring off roading and mud activities.
I did find that with all these facilities housed in a single building, there was an off-putting odour when I first entered the store to register. It wasn’t a gag-worthy sewage smell, but certainly noticeable. I’m not sure why this was happening, but it must be unpleasant to work in all day.
Firewood is $10 per plastic-wrapped package containing a couple big pieces and a few thin pieces. It’s overpriced, plain and simple. And some of those big pieces are impossible to chop smaller due to large knots within. I wasn’t impressed. Nor were others judging by the number of sites with huge piles of self-brought firewood stacked. It’s disappointing that McLean Creek PRA gouges for firewood, especially considering the entire PRA appears to be dying.
The lodgepole pine that dominates the campground is stricken by mountain pine beetle. Dead or dying trees are everywhere. It’s such shame. Not to mention a fire hazard in the making. One suspects luck will either run out on Kananaskis or authorities will prescribe a controlled burn to deal with this sad blight on an otherwise pretty landscape.
And it is pretty. Located in the rolling, forested foothills with the mountains as a backdrop, McLean Creek Campground has four camping loops offering what we have come to expect in mountain parks. But there is a twist.
Loops A and B are typical campground loops with large, private sites shrouded in lodgepole pine. There are both back-in and drive-through style sites that will accommodate all sizes of RVs. All these sites have 15/30 amp power but no water or sewer service.
Loops C and D, however, are designated for campers with OHVs. That would be off-highway vehicles. Think dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. What normal functioning humans refer to as off-road vehicles. Whomever came up with ‘off-highway’ had too much time on their hands.
Sites 105 through 130 are found in pairs (double sites) along the east side of Loop C. These all have 15/30 amp power but no water or sewer. Similar paired sites are found on the west side of Loop D (131 through 146) except these have no power (or water/sewer).
The remaining sites in both loops C & D are configured in unique four-site circles. Each circle has its own short “driveway” from the main loop road and looks like its own little group site, if you will. I’ve never seen this anywhere else and it’s a testament to the comradery and social nature of the OHV crowd.
Speaking of the OHVs, they are certainly noisy and you will hear them. Even with the separation between A/B loop and C/D loop you will hear them. Our site, 60 in B loop, was not immune to the roar of returning OHVs in the evening. This wasn’t a non-stop, aggravating nuisance by any means and we were well aware these machines would be present. I’m not judging, just stating a fact that you will hear them, even if briefly, at some point during your stay.
We also heard a helicopter passing overhead a couple times each day, so what can you do. This is camping on the outskirts of urban sprawl. Just avoid Loops C and D if you aren’t participating in the off-road activities and realize this place is not for those hoping to only be interrupted by chirping birds.
Along with the spacious campsites, McLean Creek Campground has playground and amphitheater located in the wooded area between loops B and C.
The playground was a disappointment. It’s a modernish, metal contraption that has decent areal coverage but the excitement and challenge of it is limited. My older kids (10 and 12) were immediately bored and the whole thing looks more like a walking course than an actual playground. Considering there are 170 total sites here attracting families, most of whom enjoy the thrill of motorized adventure, this was a weak playground offering. And it’s the only playground in the campground.
The amphitheater, too, is a modest affair with only a small stage and a few rows of simple benches. Unlike some other amphitheaters we’ve come across during our travels, this one gets used. Each Saturday night, two PRA guides present a free, family-friendly program on bear safety. And trust me, this isn’t your average informational presentation!
Performed in costume, along with puppets, to the well-known songs from the famous play/movie, albeit with altered lyrics, this show will entertain and embarrass young and old. Audience participation is welcome and when all the silliness concludes, you’ll have learned some interesting things about black and grizzly bears.
In our particularly case, we also learned a nugget about wild horses as well. They live here. Who knew? We certainly didn’t. We assumed the horse dung we kept encountering along campground trails and roads were from ill-mannered horseback riders staying at nearby equestrian campgrounds. It wasn’t until we arrived at the amphitheater for the 8:00pm show, which ended up being delayed half an hour thanks to two male horses fighting and preventing the guides from setting up, that we learned who the real manure culprits were.
A large parking lot between the amphitheater and the playground enables campers to drive rather than make the longish walk form the further reaches of the campground. Additional programs are added to the schedule during the peak summer season. I’m admittedly not a huge fan of the song and dance shtick, but it was enjoyable, and I appreciated the amphitheater being used at McLean Creek PRA, something we typically only see at National Parks or the odd, larger Provincial Park.
Without a lake and accompanying beach, there isn’t much to do at McLean Creek PRA other than hike or bike the trails. Assuming, of course, you aren’t there with OHVs. There are several trails throughout the campground that will take you between loops, to the playground and amphitheater, and even to the camper store.
These trails are smooth with either packed dirt or remnants of previous gravel bedding. The recent rains left some spots muddy with the odd puddle to circumvent, but mostly we had no trouble navigating them.
Immediately north of the campground, the trails join up with the McLean Creek Interpretive Trail. This looping trail is pleasant with several signposts denoting stops of interest. A description for each of these spots is available to print/view online but some of the posts have lost their plastic numerical notation. Similarly, the head of this interpretive trail has seen better days.
It’s a nice walk through the pine and spruce forest out to some ponds and bog-like areas. We met a ground squirrel and a curious grey jay. It’s just a shame that maintenance hasn’t kept up. If only people weren’t so damn cheap with their tax dollars. Oh, and we did find a geocache.
Across the highway from the McLean Creek Campground is McLean Creek Pond, a small, man-made fishing hole and picnic area. Many more trails exist here, and we found many large gatherings of family and friends having BBQs in the various picnic spots beside the pond. The pond is regularly stocked with trout and we saw several fisherfolk casting lines into the muddy waters. This is a nice day use area for non-campers.
Be wary, though. The area surrounding McLean Creek Pond is the beginning of the extensive OHV trail system. If you decide to wander off along these large, rutted, undulating trails you need to be vigilant to avoid accidents with dirt bikes or ATVs. We went hunting for some additional geocaches in this area and though we didn’t encounter any OHVs it just didn’t feel safe for wandering families around these trails.
With the moisture and trees, it’s not surprising that mosquitoes were out during our stay. Not so much at our campsite, but definitely by the playground and along the trails. A little repellent did the trick and we were still able to fully enjoy the woods but do come prepared.
Cell service is very poor, at least with Rogers and Telus. Neither of us had service in or around the campground, although when the skies cleared up and I left my phone sitting on a specific shelf in our trailer it eventually connected long enough to download and send text messages. This is not what I would classify as reliable. Your mileage may vary as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I simply found it surprising considering how close to Calgary we are here. With all the wealthy acreages surrounding Bragg Creek and Priddis, I expected cell service to be exceptional. There’s a lesson in stereotyping there I think.
Neither is there WiFi service in the campground or at the store. Again, your mileage may vary on this.
Other than the shower facility at the camper’s store, McLean Creek Campground only offers pit toilets. The pit toilets are clean and the odour was minimal during our mid-June visit. I can’t proclaim this preferred situation persists all summer long. August heatwaves may make for less than pleasant circumstances. Still, they are far from a trainwreck and were usable without having to test my breath-holding abilities.
A dump station is centrally located near the campground entrance. There are only three stations for the entire campground, so expect lineups. We had to wait for a couple units to finish when we left on a Sunday at 2:00 so I suspect the lineups could get long when the mad dash to exit occurs. At least it’s free.
Fresh water is available at the dump station to fill up your RV tank and additional fresh water taps are found throughout the campground loops. The water is super cold and fresh. Yum.
I recommend McLean Creek Campground at McLean Creek Provincial Recreation Area and give it 3.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a fine place to camp very near the city of Calgary. OHV people obviously love it and would likely rate it higher. Then again, it caters to them.
For regular campers, like us, it was alright for a spring outing near home. A great way to stretch our camping legs. The fact there are some reservable sites is a plus. I thought the playground was underwhelming and the upkeep of some trail décor has slipped. Not a huge deal, but noticeable. Kananaskis must have been stunning when it first opened.
I’d certainly come back but not for an extended family vacation. You know, unless I somehow came into possession of a quad or befriended someone with such means of entertainment. I like the friendliness the OHV campground configuration supports. It contradicts my pre-conceived notions of the OHV crowd. You don’t see such mini-group site designs in any campground for non-OHV campers. I wonder why that is? It may not appeal to everyone, and likely not even me, but I’m sure there are some regular campers that would love this neighbourly setup.
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