Mosquitoes, heat, pit toilets, and crowds. The quadfecta of loathing when I’m camping all tested my resolve during our first ever visit to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park. Located 15 km south of Brooks, Alberta, a small city two hours east of Calgary primarily known for its large slaughterhouse, Kinbrook Island is a small oasis in an otherwise grim, barely life-supporting expanse of prairie.
Comprised of a tiny island and a tiny neighbouring rim of mainland surrounding a marsh on the eastern shores of the man-made Lake Newell, Kinbrook Island Provincial Park tests the very definition of a park. If, like me, you believe the purpose of a park is, in part, to preserve an important and/or threatened natural environment including the fauna and flora of identified ecosystem, then Kinbrook Island is no more a park than is an inner-city tenement block.
Truth be told, Kinbrook Island Provincial Park is basically a lakeside campground with a beach, some private cottages, and a single trail around an artificial marsh. Why it is designated a park is beyond me. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. But as I explore more and more parks around this province and nation, I am growing ever more perplexed by what exactly is the purpose of provincial/federal parks.
Don’t get me wrong, I am happy it exists. Brooks would be unbearable in summer without this escape during the abused pitbull dog days of summer for which this region is famous. It’s a godsend for the hardworking locals and a relatively close diversion for the big city Calgary folk. But as a provincial park, meh, it’s a stretch.
We booked our inaugural Kinbrook Island camping trip for the August long weekend and holy crap was it hot! 32°C and sunny the day we arrived, staying sunny on our second day but inching warmer to 35°C, and then finally plummeting to a relatively frigid 27°C on our third day. I was less than impressed.
A single paved road takes you from the highway, through the marsh, and onto the small island. The island is where pretty much everything is located and everything happens. Your first stop is the modest registration booth which has some information pamphlets along with the most basic of camping essentials; ice and firewood. There is otherwise nothing for sale here as it is not a store but oh baby, are you gonna need that ice.
Wood was $11 a bag. That’s a bit pricey in my mind, but again we are camping where trees do not naturally grow so supply is scarce. The wood appears to be poplar and other crappy softwood but it was at least dry and choppable. And to be fair, the volume per bag wasn’t all that bad. Still pricy in my opinion, but we had a decent, easy-to-light fire so I shouldn’t be too whiny it. Many campers undoubtedly bring their own wood in their big trucks.
Beside the registration booth is the dual dump station. That … seems optimistic. Only two stations for 199 campsites, none of which have sewer service, isn’t good math. I was terrified of how backed up exit day gets. I imagine wise local campers know of other places to dump their loads in or around nearby Brooks. We, thankfully, did a Thursday to Sunday long weekend stay rather than the typical Friday to Monday, and thus left a day before the inevitable lineups.
Friday morning as we returned from a short fishing outing at the lake, we passed the dump station just before lunch. The weeklong campers were leaving and as predicted, there was a backup. Furthermore, the location of this dump station interferes with the exit lane and those not using the dump station had to wait or navigate a tight squeeze to get out. I can’t imagine how messed up this gets on Sundays or long weekend Mondays.
Fresh water proffers a similar frustration. It too is available at the dump station but there is only a single spigot for filling RVs. When the Friday evening rush arrives, this could make for additional lineups. None of the sites have water service, so you either navigate this single faucet or arrive already loaded with H2O from home.
Additional fresh water is found near every pit toilet. Every single one we encountered had a puddle of water beneath making it tricky to access the tap comfortably without getting wet feet. It also explains some of the mosquito surplus. You could potentially try to fill an RV from one of these taps but that would cause temporary hiccups on the campground roads. The water is otherwise tasty and clear.
Once registered, you move onward to your campsite or the day use area if simply visiting. Kinbrook Island is small and they’ve packed a LOT of stuff onto it. Not an inch of it is untouched by man.
There are ten alphabetically named loops. The bulk of these loops are forested, and by forested I mean the prairie wetland version of a forest; scraggly, half-dead poplar intermingled with some aspen and woody shrubs. I think there may be some Ash and Russian Olive, but don’t quote me on that. It isn’t the prettiest of scenery, but hot damn if they aren’t welcome when the sky is void of clouds and the dogged sun pushes temperatures into the thirties.
Loops A through F are found on the southern half of the island alongside the private cottages. The irregular orientation of the sites and the maturity of the trees suggests to me that this both the original campground and the first developed area at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park.
Loops G through J are found on the northern half of the island alongside the day use area and boating complex. These loops are more geometric in layout and presumably more recently developed. Loop J, the newest addition, is wide open to the skies with only young trees promising future shelter.
There are shaded sites in these northern loops, J excepted, and if you want to be close to the beach this is the place to stay. But during weekends, and especially long weekends, this day use area is incredibly busy with people and noise and activity. As such, I was quite happy to be hidden in Loop C away from the hubbub.
Our site was quite spacious. I wouldn’t describe it as private, per se, but we had plenty of room for all our stuff and even had ample space to set up our ring toss game without impinging on our neighbours. The site had a level gravel pad on which to park our trailer and tow vehicle. The gravel spread out to surround a firepit while the remainder of the site was grass.
It was also ideally oriented for the poplars to shelter us from the direct sun all day long. Let’s face it, there’s no curing thirty-five degree heat, but shade definitely helps. We were able to sit and eat outside without burning to a crisp and that was welcome. Hell, it was a necessity.
The other campsites at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park vary wildly in size but many can accommodate the biggest RVs you can buy. We saw a few monsters here. Some of the tow vehicles were bigger than our trailer. This is Alberta camping at it’s good ole boy best!
All the sites, with the exception of those in the tiny Loop B, have 15/30 amp power service. For the first time ever, we plugged into the 30 amp service so we could run the air conditioning unit we smugly boasted about not really wanting when we purchased this trailer. At Kinbrook Island, we were grateful to have it.
At the southern terminus of the campground is the access road to the group camping area. There are three group sites back on the mainland accessed by a viaduct from the island. The access road was closed upon our arrival so I couldn’t get to the group areas with a vehicle. Later, using my bicycle, I scooted over to explore.
The map showed three groups sites and they all appear to be under renovation. There are new, robust enclosed picnic shelters and pit toilets erected in what are open fields. Fence posts are being installed to keep vehicles off the grass which in turn is being spurred along by large irrigation sprinklers.
It is nice that these group sites are somewhat segregated from the campground offering a bit of privacy for everyone. A hidden, small beach along the road to the groups sites appears to be unknown by most campers. When these group sites reopen, I suppose they will be useful for some but their wide open nature doesn’t stoke my desire to ever use one. They would be brutal in the heat.
If you think I’m exaggerating my contempt for the heat, I have good company in my bemoaning. The grass at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park isn’t too thrilled about it either. An elaborate irrigation system has been installed to keep the green spaces, green. Sprinklers can be found everywhere, including on sites. We had one behind our trailer pad and another inside a cinder block near the firepit. I assumed, at first, these were relics of a bygone era when watering everything was de rigour. I was wrong.
On our second day, we discovered sprinklers in full operation all around the day use area. I shouldn’t have been surprised as the lake is an irrigation reservoir, after all. We later discovered a weekly watering schedule posted at the registration office. And while it certainly makes for a more appealing recreation experience than brown, dead grass and dirt, they could put a little effort into proper maintenance and spray direction of these sprinklers. At least one was watering the side of a pit toilet and a paved parking lot, including a guest vehicle.
Humans need to be sprinkled as well, especially after a day of play and accompanying sweat in the hot sun. Kinbrook Island Provincial Park has a single shower house with flush toilets located in the northern part of the island between loops G and J. It is conveniently close to the day use area.
The showers require $1 coins to use and offer no control of temperature. The sinks are stainless steel and I really wish this facility had been closer to our site. Or, better yet, that there was a second such building in the south of the island. Considering the island has dozens of cottages on it, not to mention an irrigation system, I’m a bit surprised there are no water or sewer facilities at any of the campsites.
Laundry facilities are also found at the shower house. I wasn’t expecting one but once I considered how much sunscreen and bug spray campers must apply here, it seemed a no brainer in retrospect. I’m sure those staying for a week or more are particularly happy to have this available.
When nature calls while enjoying the remainder of the campground, you are left with only pit toilets for relief. Several of these are scattered throughout the northern and southern loops. They are unisex, with two stalls per building. While impeccably clean and relatively fresh when we arrived, they deteriorated as the weekend progressed. There’s only so much odour masking possible in this heat. And with a packed campground over a long weekend, things got aromatic.
There is a surprising amount of green space in the campground. Some loops have large, open areas in their centres while others have random strips of green sprinkled in amongst the sites. You couldn’t play soccer on them by any means, but they do give campers ample space to toss a ball or Frisbee around should they choose.
At the southern tip of the island, beside Loop F, one of the larger open fields is equipped with a volleyball net. If you can tolerate the bugs, this would be great for group fun.
Further north, near the park entrance another grassy area hosts two horseshoe pits. I mention this because we so seldom find horseshoe pits at campgrounds anymore. So rare are (functioning) horseshoe pits that we stopped transporting our horseshoes entirely on camping trips. Thus, we had no shoes with which to play.
Next to the horseshoe pits there’s even a cute, free library built into the corpse of half a canoe here too, which is a nice touch.
Kids, of course, enjoy more adventurous play and a good-sized, modern playground does the trick for the climbers in your crew. There are only two, with the southern loop playground located behind what I’ll call “cottage row”. It’s somewhat centrally located to loops A through F, though to the west of them all. It’s a decent playground and will entertain the younger set.
Kinbrook Island campground is quite family-friendly in that sense. Despite the condensed look on the map, there’s a deceptive amount of green space. Sure, some spots are congested, but overall, for a small island campground with 200 sites, it has a surprisingly spacious feel to it.
And if the little perks haven’t impressed you already, there are four visitor parking lots within the southern loops, each able to accommodate perhaps four vehicles. This is handy for campers expecting visitors. You are only 19km south of Brooks and I’m sure some campers have local friends drop in. That might irk those looking for a quiet, peaceful escape but if that is your goal, Kinbrook Island Provincial Park really shouldn’t be your first … or twelfth … choice.
Moving to the north half of the island we get to the guts of what Kinbrook Island Provincial Park is all about; water play. This part of the island, camping loops notwithstanding, is wholly dedicated to lake recreation. With a large day use area, large beach, massive boating area (bigger than any I’ve come across at an Alberta provincial park), and a sailing club, it truly is a water lovers paradise.
The day use area is quite nice. Partly sheltered and partly open, the lush grass surrounds many concrete pads with metal picnic tables and raised BBQ structures for perfect picnics. Sizes of these picnic spots vary with some ideal for single families and other, larger ones able to host groups. The largest of these even have metal firepits at their centres. Though not sheltered, these are the hardiest looking picnic spots we’ve ever seen and a damn site nicer than simply placing a wooden picnic table on the lawn next to an ancient BBQ on a post.
The second playground is in the day use area tucked in behind the concession stand next to the beach. This one is also a new, metal playground, slightly smaller than the southern one, with tall trees around providing shelter from the sun part of the day.
If you don’t bring picnic stuffs, a concession stand exists to taunt you with the tantalizing possibility of ice cream treats and burger stand staples. Unfortunately, it appeared to be shuttered for the summer. A faded, hand-printed sign said as much and I don’t quite understand why. I would have thought this day use area would easily support a burger shack. Perhaps the bulk of local visitors bring their own supplies. It’s a shame because I really wanted ice cream. Mind you, working amongst hot grease on thirty-five degree days probably doesn’t attract many job applicants.
All is not lost on the nourishment front, as a food truck comes daily to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park from Brooks. It’s a small snack shack towed behind a pickup truck that sets up in the day use parking lot and serves a relatively limited selection of cool delights. Along with lemonade, iced mochas, shaved ice, and hot dogs they serve something called Snow Cream described as a “new, milk-based cool treat.”
We purchased some Snow Creams and while they were tasty and cool on a hot day, they weren’t overly special. Basically shaved, frozen milk in a bowl. Something called “cool beans” can be added for flair and basic cupcake toppings are available to spice up your snack. Popular flavours sell out quickly on busy days. All in all, it’s better than nothing but still a shame the full concession stand is defunct.
All of this robust day use area lies next to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park’s impressive beach. Like the lake on which it resides, the beach is fake but nonetheless sizable and well-groomed. The beach proper is mostly sandy but stones are ever present. Along the shoreline, the waves have winnowed away the sand leaving pea gravel. These stones aren’t sharp but neither are they soft.
The beach is undoubtedly the hub of activity in the park on summer days with campers, cottagers, and day users crowding in for fun in the sun. There is lots of room but it does fill up, particularly on weekends. People quickly staked out their favourite spots, some going so far as to set up screened shelters in the sand.
Toward the north end of the beach there’s a volleyball net with rope-delineated court.
One cool accessory here is the “Tickle Trunk”. An homage to Mr. Dressup, whom millions of Canadian kids grew up watching, this colourful beach-side box is full of beach toys for everyone to use and share. I think this is a great idea and hopefully the items in it are used appropriately. There were a few blow-up toys inside when I took a peak, but I have no way of knowing what toys beachgoers had already borrowed prior to my snooping. Regardless, it’s a great concept.
On our first full day, the waters of Lake Newell looked unexpectedly welcoming. Clear and free of weeds, the beach shoreline appeared pristine which was both a delight and a shock. Lakes out here rarely look this clear. But like prairie weather, that changed quickly.
By our second day, the wind had picked up with the heat and there were whitecaps crashing onto the beach. This stirred up the water pretty good and though it remained cleaner looking than some prairie lakes, it was no longer pristine. In addition to some weed and mud matter, the waves were collecting huge numbers of larval moults from assorted flying critters. I’m no biologist so I can’t guess as to what said critters were but suffice it to say there was lots of freaky looking stuff in the water.
Nonetheless, it was good for swimming and a tad more fun than is typical thanks to the waves. The water was a little on the cold side, with cooler water stirred up from the depths and the brisk wind also kept you chilled despite the blazing sun. Still, a fun beach by regional standards.
That all said, the water depth increases quite rapidly. The designated swimming area is blocked off with a buoyed rope and it honestly isn’t all that far from shore. The water will be well over most kids’ heads by that point anyway. Such deep water is terrific for actual swimming and teen/adult play, but you will need to be extra careful with the littles.
Furthermore, the lake bed isn’t the most comfortable either. There are lots of stones. Wave action has not only segregated rock sizes along shore but also out into the water as well. This is mildly interesting from a geological perspective, but less so from barefoot swimmer perspectives. The rocks are all rounded, so not sharp, but depending on which zone you are walking over they can be uncomfortable.
The only reprieve from the stones is a sand bar stretching the length of the swimming area about thirty or so feet from shore. This is a lovely sand bar and slightly shallower than the surrounding water. It’s also noticeably warmer. Were I to remain in the water, this is where I would posthole myself.
Signage around Lake Newell at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park describes it as the warmest lake in Alberta. The competition must be weak because this water was still plenty cold. In a rare moment of frivolity, I actually went in the water and after a few moments it was barely tolerable. My kids were less delicate and went in several times along with many other happy beachgoers.
As you sunbath, you can’t help but notice the steady stream of speedboats and jetskis zipping around on the lake. It had me wishing I owned one. Even more so, it had me wishing the park had a watercraft rental operation on site. Paddling a canoe along shore or taking a small boat out fishing would have been a lovely way to spend a couple hours.
Those that do own boats are treated like royalty at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park. The boat launch here is the biggest and best we have seen in the province yet. With two launches, a long approach, and a huge parking lot, boats are king.
Next door to the launch area is the Lake Newell sailing club. We didn’t see any sailors during our camping weekend, but several tall sailing boats were stored onshore. Considering the wind blowing over the lake was near constant, it’s no surprise that this is a popular sailing spot.
Fisherfolk are also well looked after. Lake Newell is stocked with all kinds of sport fish. The first species stocked was whitefish and the first natural species to invade the lake was northern pike which came up the canals from the Bow River. More recently walleye have been added to the mix. These walleye require a special permit to fish, and keep, whereas the others only require a regular Alberta fishing license.
We did some fishing from shore near the sailboat launch. There aren’t many convenient shoreline spots to fish from and no docks extending into the water. This is unfortunate for those of us not in possession of a boat with which to find better casting locales. Nonetheless, we did catch something. An 8” fish of some kind snagged my lure as I reeled it towards shore. In no way was this an eating fish but it impressed the kids.
I should note that government officials were set up at the parking lot entrance checking all boats for undrained ballasts and the like. Whirling disease has been infecting lakes all over southern Alberta lately and this was presumably part of an effort to prevent cross-contamination of water bodies.
If you’re not a water person, or are simply looking for a change of pace, there is a single hiking trail at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park. The mainland area immediately east of Kinbrook Island is a combination of backwater, swamp, and scrubland collectively known as Kinbrook Marsh. The marsh is several times larger than the island and a refuge for waterfowl. A sign denotes the contributions of Ducks Unlimited to the greater area.
A gravel/dirt, 4.5 km trail circles from the campground, through the marsh, and back. A portion of the trail essentially mirrors the park entrance road and there is an offshoot that is vehicle accessible to a staging area with information signage. These signs describe the common waterfowl present. At the northeast apex of the trail a wooden observation tower allows viewers a nice panorama of the marsh.
The kids and I took a bike ride out to the vehicle accessible area. It really wasn’t inspiring. No doubt during migration seasons there are lots of birds to be photographed from there (we didn’t go to the observation tower) but it isn’t visually appealing otherwise.
The next day, the four of us walked the western portion of the trail along the straight berm separating the marsh waters from the lake waters. It is a mostly open trail though some trees are found along the way nearer the campground. This portion is moderately more attractive than the eastern portion, but only just.
During the hike we heard constant buzzing from flying critters that swarmed in masses above our heads. As we passed below they would dive bomb us like mindless kamikazes. It was unconscionably annoying! When there was a steady breeze, the bugs were far less bothersome but when that breeze died, or we were in the shade of a tree, dear God what a nuisance.
And they weren’t even all mosquitoes! I’m no insectologist but they appeared to be some kind of mayfly or caddisfly type thing. They didn’t sting. They just bumped into us or landed on whichever body part they bloody well pleased. Some even took a liking to the inside of my sunglasses.
This made for a thoroughly unpleasant hike. Unbearable, really. We were in search of geocaches, of which there are three along this trail. We found one, observed the less than inspired treasures it held, and headed straight back to the refuge of our trailer. Not that there weren’t bugs in the campground, but they were far fewer than on the marsh trail.
While I personally find the heat unbearable, many love it. Mosquitoes, on the other hand, are something everyone equally detests. And there were plenty of the buggers at Kinbrook Island. In the sheltered campground they were found all hours of the day but dominate in the evening. Bring bug spray and other repellents; you will need them.
At the beach there is some reprieve from the bugs thanks to the breeze which tends to keep them at bay. That breeze also tempered the heat a bit. Find a decent shaded spot toward the back of the beach, and even I found it relatively pleasant down there.
Then there are the cottages. Most of the original cabins have been demolished and replaced by second homes, several of which are mammoth structures with multiple storeys and triple garages. They are impressive, if a bit ostentatious, and perhaps some are year round houses. Most, I suspect, are just overstated boasts of wealth.
They do have nice pieces of land, though. The main row of cottages are waterfront but positioned well back of the shoreline. At least fifty feet or more back. I don’t know if this expanse of land is owned by each cottager or is a communal strip of property, but they do care for it and maintain it. At water’s edge, each has a dock and boat lift with their toys for the summer. It’s an impressive spread, I must admit. Not surprisingly, none are currently for sale.
I still question the existence of private cottages in provincial or national parks. It seems contrary to the purpose of a park but they are everywhere. As are golf courses and, I suppose, campgrounds. I guess I’m just weird. But nowhere has a park been so thoroughly impacted by these recreational facilities. Kinbrook Island Provincial Park just isn’t a park to me. It’s a campground and cottage resort that allows day users.
I was a bit surprised, considering all the cottages and campers surrounded by flat, lifeless prairie, that cell service was so poor here. My Telus phone had trouble staying connected and required strategic placement around our campsite and trailer to work properly. Rogers seemed to have a much better signal.
As for WiFi, there was nothing available at our site. Walking around the island, there were two unknown open WiFi links that I was unable to connect to and I suspect they are some kind of pay per use system. We have encountered these previously in large, privately-operated campgrounds and I’m not fond of them. As far as I’m concerned, there is no WiFi for campers. Cottage owners surely have some kind of internet service.
I’ll be honest; I struggled to enjoy Kinbrook Island Provincial Park. The heat really ruined it for me but that isn’t exactly a fault of the park itself. For those living in this area, the park must be a glorious oasis enabling them to come and refresh and play in the quenching lake. As a camping destination, it didn’t turn my crank despite having everything a family needs to make an enjoyable weekend. I will give it 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
No doubt some people adore Kinbrook Island Provincial Park and I can understand why they do. I just don’t need to spend my weekend using heat-baked pit toilets and fending off mosquitoes. Staff made every effort to limit the unpleasantness of the pit toilets and the bats and dragonflies try to keep the mosquitoes in check, but it still turned my stomach. The starry skies are beautiful but there really isn’t much else to do here except go to the beach. There is one solitary trail around a swamp, neither of which is terribly pretty.
If given a reason, I’d come back but it won’t be on account of my suggestion. The water is quite good and those with boats will enjoy the sprawling waters of Lake Newell. I’m glad we tried it out. No regrets, as they say. But I’ll look elsewhere in the future.