Sandy McNabb is a very popular campground and it should be. Located in Sheep River Provincial Park towards the southeast end of Kananaskis Country, Sandy McNabb is an hour’s drive from Calgary through the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Blessed with so many options, Calgarians are some of the most spoiled citizens on the planet when it comes to scenic, mountain camping. For campers in Alberta’s largest city, the drive south to Turner Valley then heading west through a residential area and on into Kananaskis is one of many no-brainers for a weekend getaway.
As such residents, we were once regular visitors of Mount Kidd RV Park. We’ve done Bow Valley Campground and earlier this summer we tried out McLean Creek Campground. But unlike so many other Calgarians, we had yet to camp at Sandy McNabb. This past August, we changed that oversight.
Oversight probably isn’t the appropriate word for understanding why we haven’t been to Sandy McNabb. We have long wanted to go there. It’s close to our home and by all accounts ideal for families. Unfortunately, unlike most other major provincial park campgrounds in Alberta, Sandy McNabb doesn’t take reservations, choosing instead to remain first come, first served.
By staying faithful to the FCFS model, Sandy McNabb basically put itself off limits to us for camping. Preferring to spend week long vacations further afield and otherwise not able to camp midweek due to work commitments, we never bothered even trying.
There just wasn’t any point. For the bulk of the camping season, you have absolutely zero chance of acquiring a campsite for a weekend by showing up Friday afternoon. Or Thursday. Even Wednesday is questionable as the day progresses.
In fact, the only reason we were able to camp at Sandy McNabb this past summer was because my wife was laid off from her job this year and neither she nor I had managed to secure a new one yet thereby freeing up our summer weekdays for a somewhat improvised, two night stay Tuesday through Thursday. This was our way of making a wee bit of lemonade out of lemons.
Proof of the impossibility of getting a campsite on the weekend was all around us almost immediately. We arrived Tuesday morning in mid-August, settling on a spot for ourselves soon after 11:00 in the morning. We had plenty to choose from, though the campground was far from empty. With checkout at 2:00pm, several sites would empty later in the afternoon but regardless, we were able to find a delightful site in Loop C.
The proof I speak of was the half dozen sites in each of the loops upon which a small tent was erected and not a soul to be found anywhere on the site. Nor would any show up that day or the next. Some would see their people arrive on Thursday, prior to our checking out. Some remained empty even then, presumably only to be used on the weekend.
This is the game that gets played by Calgarians desperate to camp at Sandy McNabb Campground (and other FCFS campgrounds in Kananaskis) and it continued on during our entire midweek stay. Someone would arrive starting as early as Tuesday morning to set up a cheap tent to “reserve” their preferred spot. They pay for a couple of nights they won’t even be there for and then show up with their RVs for the weekend. Pay for four nights, use for two nights. It’s the first come, first serve way.
Now, some may not mind this madness. There is certainly no shortage of players. And it probably makes for a lucrative business model considering all sites are pretty much rented non-stop all summer whereas with reservations many sites would be empty, and unpaid, during weekdays.
I won’t play that game. It’s a waste of money, in my opinion, and there are plenty of other worthwhile campgrounds around that do take reservations. And that is why we hadn’t come to Sandy McNabb until this past summer and also why we likely won’t again for some years to come. Unless we’re still looking for jobs next summer. Mind you, if that happens there will be bigger problems on our plate than scurrying to obtain FCFS campsites on a Tuesday morning.
This summer the stars did align and we finally made our way to Sandy McNabb. It was mid-August, a mere month after or treacherous trek to Ya Ha Tinda, and potholes once again struck again. Thankfully, this time these wretched road dents were restricted to the campground roads. Whereas the highway to Sandy McNabb is smooth, paved hardtop, the campground loop roads are hard-packed gravel and they are riddled with potholes. Some substantial.
Having never been here before, I don’t know if this is par for the course summer long, but a grader is definitely needed. Travel within the campground is accordingly slow, so it’s unlikely any will surprise you, let alone damage your vehicle or trailer. Still, the guy who showed up to camp with friends in his Porsche … let me say that again, he came camping in a Porsche … he probably wasn’t thrilled with even 5km/h pothole dodging.
Sandy McNabb Campground has four loops, A through D, two group sites, and a day use area. Loop A is designated for equestrian campers; more on that in a bit. Loops B, C, and D are for regular campers with 112 sites between them, all having 30 amp power.
We toured Loop B and then loop C, finally settling on a wonderful, private site at the bottom of C. Surrounded by pine and spruce, we had ample space to either side and nothing but forest behind. It was a perfect campsite for my tastes and reward for coming Tuesday morning. We’d have never gotten such a beauty later in the day, let alone later in the week.
Not all sites are as secluded. Some are, but others are much closer to their neighbours with a few even being side-by-side, almost like twin sites but not quite. These would make ideal family/friend sites but for us, we were quite happy being alone.
Our site is uniquely shaped, with a long gravel pad as the main thoroughfare of the site, and a slightly offset secondary gravel pad area on which our 16’ trailer fit perfectly. The result was that we had a great spot up front for our RV and picnic table plus a spot further back for our campfire without the worry of smoke entering our trailer.
This novel layout makes up for the fact that the site wasn’t level. It’s kind of weird, actually. Many of the sites are visibly sloped, typically upwards from the loop road. I have no idea why they are built this way. They’ve obviously been constructed for trailers and are level side to side, but front to back you’ll need to do some leveling. This could be tricky with long RVs.
Overall, sites come in two styles; back-in or pull-through. Some are tiny but most will fit moderate and large units. Loops A, B and C are entirely forested. Much of loop D is as well though there are a couple sites with more of a meadow landscape. As mentioned, all sites come with power but none have water or electricity.
Loop A is unique in that it is an equestrian only loop. Sandy McNabb neighbours some of the most luxurious, prestigious ranching and equestrian land in the country. Not surprisingly, there is a facility here to accommodate those who like to take their horses out trail riding in the foothills.
The loop is separate from the others but the campsites and layout are pretty much identical. The only real difference is the two large, robust, 24 stalls each, log corral to house the horses along with a parking area for horse trailers. This more communal setup for the horses contrasts to what we witnessed in Ya Ha Tinda where individual stall groupings were spread out amongst the various, rudimentary campsites. I’m no horse person so I can’t comment as to which format is preferable, but I imagine the location of the Sandy McNabb Equestrian Campground is far more convenient, albeit less visually appealing, than Ya Ha Tinda.
Fresh water is available at select locations around the various loops. There are one or two taps found in each, all offering delicious, cool, clear water. You can also fill up your trailer tank at the large dump station near the campground entrance.
This dump station is quite the facility and must be fairly new. It has four outlets with broad approaches that easily accommodate any sized RV. This place is packed all summer and there is undoubtedly a rush to get out on Sundays (or Mondays of long weekends) and having four dump outlets surely helps limit wait times. We’ve seen far fewer at campgrounds with far more sites.
If you prefer not to sully your trailer bathroom, newer pit toilets are situated at several places in each loop. Each building has a couple stalls per side, all unisex. They’re kept clean and are about as tolerable as pit toilets can get.
If you’re still not comfortable (oh look, my hand just shot up in the air), there’s a single, large comfort station with showers, flush toilets and sinks at the entrance to Loop D. This facility is a short walk from most of loop C, is a bit further for loop B, and is furthest from loop A and the two group sites, both of which have only pit toilets.
The showers require tokens which must be purchased from campground personnel who tour around the loops in a pickup truck thrice daily selling these shower tokens as well as firewood. We didn’t even ask how much the tokens were, presumably a dollar or two. The showers have absolutely no control of the water temperature or on/off. You drop in the token and shower like mad hoping to finish before the time runs out. Hopefully they are warm but I cannot confirm.
Firewood, on the other hand, I do know costs $10 for a plastic-wrapped chunk of very dry, easy burning softwood. Not the greatest deal on the planet, but it works. To get firewood you affix a pink slip of paper on your site post indicating you want wood. Then plan to be present at your site one of the three times each day they come around for delivery and payment. Those all-important times seemed to be 10:00, 14:00, and 19:00.
We were entirely unfamiliar with this routine, and the posted instructions aren’t terrible clear as to the delivery times. We ended up missing the first two times and were panicking before the final time relieved us of our worries. I’m not sure my son would have forgiven us had we not had a fire that first night.
At one point, we weren’t entirely sure we would have a fire regardless of the wood situation as a rain and hail storm rolled through while we ate supper. I don’t think we’ve ever had hail while we were camping. It was not welcome, though thankfully nothing was damaged.
On the other hand, we receive radio here and learned of flash flooding in Calgary from this storm. Not a huge issue since we weren’t in the city at that moment, but with no cell service at Sandy McNabb there was no means for us to communicate with neighbours should an issue have arisen.
This lack of cell service may delight or a shock you depending on your point of view, but I was somewhat surprised since we were still relatively close to civilization. I suppose this explains the still functioning pay phone at the campground entrance, a truly befuddling antique to the children.
As you may have surmised, there is no registration office or campground store here. A self-serve registration kiosk resides at the entrance to each loop where you fill out forms and submit payment in a nostalgic pen and paper arrangement. As for food and supplies, you can drive into Turner Valley if pressed but otherwise you are on your own. Bring what you need.
A single, modern, metal playground is located in the woods between loops B and C. It’s very much like the one at Mount Kidd suggesting this is de facto playground design and manufacturer for all Kananaskis campgrounds. It’s a fine playground, neither huge nor too small. And while it is obviously most easily accessible for loop B and C campers, it isn’t too outrageously far for other loop campers to walk to if using the dirt paths people have trampled between loops.
Kids love this playground. I know this because the little buggers other people brought to Sandy McNabb were screaming like lunatics all day long. Even as early as 8:30 as I was writing some notes, there was one kid shrieking like a serial killer victim. My kids didn’t do this. I like my kids.
With only a single playground and very limited green space, recreation at Sandy McNabb Campground is otherwise focused on the great outdoors. The campground is part of a larger, regional trail network. An all season trail useable by hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and snowshoe enthusiasts starts at a parking lot immediately across the highway. A seasonal trail (open April to November) loops around the campground and to the west while another has a trailhead a short distance east along the highway.
This area is popular for cross-country skiing in winters with Sandy McNabb’s day use area open year round. Eight additional trails are opened each winter for skiers, looping through, around, and nearby the campground. I’m no skier so can’t comment as to the quality or difficulty of these trails. I will say this, though. It may not be mountains proper here, but is in the foothills so there is plenty of elevation variation. I suspect skiers, and hikers, can be challenged as much or as little as they choose.
A single geocache can be hunted near the entrance to the campground but there are none within Sandy McNabb. Several others are located on the aforementioned trails through the greater park, but those will require some hiking and elevation climb. Not everyone will be keen to find them, like us, but at least they are there.
Sandy McNabb Interpretive Trail is an easier, informational trailer starting at a lookout just of the road to the day use area. A printable pamphlet contains stories and teachings about local points of interest, mostly environmental, corresponding to numbered posts along the trail.
This would also be a good time to mention bears. Sandy McNabb is definitely in bear country, and notices abound in the campground warning about leaving foodstuffs outside on campsites. Doing so will result in confiscation and potentially fines.
Bugs, on the other hand, were relatively unnoticeable during our stay. That may have been purely luck on our part, but I’ll gladly take it. During our stay we spent hours walking around the campground and up and down the nearby Sheep River and never once complained about mosquitoes or other flying nuisances. I’m always happy when that happens.
Birds, squirrels, butterflies and dragonflies made up the bulk of wildlife we saw in and around the Sandy McNabb. The single exception to this was a quail (or grouse) of some sort that was walking through the tall grass near the improvised trail we used to get to the comfort station from our campsite. The damn thing stared at me the entire time I struggled to get my camera out of my pack and turned on, then darted away before I could get an actual picture. I never saw it again.
The primary campground roadway passes two group sites as it delcines toward the day use area on the banks of the Sheep River. Both group sites are conveniently isolated from the campground loops providing a fun, private space for larger parties to enjoy camping together.
Group Area A was the easiest for us to look at, thought the access road was blocked by a gate. It’s a terrific looking group spot with individual, gravel pad campsites placed around a central loop enclosing a large green space. A newer pit toilet building and an enclosed picnic shelter with wood stove complete the amenities. Although not sheltered by trees, in my mind, this is the ideal group campsite layout.
Further down the slope, in fact below a single switchback, is the Sandy McNabb day use area. Normally this would be a terrific spot for a summer picnic beside a beautiful mountain river, except that the access road is currently blocked off. Instead, visitors are required to park in a dirt parking area next to a pit toilet across the road from Group Site A.
A sign on the barrier says the road to the day use area has been cut off since July 23, 2018 due to a rock slide. As we were walking rather than driving, we continued onwards and discovered that the offending impingement on the road was kind of lame.
I mean, I get that this engineered dirt wall is failing, but it seems overdone to block the entire road because of it. And even if you are, why are you not fixing it fully 14 months after the closure? Sandy McNabb has a lovely picnic area with some incredible cliffs across the river to view. Why exclude vehicles from this spot seemingly unendingly (glad I don’t have an editor to rip me about that awful sentence)?
And the views are pretty. As a geologist, the chevron folding in the cliffs on the opposing side of the Sheep River are spectacular. I may have squeaked in glee upon first site. We spent a couple of hours every day walking up and down the river scouring the gravel bars looking for cool stones. There were plenty to be found.
A mountain river like this one will flood significantly in the spring before taming down as summer progresses. This offers very different visitor experiences depending on the time of year you visit. And for geologists, or geo-enthusiasts, the annual cycle exposes some very cool visuals both along the shore and on the cliffs beside.
The day use area itself has several picnic spots dotting the area, another new pit toilet building, and a short, landscaped trailer through the trees along the immediate riverside. All it lacks is people.
If there is a drawback to Sandy McNabb Campground, it’s the scenery inside the campground. Despite all being part of Kananaskis Country, Sandy McNabb is far more McLean Creek PRA than Mount Kidd RV Park. That lessens the experience just a bit.
This campground is decidedly more foothills than mountains. Sitting at your campsite there are no peaks to gaze at. Even when hiking around, the hills are muted and rounded. The “stunning” quotient is diminished here.
That said, a few kilometres drive further up the highway day stops like Sheep River Falls and Junction Creek certainly up the ante. Again we spent a few hours exploring these easily accessible, roadside picnic areas. With trails and beautiful photo spots, these nearby attractions quickly compensate for any perceived lack of “prettiness” in Sandy McNabb Campground.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Sandy McNabb. It lived up to much of its hype and I have no issue recommended it to campers. I give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. My only qualm is the lack of a reservation system which prevents us from visiting more regularly (or at all). Well, that and the overkill with the day use road closure.
Great write-up. Sandy McNabb will be on the reservation system as of 2021 (Reservation start in mid-February 2021). The road to the day-use area at the river is now open. (2020/08/16)
And thanks for the update.
Skiing at sandy mcnabb jan8 2021. You drive into the ski area to be suddenly stopped by a barricade where everyone was stopping. So where’s the skiing everyone was asking each other. No one knew. No signage.So everyone was driving around in circles. Most people got out of there cars , looked around and just left.
Me the die hard found some tracks and tried skiing.Very little was groomed. Some people were snowshoeing but were walking directly on the ski trail because it was hard to make out what was the ski trail. Bathroom I tried to use was locked with no closed sign who ever looks after this place needs to do their job.