I grew up in a tourist town. Not the spring break, summer at the beach type of tourist town or the cultural hub, rare antiquities type of tourist town. Sadly. No, my hometown was the bus loads of big city seniors coming to buy decorative but useless knickknacks and hopefully catch a glimpse of Old Order Mennonites in horse and buggies type of tourist town. Fun comes in varied forms.
At its peak in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the downtown core was one large shopping mall inundated with pedestrians mindlessly disrupting traffic and irritating locals. So irritating were these hordes of visitors that in twenty-four years I never once stepped foot in most of the stores luring these masses to town.
The centrepiece of this artisanal jamboree was a century-old flour mill converted to shops. I only remember being inside of it once and that was for an elementary school field trip to learn about making apple dolls. Because, yes, there was once a time when people made a living by exclusively selling dolls made with dried fruit for heads.
The point is, my backyard was this incredibly popular place and I knew very little about it. So negligent was my interest in the tourist activities of my hometown, that this past summer while home visiting I decided to go for a stroll around town and was startled to discover that the aforementioned mill is nearly empty. I guess the knickknack business has passed its prime much like the bulk of its clientele and I’ll now never know what drew so many into that place besides the shrivelled apple noggins.
This past summer we camped for the very first time in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, part of Alberta’s renowned Kananaskis Country, and I soon discovered I had repeated the same mistake I had made with my hometown. I’ve lived in Calgary for nearly twenty years and assumed Kananaskis was nothing more than a fabulous mountain golf course, an underappreciated ski hill, an assortment of wilderness trails, and Mt. Kidd RV Park. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Do yourself a favour, well two, actually. Don’t wait twenty years to camp in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and when you do, be sure to take the southerly route to the park via Highways 40 and 541 from Longview, Alberta.
This stretch of road, also known as the Highwood Pass loop, is a scenic wonderland that nearly rivals the iconic Icefields Parkway for sheer beauty. It’s the longer route to Peter Lougheed for most of Calgary and parts north, but so very worth it. Foothills ranch lands beckon you westward as they evolve into glorious, thrusted walls of grey, snow-capped Rocky Mountains. I honestly could have spent the weekend just driving back and forth along this highway.
And we very nearly did, thanks to my ignorance of this part of the province combined with a lack of cellular service and a frustrating dearth of signage. Okay, mostly the first one. But is it too hard to add signs for the major campgrounds in the various provincial parks making up Kananaskis Country? Sure, we passed a “Peter Lougheed Provincial Park” sign but I’m on the hunt for “Boulton Creek Campground” signs which never came. It was only when we’d made it to Mt. Kidd-freaking-RV Park that we realized we’d missed our destination entirely. Not the best way to start a relaxing weekend in the outdoors.
The understated signage signaling the lone entrance to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park was even more perplexing once we discovered how massive a summer recreation area this park actually is. It blew my mind. I actually felt a little stupid. I’d been ignorant of this place for twenty years despite camping practically next door at Mt. Kidd multiple times.
Centred around Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes, Peter Lougheed is home to multiple campgrounds of varying sizes and amenities, a lodge, several day use areas, hiking trails, a store, an equipment rental shop, and a visitor centre. There’s even a gas station on the main highway not too far up the road from the park entrance. If that’s not a sign of a bustling destination then, well, it’s at the very least a sign you’re in Alberta.
In my defence, one of the reasons we’ve overlooked Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for so long is that many of the campgrounds are first come, first served only. Boulton Creek and Elkwood, the two largest campgrounds, have some reservable sites but all the other campgrounds are FCFS.
As I elaborated upon in my Sandy McNabb review, FCFS is a destination killer for us. And that’s a damn shame because some of the non-reservable campgrounds in Peter Lougheed look incredible. Lower Lake campground, in particular, looks amazing situated along the south shore of Lower Kananaskis Lake and offering spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
For our inaugural visit, we chose Boulton Creek campground over Elkwood campground primarily because the park grocery store, called the Bouton Creek Trading Post, is located there. And grocery stores in campgrounds typically mean one thing; delicious treats, namely, ice cream. I would not be disappointed.
Boulton Creek is a lovely, forested, mountain campground. Yeah, that description gets repetitive out here, but it is very much what you come to expect when camping west of Calgary. We’re lucky that way.
The campsites in Boulton Creek are spacious and sheltered with some, depending on location, especially private and quiet. All are large with level, gravel pads on which to set up your rig and surrounding your firepit. Set amongst Lodgepole Pine, you really feel like you have your own personal oasis to camp in. If you’re looking to decompress from city living, this is the prescription your doctor should be giving you.
Boulton Creek campground has 161 sites in five lettered loops. Most of the sites are back-in but a few pull-throughs exist in loops B and D. Loops A, C, and D are un-serviced, including six walk-in sites in Loop C. Loop B, where we were, has 35 sites with 15amp power and water.
The only gripe I had with our campsite was that the hookups were located too near the front. With our small 16’ trailer, we were unable to hookup to services from the spot where we wanted to place our trailer. Large trailers shouldn’t have a problem, but it would have been nice if the hookups had been installed further back on the campsite footprint.
Ultimately, we chose to fill our RV water tank from the water supply on our site then move it back to the spot where we wanted it. Fortunately, we had a long extension cord in our possession and were able to connect to power from our preferred location.
Loop E appears to be a new addition to the campground. Located immediately beside the entrance parking lot and registration area next to the Trading Post, these sites are much closer together. Though still forested, they don’t offer the same expansive, private feel of sites in the older loops. Loop E sites do, however, have full services including sewer, something you don’t often find in the mountain parks.
All loops come furnished with at least one outhouse and several potable water spigots. Even Loop E, the one with sewer service, had a nice, new outhouse. We were camping at Boulton Creek campground on Labour Day weekend and I can assure you, by the end of summer those pit toilets are vile smelling huts capable of inducing constipation quicker than eating a brick of cheese.
That’s not to say that they were filthy or not attended to, there’s just no beating nature when it comes to sewage stewing in warm temperatures for months. Thankfully, there is a more appealing option available for relieving oneself.
Located on the main campground road, just to the north of Loop B, Boulton Creek offers campers a brick and mortar shower and flush toilet bathhouse. It’s a reasonable walk from Loop E and most of Loop B but campers in Loops A, C, and D might find it a long haul without a bike or vehicle. Still, worth the effort to avoid pit toilets.
The interior of this bathhouse is fairly standard Alberta Provincial Park stuff. Nothing special but nothing terrible either. A couple toilet stalls, urinals in the mens, and a few sinks for cleaning up. Showers are token-operated and tokens are purchased at the Trading Post. As usual, I didn’t shower on our short visit so I can’t comment as to the quality of the showers or the hot water. I even forgot to look at the style of shower controls. I guess I was just so happy at not having to use the pit toilets.
I’m a bit surprised there is no laundry service attached to the bathhouse or anywhere in the campground. With all the outdoor activities available to guests, they are bound to get sweaty and dirty. We’ve come to expect laundry facilities in larger campgrounds associated with robust outdoor activities like this one. And on this occasion, we could have used one! More on that further down.
If you choose the comfort of your own RV bathroom, Boulton Creek campground has a dump station as you approach the main registration/Trading Post parking lot. This dump station is a stupidly engineered thing. It has two entrances enabling RVs to approach the dump spot from either end, however, only a single hole is available. In other words, two trailers can simultaneously enter the dump station but only one can actually use it. Dumb!
I should note that there is a second dump station in the park but outside the campground. It’s on the main park road and is called Canyon dump station (you’ll see the signs). This is presumably for users of all the other campgrounds in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, none of which have their own dump station. Another alternative is located at the gas station on Highway 40 about 12km north of the park entrance.
Drinking water for filling RV tanks is also available at the dump station for those camping in un-serviced sites.
Speaking of missing amenities, another absentee at Boulton Creek is a playground. I understand that the focus of Kananaskis is outdoor adventure and exploring nature, but a large playground would be a welcome activity for kids unable to participate in long excursions or waiting for meals to be prepped and cleaned up. The campground is decidedly family-oriented (have I mentioned the ice cream yet?) and there is plenty of space to install an elaborate playground. This strikes me as a calculated misstep.
Likewise, the abandonment of the Boulton Creek campground amphitheatre is unfortunate. And I do mean abandonment. Plants are encroaching on the benches indicating this facility hasn’t been used in many years. A poster affixed to the stage states all interpretive programs are performed at the Elkwood campground amphitheatre.
This is undoubtedly a cost-saving measure. We visited the Elkwood amphitheatre and it is much larger and elaborate. It is not surprising that it was chosen between the two. But it is also 8+ kilometres from Boulton Creek campground making it a distasteful walk and less than desirable bike ride, especially with young kids. Boulton Creek campers are either going to drive or skip the interpretive programs altogether, which is a shame.
Since I’m on a roll complaining, I might as well mention the lack of modern communication available at Boulton Creek campground. Kananaskis Country is notorious for having non-existent cell service throughout much of its territory. This is seen as a perk to many and it does offer an enviable escape from our constant notification culture. But the Trading Post, a bustling hub for the many campgrounds in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, has no WiFi either. There’s a Telus phone booth available for emergencies and nostalgia sake. I, though, would have preferred a WiFi hotspot at the Trading Post to give campers at least some option for communication with the bigger world.
Beyond that oversight, the Boulton Creek Trading Post is a formidable community and retail hub for activities both in Boulton Creek campground and the park at large. The store has everything including food, camping apparatus, souvenirs, treats, and ice all at the expected inflated prices. It’s the largest selection of all items I’ve seen at a campground store in a long time. Even full-size propane bottles!
Firewood is also sold here in the typical bundles found at most Alberta parks. I honestly don’t remember the price but it wasn’t out of line with what we’ve paid elsewhere. The wood is decent and makes a fine, s’mores-worthy fire. I imagine some folks bring their own wood.
Inside the Trading Post is also where you register for camping. Oddly enough, as you make your way up the road to your campsite you will pass an abandoned registration kiosk harkening back to a time when public services weren’t as reviled.
Now for the most important attraction at Boulton Creek campground. Attached to the trading post is an ice cream shop. There’s a modest café as well, but ICE CREAM! Several flavours of delicious, hard ice cream are available, and we enjoyed every cone we bought. Yes, that’s plural.
Here’s a life hack. Out in these parts, proprietors don’t intend to carry stock over the long winters. So, while the store was having a sale on pretty much everything (basically the prices were lowered to what they would be in a regular grocery store), the ice cream shop was giving you double the value. The kids’ cones we ordered ended up being singles while the singles my wife and I ordered ended up being doubles, and so on. Great, unexpected value and something to keep in mind when booking future camping trips … Labour Day is awesome!
As for the café, it might have been a bigger concern at one time but now it’s little more than a limited concession stand. They sold hot dogs and some baked good, also coffee (I think). Otherwise, the café is more of a service desk for the rental on-site rental business.
This is something I’ve never seen at a campground store complex before. Large national parks with whole towns inside, like Banff, for example, have myriad retail outlets selling all sorts of outdoor gear but I didn’t expect to find a scaled down version here. You can rent canoes, kayaks, bicycles, and even roller blades to use throughout the park.
They also sell an assortment of sporting equipment like life jackets, water bottles, and even climbing gear. Prices aren’t cheap, mind you. Canoe rentals were double the cost we’ve seen at national parks but I suspect demand here is high.
Another benefit of camping here during Labour Day weekend was that much of the rental stock was available for purchase. Similarly, the retail stock was reduced in price. Canoes and Bicycles, quality brand name stuff unlike what I buy at Canadian Tire, could be bought at presumably discounted prices assuming you had the means to transport them home with you.
While the store itself may have been a surprise, the demand for rental equipment was not. Trails abound in these parts, winding through the campground and out into the wilderness surrounding it. There are cycle trails which have been paved and have lines down the middle like miniature highways. Other trails are gravel and graded, ideal for foot traffic. For the serious hiker, much longer trails will take you deep into Kananaskis back country.
The two lakes around which all the campgrounds huddle, offers calm, blue waters on which to boat. But they are mountain lakes. The water is cold and storms can roll in with little warning. Alberta Parks recommends only experienced paddlers canoe/kayak in them (or any rivers).
Motorized boats are also allowed, with speed limits, and each lake hosts a boat launch (sorry, no pictures).
The weather was sketchy during our stay, with rain rolling in a couple times. This limited our already modest desire to go on a long hike. There are dozens of gorgeous places to hike to, but we chose to stay close to our RV home base. Luckily, even homebodies will find lots to enjoy around Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Our biggest adventure was hunting for a geocache said to be located out in the woods behind Loops B and C. The map showed Whiskey Jack trail offered a good, groomed starting point for this adventure so we headed out one morning under cool but clear skies, paying no mind to the rains that had fallen earlier. That was a mistake.
Despite our handy GPS, the route to this geocache turned exploratory in a hurry. We soon found ourselves breaking trail through virgin woods, eventually needing to cross a wetland area. We did our best to circumvent the water, hopping from grass mound to tree stump, but eventually all four of us were saddled with thoroughly soaked footwear and unhappy feet. Not fun!
We stumbled upon some sort of flightless fowl which momentarily lightened our mood and we did finally find the geocache, though the reward was uninspired. We trudged our way back to the campsite having been gone far longer than anticipated and becoming much wetter than desired. Once we arrived and gleefully removed our wet boots, I found myself wishing more than ever that Boulton Creek campground had a laundromat. I had only brought my hiking shoes and a pair of rubber boots. I desired very much to stick my shoes in a dryer rather than wear my giant, black clodhoppers for the remainder of our stay, though I did make quite the impression around the firepit.
Another geocache is located at the Trading Post. THAT was a sneaky bugger to find. We hunted all around the building as bewildered strangers watched our not-so-discreet antics. Eventually I found it, much to our collective relief.
Earlier, when feet were happier, we explored the amenities of the park, notably the Discovery Centre. Located close to the entrance from Highway 40, the visitor/information centre at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is awesome. Easily the best one we’ve yet seen at an Alberta provincial park.
This place is straight out of Parks Canada’s playbook. Park staff manage the main desk providing service and guidance to both long term visitors and day users. This place is vital for those heading out to back country for sightseeing and/or camping. Maps and some hiking gear are available for purchase and up-to-date activity information is posted on a wall.
Easily half the building is dedicated to interactive science displays teaching about the wildlife, history, anthropology, and geology of this region as well as greater Alberta. I love these educational installations, as do my kids, and these were very cool even if a few weren’t working. I’m not a huge fan of taxidermy, but many stuffed animals are on display giving city folk like me a better understanding of the size of mountain predators.
A large theatre shows park-centric films by request only. We didn’t request any. I’m not sure why they don’t have a regular schedule of showings as is typical at most visitor centres.
A huge lounge area highlighted by an impressive stone fireplace and towering windows offers unfettered views of the stunning, nearby mountains. Unfortunately, while we were there it was cloudy and we didn’t see much.
On the bright side, there is free WiFi at the discovery centre. YAY! The only place in the park you can get it and still no cell service, you’ll at least be able to check your email and maybe post an Instagram shot of something pretty. It’s not the greatest WiFi connection but better than the nothing found everywhere else in Peter Lougheed park.
With so much offered at the Discovery Centre, combined with the larger than usual store at the Trading Post, I was a bit surprised by the lackluster gift shop. Much to my son’s chagrin, there were only a small selection of branded outdoorsy items for sale on a freestanding shelving unit. I honestly expected more.
The Lower Lake day use area was the first natural area we hit up for exploring. It’s an odd spot. There’s parking and a pit toilet, a couple of tables but otherwise, it’s just an open, hummocky field on the eastern shore of Lower Kananaskis Lake. There’s a small boat launch present, but you wouldn’t launch anything more than a canoe or kayak from it imho.
Don’t let the blasé immediate surroundings deter you from visiting here. The views across the lake are incredible. And if you’re avid rockhounds like us, there is plenty of rocky shoreline to explore with several fossilized boulders to discover.
Next we visited the Interlakes area, a narrow strip of sloping land separating Upper Kananaskis Lake from Lower. The connecting waterway between the two lakes has been damned with a power generation plant. This is a popular fishing spot as I guess the fish like to hang out around the power plant outlet. Fishing is forbidden in the waters immediately outside the plant, but along the shore to each side it is fair game and several fisherfolk were plying their lines hoping to catch supper.
We didn’t bring our fishing gear so instead we again searched the rocky shores for cool stones to add to our collection. In doing so, we also found dozens of lethargic bees trying to get the last drops of pollen from purple flowers of withering plants. Often there were several on individual flowers.
As we were leaving the lower portion of the day use area, we noted that folks had stopped their cars in the middle of the road as if looking at something. Sure enough, on the sloping hillside a black bear was snooping around the shrubs. We had the opportunity to take some magnificent photographs of this bear but didn’t because I didn’t have the proper lens on my damn camera. By the time I switched it out, the bear was moving further uphill and refused to turn around, so I only managed shots of his/her ass.
Interestingly, the bear was making its way to the Upper Lake day use area parking lot. This is where we were headed next and we were mischievously wondering how many people would be spooked when the bear popped his head out from the trees. By the time we made it up the road and found parking, we couldn’t see him and thus turned our attention to exploring around the dam and lake.
Once again, the views were inspiring, despite the overcast skies. Fossil Falls could be seen in the distance tumbling down the mountainside. You can hike to these falls, but it’s a long and difficult one. The views are said to be unforgettable and I can well imagine they are.
We spent our time playing amongst the rocks and driftwood along the north side of the lake. People have created a couple driftwood forts which the kids enjoyed playing in and renovating. This is a busier spot than the others we visited but we still found the freedom to enjoy ourselves in solitude. Most of the vehicles must have belonged to hikers.
If one thing became abundantly clear during our weekend it’s that we absolutely must come back to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. We experienced only a hint of what this amazing park has to offer. I’m embarrassed we didn’t know about it sooner. This absolutely should have been one of the first places we ever camped at way back when we first bought a trailer.
Our thorough enjoyment of our stay at Boulton Creek campground was only furthered by the hit and miss weather. With rain dampening the experience for short periods each day, many Albertans simply stayed home. Whomever had reserved the sites to either side of us never showed up giving us an even greater feeling of privacy. I don’t understand why people don’t cancel if they have no intention of showing up, FCFS campers might have liked the locations, but I was happy as a clam to be neighbourless.
Oh, and the skies. That first night it was so ridiculously black. I think it was due to cloud cover this time, but even clear skies with a new moon would be gloriously dark. Combined with the silence afforded us by absent neighbours, our evenings around the campfire were magical. I’m getting chills just reminiscing about it. This is certainly not something you expect from a bustling destination.
Yet, all is not perfect in our modern world. Being only an hour and a half removed from a major Canadian city means manmade intrusions are inevitable. Case in point, a flightpath from Calgary airport heading west lies directly overhead. All delusions of seclusion evaporated as those jets passed by above us, momentarily killing the fantasy.
The same can be said, I suppose, of the private cottages found along the east side of Lower Kananaskis Lake. I’m no fan of these existing in any park, especially nowadays when cabins have been transformed into second homes for the wealthy. I mean, if you want to be in a house that badly, stay home! Cabins should be, well, cabins. All rustic and such. At least these weren’t readily visible during our adventures.
Nonetheless, the birds and chipmunks and, yes, mosquitoes (they weren’t unbearable) kept our minds firmly planted in nature. What more can one ask for.
Not surprisingly, I highly recommend camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. I still can’t believe I didn’t know about it. My god, I’m a goof. As for Boulton Creek campground, I give it 4.25 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a spacious, sheltered, lovely campground, perfect for families or solitary adventurers alike. The Trading Post and central location within the park make it a great spot for camping, especially if you want the scheduling convenience of reservations. But it could really use a playground. And golly, those pit toilets were rank at the end of the summer. Otherwise, I’d have given it a perfect 5.