I almost camped at Cataract Creek Provincial Recreation Area. I’d heard the name plenty from the mouths of friends who camp there each summer. Usually it was followed with some form of, “if there are spots left” since Cataract Creek is first come, first serve only. Unlike these acquaintances, I’m no gambler when it comes to campsites. I prefer certitude. And so, I’ve never camped there but as of 2020, I can at least say I’ve been there.
In fact, I really did almost camp there. Heading out in the early part of the work week, near the beginning of July, made first come, first serve slightly more palatable; the gambling odds much more in my favour. But then Fate tossed me a bone and Etherington Creek Provincial Recreation Area went to a reservation model to combat the spread of COVID and I jumped on that bandwagon faster than a one tonne hauling a tow hauler on the Forestry Trunk Road!
With the two sibling campgrounds being only seven kilometres apart, it was no trouble to pop down to Cataract Creek to investigate during our two night stay at Etherington Creek. I’m glad we made the effort, small as it was.
The two PRAs are in no way twins, an erroneous assumption I’d made when deciding between the two. Not only did we spend an enjoyable couple of hours rooting around but I’m certain Cataract Creek will one day be a place I do camp at.
Cataract Creek Provincial Recreation Area is an odd creation. It’s a PRA snuggled up to the western boundary of the similarly named Cataract Creek Public Land Use Zone. It’s also snuggled up to the southeastern boundary of Don Getty Wildland Park. But it’s part of neither, an entity unto itself.
Its layout is also kind of odd. On the west side of HWY 40 (forestry trunk road), there is a day use slash staging area for snowmobilers. This is listed as part of the Cataract Creek PRA but seeing as it is enveloped by the Cataract Creek PLUZ (a designated snow machine PLUZ) it feels like it should just be part of the PLUZ.
The remaining, and larger, portion of Cataract Creek PRA is a short scoot up a sideroad to the northeast. There one will find the campground and remaining lands of the PRA. I’m not sure why this configuration has been made but honestly, the complicated jumble of designations throughout the greater Kananaskis region is incomprehensible to me. Just make it all a single park and be done with it.
The snowmobile staging area is a large, gravel parking lot. Not surprising, really. There is a newer pit toilet on the premises and a larger, fully enclosed gathering place. If this was in a campground, I’d call it a picnic shelter, but it obviously functions differently in this scenario.
It’s more elements-resistant for one thing, though the sliding door must let in plenty of cold air. Inside is a large, wood-fired, metal stove that heats up chilly sledders when stoked. The roof is covered in heat-reflective shielding to help defrost after a fun day in the wintery wilderness. And a couple picnic tables offer a place to sit and trade war stories.
I’m sure it’s a great, and popular, spot to gather during snowmobile season. During the summer, I’m not sure it gets used for anything other than as a meeting point for hikers. All those miles of sled trails are just sitting there unused during the summer and are certainly a boon to hikers. With additional footpaths and hikes up into the surrounding mountains, as I mentioned in my Etherington review, this PLUZ is my favourite in that summer OHVs will not be found within it.
After our brief snooping around the staging area, we headed up the road to the Cataract Creek campground. At a reasonable 13 km south of Highwood House, the convenience store, gas station, and RV dump located where the blacktop begins, getting to Cataract Creek PRA is not especially difficult. Yes, there’s some gravel road to contend with and its sometimes washboarded, but compared to say Livingstone Falls PRA or Ya Ha Tinda, this is a breeze. It’s also a tolerable 1.5 hours from Calgary.
There are two loops in the campground, with 102 campsites. The layout looks not unlike two leaves on a single stem with loop B, the slightly larger loop, to the east and the more blunted loop A to the west.
Bounded to the west by Cataract Creek and to the south by Salter Creek, none of the campsites back onto either waterbody. Both loops are fully enveloped in lodgepole pine forest with open meadow to the northwest and south. For some sites it’s a quick escape into these grassy areas.
Nor is the area flat. While the campground loops are fairly level, there is a slight slope upwards to the east. That slope steepens quickly outside the campground boundaries and into the surrounding hills and front ranges.
Campsites are a mix of back-in and pull-through with the former dominant. That said, there was a funky, old-school vibe to the place. There are no elevated gravel pads here but rather an organic, unleveled dirt layout to the sites.
Size varies quite a bit though overall they are smaller and will be a handful for large RVs. Some sites are distinctly uneven. Those impressive gravel pads found elsewhere may appeal to RV owners but they suck for those with tents needing to hammer pegs into the ground. I grew rather fond of this more “natural” character.
Those tall, dead-straight lodgepole pines only add to the setting. They may not provide much inter-site privacy, but they do make for a delightful, spotty shelter from the sun. Combined with the sparsely vegetated forest floor and spontaneous site layouts, Cataract Creek is a nifty campground in my opinion.
Each site comes with the obligatory picnic table and firepit. Nothing novel about that. But, a few of the campsites had in-ground firepits, something I haven’t seen in decades. Most of the sites also seemed to have a concrete encirclement around the firepits. These were crumbling and presumably aged things, but again, not something I’ve seen in other provincial parks or similar entities.
Nearest the fork where the two loops diverge rests the campground supervisor site. It had an imposing closed gate with police ‘Do Not Enter’ tape on it which I assume (I hope!) is because of the pandemic that has made 2020 such a treat. Firewood can be purchased here. It was $10 per bag at Etherington and I imagine it’s the same price here. I also imagine during the Summer of COVID you place an order on a sheet of paper and the wood is delivered to your campsite.
All campsite services are absent from Cataract Creek. This is barebones camping at its best. There is a brightly painted red water pump near the manager’s site and that appears to be the only one for the entire campground. I could be wrong about that but if you’re camping with a trailer, you’ve likely brought your own supply anyway.
With no dump station, you’ll need to empty your tanks at Highwood House or some other location further afield. If you’re using onsite facilities for your bathroom moments, you’ll be happy to hear they also have a funky old-school air about them.
Singular outhouses but positioned in pairs around the loops, these pit toilets have the wooden bench with toilet seat affixed design that immediately took me back in time. Not that I frequented outhouses much as a youth, I’m not that old, but the bench and toilet seat getup triggered some kind of nostalgia within me. Beyond that momentary romanticism, they’re still pit toilets and, well, yeah. Pit toilets.
The registration kiosk is found near the water pump which is near the manager’s campsite which is near the entrance to the loops but perhaps favouring loop B just a bit. It’s a straightforward self-registration kiosk that you actually get to use here because it remains entirely FCFS.
There is no cell service out here as is common throughout most of Kananaskis and neighbouring areas. Highwood House will be your closest point for getting help in emergencies.
There is no playground here either, something that I seem to mention in reviews for all these second tier provincial campgrounds. My kids have mostly outgrown playgrounds, so it’s not a huge ordeal for us anymore. I just think they’re a handy diversion for parents when meals need prepping or a short reprieve from bored children is required. The space for one is always available it’s just a matter of initiative and some money. They don’t even need to be big. I don’t understand why they’re avoided in all but the biggest, most resort-like of campgrounds.
Fun, therefore, falls to outdoor pursuits like hiking and perhaps fly-fishing. There is one dirt trail within Cataract Creek PRA (aside form the footpaths warn between sites and to/from various pit toilets). It meanders to and then along Cataract Creek itself.
The trailhead for Mount Burke Trail is found inside the PRA grounds, just south of the supervisor campsite. There is a rough parking area here to stow vehicles before venturing out on this 10 km hike. Another longer trail begins very near the entrance to the PRA from the main highway and a second additional trailhead can be found around the bend from there on the main road. Many other trails exist in the vicinity and, of course, there are the multitude of snowmobile trails all over that make excellent, wide, hiking trails during offseason.
Geocaches were more plentiful here than at Etherington Creek, for unknown reasons. We found two, eventually (they were tricky), up in the hills alongside Salter Creek along the beginning portion of Mount Burke Trail. Others can be found along trails and up into the mountains and ridges surrounding Cataract Creek PRA. We weren’t that keen.
Instead, we spent the bulk of our time exploring the broad, rocky floodplain of Salter Creek to the south of the campground loops. It is easy to access from the Mt Burke trailhead parking lot mentioned above. This braided stream must be quite the torrent of water during spring flood season judging by the amount and size of rubble it moves along it’s channel. By early July, however, it was quite tame and pretty.
We love hunting pretty stones and fossils in riverbeds like this and had modest success in our efforts. The wildflowers painting the various bars will appeal to those less enamored by rocks. And at various points, views opened up to reveal the mountain tops hiding in the distance. All four of us had a delightful time. This is also far more what we expect from mountain rivers than we experienced at Etherington Creek PRA.
When all is said and done, the campgrounds at Cataract Creek and Etherington Creek are kind of toss up. They’re the same and yet different. Which you choose won’t impact your enjoyment all that much. If you do end up in Etherington Creek, well, you can easily make Cataract Creek a day trip like we did.
The old-school flavour of Cataract Creek won me over, though. As did the much better mountain creek. For those two reasons I need to rate Cataract Creek PRA higher than Etherington Creek PRA, so I’ll give it 3.9 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I just liked it a bit better but with the added risk of no site availability on weekends, I totally understand if you remove uncertainty and reserve a campsite at Etherington.
As is the case with both Etherington Creek and Livingstone Falls, it is a genuine shame that Cataract Creek campground is on the potential chopping block. The location and popularity of these campgrounds might save them or warrant a private partnership that will save them. Still, that’s a risky bet and one the government should not be taking. This place needs more love, not less.