If it’s fair to say Alberta’s economy is all too reliant on oil and gas, then it’s also fair to say Albertan’s camping habits are all too focused on the mountains. At least that was my thinking when I went hunting for something east of our home rather than west. I ended up finding Big Knife Provincial Park.
You can debate my initial quip. Those in the northern half of the province certainly could. And there’s no denying the popularity of the three “big” lakes in the Highway 2 corridor. But here in Calgary, almost all out-of-city recreation begins and ends with the mountains.
Understandable, that, what with Kananaskis and Banff both on our doorstep and around them an endless supply of foothills, front ranges, and Rocky Mountains. It’s a blessing, no doubt. But if you punch up the Alberta Parks reservations map there’s a significant lack of options in the great prairie expanse east of the city. And Cypress Hills, the biggest and perhaps most noteworthy of eastern destinations, is basically a mountain oasis on the flat expanse.
I get it. The mountains are WOW while the prairies are more meh. That’s an unfortunate perception, in my opinion. One can find stirring beauty in the grasslands of the great plains, especially in Canada where glaciation has added a little spice to an otherwise bland recipe. It’s not all flat nothingness. Far from it.
Finding an intriguing spot took some digging on my part. There’s a surprising lack of provincial campgrounds in the badlands of Drumheller and points northward. East of there the pickings are even slimmer. Only when I clued in to the first come, first serve offerings did more options present themself. That’s where I found Big Knife Provincial Park.
Hidden away along the south shore of the Battle River west of the HWY 855 bridge, about forty-five minutes northeast of Stettler, Big Knife is a gem few people know about. The locals know. We arrived on a Monday afternoon expecting the place to be ours for the choosing but were surprised to find at least half of the sites filled with campers, mostly snowbirds from Stettler spending a couple days away from home.
Two things intrigued me about this poorly advertised provincial park. One, it’s geologically interesting, or more accurately, geomorphologically interesting. The Battle River is a small, dramatically meandering river within a much larger valley, a reminder of its heartier, post-glacial past. And second, it’s surrounded by former and current coal strip mining. That’s Alberta, for ya.
Even the drive to Big Knife Provincial Park is stimulating. We choose a non-Google-approved route that included a stretch of HWY 56 taking us past Rumsey Natural Area. I haven’t a clue what is going on along parts of that highway, but those landforms (presumably glacial) are anything but boring.
Closer to the park, the landscape is more traditionally flat. The valley, all but invisible until you’re right on top of it, cuts deep into the flatlands. Within it’s walls lies the partially flooded Battle River and its many oxbows and prograding point bars.
The river is dammed further to the east for power generation at the … wait for it … Battle River Generating Station, a … wait for it … coal (and natural gas) fired power plant. The reservoir isn’t huge and where Big Knife is located is transitioning back to virgin river. This transition zone is fascinating with former oxbows rejoined to the river and reed beds highlighting point bars. Looking down and along the valley from higher vantage points reveals a uniquely beautiful, if man-assisted, environment.
Of course, immediately south of the park is an active strip mining operation. Also manmade, this environment is most definitely not pretty. Still, it piques your curiosity and you can’t resist the temptation to stop for a moment and gaze at the massive excavators towering over the surrounding prairie.
You also can’t miss the tailings piles scattered over the nearby farmland. Take a look on a satellite view sometime. Older tailings to the north of the river are unmistakable. I think there are even spots where tailings were deliberately dumped into or slumped down the side of the valley.
Diplomat Mine Interpretive Site
Three kilometres north of Big Knife Provincial Park is the Diplomat Mine Interpretive Site. Set in a small park-like setting, this neat, outdoor museum contains two couple retired excavators from an earlier mining operation. You can get right up close to these monster machines which is great for kids and geologists alike. I can only imagine how much fuel those century-old giants consumed!
In addition to the machinery and accessories on display, there’s a covered picnic shelter, some pit toilets, and a large sample of fossilized wood that was discovered in the coal seams year ago. The exhibit is free (donations are appreciated) making it a delightful add-on to any camping trip to Big Knife Provincial Park.
Big Knife Campground
The campground is found three kilometres to the west from the bridge on HWY 855. The road to the campground is paved (yay!) before turning to gravel within the campground proper. The park lands vary between grass, shrub, and forest with density of each alternating amongst the meanders of the river. Big Knife creek, a small tributary of the Battle, cuts through the densest portion of the woods next to the campground.
Considering how relatively unknown Big Knife Provincial Park is, I was surprised at how much it had to offer. I was expecting a barebones operation akin to the limited-effort provincial recreation areas found in out-of-the-way places like this. Far from it.
There is a single loop of regular campsites, forty in total, plus an additional eleven walk-in tent sites. That’s not huge, granted, but better than a dozen bland campsites stuck in a field.
All forty campsites are back-in style/ Many are perfectly angled to the loop road so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting your RV parked. Sizes vary but most big rigs can be accommodated. With luck you will find one that fits your needs.
The loop is located between a genuine forest and a partially abandoned oxbow with a mix of grass and ratty aspen defining the campground landscape. Sites around the outer edge of the loop are partially to fully tree-covered while many of the interior sites are more open. Some, in fact, are surrounded by grass with only a solitary tree next to them. Our chosen site was a lovely mix of sheltering timber backing onto uncut grass.
Privacy is limited but not scarce. The sites are not so close as to feel on top of your neighbours. But they don’t have the sprawling separation of many mountain campgrounds. Each has a level, gravel approach and gravel living area with a firepit and picnic table. Nothing exceptional about this other than the yellow-tinged gravel is unexpectedly flush with bit of petrified wood.
Campground Amenities at Big Knife
The sites do not have any services, however. It looks like they should, considering the amount of mowing that goes on here and the clientele it attracts. Oh, and the fact a big ole electrical generating station is located next door. I mean, come on. It’s right there!
As such, expect generator use. The friendly couple in the site next to ours used theirs. Once. To make coffee. In the middle of a hot, sunny day when temperatures were pushing the limits of the twenties. The man even came over to apologize and chat while he drank said coffee which was nice, I suppose. I just couldn’t get over the fact he needed coffee on a day like that. Addictions, man.
Pit toilets in the loop are a little run down, but serviceable. There is a male side and a female side, each with two stalls. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer were provided. The smell wasn’t bad at all during our stay in part because these pit toilets used automated air fresheners. That’s something we have never come across before. I think I approve.
In front of the bathroom is a lamppost with a vintage glowing orange sulphur light. That really needs replacement. Ugh. But on this lamppost is an electrical receptacle for charging devices. It is clearly a more recent addition and a welcome one. It’s not advertised and not immediately obvious, kind of like the park itself.
There is a fresh water tap in the loop across the way from the toilet. There is also fresh water at the dump station. It had been a few weeks since we’d camped anywhere with a dump station and it was kind of nice being able to travel without a full load of water onboard.
There was a warning sign at the dump station freshwater tap stating that due to COVID19, lab results had been delayed so Alberta Parks couldn’t assure that the water was safe. I figured that if they confirmed the water was safe before July every other year then COVID was not likely to have made the water supply suddenly poisonous. So, we used it, filtering it through our hand filter for our water bottles, and suffered no ill effects.
The dump station itself is a modest affair located along the paved approach road. There are two outlets with access from opposing sides. Additional water supplies for washing off equipment are present. The usual set up but nothing fancy.
A little further towards the main highway from the dump station is the park managerial grounds. There is an equipment shed and back behind the trees you could see a large RV set up, presumably for the groundskeeper. Oddly, though, there is also a park office with flagpole. It was closed. I don’t know if it is ever open. Perhaps it is an abandoned relic of a better-funded past. I still dream of ice cream being sold from it.
I can’t imagine what it was needed for. Big Knife is a nice park, yes, but not exactly a huge operation. I would think forty sites and associated amenities is manageable without an office. Perhaps things get far busier than I realize on weekends? It is an ideal day trip for surrounding communities.
Another perk present at Big Knife Provincial Park that we’ve rarely seen of late is a playground. Located in a large, mowed grass field, immediately across from the campground registration kiosk, is a colourful, modern playset. This must be a newer addition since it doesn’t show up on satellite images yet. With a sand base and benches around it, this playground is perfect for little ones.
The expanse of maintained grass all around the playground also offers plenty of space to toss a ball, kick a ball, throw a frisbee, or any other number of sporting activities. It’s not specifically set up for this, there are no nets or ball diamond, but there’s plenty of space to burn energy.
That registration kiosk I mentioned is like others seen at provincial parks with the exception of an additional, wooden-roofed structure that must have housed a pay phone at one time. Cell reception is spotty down in the valley but achievable. Gaining elevation, be it by trail or returning to the main park entrance, works even better.
The former pay phone booth now hosts a large sign telling you that firewood is available at a gas station in Forestburg. Sure, it’s a helpful gesture but Forestburg is a 20 minute drive from Big Knife Provincial Park. That’s not exactly convenient. We brought our own since wood sales have been sketchy during this pandemic summer. And yet, after seeing all this park had to offer, I’m kind of surprised they don’t sell firewood too. Perhaps that too was lost when the mysterious park office building closed its doors.
With my city-biased assumptions proven false, I’m now convinced this campground must fill up fast on weekends, if not before. Hence the overflow area. Looking more like a large day use area, the overflow camping area is found east of the playground. A smaller parking lot separates the overflow from the playground followed by a single horseshoe pitch. Beyond that it’s a sprawling grass field with picnic tables, a couple firepits, and garbage bins.
The area is regularly mowed judging by the wheel marks on the lawn and the riding mower parked to the side. Two poles, perhaps for a volleyball net, are stuck in the ground. The whole parcel could easily double as a day use area or even triple as a group area. That’s handy if you show up and no campsites are available, but I wouldn’t be a fan of camping on an open lawn like that. Especially if it was hot. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Boat Launch at Big Knife
Following the road that boarders the overflow area, takes you to the boat launch. There’s not much to this boat launch, not even a dock. It’s a simple, ribbed concrete ramp into the river. I’m not sure how busy this gets. Do people put motorboats into this half-river, half-lake? Canoes and kayaks, surely, but “real” boats?
There is fish in it. We even caught one, a young northern pike, so fishing is a legit activity. There’s little, if any, space for fishing from shore anywhere in the park and the reservoir does become more lake-like to the east. So, yeah, I suppose people might launch “real” boats in here. There’s even a big parking lot nearby to stash vehicles and boat trailers.
Regardless, this modest boat launch will remain dear to our hearts. That northern pike I mentioned, my son caught it. His first fish ever! He was so shocked by there being a fish on the end of his line rather than the usual plant debris, that he allowed the frisky fish to bust free and return to deeper water before we could get a picture of this monumental event.
If you’re an avid fisher but don’t have a boat, or the launch is too crowded, there is a unique alternative nearby. Across the highway from that Diplomat mining exhibit, is the Diplomat Trout Pond. This small, stocked pond has a couple of platforms built into the shore that allow for trouble-free casting into open water.
We stopped in for a look after visiting the Interpretive Site and found the place quaint. Both platforms were being used at the time, so we didn’t actually fish there, but it looked like a nice spot to while away some time. There are fifteen campsites here as well, operated by the municipality, along with a picnic shelter and pit toilets. It’s also out of the river valley so night skies must be breathtaking. Another option if all the Big Knife sites are taken.
While we were fishing, we also enjoyed some of the wildlife around us. A crazy-ass goldfinch kept flitting about in the scrubby trees on either side of the launch. A gorgeous little thing, he knew exactly when I had my camera at the ready and would disappear. As soon as I gave up, back he came. After many frustrated failures, I finally captured the little bugger, albeit slightly out of focus.
Another woodland friend who kept himself busy while we cast our lines was a beaver that lived in the reeds across from the boat launch. This industrious critter swam along the reeds back and forth, then across to the mainland to retrieve sticks and whatnot. Then he would disappear into an opening in the reeds before returning moments later for more work. I may be Canadian, but I do believe that’s the single most continuous viewing I’ve ever had of a live beaver.
Tent Sites at Big Knife
The walk-in tent sites are found at the end of a fork in the road, away from the regular campsites. There is a parking lot here, of course, and evidence of tents in the dark woods next to it but I couldn’t really differentiate the individual walk-in sites, let alone count eleven of them. I didn’t look too hard, frankly. If you’re keen on tent camping in the spooky woods, this place is for you. If you prefer a more meadow-like atmosphere, perhaps not your ideal spot.
Day Use Area
Between the walk-ins and the RV spots is a designated day use area. It too has plenty of parking but few obvious picnic facilities. There are some in the grassed areas beside the lots and a few more in the nearby woods but overall, it just seemed to me that there was far more parking than picnic spots.
On the web you will read of a wading pool that supposedly exists somewhere near this day use area. Sadly, it looks like that wading pool has been removed, replaced by a gazebo in a small clearing in the woods. I must admit shock to read that such a feature existed, so its absence was not really a surprise. Even less so considering its former location. Honestly, that must have been a nightmare at certain times of the year because, based on our experience, the mosquitos in those woods are unconscionable.
I’ve been biting my tongue, hoping to pump up the image of Big Knife Provincial Park as much as possible. It really is a great little park, a gem deserving of more attention. But for the love of all that is holy, when we were there in the second half of July, the mosquitoes were awful!
Not at our campsite so much, mind you. We required bug spray and they worsened as the sun set for awhile, but in general, we tolerated them at our campsite. I even spent considerable time in the long grass behind our site staring into a telescope and camera viewer. It wasn’t until we ventured out hiking that the full impact of the blood-sucking bastards hit.
There are two trails in Big Knife Provincial Park. They were one of the reasons I was eager to come here. It’s not often that these smaller parks have genuine trials to hike and boasting two, the River Flats Trail and the Highlands Trail, was a real coup.
Coming in at a couple of kilometres in length each, neither is overly long nor is either too short. They offer perfect outings to fill your day; one trail in the morning and the second after a well-deserved lunch. And that’s exactly what we did, though our time spent hiking ended up being much than initially planned.
River Flats Trail
The River Flats trail starts in the parking lot by the day use area. You walk down a flight of wooden steps into the forest and off you go. A second entrance leg to the trail exists near the far end of the campground, but we chose to enter via the trailhead proper.
The first segment of the trail takes you past some day use picnic areas, wonderfully tucked away in the trees. There’s even a fresh water tap available down here. I couldn’t imagine using any of them, though, because already we were inundated with mosquitos.
Beyond the picnic spots is a small opening where the lost wading pool once existed. The gazebo over the spot is nice enough and offers another picnic spot in an open setting with shelter from rain. I’d have liked to see the wading pool back in the day. It must have been difficult to keep that thing clean down here surrounded by nature.
The trail meanders out into the flats between Big Knife Creek and Battle River through open meadows and patches of trees. Some portions approach the Battle River and offer lovely views of it. Evidence of beaver activity could be seen on the trees near the riverbanks which, I must warn, are a bit of a drop. It’s not convenient for fishing or wading into the muddy, brown water.
The trail itself is mowed grass. Yeah, I know. It must be fun to groom this trail with the riding mower. And, hey, it makes for a nice walk even if it’s a big muggy down here in the valley on a hot day. No wonder the mosquitos love it. It’s almost swampish; Dagobah on the Prairies.
The only reprieve from the bugs, and the highlight of the River Flats Trail, is the hoodoos. Now, if you’ve been to Dry Island Buffalo Jump or Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, that these are called hoodoos will cause you some eyebrow scrunching. There certainly is an outcrop here, two faces of exposed rock that look like an amateur attempt at recreating the badlands. Hints of saucer shaped sandstones exist within said cliffs. But hoodoos? That’s a generous interpretation.
Regardless, this little oasis of rock offered us a welcome escape from the mosquitos. With little vegetation to be found, this spot, a short detour off the main trail, was a no-man’s land for the pesky bugs. It also offered some rock exploration, including hints of the coal being mined nearby, which always keep rock nerds like us entertained for a bit.
During this hike, we did manage to unearth a couple of the geocaches but gave up after only two. The dangers of venturing off trail were too great. After our revelry in the hoodoos, we returned to the trail and scurried back to camp as fast as we could to avoid more stings. We then enjoyed a lunch, re-hydrated ourselves, and steeled our nerves for the Highlands Trail.
I had high hopes for this trail based on its name alone. I assumed that it would take us back up to the valley edge, thereby offering a striking view of the entire valley while also providing a covert glimpse into the mining operations to the south. This was not too be.
Although the trail does take you up in elevation, off the valley floor, it does not go all the way up to the flatlands above. There was no peaking into the mine although a more devilish visitor might have jumped the boundary fence with the no-trespassing sign, clambered up the remaining elevation, and peered into hell. I am not that guy … at least not with the family in tow.
Still, there were nice views of the Battle River valley. At a designated lookout point we were able to see quite far and take in the beauty of this glacial valley with it’s now-shrivelled river. Unfortunately, between lookouts there wasn’t much to see. Whether it was trees or berms, the bulk of the Highland Trail is spent trundling ahead with little to see around you.
The trailhead is not at the campground. Nor is there any way up to the trail from the campground. The only access is from the trailhead which begins well back along the road towards the main highway. Past the dump station. Past the park office. It was a long walk just to get to the start of our hike and in the hot, muggy sun that was exhausting in its own right. Smarter hikers will drive to the trailhead. There is a pullout to park there. We are not such hikers.
It was on this hike that we reached our tolerance limit for mosquitos. Even in the highlands, the mowed trail alternated between grass/shrub and aspen woods. It was mosquito nirvana. They were everywhere. Walking through the woods they bombarded us like miniature, organic bullets leaving us no choice but to trot while constantly swinging our arms this way and that in hopes of chasing them away.
At the lookouts, which were free of trees, the wind offered some amnesty but not much. Eventually, we gave up and raced back to camp defeated, drenched in sweat, and dimpled with bites. None of it was worthwhile were it not for a single, inspiring happenstance.
While briskly walking through an aspen grove, my daughter and I were well ahead of my wife and son. We’re the two mosquitos like best so it behooves us to maintain a hurried pace. Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, a monstrous brown flying creature sprung from the trees to our left and flew off along the trail ahead of us.
I assumed it was a large hawk of some sort. Its wingspan filled the trail width from tree to tree. It didn’t screech, stop, or turn back and disappeared into the openness at the end of the grove. Startled and pissed off that my camera wasn’t up and ready for this event, we pushed onward a few paces before a strange shadow in the woods to my right caught our attention. After a brief exploration, we found a fuzzy, young owl hiding in the trees. The massive brown whirlwind was undoubtedly its parent attempting to lure us away from the nervous youngster.
Encounters with owls aside, we rued our experiences on the trails at Big Knife Provincial Park. The Highland Trail was particularly disappointing with too few views and too many mosquitos. That they had benches in the woods to sit and rest is mindboggling. Talk about sacrificing your body!
I pray these mosquitos are a seasonal nuisance and that there are periods of the camping season where the trails can be enjoyed for their modest delights. During our visit, that wasn’t the case and it left an itchy blemish on our experience.
Still, there was lots to love about the place. Wildflowers and wildlife abound, from grasshoppers to butterflies to rabbits to howling coyotes at night, Big Knife is full of sounds not often heard in the city. The night skies are enchanting; great for stargazing (big, ole sulphur light by the bathrooms notwithstanding). Traffic is unnoticeable. Campers are friendly. What’s not to love?
I enjoyed Big Knife Provincial Park and recommend giving it a try. I’m sure the locals are happy to keep this secret to themselves, but it’s worth the effort for others to discover it. I’ll give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I’d probably give it 8 if it weren’t for the effing mosquitos. God, they were awful.
If you’re looking to try something different than the usual mountains or resort lakes, Big Knife Provincial Park is a must add to your campground list. Yes, you’re out in the middle of nowheresville, but that’s the point. Big views and novel landforms make it anything but just another boring, prairie campground. The strip mining only adds to the quirkiness that makes Alberta, ‘Berta.