As my catalogue of campground reviews has grown, I’ve started to question my rating system. Oh, sure, the baby dill pickle shtick is cute and all, but it’s hardly rigorous. My judgments rely more on my whims at the moment of writing than anything scientifically valid.
The appeal of a campground can change, sometimes dramatically, depending on the type of camping I wish to do at a given time. Even the ages of my kids alters how I value amenities such as playgrounds. And different campers want different things from their camping experience. Who am I to judge which one is correct (psst … it’s the non-generator one).
What struck me most as most egregious as I’ve pigeonholed ratings for newly visited campgrounds into the established framework of those previously reviewed was that I had never rated a campground poor. My 1 to 5 scale is more like a 3 to 5 scale. That doesn’t strike me as very helpful at all.
Well, I’m happy to say that has changed with Woolford Provincial Park. A small, riverside park and campground near Cardston, Alberta, we stopped in for a quick peek-a-boo while returning from Police Outpost Provincial Park. We had contemplated a third night of camping but ultimately limited ourselves to two. Had we done a third night, our plan was to spend it at Woolford. Ooof, I’m glad we didn’t.
Nobody would ever be fooled into thinking Woolford Provincial Park is an incredible resort destination. It’s tucked away in the valley of the meandering St. Mary River among broken, half-dead cottonwoods. The distant mountain views are hidden from view by the bland valley walls cut into the flat, dry prairie that is brown most of the summer. This is anything but must-see scenery.
The most flattering thing I can say about this campground is that it looks like the set of a slasher movie. Depending on your movie viewing preferences, that may or may not be desirable. Seriously, if you’re scripting a flick about a psychopathic killer butchering over-sexed, drunken college kids in a dilapidated, off-the-grid campground, this is the location.
The whole place looks abandoned, in no small part due to there being only a single family camping there when we visited on a Tuesday morning in August. Yes, it was midweek and late morning, but for there to be zero day-users and only a single RV in the entire park was a bit creepy. Had someone exited that lone RV wearing a mask of human flesh and brandishing a chainsaw I’d have certainly screamed but not in surprise.
Regardless of your approach direction, you will be driving at least a few kilometres on gravel roads to get to Woolford Provincial Park. Even the seemingly new, or at least refurbished, route from the north via highway 503, is gravel. Not entirely unheard of in these parts, I suppose, but I didn’t expect the gravel continued so close to Cardston.
Despite its proximity to Cardston, the park feels secluded but only in a “really? there’s a provincial park over there?” kind of way. This is not a “natural” park born of distinct geologic features save for the St. Mary River creating its western boundary. It’s pretty much just a chunk of land not worth farming.
Woolford Provincial Park consists of a day use area and a single campground loop. Both are small, like the park itself. With a total of 17 campsites, I’ll admit there’s a quaintness to the place. That’s the primary reason I even bothered to check it out. These low key parks can sometimes be delightful little finds.
It was also accepting reservations this summer due to COVID-19. Don’t hold me to the fire on this, but I think Woolford is entirely, or at least partially, first come first serve during normal, non-pandemic summers. Judging by the self-registration kiosk, I think it’s a safe bet you’ll need to check online before venturing out there.
The seventeen sites are a motley bunch with limited appeal. Mostly located around the outside of the loop, all but one are back-in. The lone anomaly is a pull-through. I suspect there are races to see who gets it.
Size varies a bit, but none are exceptionally large. Gravel pads and approaches overgrown with grass is the preferred decor at Woolford Provincial Park. Each has the obligatory picnic table and fire pit.
As for shelter, this also varies but none are fully covered by tree canopy. That there is any shelter at all in this part of the Alberta is a plus, I suppose, just don’t come expecting forest. Prairies don’t play that.
Nor is there much privacy. The sites aren’t cramped by any means, but they are not separated by much other than long grass, weeds, and shrubs. With luck you’ll get more shrubs than grass but suffice it to say you won’t enjoy much visual exclusion when sitting in your lawn chair.
There is a “path” running through the centre of the camping loop. It struck me as odd at first as it did not look like a normal trail. It was too wide and frankly, the location baffled me. Upon further investigation, my abandonment analysis gained some confirmation.
The path was comprised of an abandoned road and campsites. Even the fire pits remained, now hidden by shrubs and grass with only the gravel pads still partially visible. I wonder whether these were additional campsites or an inner-loop group area. Whatever the answer, they are unused now and awaiting their horror flick debut.
It goes without saying that there are no services at these campsites. You can likely get some decent juice from a solar panel at several of the sites, but you’ll want to bring your own water from home. There is a single hand pump for freshwater but a warning sign next to it warns that Alberta Parks recommends not using this water for drinking.
If your camping unit is not fully self-contained, or you just prefer not to ugly up your portable home when nature calls. That there is no dump station at this park which may influence that decision as well. The good news is things are start looking up. For all my bemoaning Woolford Provincial Park’s aura of abandonment, the campground pit toilet betrays a recent investment.
A large and spacious pit toilet, this has to be only a year or two old. A rather surprising find in a place so obviously devoid of attention. Clean with limited odour, this pit toilet might be the highlight of the park. It’s certainly a damn site nicer than the older pit toilet in the day use area.
After we’d parked our rig and I began my blog-oriented exploration while the family went seeking a pathway to the river, my first stop was the original pit toilet by the day use area. It didn’t look excessively old from the outside, but the interior revealed an old-school, concrete shitter that gave me a nostalgic chuckle.
That chuckle was short-lived as the first whiff of the structure’s contents nearly floored me. Had this been the only toilets in the park I’d have had to adjust my rating scheme to include negatives. Thankfully, that brand new palace of waste extrusion saved the day.
The day use area itself is equally uninspired. Nonetheless, it does have a playground which is a plus for families. It’s a small, dated, conflagration of metal, wood, and abandoned tires that’ll remind parents of the olden days when tires were toys rather than fodder for ground cover.
Aside from the playground, the day use area at Woolford Provincial Park is a loose amalgamation of picnic sites and, well, not much else. Several of those picnic sites look like small, repurposed campsites. Perhaps they were.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t find this day use area appealing at all. The little ones might enjoy the playground but there’s nothing else to do. Even the river is hidden from view. You’d best bring some friends to talk to.
This brings me to the most perplexing reality of Woolford Provincial Park; the river. The park exists because of the river. No river, no valley. No river, no pseudo-forested oasis on the bald prairie. No river, no real point in having a park here. So why, then, is the river so hard to access?
There is land between the campground and day use loops and the river. A quick look at a satellite image shows that the river has changed course leaving an abandoned meander bordering the two areas. When this change happened is unknown to me. It’s surely been awhile but probably doesn’t predate the park itself. And in the spring, it’s not entirely unreasonable that this old channel revives or at the very least, floods.
There is also a modest trail network in the park. The trailhead is in the campground loop, something we discovered only after we spent a good long time trying to find access in the day use area. Again, this trail is not your typical footpath.
The main east-west trunk of the trail does take you to the river on what appears to have once been a boat launch approach. That’s purely speculation on my part. It’s a moot point, really, since the endpoint of the trail is now a quickly eroding cliff above the outer bend in the river.
A rather dangerous spot, frankly, you can’t do much from this viewpoint but take a couple pictures and speculate how to go about getting to one of the gravel bars visible downstream. Lovers of hunting pretty stones that we are, we backtracked and branched out in hopes of finding a path to the nearest bar. Our attempts proved unsuccessful.
We navigated some additional trails that appear to be quad trails. There’s no OHV-ing here, obviously, so perhaps these are for parks staff or researchers to navigate the park? Whatever their purpose, they never did get us to the desired riverside.
That abandoned meander remains marshy in spots and has a smaller channel of water remaining in its northern half. This prevented us from crossing and getting closer to the river. Our failure to do so left us despondent and we turned around and headed back to our vehicle.
A broader area of wilderness exists north of the campground loop and north of where we gave up. Perhaps, with persistence, we’d have eventually found a way to the river and a bar on which to hunt rocks, but we’d lost interest.
The point remains, the river is not an easily accessible feature of Woolford Provincial Park. There’s no boat launch. There’s no “beach”. It’s there, but not, which is a huge disappointment. Perhaps Mother Nature played a prank and diverted the river soon after the park was made. That sucks, if true. But zero effort has been made to address this loss of river access. The only imaginable recreational value to this park is effectively absent.
Even a better trail network would make this place more palatable. That might be difficult due to erosion and spring flooding. Still would be nice to try. Otherwise, I haven’t a clue what the purpose of Woolford Provincial Park actually is.
Needless to say, we won’t be returning anytime soon. Or ever, most likely. Not to camp. Not even to picnic. Never thought I’d say about a provincial park. I guess there’s an exception to everything.
In line with that cheery assessment, I’m giving Woolford Provincial Park my first ever 1 Baby Dill Pickle out of 5. I like to think I have an open mind. I appreciate the beauty in ugly, one of Nature’s greatest tricks. This place, however, is just ugly. Sorry.
The greatest irony of Woolford Provincial Park is that it is not, I repeat NOT, on the current government’s list of provincial parks and recreation areas to be defunded. I can’t for the life of me understand how so many gorgeous places are at risk of being lost to Albertans and this place remains safe.
Hey, maybe that will garner Woolford some additional investment dollars? Build upon that lovely new pit toilet. Or maybe it really is forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind for the win.
Now, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’ve got a script to write.
Harry Richardson says
Yes, the road to the river is perplexing. It ends without warning in a dangerously eroding cliff edge dropping into a deep, fast pool choked with sweepers lethal for unsupervised kids. There is a nice gravel bar a couple of hundred yards downstream where one could set up for an afternoon and let the kids play in the shallows and there is a rip-rap intrusion into the river upstream producing a deep back-eddy which looked a likely spot to hold fish but proved unproductive.
The hand-pump water supply, fit only for “dowsing the fire” (bring your own firewood) is a bit of a drawback.
So, yeah, nowt much to do but chill, kill the skeeters and watch the numerous birds. The nighthawks put on a great show at sundown. Thankfully, what’s left of the old cottonwoods provide some respite from the wind.
I would drop in again for an overnighter or two were I in the area and were it not for the brutal gravel road approaches. Note! Don’t tow your escape vehicle behind your motor home! Detach and follow – at a distance!
Thanks for the additional feedback on this campground. Much appreciated.
Harry Brugmans says
I read your reviews of Police Outpost, which we are considering for this year (2021), and Woolford. We were here a number of years back for one night on our way to the Lethbridge Air Show. I found your review humorous and in exact agreement with our thoughts.
If I need guidance for choosing a park, I will certainly come to this website. Thank you for your insightful reviews.
Thanks reading and commenting. I’m glad you find my ramblings helpful!
Lorraine Guckert says
Our blogger missed a fact. I believe this area is protected due to the fact that within this parks boundaries a rare type of cottonwood grows there. In fact it is the only place in Canada where this variety grows. Perhaps they are the ugly half dead trees he refers to. Cottonwood always looks half dead whatever variety.
Thanks for the interesting fact about the trees. Some quick research suggests you are referring to the narrow-leaf cottonwood which is uncommon in Canada. Travel Alberta’s website says those found at Woolford are the “only stand of narrow-leaved cottonwoods in Alberta’s parks” which is still interesting though not as dire as being the only place in Canada where this variety grows. Cottonwoods are never going to win a beauty contest, sadly.