Here’s an interesting tidbit. Kootenay National Park was a bribe. It’s true. A century ago, a deal was in place for the federal government to build a road from Banff to the Alberta/BC border at Vermilion Pass. The BC provincial government would build a road from Windermere to the pass thereby opening up the region to the growing Banff and Calgary markets.
Unfortunately, BC was overwhelmed by the exploding price tag for their portion of the new mountain highway. To facilitate a new deal in which the Government of Canada would foot the bill for the entire project, approximately five miles of wilderness on either side of the eventual highway was offered to make a new national park. With Banff National Park proving so popular, the Feds were receptive to expanding the mountain parks system and voila; BC got a highway built and Kootenay National Park was born.
It’s a neat little story that tempers the notion that national parks are all about altruistic preservation of natural wonders. But in my mind, there’s a bigger problem with using park land as bribery for highway construction; you end up with a long, narrow park that has a highway smack down the middle of it. That may be great for scenic drives but it’s not so wonderful for the park and its natural inhabitants.
Not that Highway 93 is as busy as say the Trans Canada Highway through Banff, but it surely isn’t some quaint, backwoods lane. There is plenty of summer vacation traffic and heavy trucks hauling resources to and from the Columbia River valley with no fencing or animal crossings. Needless to say, it’s a perfect storm for both wildlife spotting and wildlife killing.
Likewise, it leaves campground locations a bit wanting. The popular Redstreak is in a town, though on a hill which helps limit noise. Marble Canyon, however, is right beside the highway. Granted, mountain geography limits options somewhat, but I couldn’t stop wishing our three days in Kootenay National Park was not being spent listening to big rigs blasting by.
Putting the campground near the base of a prolonged rise in highway elevation doesn’t help either. Every vehicle, be it a gravel hauler or pickup towing an RV, hammered the accelerator right in front of Marble Canyon Campground in order to limit speed loss up the long slope northward. The only solace in this unfortunate situation is that it’s primarily a daytime disturbance. Go for a hike and you’ll likely not even notice it.
And that, my friends, is how you begin a whiny review. Worry not, there’s more coming! Until then, however, let me assure you that Kootenay National Park is a gorgeous place and every bit worthy of such a designation. Even the fire scars that dominate the scenery in the northern portion of the park are eerily beautiful with nature rejuvenating all around the ominous spires of dead trees.
With lighter crowds than its Alberta siblings and a cornucopia of fantastic hikes, it’s a damn shame the campgrounds in Kootenay NP haven’t received the same love as many of their cousins. In my Redstreak review I noted how dated it looked. Well, Marble Canyon has been all but abandoned by comparison. Considering the vast number of international tourists visiting these mountain parks, I was both surprised and disappointed at the condition of this campground.
To get a better appreciation of how unloved is Marble Creek Campground by Parks Canada, there isn’t even a map of it on the official website. Sixty campsites beside a busy tourist route across from a popular natural attraction and you can’t even see a campground layout on the website most visitors will first check when planning a visit. Bizarre.
Lucky for you, I’ve included one here. The website may be lacking but there’s actually a layout map displayed at the campground. This is a picture of it. I did not conjure this myself, though I would have. It would’ve been inaccurate, poorly scaled, and in crayon, but I would have. I … would have.
As I mentioned above, Marble Canyon Campground is located on the east side of Highway 93 towards the north end of Kootenay National Park. Tucked away in the trees at the confluence of Vermilion River and Haffner Creek, the campground takes its name from the famed Marble Canyon across the highway.
Comprised of nine alphabetical loops with a primary road encircling them, the campground is very much like other mountain park campgrounds, albeit smaller. The sites are shallower, a bit closer together and the loops are tighter than at the big campgrounds in other national parks.
Loops A, B, and D through J (there is no I loop) are near perfect circles with six sites each radiating outward. Loop C is an anomalous twelve site ovoid at the far west end of the campground. I know not why it is different than its eight compatriots, but I’m certain it has identity issues because of it.
Otherwise, pretty much all the campsites, regardless of loop, are similar in setting and general layout. That being an irregular, level, gravel pad on which to park the RV or set up your tent and a bulb in which the firepit and robust, immovable, picnic table reside. Around and between the sites and loops is lush coniferous forest and shrubby undergrowth.
That prominent forest, though attractive in its own right, does limit the view from your campsite. Despite being surrounded my majestic mountains, you only catch tiny glimpses of them between treetops here and there. You won’t collapse into your lawnchair and become mesmerized by the scenery as you sip your favourite wobbly pop. On the other hand, you won’t get baked in the summer sun either.
That this campground remains so green, healthy, and intact is a testament to past efforts exerted to save it from forest fires. The entire Marble Canyon region burned some years ago. Either concerted human cooperation, or the most miraculous of luck, saved the campground. It’s recovering, with bright green pine trees thick amongst the grey corpses of the spruce and fir that once stood here. And though it’s not the stereotypical mountain park vista, it does makes for a uniquely spooky and attractive atmosphere.
The campsites are conveniently laid out, but most are noticeably smaller than is the norm. Few, if any, sites will accommodate large RVs. Even the loop roads themselves would be a tight fit for the monster setups campers are fond of these days. The quaint dimensions of our 16’ Geo Pro eliminated eligibility of several sites. Not surprisingly, there were far more tents around us than other trailers.
As this was a late summer bit of spontaneity on our part, our site choices were extremely limited. Parks Canada opens up reservations in January (don’t ask) and these popular campgrounds fill up fast. With Covid adding to the availability constraints, there was only a single site to choose from during our desired timeframe. We took it. Thankfully, it ended up being a not so bad site.
I was nervous about this site. The reservations website indicated it was right beside the bathrooms. That’s not a favoured location anywhere, despite the perceived convenience, but with no other choice, we took a gamble and it paid off. Yes, the site was beside the washroom facility for loops E through J, but it was tucked well enough away from us, separated by bush, that we didn’t notice it.
There are two bathrooms in Marble Canyon Campground, each serving a collection of loops, and they’re ugly. I’m no fashion snob when it comes to washroom facilities, but these structures are lame. Old, damaged, and showing zero effort to conform to their natural surroundings, they look like something temporarily trucked in for a work crew to use. But they work. And ultimately, that’s all that matters. Marble Creek could easily have had pit toilets, so having flush toilets is welcome.
The interior matches the exterior with an aged, deteriorating appearance. The old-school, full-length urinals earned a chuckle but beyond that, it’s function over aesthetics. Electricity and hot water have long been removed, the scars of former light switches on the walls and holes for faucets in the sinks left as sad reminders of once existent luxury. There’s not even a means to dry your hands though they did have soap dispensers. One begins to wonder why they didn’t just let the fires burn it all to the ground.
If you do manage to wrangle your RV into one of these sites and prefer the proximity of you onboard water closet, there’s a dual outlet dump station available. It happened to be directly behind our campsite which was quite the thrill. There was a convenient barrier of forest between our firepit and the dump station, but it nonetheless caught me by surprise when I realized how close to us it actually was. On the bright side, I don’t think it was used a single time during our entire stay until we unloaded our grey water tank when we left.
Fresh water is available at the dump station if you need to fill up your RV tank for your stay. Fresh water taps can also be found protruding from the exterior wall of the bathroom buildings. These latter devices get steady use from the many tent campers with whom you’ll be sharing Marble Canyon Campground.
Directly across the road from the dump station is where you’ll find firewood. Like all the mountain national parks, firewood is sold via day use permit. It’s $8.80 per day, all you can use, though there’s a sign at the firewood spot suggesting that small fires burn hotter and are less smoky. If they truly want to limit firewood use, I’d suggest that charging $10 for a small bag of crappy wood like provincial parks and private campgrounds do would be far more effective.
Being so close to our campsite, we made good use of the ample wood supply. Not so much for burning, though we did do that, but as a means of keeping my son occupied. The boy just loves chopping wood. Whenever he was bored, I’d just hand him the axe and tell him to chop some wood which he did gleefully. Whomever used our site next was treated to a healthy stockpile of prechopped wood.
Next to each bathroom was a large, decrepit picnic shelter. Like seemingly everything else at Marble Canyon, these shelters were in awful condition. Being partially boarded up because of the COVID pandemic made them look all the more rundown. A peak inside revealed several sturdy wooden picnic tables, two iron wood stoves, and a literal concrete table on which was stowed a rack of old, rusted food storage bins.
That these shelters exist is no issue with me. Camping here with a group of friends and outdoor adventure seekers make a communal spot a wonderful idea. And, of course, being in the mountains the food lockers are a must for tenters. But good heavens, these junky structures are not welcoming in any way. They look more like a prison cafeteria than national park gathering place.
As is the norm in our mountain parks, there is no playground. Yes, everywhere around you is Nature’s playground, I get that. But families are not spending every waking moment out exploring the wilderness. It may be close but there are times when you’re back at the campsite and it would be great if the kids could go burn excess energy on a playground. I still don’t understand why Parks Canada avoids installing such structures. Mind you, at Canyon Meadows Campground, had they existed, rest assured they’d have been old and broken.
The 2020 camping season was a weird one thanks to the pandemic. Many traditionally first come, first server campgrounds were temporarily converted to reservation only to limit numbers of campers and how close they got to each other. Marble Canyon was no exception as loops A, B, and C, all to the right upon entry to the campground, were closed for the summer.
In addition, with camping only available by reservation, the registration kiosk was largely abandoned. I had no idea how to pay for our wood permits so I filled out an envelope, put in my cash, and submitted it into the solid repository at the kiosk. As soon as I’d done so I began wondering if Parks Canada is even checking this regularly. For all I know, my money is still in there, frozen in fear through the long winter. At least my kids think I’m an honest bloke.
Opposing the kiosk is a small shack, the purpose of which eludes me. Some kind of storage spot for park rangers I assume. It’s rather … wait for it … run down with nothing inside but an old cupboard covered in peeling paint. The sign on the door says “cyclist food storage” which, based on my brief exploration of the structure, translates to “small vermin feeding station”.
I’m always curious to know what’s going one where access is restricted, so it was inevitable that we’d explore the closed lops at Marble Canyon Campground. The campsites were no different than the one we were using, an unsurprising revelation. A couple of them were busted up a bit, including one where the wooden top and benches of the picnic table were completely gone, but otherwise everything looked very much like the rest of the campground. Then we stumbled upon the strangest dilapidated building yet.
It was a raised, boarded up cabin that must have been a fully functioning residence at one time. That one time must have been quite awhile ago, certainly pre-COVID, because the amount of rot and abandonment on display was not the result of a single year of neglect. There was broken trash everywhere. Inside. Outside. An opening to the crawlspace under the structure exposed buckets and tools, not to mention the plumbing and electrical that once made this place habitable.
Around back, someone (or something) had dislodged the plywood blocking a former window revealing boxes of park pamphlets and documents strewn everywhere amongst myriad items including a fire hose and its cabinet. I was shocked by what I saw. Just complete neglect and disregard by the parks department with zero care for the building itself and any of the material inside it. I’ve never witnessed anything like this at a national park, or a provincial park for that matter, before. It’s as if they were purposely attempting to create an “old ruins” attraction within Marble Canyon Campground.
This discovery was the cherry on the ice cream sundae of bewilderment I experienced at this campground. That Marble Canyon Campground exists wholly unscathed by the massive forest fires that laid waste to the forest all around it speaks of an incredible effort to protect it. Yet, despite these efforts, everything about this campground suggests that Parks Canada is content to let the place go completely to crap. It’s such a bizarre contrast I still don’t know what to make of it.
I get that a significant portion of the population hates taxes and doesn’t like the government spending money on things they don’t use. It’s an unfortunate take, in my opinion, but I get where they’re coming from. And with COVID damaging the economy, dumping money into a park of slightly lesser renown certainly won’t top the government’s “To Do” list. Besides, they’ve already committed a boatload of dollars to upgrade Whistlers campground in Jasper and the Waterton Lakes rebuild. But, good heavens, Marble Canyon Campground is an embarrassment. Considering the international travelers that have, and will again, pass through this gorgeous park it’s a bloody shame the impression Marble Canyon will leave them with. I’m sure this isn’t what the BC government or the Federal government had in mind when they made that highway agreement a century ago.
If I were to rate Marble Canyon Campground ignoring any locational context, I’d likely give it 2 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. And that might be generous. It’s a nice enough place with the trees and all. The flush toilets are a plus. The proximity to the highway, not so much. More than anything, though, it’s the sense of abandonment the rundown facilities leave you with that kind of dulls your enjoyment.
Lucky for you (and me), there’s little reason to spend much of your time in Kootenay National Park at your campsite. Perhaps that there is the answer to what I witnessed?
Kootenay may not boast the global prestige Banff or Jasper do, but it can surely hold its own when it comes to rugged, alpine, splendour. The hiking here is superlative with worthy destinations and challenges for all levels of adventurer. Coupled with the lesser development and fewer tourists and one could easily be forgiven for loving Kootenay more. And that makes tolerating Marble Canyon’s aesthetic deficiencies worthwhile. In the end, it’s just a place to sleep between magnificent treks.
We explored three of Kootenay National Parks most popular attractions during our three day stay; Marble Canyon (of course), Paint Pots, and Stanley Glacier. All three were within our modest family abilities with Stanley Glacier the most challenging. For those with greater stamina, many longer hikes to back country wonders exist throughout the park. As I sat in my chair recovering, I fully understood the exhilaration many earn from exploring this fascinating place.
Camping directly across the highway from Marble Canyon made it our logical first destination after setting up our trailer upon arrival. I’d never been to Marble Canyon before, having only driven past it a handful of times heading to and from midwinter hockey tournaments. It had a stereotypical brown parks sign, a larger than average parking lot, and its eponymous campground but none of that triggered much interest for me. That, my friends, was a mistake on my part.
Marble Canyon may not be the awe-inspiring, horizon-altering landform one tends to associate with tourist destination “canyons,” but it is nonetheless fascinating. Where Grand Canyon is wide and colourful, Marble Canyon is narrow and bleak. They are two ends of a natural spectrum, each mesmerizing in its own way.
An earthen trail winds its way up the canyon, crossing it several times, before reaching the beginning of this small but mighty gorge. The sheer force of water imposing itself into the cold, grey rock where the canyon begins is startling. That you stand above this crevice peering downwards from a steel and wood bridge as the water crashes beneath, continually carving away the mountain base in which it resides is at once exhilarating and terrifying.
Even on a Sunday evening in late-August during a global pandemic there were plenty of sightseers wandering the trail. I can only imagine how busy Marble Canyon gets during normal summers on a Saturday. Though expected, the number of people will make getting that perfect bridge shot of the canyon all but impossible. Then again, sometimes a picture just doesn’t do justice to a scene like Marble Canyon. The narrow, deep canyon won’t translate to camera easily. At least not in my amateur hands. And you can’t hear that water in a picture anyway. It’s really worth the visit if you get the chance.
By contrast, the neighbouring Paint Post are a calming, almost surreal experience. They’re also a wee bit underwhelming.
There are two ways to reach Paint Pots if you’re camping at Marble Canyon campground. You can drive down to the staging area for the relatively short hike to the paint pots. Or you can opt for a longer hike starting at the Marble Canyon parking lot across from the campground. We chose the latter.
Following alongside the Vermilion River, the roughly 2.7 km trail from Marble Canyon to the Paint Pots trailhead is an easy, enjoyable jaunt. You begin near the last evidence of the canyon before the river spills out onto the wide valley beside the highway. There are several excellent spots to explore gravel bars or have a quick snack along the way.
In one section you walk right through a thicket of young, vivid green pine trees that signal the rejuvenating forest. They’re a delightful contrast to the blackened, dead spruce trunks razed by fire not so long ago.
Eventually you join the Paint Pots trail and head westward for a leisurely hike in search of the ochre-coloured formations and greenish water pools.
Perhaps to my shame, I’d never heard of the Paint Pots. Having now seen them I can say that I wasn’t missing much. There is one short stretch where a creek cascades down a muddy, red hillside that is quite pretty, but the paint pots themselves weren’t much to get excited over.
I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing the hike. It’s fun just to be outside and moving. But if you’re intention is predicated on discovering some amazing natural feature at the end of the trail, you’re likely to be disappointed.
The same can not be said of Stanley Glacier. On the last full day of our stay at Marble Canyon Campground, we challenged ourselves to a tougher hike than our usual fare. It was a bit of a risk having put a few clicks on our boots the day before, but the lure of fossils was too much for us to resist.
For geologists and natural history buffs, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks are a bit of a Mecca for Cambrian fossils. The Burgess Shale in Yoho is a world-renowned fossil find with few contemporaries on the planet. More recently a similar fossil bed was discovered in Kootenay somewhere near Marble Canyon (it’s location is a secret). Neither are open to the public and the Walcott Quarry, where the Burgess fossils reside, requires is an intense, all-day guided hike available only to paying customers to visit.
Though less remarkable in its fossil haul, the talus piles near the base of Stanley Glacier do offer up trilobites to eagle-eyed hunters. Guided hikes are offered here as well but unlike the more famed locations, the trail to Stanley Glacier is also open to the public for free.
At roughly 10 km out and back with an elevation gain of 600m over the course of several switchbacks in the woods for much of the way, this hike was definitely a new experience for us. I’m grateful we did it, though. We were exhausted by the time we returned to our campsite, but it was a very good exhaustion. The views along the way were worth every ache and pain.
The early part of the trail winds back and forth among young trees and berry shrubs with tantalizing peeks at the neighbouring creek rollicking down the mountainside to the north of the trail. Once into the hanging valley, the trail straightens some but is far from smooth with rocks and roots typical along the path.
Eventually you emerge from the trees into valley beneath the towering cliffs along the south side of the valley. A plunging waterfall lures you onto the rocks and the eager among you can scramble up to its base. An additional loop swings past the glacier itself but by the time we’d found this open expanse of debris we were too tired to do much more than eat our picnic lunch and plan for the trip back.
Lovely though it may be, the temperature is decidedly cooler at this elevation. You’ll want to pack appropriate layers to account for this change in temperature in order to enjoy some fossil hunting and/or simply take in the wonderful vistas all around you. I could have used an extra sweater. Of course, I could have stayed there for untold hours too. I just loved the view. What a fantastic spot to haul a telescope up to.
We did find a few small trilobites. A large green crate secured to a large boulder houses interactive materials for the guided hike. You are likely to find a few fossil samples stacked on or near this bin if you haven’t he patience to hunt through the millions of rock shards yourself. I’ll bet there’s some impeccable fossil samples locked away in that chest to impress the paying guests.
This is a very popular hike and again we encountered many people on both legs of our trip. It must be a steady stream of hikers on sunny weekends all summer long. How much that ruins the experience is an individual choice, but you can certainly find your own bit of freedom once you’re out onto the talus plain. The only pestering you’ll experience up there will be the fat chipmunks and picas looking for a free lunch.
I was thrilled with this hike and I’m glad my family stepped up to the challenge. I look forward to more treks outside our modest comfort zone next summer. So many natural wonders await those able to push themselves beyond a leisurely stroll across flat terrain. I won’t ever be able to endure a twenty-kilometre scramble up a mountain peak, but knowing the moderate trails are within my achievement zone was a highlight of our strange Covid summer camping season.
And more to the point, its hikes like Stanley Glacier and the roaring magic of Marble Canyon that will compensate for the disappointing reality of Marble Canyon Campground, a place in desperate need of some TLC.