Ah, the venerable campground host. Walmart greeters of the RV world. Rewarded with a free campsite in a conspicuous location in exchange for unpaid labour including the selling of overpriced firewood, ensuring drunken strangers obey rules, and cleaning public toilets. What’s not to love?
Not much, it would seem. So popular is this barter that some campgrounds now offer TWO hosts. Apparently, our camping weekends would collapse into anarchy if, upon arrival, a host was inexplicably absent. Who would guide us to our reserved spot in a golf cart and bark orders on how to manoeuver our trailer into it?
Look, I’m sure you’re bored out of your mind. 30 year old you couldn’t have envisioned this as the core activity of your retirement. I get it. This makes you feel useful. And that golf cart, oooo baby, any excuse to use that should never be denied.
But my wife and I have a pretty good system when it comes to backing our little camper into a site. It’s not perfect, but we survive with enough mutual appeal still intact to canoodle once darkness falls and the kids are asleep. I sure as hell don’t need you screaming directions at me.
And for the record, since you apparently didn’t hear me clearly, I said, “Holy shit, relax, dude!”
This is how our 2021 camping season began. A week earlier than expected, I might add. Spring in Alberta is rather fickle, especially regarding the May long weekend, so, when the forecast for the weekend before the first big blowout of “summer” indicated a couple of phenomenally beautiful days, I found some uncharacteristic spontaneity and reserved us two nights at Horseshoe Canyon Campground out Drumheller way.
I’ll readily admit that Horseshoe Canyon Campground is not our typical camping destination. I can’t imagine another scenario where we’d go there. But with limited options on such short notice, and not wanting to travel too far from home, it made for a decent ad hoc weekend with a bit of hiking nearby.
It did not come cheap, though an off-season discount and Covid cabin fever certainly helped grease my wallet. Full-service, private campground luxury is, again, not our typical choice but at Horseshoe Canyon Campground, there are no alternatives to full-service, unless you bring a tent and are content to plunk it down on a spot of lawn.
As an RVer, our only decision was whether to pony up for 50 amp service rather than 30 amp. “Needing” no more than 15 amp service, we focused on location and snagged an end site on the western portion of the triangular loop that comprises the campground. I’m glad we did.
There are a total of 48 campsites available Horseshoe Canyon Campground, all with power, water, and sewer, as mentioned. 28 of the sites encircle the out portion of the single campground loop, and the remaining (including the five 50 amp sites) are located in the interior of the loop. A campground host resides in one each of the 50 amp and 30 amp sites, leaving a grand total of 46 available to customers. It’s a cozy little place.
The sites are cookie cutter, back-in affairs with long, level gravel pads separated by small strips of grass. And I do mean small. The reason we prefer provincial park camping is for this very reason … space. Sure, the grass is nice, sort of, but it still feels like a parking lot. There is just something unsettling about eating your supper at a picnic table and having the neighbour check something on the exterior of their trailer and all but brushing the edge of your table to do so.
Despite their narrow stature, each site comes with the expected picnic table and fire pit. Assuming there’s no fire ban, you can enjoy the staples of camping. And if you keep your RV windows open, you’ll surely enjoy your neighbours’ as well.
What they lack in width, the sites make up for in length. Each is capable of handling a large rig quite handily. In fact, our 16’ Geo Pro struggled to access the services while setting up where we wanted. We would not have been able to continually connect our sewer hose, for example, and instead had to pull forward when leaving to empty our grey water tank. Hardly a trouble but worth noting for others with short trailers.
We chose site 20, leaving us with only one neighbour to worry about. Well, sort of. The grassy area at the north end of the loop is where tent campers set up. This area slopes upwards to the north and has a selection of picnic tables and portable firepits created from washing machine drums. There are no identified tent sites, per se, and parking is also random, though the golf cart maniac tries to keep things compact.
Although the tent area was busy with a few groups enjoying the unseasonably delightful weather, they weren’t a disruption or nuisance to our site. Perhaps we were lucky? I’ve no idea how many tents they would allow in this area on a busy summer weekend. It’s possible this could become a frustration, but during our stay it wasn’t a problem.
When all sites are filled, this must be a cramped feeling campground. There were several empty sites during our stay as it was mid-May, but even still the noise of screaming children and some hippy Boler dude who felt the world needed more bongos filled the air much of the day.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hell, after a year plus locked away at home, getting outside and blowing off some steam is great for 8 and 80 year olds alike. That said, if you’re seeking a peaceful weekend away from the bustle and acoustic shock of city life, you’ll more than likely be disappointed at Horseshoe Canyon Campground. It’s not some crazed, teenage party spot but the close proximity of sites and the excitement of families with little ones do not make for a calming escape.
Additionally, the main highway to Drumheller is very near the campground. You’ll hear traffic regularly, though not steadily. It’s not four lane highway traffic, but neither is it backwoods dirt road traffic. Again, not a deal breaker if you’re here for a weekend of hiking and leg stretching in the canyon. Besides, the playing children are likely to drown it out anyway.
In addition to the campsites, Horseshoe Canyon Campground has two wood cabins available for rent. Looking like custom built, oversized garden sheds, these two units are attractive and practical for families wanting a slightly more glamping experience. Made and shipped from Montana (host 2 was keen to share info on these cabins), each includes a set of bunk beds and a double bed inside also crafted from wood.
With modest climate control included and a swinging bench out front, I was quite fond of these cabins. They’d make an ideal spot for grandparents to stay in while the family and grandkids camped nearby. Or maybe the grandkids stay in the bunkbeds with grandma and grandpa while mom and dad make more grandkids in the trailer?
Horseshoe Canyon Campground’s website makes mention of seasonal sites being available. I found this perplexing. Outside of the two host sites, I saw little evidence that anyone had capitalized on this offer. It’s got all the services, sure, but this just doesn’t seem like the kind of place someone would want to spend an entire summer at.
This is also a relatively new campground with work in progress. Young trees have been planted at the ends of most sites and will one day provide much-appreciated shelter from the blazing prairie sun. For now, they are little more than decoration and occasional deer food judging by the wire fencing encircling most of them.
When we arrived, a new bedding of gravel was being dispersed in the large parking area next to the registration office and store. Hints of additional upgrades can be seen throughout the campground. I expect this will continue as the campground ages so expect a slightly different experience with each passing year.
To the west and south are mature shelter belts of shrubbery (cotoneaster?). Neither are especially attractive, though probably pretty during the short flowering period. Still, its greenery. Beyond that the views to the south and west are flat, Alberta prairie; cool, but not especially eye-popping.
I admit some disappointment at not being able to see the namesake Horseshoe Canyon from the campground. To the north and east (where the canyon lies), the campground is recessed into the ground as if surrounded by a berm. This restricts views in those directions which is too bad because a courtside view of Horseshoe Canyon would be a definitely plum for this campground.
I should mention that there are ticks here. I found one on my forearm after plucking an errant football out of the aforementioned bushes. Luckily, the little bastard had not settled down for lunch yet but be forewarned and protect yourself accordingly.
Horseshoe Canyon Campground has two washrooms with showers. They’re unlike any I’ve seen before, looking more like miniature doghouses you might find at a construction site or drilling location. It’s an interesting option and certainly better than pit toilets. I’ve no idea if this is merely a temporary solution until a permanent shower house is built, but they suffice.
Each is unisexual and houses a single toilet, a sink with mirror and a shower stall. There is power available. A basket of brown paper towels for drying hands isn’t to my liking they too do the job.
With all the campsites, save for the tenting area, having sewer service it should come as no surprise that there is no dump station. We prefer to use campground facilities other than those onboard our close-quartered camper and these little units were just peachy for our needs.
A small, modern playground exists in the interior of the campground loop near the bathrooms. It has a pea gravel base and an area of grass surrounding it. Fun for the little ones but as kids push towards 10, they’ll be too big or too bored by it. Still, nice to have and the young ones were certainly enjoying it during our stay.
The grassy area is generally too small for any significant field games. And again, when the campground is full, there won’t be room for games of soccer or tossing a frisbee every which way, but it does at least offer a little space for kids to run around.
In this same interior area is a workshop and one of the two host campsites. The second host resides across the loop road. Both are seasonal sites with patios and décor. The golf cart is also available for use by campers to shuttle those with lesser mobility to the canyon or around the campground. Simply ask the hosts.
Hosts also operate the Horseshoe Canyon Campground office/store. Located at the entrance to the greater campground property at the western edge of a large, gravel parking lot, the office/store remains a bit of mystery to me. With ongoing Covid restrictions in place, campers were not allowed inside the building. The website lists it as having a “convenience store” but without the ability to enter I cannot confirm what conveniences are available.
What I can tell you is that they serve hot dogs and a wide selection of ice cream. Undoubtedly catering to day-trippers at the canyon, the presence of ice cream is both welcome and a no-brainer in my book. I image in the heart of summer on busy weekends, they are overrun with non-campground patrons.
Ice and firewood are also available for purchase. Firewood sells for $11 per bag or 3 bags for $30. They’re large, plastic-wrapped bundles that look decent enough from afar (we didn’t buy any). No idea where the wood comes from because there aren’t a lot of trees in these parts.
At the south end of this large public parking area is a newly constructed nine hole mini-golf course. It was not yet open during our stay and I don’t know the cost or even when it projects to be open. You can’t go wrong with ice-cream and mini-golf which will be an added perk for campers once the day trip crowds dissipate in the evening.
Another bonus at Horseshoe Canyon Campground that I noticed almost immediately is the WiFi. It’s really good. I don’t write that very often, even about campgrounds boasting WiFi service. But here, it legit works great and is entirely free. Both my old laptop and crappy cell phone were able to connect from our site at the opposite end of the campground from the presumed router location. I was even able to stream an online education video with zero issues.
One benefit of camping on the prairies that I was dearly looking forward to is the night sky. Drumheller is close, though down in the river valley and Calgary looms to the west, but Horseshoe Canyon Campground still held potential for some enjoyable stargazing.
Those hopes were dashed, however, by the eye-piercing led lights mounted on poles at either end of the campground. Yeah, I get it … safety. It’s still disappointing. The campground is not large and the sites are rather crammed together, do we really need such bright lighting “protecting” us all night long? I’ll take my chances in the dark.
Why, you might ask, does this campground exist at all? Well, that’s easy … Horseshoe Canyon. An anomalous area of badlands somewhat isolated from the more prolific Red Deer River valley badlands in nearby Drumheller, Horseshoe Canyon has long been a popular day trip for Calgarians. Easy access (it’s literally beside the highway) and seemingly no restrictions to use, it overs a modest badlands experience with 15 minutes less driving.
As the population has grown so too has popularity and I was surprised, but not surprised, to see that things have changed a fair bit since the last time I visited Horseshoe Canyon, a decade ago. The municipality has invested money into infrastructure at the canyon and continues to do so. This includes picnic shelter, fancy pit toilets, observation platforms, and groomed trails. They’re also charging parking fees of $2 during peak visiting hours.
My views on these changes are mixed. The infrastructure is attractive and likely necessary considering the number of people coming here. That the local government is attempting to earn some income from this little attraction is hardly a shock and honestly, $2 isn’t an insult. It does, however, kill some of the spontaneous feel of the place.
This development goes hand-in-hand with the installation and growth of the campground next door. Nature provided a little glimpse of her beauty and the people came. It was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs and governments attempted to capitalize on that traffic.
Horseshoe Canyon is still worth a visit. And with the investments put into it, that visit is now more convenient for all sorts of visitors. It’s a nice little hike down into a section of erosional badlands. Those more adventurous can explore off the manicured trails into the deeper reaches of the canyon where foot-beaten paths extend in all directions. Some even take you contiguous lands owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The banded rock layers, wildlife, and flora all make for an enjoyable hike, though hardly a strenuous one beyond the initial decent into (and subsequent climb out) the canyon. It’s not a life altering experience. This is not the Grand Canyon. Hell, there are parts of the badlands proper more compelling and not terribly far away from this (e.g. Horse Thief Canyon). But for a quick day trip, it’s just fine. And with ice cream waiting across the driveway, all the more reason to take the family out on a beautiful summer day.
This is why we came. With Covid restrictions keeping Drumheller’s big attractions, like Tyrrell, closed there was less incentive to camp in the various town campgrounds or others along the river valley. Being able to walk right into Horseshoe Canyon from our trailer was a fun way to spend a couple days. We took a short drive to explore Horse Thief Canyon north of Drumheller as well. All in all, a great little weekend despite the tense start to it all.
I enjoyed our stay at Horseshoe Canyon Campround. It was just what we needed for this early spring outing. But I doubt I’ll ever camp there again. This just isn’t my preferred camping style. The sites are too close and until those trees grow up, it’ll be a blazing hot, unsheltered, near-dessert experience in the dog days of summer. No thanks.
For others, this could very well be the perfect campground. All the amenities are there and a growing selection of activities from hiking to mini-golf to who knows what the future will bring. The kids can play and the adults can socialize. And, hey, once the world returns to normal post-Covid, Horseshoe Canyon Campground makes for a decent HQ for exploring Drumheller and dinosaur country.
For me personally, Horseshoe Canyon Campground gets only 3 out of 5 Baby Dill Pickles. For others, that rating will easily climb higher. To each their own, as they say. At least we’ll all agree we could do without the golf cart escort to our campsite and exuberant parking instructions.