You think you’re a pretty good judge of character, good or bad, and then somebody comes along and blows that hypothesis all to hell. St. Mary Lower campground … YOU … are that somebody.
I had little desire to ever visit this campground, let alone spend a weekend at it. Tucked into the inside bend of an oxbow lake at the base of a dam on the sunbaked, windswept Prairie southwest of Lethbridge, I figured I knew exactly what to expect from St. Mary Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area. Wind. Heat. Stink. Mosquitoes.
That’s a quadrumvirate I’ll eagerly avoid, but two things changed my mind. Okay, it was more a capitulation than reasoned changed of heart. One, I’m running out of provincial campgrounds to visit within tolerable driving distance of Calgary. I like to visit new places rather than continually return to the same old spots. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Besides, I need fresh material for my blog.
Second, fossils. I’d read a blurb on the Alberta Palaeontological Society website about a fossil hunting field trip to St. Mary Reservoir. I love finding these reminders of ancient life, as does my son, and that was enough to shun my better judgement and book a May weekend at St. Mary Lower campground. Thankfully, my better judgement was all wrong.
Although I was right about the wind. Southern Alberta is notorious for wind and our Friday afternoon drive to St. Mary Lower campground got a bit squirrely once we were south of Fort McLeod. Not dangerously so, but enough to leave me wondering if our vehicle needed a realignment since I continually had the steering wheel turned forty-five degrees yet remained fully within the painted lines.
Located along the southeast flank of the Blood Indian Reserve, St. Mary Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area is a string of campgrounds and day use areas along the south shore of the reservoir. St. Mary Lower campground is the largest bulb of greenery immediately below the dam where the St. Mary River returns to its natural meandering state heading eastward.
The campground itself is a small oasis in the otherwise bald prairie, offering tall cottonwoods and poplars to shelter campers from the blazing sun. The trees, along with the dam, provide a reprieve from the elements (sun and wind) making St. Mary Lower campground more pleasant than expected.
Granted, we were fortunate not to endure a genuine storm during our stay. And though it was certainly windy upon our arrival, I wouldn’t describe it as crazy. In our campsite next to the water, it was delightfully breezy despite the brisk winds that were very apparent any time we ventured into an open space or up out of the valley.
St. Mary Lower campground consists of two camping loops divided by the entrance road with a total of 38 campsites. All of the 38 campsites have 15/30 amp power which I think is a bit peculiar. Peculiar because the dam does not generate any electricity.
It does, however, accumulate enough fresh water to create an artificial lake that, in addition to providing lots of summer fun to humans, is used to grow grain crops in the dry surroundings. All that drinking water and St. Mary Lower campground does not have water (or sewer) at any its campsites. In fact, as of May 2021, there is no water of any kind available at St. Mary Lower campground due to what Alberta Parks describes on their website as “water system work in 2020.”
So, a dam with no electrical generating capacity has next to it a campground with powered sites but no drinking water. Now that’s irony. Alanis Morissette should write a song about it. Hopefully that water system will eventually return to working status resulting in flowing “potable” water at the campground, but for now be advised to bring your own.
Of the two loops, I prefer the larger one on the north side of the main access road. It has a series of back-in campsites that back onto the oxbow lake, a remnant of the river left isolated when the dam was built. Inland from these scenic sites are a row of pull-through campsites.
All of these sites are big with long gravel drives capable of accommodating any sized RV. Several had two trailers set up on them. There’s no underbrush to provide genuine privacy, but the grassy sites are wide enough to give you a sense of space. At no time did I feel cramped here. And the trees, though ratty, as is the norm in these parts, provide adequate shade.
One site at the tippy top north end of this primary loop is worth drawing attention to. It lives all by itself with no neighbours whatsoever and hidden behind trees and shrubs immediately next to the water. I have no idea why it exists, but I want it. I’m sure it’s the first to get booked the second the reservation window opens up, and rightly so. If St. Mary Lower campground was a fiefdom, this would be the King’s castle!
The south loop is smaller and less attractive for my money. There are no sites backing onto the lake here and it’s just as well with the view less appealing than the northern loop. All but three of these sites are back-in and while there are trees here, they didn’t feel quite as full.
The southernmost edge of this loop is composed of a day use area. It’s not much to get excited about. Basically an open space with dirt parking, grassy and weeds, and some picnic tables and pit toilets, this can’t possibly be much of a draw.
It even purports to have a beach, based on signage around the campground. It’s not a beach. And frankly, even if there was a beach, I wouldn’t go in that water if you paid me. Still, it’s a picnic spot I suppose and those less high maintenance than I will make use of it.
A better day use area is found on the western edge of the northern loop. Centered around a large, three-walled picnic shelter, this spacious day use area is far superior to the one mentioned above. The shelter has been strategically built with its open face eastward to provide a windbreak. It includes several picnic tables within and a large iron woodstove for cooking and maybe warmth on those unseasonable days.
This day use area at St. Mary Lower campground also sports a fancy playground for the kidlets. Surrounded by a green space with a couple trees, some benches and picnic tables, it’s a nice play area for families. How long that grass stays green, I don’t know. Perhaps they water it? Whatever the case, in late May it was green and Saturday saw a large gathering of family and friends using the picnic shelter and playground.
The southern loop is not without entertainment. Tucked into a wooded area in the loop’s centre was a concrete pad with a basketball hoop at one end and two poles for a volleyball net on either side. There was no net so I’m not sure if anyone actually plays volleyball there, but if you remember to bring a basketball (and who doesn’t when camping?), you can shoot some hoops or play a little one-on-one. Not your typical campground amenity but a unique quirk that I thought was kind of neat.
Perhaps you prefer on-site activities. Each site has a picnic table, either a movable wooden one or a more robust concrete/wood creation, as well as the expected firepit. Yes, you can have campfires here, assuming there isn’t a fire ban in effect. I’m guessing said fire bans are far from rare, but we were lucky to enjoy a campfire by the lake both nights.
Firewood is available for purchase from the back of a pickup truck. The truck belongs to one of two campground hosts at St. Mary Lower campground (one in each loop … they also supervise the other campgrounds on the reservoir). I’m sorry I didn’t get a price for the wood but expect it to be the typical cost and volume of wood found at most Alberta parks.
There’s also a group camping area. Accessed via the northern loop but located well to the west near the head of the oxbow lake and base of the dam, it is well isolated from the remainder of the campground. In May 2021 it was still closed due to covid, but it looked like an ideal group spot for a gathering of like-minded campers.
A single loop surrounding grass and far less treed than the regular campsites, the group site is likely to get a bit windy sometimes. The dam may block the worst of it, but I suspect the wind whips down the front of the dam giving the group campers a gust or three.
The group spot has no discernable sites laid out around the loop. It’s just a gravel road. I suppose folks just pull off onto the grass and set up their rigs or tents there.
In the centre of the loop is a picnic shelter in which is the expected wood stove and picnic tables. This shelter has no fully enclosed sides, so it’s more open to the wind than the day use shelter.
Outside the shelter is a large communal firepit. This will make for a great campfire assuming there’s no fire ban, no wind, and the skies are clear. Sitting under the stars making merry with loved ones, mmm, you can’t go wrong.
There’s a water tap, oddly at the entrance to the long road into the group area. With there being no water service, this is sort of irrelevant. If water service does return to St. Mary Lower campground, I have to say this location is inconvenient.
Thankfully, the pit toilet for the group area is closer to the main hub of activity. But not too close. Pit toilets being what they are, and these are stuck under hot prairie sun for months of the year, you wouldn’t want this sucker right next to the picnic shelter. As it stands, you’ll want to force the least liked member of your crew to camp closest to it.
More pit toilets are located in the main camping loops as well. There is no fancy shower house or flush toilets at St. Mary Lower campground. Not my preferred situation, but not unexpected considering the location and size of the place.
In late May the pit toilets were tolerable but starting to hint at future unpleasantness. Each is a concrete affair with a single woman’s and a single men’s side. And I suppose the wind helps with scent dispersal. They do have solar powered lighting at night. It gets dark here and I appreciated not having to fiddle around with a flashlight while trying to unzip my pants.
Unfortunately, there is no dump station. I’m not privy to the logistics of such installations, but I kind of thought there would be something out here. The three campgrounds on St. Mary Reservoir are all void of sewer service and together amount to more than 100 campsites. Seems reasonable to me to have a dump station somewhere nearby. Alas, you’ll have to haul your waste elsewhere (Fort McLeod has a free one).
What, then, you might be asking, was I so terribly wrong about? I’ve hardly described Xanadu. Well, it’s the lake. Not the big one, the little oxbow lake hugging the campground. Boy, was I too smart by half with it.
For starters, it’s not an abandoned meander of the St. Mary River. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. I’d assumed it was utterly void of replenishment outside of rain and snowmelt leaving it to be nothing more than a slowly infilling pond providing ample breeding ground for mosquitoes and little else. I was wrong.
Investigating the start of this little lake at the very base of the earthen dam, it is evident that leakage from the dam is directed into the lake. This is entirely normal, engineered leakage and it provides a steady stream of fresh water to replenish the lake. At the other end, a small outlet directs water back into the river’s natural course below the spillway.
The resulting microhabitat is unexpectedly teaming with wildlife. In our lakeside campsite, we had front row seating for Mother Nature’s variety show and it made our evening campfires an absolute delight.
Cliff swallows started the show. The far side of the oxbow lake is a striking cliff face of sedimentary rocks. As a geologist just sitting there looking at the bedded layers attesting to Earth’s unending change was pleasure enough. The swallows obviously agree and have built their mud nests into the cliffside towards the northern border of St. Mary Lower campground.
The swallows darted around feeding on invisible flying insects before giving way to a parade of beautiful, winged creatures that will “wow” the birder in your entourage. We saw two types of hawk, red-winged blackbirds, a heron, ducks (mallards), a plover, killdeer, pelicans, robins, Baltimore orioles (male and female), grackles, Canada geese, mourning doves, a western tanager (I think), non-descript brown birds of some kind (sparrows?), magpies, and seagulls (there’s always a blemish).
I was particularly fond of the shockingly orange orioles. What a pretty bird. And the three of them (2 males and 1 female …. I think) were putting on quite the harried display in the trees above us and bushes across the water. I’ve never wanted to be a better photographer with a better camera and better lenses than I did that weekend.
And birds weren’t the only vertebrates in the show. A busy beaver lives in the lake and would swim peacefully by our campsite each evening then head into the scrub on the far shore. While attempting to get closeup pictures of said beaver I met his friend the skunk fiddling around in the bushes on our shore. That gave me a start and was a little too close for comfort!
Not to be outdone by the aves and mammalia, the fish performed some acrobatics, leaping right out of the water to catch bugs flitting around. I assume this lake is stocked because there’s no way these fish are able to sustain a natural population in such a small body of water. Especially with hawks feasting on them from the skies above. Twice we witnessed a hawk divebomb the surface to capture a meal, successfully on one occasion.
Reptilia even made a brief appearance. Over at the main river, while exploring for fossils, I nearly stepped on a garter snake. I think that’s what it was. I’m not a snake expert and it could have been something else as it was brown. I expect garter snakes to be green. Anyway, it was definitely a snake and definitely not a rattler.
I didn’t get a picture of the snake in part because I was spooked and dancing around like a marionette and in part because it was spooked and slithered back into the rocks to avoid my spontaneous tap dance.
Those rocks, by the way, are the other reason St. Mary Lower campground was such a joy. As you’ll recall, the lure of fossils was one of the reasons I relented and booked a site here in the first place. Despite a fruitless initial hunt, we finally found the treasures we came to discover.
A trail from the campground takes you around a hill towards the base of the dam spillways. The stratified rock in this area is tantalizing for fossil hunters but unfortunately the bulk of it is sandstones with no fossils to be found.
There is, however, a thin layer, of which little remains exposed, where abundant bivalve fossils can be found. These are quite cool if you find them. The shells appear almost untouched by time or chemical change despite their entire surroundings being lithified. This makes them delicate but nonetheless cool.
Sadly, this layer is quickly eroding away and soon none of it will remain exposed. It undoubtedly exists within the cliffs defining the river valley but without the natural erosion of the free-flowing river to unearth more of it, the fossil hunting below St. Mary Reservoir is nearing its end.
Not all is lost, however. A thick, red sandstone bed is topped with what I believe are trace fossils of shrimp (or other critter) burrows. They look like small segments of rebar in the rock and are easily overlooked. But once you recognize them, these slightly darker red, round slugs suddenly appear to be everywhere. Burrows riddle the whole surface of this rock layer.
Otherwise, the glacial till topping all this sedimentary rock is spewing forth an endless supply of cool and colourful igneous, metamorphic, and sandstone cobbles that will tantalize any “pretty rock” aficionado. Fossil hunting and rockhounding for the win.
If Mother Nature’s handiwork doesn’t excite you, then perhaps the dam itself will. While not spectacular in size or notoriety, the dam creating St. Mary Reservoir is a curiosity that’s hard to ignore while camping beneath it.
The most striking characteristic of the dam is the dual spillways. Originally completed in 1951, a new spillway was constructed in 1998 to replace the failing original. That first spillway was decommissioned but not entirely removed. You can now walk down a path to the upper portion of the former spillway where an observation platform exists. From this platform you get a postcard view of the St. Mary River valley looking eastward.
Additionally, original machinery and parts from the dam are outside on display with faded information signage to explain what each thing did. It’s not a tourist quality museum by any stretch, but it’s interesting enough to spend an hour snooping around.
Further west on the south end of the reservoir is Wally’s Day Use area which has as shockingly large beach. The size of the beach grows and shrinks with water level in the reservoir, but it was certainly impressive in late May. I hadn’t the slightest expectation that a “real” beach would exist here. Alberta “beaches” are typically poor excuses for beaches, but this was genuine sand and stretched quite far along the shore. A hidden gem.
There wasn’t much in the way of designated hiking at St. Mary Lower campground. Not that exploration was impossible. There are some ad hoc trails worn into the hills and you can just ramble around the valley bottom or up onto the hilltops. There are some exceptional views of the valley and campground from up there. You’ll be heading up daily to get cell service anyway (it’s non-existent in the campground proper), so take a moment to look around. Just hold onto your hat!
St. Mary Lower campground is currently 100% reservable. I’m not sure that has always been the case and it’s possible after covid it might revert to partial FCFS. This is pure speculation on my part as there is no office or registration booth, just the small kiosk typical of FCFS campgrounds.
For the most part, I found our campsite peaceful. The wildlife was intriguing, and my only regret is not having the fortitude to stay up late enough for true darkness. The view of the pond and cliff face from our firepit was dreamy. I can only imagine how fantastic a pitch black night sky would be from that same spot. Perhaps next time … with telescope packed.
Our neighbours were pleasant. Several large motorhomes were there with grandparents and grandkids enjoying their first camping trips of the season. That said, there were more than a few groups of friends camping together in the pull-through sites. They were a bit rambunctious.
I wouldn’t call this a “party campground” but it is more sociable that some other campgrounds. The long sites are ideal for multi-unit campers, not to mention the remoteness from urban areas. Don’t expect a quiet, library-like stay. Your mileage may vary on this, of course.
Ultimately, I had a fantastic weekend with my son at a place I was almost dreading going to. Lesson learned on judging books by their cover.
I still contend that there must be times of the year when the mosquitoes at St. Mary Lower campground are unbearable. Those swallows are living there for a reason. The pit toilets, lack of water, lack of dump station, and wind limit the overall appeal for a camper like me, but ultimately the birds and rocks won me over. What a delight.
I will award St. Mary Lower campground 3.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. There are a lot of asterisks in play here. Had I booked at another time, it’s quite possible my experience would have far less enjoyable. As it is, late May was magical for my first visit to St. Mary Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area.
If you’re a bird lover, I highly recommend that you snag a back-in site along that small lake. If you’re looking to let loose with some friends, try a pull-through site or even the group site. Want solitude, definitely get that odd, isolated campsite at the north end. And if you’re simply looking for a new place to try or your favourite spots are all booked up, don’t write off St. Mary Lower campground as an option.