One summer. That’s all it took. One. Summer.
2020 was a perfect storm of Zen-like camping with our combined unemployment allowing for camping during the week rather than weekends coupled with pandemic protocols leaving campgrounds at half capacity. I capitalized on this with gusto, venturing out to never-before visited first-come-first-served campgrounds with the whole family as well as just my kids (sometimes together, sometimes individually, sometimes with the trailer, sometimes with the tent). It was a wonderful silver lining to an otherwise stressful summer.
I was reminded of last summer’s greatness a couple weeks ago as I sat in my lawn chair at Little Elbow Campground in Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area listening to the battling aural incursions of screaming kids, crying babies, yappy adults, blaring stereos, and chugging generators. Oh, and power tools. Can’t forget the dude with a circular saw building something on his campsite. You know you’re in Alberta when!
None of this is a complaint or judgement. Well, not much, anyway. These noisy moments were not sustained (thank God) nor did they continue past quiet time. Well, not much, anyway. It was just a blunt reminder that last summer was anomalous and the welcome return of “normal” comes with its own warts. I both chuckled and sighed.
Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area is the last of the popular Kananaskis campgrounds and day use areas strung along Highway 66 west of Bragg Creek. Arguably the crown jewel of the bunch, it’s extremely popular with Calgarians who flock there en masse when the weather gets summery. I’ve been itching to camp there for a couple years now.
It’s so popular, in fact, that even last year I was never once able to reserve an RV spot at Little Elbow Campground for an early week outing. Now that I’ve finally been, I’ll have a bit more to say regarding this inability to capture a site last summer. It will be a complaint and judgement. And it will be much of one.
In the meantime, I’ll stick to the positive because there is plenty good to say about Little Elbow PRA and Little Elbow Campground. Their popularity is no fluke. The views. The hiking. The proximity to the city. It’s a near perfect combination for anyone seeking an authentic camping experience or an enjoyable afternoon away from suburbia.
With 64 regular campsites, 30 walk-in tent sites, and a further 46 equestrian sites spread over 5 alphabetical loops (A through E), Little Elbow is a substantial campground (140 total campsites). Strangely, though, it felt even bigger to me.
Perhaps it’s the sprawling layout? Or the substantial number of walk-in sites? The considerable day use area surely contributes as well. Whatever the case, to me, Little Elbow Campground felt easily twice the size it actually is. And not in a bad way.
The regular and equestrian RV sites are large, spacious, well-spaced campsites the likes of which we’ve come to expect in most mountain parks (provincial and national). Carved into the green, conifer forest on a terrace alongside the Elbow River Valley, Little Elbow Campground is a delightful escape from the urban concrete and asphalt we city dwellers live within.
Yeah, that terrace was a surprise for me too. That’s the one thing that Google Maps doesn’t in all its two-dimensional glory fails to impress upon the human mind; everything looks flat. Yet it should come as no surprise that a campground in the foothills and Rocky Mountains would include variations in elevation. It’s called a “valley” for a reason.
That terracing from the campground down to the Little Elbow River makes for some exquisite views along the trails next to the campground entrance road, but it also makes getting down to the river a bit tricky. More on that in a bit.
Our site was in Loop D and I’d venture to say it was a “typical” site. With a long driveway and ample space around the firepit, it would easily accommodate a camper much longer than our little Geo Pro. Not only did we have plenty of room for our gear, but we were also able to play ring toss right on our campsite without needing to move anything.
As you can see in the picture, the gravel beds of these sites are well-elevated from the surrounding forest floor. This was common to all sites and loops and it looked fairly fresh so I’m assuming it is the result of recent maintenance. Whatever the case, it was nice and level and, like I mentioned, ample space.
All of the RV campsites are back-in style. Looking at the map there appears to be a handful of arcuate, pull-through sites, but they are actually double/shared campsites. I’m sure someone has tried to use these as pull-throughs, but the location of firepits makes that tricky, if not impossible.
Each site comes with said firepit and a picnic table. There are no services (power, water, or sewer) at any. Little Elbow Campground is an ideal mix of glamping and rustic, in a sense.
The walk-in tent sites are found in Loops C through E with C being comprised of only such sites (10 of them). Walk-ins in Loops D and E are found in groups of 4, not far into the woods from the large, dedicated parking areas.
I think these walk-in tent sites are nice though certainly not overwhelmingly awe-inspiring. None have unique or impressive views and as my son mentioned, they’d perhaps be a little more appealing if they were a further into the woods. But that’s nitpicking.
There are groomed, gravel trails from the parking area to each of the tent sites and each has a firepit and picnic table. Also, at the designated parking areas are food lockers since you won’t want to leave the yummies out at your site in bear country.
The tall conifers provide nice shelter for the RV and tent campsites but there’s little understory to provide genuine privacy. The breadth of the campsites compensates somewhat. You won’t feel claustrophobic, but you’ll undoubtedly hear and see what’s going on around you. And depending on your site location, that might include the odd trespasser ambling from one area to another.
Nor do the campsites at Little Elbow Campground have much of a view. Our site was attractive in a treed sense, but we weren’t staring at incredible mountain views all weekend. This is the case for most of the sites, save for a few gems in the equestrian loops. A handful of those had some clearing behind them offering a lovely view of the Rockies.
I’d have quite enjoyed inadvertently reserving one of those rare sites with sumptuous views but since they were in the equestrian loops, this was impossible. Or so I thought. Here comes my rant!
As mentioned, there are 46 equestrian sites in two loops at Little Elbow Campground. They have a separate entrance road and are located north of the other loops across a ravine. On the Alberta Parks reservation website, they are even listed as a separate campground.
All last summer, while I desperately tried to reserve a campsite at Little Elbow Campground, there were regularly sites available in the equestrian loops. Seeing as these were equestrian campsites, and we do not have a horse, I did not book any of these tauntingly available campsites. Turns out, I was too much of a boy scout, being so honourable.
Each of the equestrian loops has a large, covered corral for stowing your four-legged transportation. I’m no horse person, but these corrals look to be in good shape and are either newish or have been renovated relatively recently.
An equally large parking area is next door, and you’ll also find what I think are loading ramps to help your horse exit the trailer. These ramps look pretty old and worn, so I get the feeling they aren’t used much.
The most surprising thing about these corrals, though, is that none of them contained any horses. Nor were there any horse trailers in the parking area next to the corrals. There weren’t even horse trailers in the designated horse trailer parking area found along the main road near the day use area and former campground registration office (I assume this particular parking area is for day-use riders?).
Maybe two equestrian campsites had a horse trailer on site, otherwise they were all full of normal campers, many with big RVs. Some even had multiple RVS or multiple tents. A few appeared to be hosting parties; a child’s birthday party in one case and a gender-reveal party in another. Lots of people and campers and tents with not a single horse among them.
That is when I realized that regular campers are unabashedly reserving equestrian campsites at Little Elbow Campground. What’s even more frustrating is that nobody seems to care! The campground hosts, who themselves have a large RV compound in the equestrian Loop, were not forcing anyone to leave for lack of equine ownership. As far as I can tell, the equestrian loops are used as regular camping loops. In other words, I easily could have obtained a campsite last year!
This is the kind of mixed messaging and lack of rule adherence that irks me to no end. If equestrian loops are not solely for the use of horse-owners, fine, then say so. Say it on the official website and don’t segregate the two sets of loops on the reservation platform. It’s a “crap or get off the pot” situation imho. Either the loops are equestrian only … or they’re not. Decide and describe/enforce them as such.
I was choked that I could not get a campsite at Little Elbow Campground last year. I can only imagine how choked a horse camper would be if they attempted to book a site in an official “equestrian” campground and were unable to because all the sites were booked up by regular campers. Alberta Parks needs to address this.
Okay, rant over, lets return to regular programming.
As mentioned, there are no on-site services at Little Elbow Campground. None. You won’t find water taps around the loops either, though there are a handful of hand pumps. These pumps provide potable water, but each has a sign stating Alberta Parks is unable to guarantee water quality. And anyway, you can’t fill up an RV tank with a hand pump.
There isn’t even a dump station, which is where RVers like us commonly fill up the water tank upon arrival. Instead, you’re well-advised to bring with you water from home.
As for emptying your waste tanks, there’s a universal dump station for the whole Elbow River Valley suite of campgrounds near the information centre at the entrance to Kananaskis close to Bragg Creek. McLean Creek Campground has its own dump station that you might be able to make use of as well, but don’t take my word for it. Pure speculation.
Whether you fill up your black tank is entirely up to you. Not surprisingly, only pit toilets are available at Little Elbow Campground with one or two available in each of the five loops. They’re quaint, wooden, unisex style huts with a single stall on each side. During our visit in June, they were still tolerably stenched. How that holds up throughout the summer is unclear (I can only imagine what horrors the recent heatwave wrought!).
Unlike water, you won’t need to bring your own firewood, though, of course, many do. There are two options for purchasing firewood at Little Elbow Campground. The store at McLean Creek Campground sells wood so you can opt to buy a couple bags on your way in.
You can also purchase firewood from the campground hosts located in Loop A. There are three ways to do this. Walk right up to the host campsite. Wait for them to slowly drive around the loops in the evening selling wood out of the back of a pickup truck. Or, obtain and affix a request tag to your campsite post and have it delivered to you.
Those tags are available from a distribution box found near a pit toilet in each of the loops. Wood costs $10 per bag (in 2021) and is presumably a mixture of spruce and pine for the most part.
For all the nature around us, we didn’t see much of it in animal form. A mule deer strolled through the campground behind our campsite and hung low near a pit toilet for a while, but otherwise it was sadly quiet and uneventful. Too many people perhaps?
And there are a lot of people. In addition to campers, Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area has a huge, and very popular, day use area. Centering around Forgetmenot Pond, and sprawling westward back towards the campground, the day use area is one of the nicer we’ve seen. But, oh boy, does it get busy!
A network of trails circumscribes the small, cute, Forgetmenot pond and branches west to the remaining day use space and eventually the campground itself. The pond is more open and has incredible views of the mountains to the west. Every picnic spot and patch of grass is quickly taken up by groups of families and/or friends looking to spend a happy day away from the city.
In addition to BBQs and other picnic essentials, the pond is popular with paddlers opting for a lazy float on the water as they digest their lunch and take in the beautiful surroundings. It was almost comical the number of dinghies and kayaks on the pond as we strolled around checking things out.
West of the pond the scenery is a bit bleak. You can still see the mountains, but the lingering flood damage is visible all around. The river course has altered as well resulting in some picnic spots becoming head scratchers with no view or reason for existence at first glance. Such is life around mountain rivers; always changing.
A couple pit toilets are available for day users, typically by the large parking lots made available to accommodate day user vehicles. These lots, unsurprisingly, fill up fast! By mid-morning on a sunny Saturday, they’re already full and cars start parking along the roads and anywhere they can find space.
The registration booth is located in this area and was unmanned in early June. I don’t know if it remains so throughout the summer, but I suspect it does. It’s funny to think of a time when all these booths had staff welcoming visitors to the various campgrounds and recreation areas in Kananaskis. That was considered public service in 70s. Now it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. Ho hum.
Connecting all this outdoor infrastructure is an impressive system of trails. The variety of trail surfaces is impressive, ranging from wide, paved options down to narrow, dirt options. Signage is pretty good and differentiates between pedestrian only trails and those suitable for people, horses, and cyclists.
The primary pedestrian trail follows along the northern bank of the Little Elbow River and runs from west of the campground loop E all the way east to Forgetmenot Pond. It’s a dirt trail of decent width. Near the campground it is up on the terrace, but soon descends to river level enabling adventurers and rockhounds to explore the plethora of river rock in the gravel bars.
My son and I are avid rockhounders and we had a glorious time hunting for fossiliferous rocks. There is plenty! These mountain rivers can be hit or miss, depending on which geologic formations have been thrust upwards to create the peaks at any given point. Some produce barren rocks while others are rich with fossils. Little Elbow is certainly the latter!
If you wish to cross the Little Elbow River, an interesting suspension bridge exists just across from Loop C. Honestly, the bridge looks a bit out of place here. It’s not an insignificant structure and looks like the last remnant of a long-lost city. It does, however, make for a nifty photo and allows you to cross the river to explore the southern shoreline, not to mention connecting to yet more trails.
This convenient trail network ties into the much grander Kananaskis trail system engulfing Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area. This, by far, is the area’s biggest draw. Hikes of every imaginable difficulty and length spiderweb outwards from Little Elbow in all directions. And each morning you’ll see packs of hikers and cyclists heading towards the trailheads to begin their chosen adventure.
Having never been here before, we spent our time exploring locally in the campground and along the river. I can well imagine the spectacular views awaiting at the terminus of these hikes in the surrounding peaks and ridges. As for witnessing them myself, that’ll have to wait for another trip.
As for playgrounds, there isn’t one. I say that a lot about national parks, but Alberta provincial parks tend to have them. Little Elbow Campground is not small and is obviously popular with families. I’m more than a bit surprised it doesn’t have a playground. All the more reason to hike and hunt fossils, I suppose.
Considering my painful wait before finally being able to camp at Little Elbow Campground, the place did not disappoint. This is a deservedly popular recreation area. Campers (equestrian, tent, or otherwise), hikers/cyclists, and day users will all enjoy themselves (getting on each other’s nerves, notwithstanding). Being but an hour drive from much of Calgary only amplifies its appeal.
Part of me wishes there was running water with flush toilets and such (showers would be especially popular!), but another part of me thinks that would only ruin the place. There’s a certain charm to Little Elbow Campground being simultaneously well-maintained and rustic. Few such places exist anymore.
I’m in an after-glowy frame of mind writing this, so I’m going to give Little Elbow Campgound in Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. That’s admittedly generous for a campground with no services (not even a dump station). What can I say? I had a lot of fun there, even if it was busy and sometimes noisy. The views, rocks, and hikes are topnotch. I’ll tolerate lesser solitude for a weekend of that with the family anytime.
Just know that had I written this review immediately after our return, I’d have been far harsher. The equestrian loops filled with regular campers really burned my saddle.
Tracy Heim says
Great review – we were actually just there as well (last weekend in June) in Loop E. It was also our first time. I used campnab.com (have you tried it) to alert me to open sites. The only tough part was the generator noise… Why? Rice can be made at home, there are many other ways to make coffee! Anyway…
We did use the McLean Creek dump station, though you kind of feel you shouldn’t because it is well inside that campground.
Also, we never would have thought to camp in the equestrian area (and still won’t), so you are not the only scout.