In high school, I fell in love with a new girl every year. And not always just one! Hormones are fun that way. Also, annoying. Now that I’m all grown up and the testosterone has thankfully subsided, not to mention married, I’ve had to focus my annual infatuations on less controversial subjects, like campgrounds. Last year it was Police Outlook Provincial Park. This year, oh it’s definitely Ram Falls Provincial Park.
Like any fantasy crush, Ram Falls is not without its headaches. Getting there, for instance, is not the easiest of tasks. Located on the infamous Forestry Trunk Road (provincial highway 40) some 64 km south of Nordegg or 97 km west of Caroline, Ram Falls Provincial Park is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. And that means gravel roads.
Coming from Calgary, we chose to take the Caroline route though the masochists out there can take highway 40 all the way from highway 1A west of Cochrane if they so choose. Getting to Caroline is slick enough and for the first little while west, the roads remain paved. Eventually, though, the gravel comes and with it dust, flying rocks, gravel haulers, and logging trucks.
The final 61 km of the trip are a bit harrowing in places. Most notable is the stretch alongside Corkscrew Mountain, a name I was unaware of until a couple weeks later. The name certainly fits as there are three dramatic 180 degree turns on the mountainside that make the approach to Golden seem a breeze. Pulling our small trailer through these was nerve-wracking enough; I can’t imagine how tense the big RV haulers get.
Depending on your proclivities when it comes to nature and mankind’s use of it, the drive along Forestry Trunk Road can get a bit depressing. Active logging dominates several sections with clear cuts and debris piles welcoming you to the Alberta wilderness, though a few broad, green creek valleys counter the bluntness of the industry.
Regardless of your take on gravel roads and logging, the end result is absolutely worth the effort, cracked windshields included. Ram Falls Provincial Park is stunning. As a lover of geology or waterfalls or even just escape, this place is fantastic. A feast for the eyes and the soul.
Getting to Ram Falls is one thing, but where to stay once you’ve arrived. The park itself is not especially large. It is, however, surrounded by crown land in which many boondockers set up shop during the summer. There are plenty of appealing and mundane makeshift camping spots available in all directions for those seeking a truly off-the-grid experience. Be forewarned, though, such campers often come with ATVs and other off-road entertainment.
To the immediate west of Ram Falls Provincial Park is the Hummingbird equestrian area which is a popular destination with the horse-riding crowd. Hummingbird Campground shows up on Google maps, but this little dot is very misleading. Almost the entire strip of Hummingbird Road, which heads west after the trunk road diverts north, is a ribbon of equestrian and crown land camping.
I’d expected to write up a quickie review of “Hummingbird Campground” as a side project to this trip but gave up once I realized the campground isn’t a single, isolated spot. Riders are aplenty and you’ll inevitably encounter large horse trailers navigating the even narrower roadway but there’s nonetheless plenty of space here for camping as well.
The area is overseen by Friends of the Eastern Slopes, the same volunteer organization caretaking Bighorn Campground in Ya Ha Tinda. They’ve got it all set up nicely for equestrian campers with hitches and such. The big difference between Hummingbird and Ya Ha Tinda are the OHVs which are not allowed in Ya Ha.
Preferring the assurance of a campsite, I reserved a site in Ram Falls Campground right inside the park adjacent to the namesake waterfalls. As far as non-serviced campgrounds go, Ram Falls was arguably better than most. Our early July stay was enjoyable and free of inconveniences save for the large, buzzing flying creatures that like to randomly irritate humans. They didn’t sting or bite but got under the skin nonetheless. Mosquitoes were present, but limited and at night the bats came out to feast on them.
Currently, all of Ram Falls Provincial Park is available by reservation. Loops 3 through 5 are restricted to reservation only, whereas loops 1 and 2 allow both reservation and FCFS. I think, anyway. Signage on site posts in our loop said “reservation only”. The registration kiosk at the entrance, conversely, suggests some of the campground is FCFS (or was at one time).
Additionally, it appears that Alberta Parks limits reservations to the period between May long and Labour Day. Whether the campground is completely closed outside those times is unclear but without reservations you’d be looking at FCFS.
Ram Falls Campground consists of 54 campsites found in five circular loops plus a group area. Those five loops are numbered numerically rather than the more common alphabetically which caused us a moment of frustration upon our arrival.
The campground entrance road takes you to the day use areas but does not offer direct access to the camping loops. A second offshoot road provides this access but it is adorned with a sign stating “camping 2 – 5” which I instinctively interpreted to mean “campsites 2 – 5.” As a result, we did a spontaneous tour of the park before we circled back and found the entrance to our loop (4) and our campsite for the weekend. Hey, at least I’m pretty …. ish.
All five of the loops are circular (or close to it). Loops 1 and 2 contain 24 arcuate pull-through sites while loops 3 through 5 have back-in sites. Campsites exist both on the interior and exterior of the loops with the exception of loop 1 where all are located around the perimeter.
One word of caution with loop interior sites. Since the loop roads are one way, using an interior site with your trailer could result in a “backwards” camp setup, where the firepit and table are behind the non-door side of your camper. This is a nuisance in my opinion, and I’d sooner leave such sites to tenters if possible.
By and large, the campsites are spacious. We had plenty of room for our small Geo Pro and Pathfinder with extra space to set up a ring toss game between the two. It’s clear much larger RVs could technically fit in the driveway. However, the parks reservation website limits trailers/RVs to 30’ in length presumably due to the narrow confines of the loop roads. It really would be tough getting a triple-axel fifth wheel around them without destroying trees and trailer alike.
The sites really shine when it comes to privacy. I particularly recommend getting a site on the outside of a loop at the top end of them. Those are the gems. With nothing but forest behind them, not to mention generous spacing between them, we felt almost alone in our campsite. It was wonderful.
Our site was so private, I swear there was an odd echo in the woods whenever we spoke around the campfire. And if your neighbours are respectfully quiet, this campground is remarkably silent through the night. It’s cool but also a bit unnerving having rarely experienced such silence, well, ever.
We also had a few woodland visitors each evening. Chipmunks and squirrels, of course, but also a couple deer that regularly dropped by to eat a few metres away as we enjoyed the start of our campfire. For camping atmosphere, this was peachy.
The entire campground is also forested with tall conifers that add to the seclusion, as well as shelter from the sun. The understory is mostly grass and weed, so you’re not entirely hidden from neighbours. Above the firepits is open offering a glimpse of the night sky which is surely spectacular this far from civilization.
Each site comes with a movable picnic table and an iron firepit. Our firepit was abnormally tall. Like worth mentioning in a blog abnormal. I’m not sure why and a brief survey of other sites suggested that not all sites came with the abnormal firepit. It’s only worth noting because the added height makes cooking over a fire difficult as we discovered with our attempts at outdoor popcorn making.
Water is also a bit of a wildcard at Ram Falls Provincial Park. There are hand pumps in the campground and day use areas, but they are old. Most work, producing water that is presumably fresh, but it comes with no guarantees from Alberta Parks. It’s fine for boiling and dishwashing but you might want to bring your own drinking water from home.
Likewise, there is no place to fill up your RV tanks. Nor is there a dump station, for that matter. Not in the park or anywhere nearby. Again, loading up at home is the safest, albeit costliest, bet. There are options for both water and dumping in Nordegg at the lodge. Caroline may have something similar, but I cannot confirm.
The pit toilet situation at Ram Falls is interesting only in that there is a suite of various styles available to campers. Some are newer and some are vintage. In loop 4, we had a funky, old-school log cabin style pit toilet complete with corrugated fiberglass roof. I haven’t seen that fine accoutrement in many years and the eerie green glow it provided when the sun shone was mesmerizing and briefly distracted from the smell.
Loop 5, by contrast, had a much newer facility. Still a pit toilet, but bigger and more robust much like those found in other Alberta Parks. These newer pit toilets also have a stand-alone toilet rather than the seat on a wood bench golden oldie found in loop 4. The kids found that amusing.
Each loop has a bear proof garbage bin which seems wise. We didn’t encounter any bears but considering the open wilderness surrounding the campground and park, it’s a sure bet they are around at some time during the camping season. Keep your site clean and use the bins.
Another item to bring from home is firewood. There is no wood available in Ram Falls Provincial Park. With no campground host, there is no circulating pickup truck to sell you bundles of wood either. Enterprising campers could scavenge wood from the logging debris piles, though it’s unlikely that stuff would burn well. Like your water, you’ll want to bring your own wood, either from home or from a vendor on the way (in Nordegg or Caroline).
The group site was not open during our stay in early July of 2021. As the tail end of the pandemic played out, group camping remains a no-no though that has potential to change before the summer is over.
While not especially isolated from the other campground loops, the open group camping area did look like a nice spot for a group of friends to gather and enjoy a camping weekend (or week).
The group area is circular in shape like its regular camping loop brethren but not forested. A gravel road circles the grassy area that has a handful of token trees and not much else. Picnic tables are strewn about for use by campers.
A large, enclosed picnic shelter with a woodstove is the centrepiece of the group area. It’s a nice, newer building that makes for a great gathering place as well as a hiding spot from any storms that roll in.
Next to the picnic shelter is lovely, groomed gravel area with large communal firepit. I liked the modestly landscaped space around this oversized firepit and wish more of Alberta Parks’ group sites did this rather than just plunking the ring down into the dirt/grass.
Also near the picnic shelter is a newer pit toilet complex. Similar to the one found in loop 5, it’s the commonplace pit toilet in updated provincial parks.
I quite liked this group campsite though it’s proximity to loop 3, in particular, limits the amount of shenanigans you can get away with before upsetting fellow campers. In fact, one loop 3 campsite appeared to be part of the group area at first glance. If it was just a bit more “out of the way” of the rest of Ram Falls Campground, this would make a splendid party spot for large groups of camping friends/family.
Two day use areas exist within Ram Falls Provincial Park, both falling between the campground and the river. At first blush, it might seem odd that day use areas exist at a park so far from any major urban areas. I’m sure the odd die-hard will brave the gravel roads for a day of exploration and waterfall gazing but it’s not your typical day use hotspot.
That said, considering all the crown land camping nearby and the busy hummingbird equestrian area to the west, it makes some sense. The falls are a must-see attraction in the area, remote though it is, and I’m sure many campers in the vicinity pop in for a stroll and picnic.
The day use area nearest the entrance is a bit fuzzy to discern. I’m not entirely sure we saw it, to be honest. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. Regardless, the second day use area at the east end of the campground is the more appealing one.
Two parking lots exist near it offering plenty of space to park while you explore Ram Falls. Following the trail through the woods takes you past a water pump and several picnic nooks with tables and firepits. This then opens up into a grassy area with more picnic tables as you approach the observation trail.
You’ll already hear the rush of the falls as you approach the iron railing leading to a daunting stairwell down to an observation platform offering exquisite views of Ram Falls. This is where you start to fully appreciate the splendor of this waterfall and the canyon in which is lies.
The steep, sloping cliffs on either side of the Ram River are formidable and you’ll most likely be unable to get to the river in any sensible or safe way. I mean, you can get there. It’d make one hell of a toboggan hill. Getting back up, though, is going to be an issue assuming you survive the descent.
An additional trail, all dirt and presumably created by curious visitors, extends east from the viewing area into the woods along the north side of the canyon. In a couple of spots, the original trail has slid away, so be cautious. It is well worth exploring, though, as many gorgeous viewing windows open up along this path.
At one particular spot, the view of the falls and the observation platform in front of them may even surpass the view at the viewing platform itself. And the rapids and twists of the Ram River through the canyon are also visually stimulating.
Wannabe and professional geologists will adore the geology exposed in the canyon walls. An incredible ninety-degree fold in the Cardium sandstones that create the falls is a particular stunner. The fine interbedded shales of the remainder of the canyon are equally fascinating for the rock nuts in your entourage.
The canyon extends above the falls as well, though it is slightly less dramatic since the river has not cut as deep here. Getting to the water remains tricky unless you venture down the road to the orange bridge you crossed on your approach from the south.
The bridge is situated almost at water level and provides a means of getting to the river without risking your wellbeing. Folks fish and frolic in the chilly mountain waters of the Ram River and we spent our time investing along the banks for cool rocks and fossils.
You can progress along the shore towards the falls, but the bend of the river prevents you from getting right up to the top of the falls on foot. This is likely a good thing. I suppose a dummy could put in a small watercraft here and test their fate, but that would not be us.
Sitting at the base of the canyon is neat and whet my son’s appetite for doing so below the falls. We even saw a group of dudes at the base of one slope below the falls fishing, but I have no idea how they got there. With better preparation and proper equipment, it’s likely doable. I didn’t want to risk mine or my son’s safety, so we didn’t even try … much.
The second coolest thing about Ram Falls Provincial Park is that there are two more waterfalls close by. There’s even a fourth if you count the small creek tumbling down the cliff face across the canyon and visible from the aforementioned path.
The first of these secondary falls you’ll see when you explore around the bridge. On the south side of the river, a narrow, v-shaped valley has been cut into the shale and a creek flows down it into the Ram River. Follow that valley and you’ll see this creek cascading over a cliff with the sun sparkling in the mist it creates.
The valley is narrow and you’ll want proper footwear to navigate along the creek, hopping back and forth across it along the way. You can safely make it right up to the modest but delightful waterfall. You can stand right under if it you’re brave (it’s cold water).
I have no idea if this creek and waterfall have a name, but I encourage you to explore it. We found a few ammonite fossils and traces in the eroded rocks around the waterfall. As well, large iron nodules dot specific layers of the outcropping rock formations and tumble down to the valley bottom.
Getting to these little falls was such a fun adventure. We passed a young couple on their way back from and they seemed momentarily startled by our approach and blurted out “It’s okay to go up there!” This leads me to suspect the secretive place is a hotspot for the adventurously amorous. Nothing wrong with that, just be prepared to stumble upon some folks perhaps not as fully clothed as you.
The second of these secondary waterfalls is Hummingbird Falls. Located a ten-minute drive west of the park amongst all the equestrian and crown land campers, you’ll easily see this stepped waterfall down the embankment on the west side of the gravel road.
There’s no designated viewing area to see or approach these waterfalls. After a few passes we decided to brave the modest dirt pullout at the side of the road and scamper down the dirt embankment. This isn’t the best place to pull over and realistically only 2, maybe 3, vehicles could use it at any one time. It’s more of a passing lane for traffic on the narrow road.
Keep in mind, this is a fairly busy road even though it isn’t even the main trunk road. There’s a particularly nasty turn just past the falls which requires single lane traffic if any RVs or horse trailers are attempting to get through. ATVs and horseback riders also use the road, so be vigilant.
Once we were down to the falls and climbed up to the top of them, we realized that you can easily get to Hummingbird Falls via a trail emanating from one of the hummingbird campground areas further up the road. I’d highly advise you use that option rather than what we did, not only for ease but for the safety of your car. I envisioned a large dually pulling a lengthy horse trailer accidentally nudging our Pathfinder into the abyss.
Hummingbird Falls is bigger than the unnamed falls I just spoke about but smaller than Ram Falls. It’s also a more rugged, stepped waterfall tumbling down a tortuous path in the rock than its larger sibling. It is no less pretty and the stepped nature makes it perfect for exploring.
We spent a couple of hours investigating all levels of the falls and have some fantastic photos as a reward. Rockhounding at the base is just as fun. And the brave will discover a couple of enticing, deep swimming holes with flat approaches within the falls that are perfect for cooling off on a hot day. I …. was not that hot.
These three waterfalls, together, are what I fell in love with at Ram Falls Provincial Park. The campground was also above average. I don’t often say that about non-serviced campgrounds, but this one resonated with me. Perhaps I was overly smitten with the surroundings.
Pit toilets and lack of water aside, the seclusion and peacefulness during our stay were stellar. All four of us were delightfully surprised by this. As such, I’ll give the campground at Ram Falls Provincial Park 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
I’d love for it to have flush toilets and such. A playground would be great for young families. And, yes, getting there is a bit of a pain both in distance (depending on where you call home) and the perils of gravel roads. But it’s otherwise a great place to camp as you explore the gorgeous geology of Ram Falls, Hummingbird Falls, and the little unnamed falls with the slim chance of public nudity. I’ll take that over high school fantasies any day! Ain’t middle-age fun?
CAMPGROUND LOCATION: 52.08994438858518, -115.84251252832095
Jerry Pratt says
Great article. You covered a huge amount of information. We are so blessed by beauty out here in David Thompson Country.
And, yes you are.