Today, my blog comes full circle. I’m reviewing a campground I went to because readers on another of my reviews commented that I should go. That struck me as milestone-ish and I figured I’d better listen up. Turns out my readers are a smart bunch.
Now, odds are I would have ended up going Chinook Provincial Recreation Area at some point in time. I enjoy variety in my camping destinations and we’re simply running out of new places to visit within a comfortable driving distance from home (for weekend outings). Eventually, it would have crossed my radar but a friendly nudge never hurts.
Last July, reader Cheryl asked if I would ever be reviewing Chinook Provincial Recreation Area which, honestly, was the first time I’d consciously heard of the place. Soon after reader Tasha extoled the virtues of Chinook and further piqued my interest.
Our 2020 summer was already booked up, so I penciled Chinook Provincial Recreation Area into my calendar for 2021. The year-ago hint became a reality in early August despite Cheryl’s follow-up comment of a rather unfortunate experience. Thankfully, our experience was far more like Tasha’s though I can certainly understand how Cheryl’s happened.
Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is located in southwest Alberta near Coleman along the Crowsnest Highway not too far from the border with BC. This is most likely why I hadn’t heard of the place before. Don’t get me wrong, the Crowsnest Highway has some gorgeous scenery, but this part of Alberta is notorious for wind and heat and has therefore never been high up on my list of must-go places.
Yes, that is borderline criminal. The landscape may be starker than the famed Banff/Kananskis region, but it is no less fascinating, particularly from a geological perspective. You pass through Frank Slide getting there. Volcanic outcrops, a rarity for this part of the Western Cordillera, can be found along the highway. Crowsnest Mountain. There is appeal. I just find it more day-trip appeal than spend-a-weekend-camping appeal.
In my defense, a quick snoop around Google Maps doesn’t exactly inspire intrigue. Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is mercifully located amongst the forest north of the highway presumably offering shelter from the dreaded sun and wind but it’s otherwise rather meh looking. The lake next to which the recreation area resides is small. Nice for a paddle if you’ve got a canoe/kayak, I suppose, but unlikely to be the best for swimming.
The campground didn’t scream excitement. There’s no playground, for starters. No services either. Prior to Covid, it was mostly first-come, first serve with only a handful of sites reservable. There’s an elaborate suite of trails spiderwebbed throughout the confines of Chinook, but a series of brown dashes on a plain background map doesn’t tell much of a story.
Truth be told, my biases got the better of me but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. It’s a delightful spot. A hidden gem. I’m grateful Cheryl and Tasha imbedded the idea in my head. Without them, it’s unlikely I would have visited Chinook quite yet and that would have denied me a fabulous camping weekend.
Chinook Campground at Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is comprised of three amorphous loops (A through C) totaling 96 campsites. Loop A, which is actually two loops, is the biggest. There are 20 tent-only sites in the first part of A loop and 40 RV-friendly sites in the second. Both B and C loops, 23 sites and 13 sites respectively, are also RV-friendly.
Loop C is located immediately next to the lake with 4 special campsites backing right onto it. Some of the remaining sites have a view of the lake but more importantly, all 13 are close to the lake which is worth noting. One of the tricks of two-dimensional maps is their ability to hide topography. As an earth scientist by training, it pains me how often I fall into this trap when researching campgrounds.
Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is anything but flat. Not a surprise considering it is IN THE MOUNTAINS but alas, I’m a numbskull. This geological reality hits hard when you’re camping in loop A and first venture down to see the lake. You’ll quickly find that it is down a large, steep hill. There’s even a switchback on the campground road down to the lake. It’s quite an elevation change.
So, loop C has some perks since it is at the bottom of the big hill, cliff really, beside the lake. Loops A and B are up top which makes for a somewhat stressing walk back from the water. You can do it on the road or through the woods but make no mistake it’ll test your lungs and quads a wee bit.
Conversely, being up top has some perks too. A couple sites in the two upper loops have fantastic views either overlooking the lake and/or of majestic Crowsnest Mountain which stands guard to the north. The bulk of the sites are hidden amongst the trees, but if you’re lucky enough to get one of the charmed few with these views you’ll have an extra-splendid weekend.
I should mention here that just getting to Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is a bit of an adventure. The last 3 km in particular. It’s blacktop highway all the way from Calgary, but those last three clicks are an offroad extravaganza of washboard gravel and bare rocks. It can be done fine enough, with caution, but be forewarned. You’ll be itching to get to your site after the drive and impatience will not be rewarded kindly during the final five minutes of travel.
Most of the campsites are back-in though there are several arcuate pull-throughs available in loops A (non-tent-sites) and B. Despite not being a full-fledged provincial park, the campsites at Chinook are fabulous. Most are large and spacious with ample space between neighbours and in most cases, nothing but forest behind you.
The undulating topography also adds to the flavour of the campground. The big drop to the lake aside, even within loops the terrain noticeably rolls. The result is a handful of uniquely oriented campsites. Some were even tiered with separate RV and firepit pads. I enjoy this type of layout far better than cookie-cutter cloning too often found in newer campgrounds.
Site dimensions also vary. Some have incredibly long driveways (ours, for example) which makes them ideally suited for the big rig owners out there. Others are not so accommodating as one unfortunate late arrival discovered. If you’re reserving online be sure to pay attention to the vehicle length restrictions for each site. Between trees and rocks, not to mention curves and hills, there is little wiggle room with some campsites at Chinook.
In addition to the forest canopy, there is lush underbrush which further enhances the privacy of most sites. Dirt trails into the woods and/or between sites exist but otherwise, you’ll find most (not all!) campsites provide a nice private experience.
Furthermore, that forest does wonders in mitigating the wind at Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. Despite being up top in loop A, and visibly witnessing the wind sway the tops of the spruce and pine, at ground level there was only a calm, intermittent breeze. As a result, awnings could comfortably be deployed and games played on the picnic table without constant worry of having everything blow away.
The campsites themselves are mostly dirt and gravel. The RV pads are level and most sites have an added bloom around the firepit and picnic table. This is all fine if things stay dry, but rain will make for a bit of mud.
The downside to provincial recreations areas, depending on your glamping expectations, is the complete lack of onsite services. There is no power or water or sewer anywhere at Chinook. It’s rustic camping with the only luxuries being what you bring with you.
If what you bring with you is an RV, note that there isn’t even a dump station at Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. Websites indicate that some of the communities along Crowsnest Hwy 3 offer dump station facilities, but I am unable to confirm/refute any of these. Needless to say, you’ll want to incorporate this into your return plans.
With no dump station or site services, potable water also becomes a concern. I highly recommend bringing from home or finding a closer, public option for filling your RV tanks. We chose the former.
Hand water pumps are available at Chinook, providing “fresh” water but as is commonplace at all Alberta provincial facilities, they no longer guarantee the safety of such water. Boil or gamble are your options.
Likewise, toilets are exclusively of the pit variety. And these were a bit ripe! We had a pit toilet, the typical two doored, wooden structure, just down the road from us. When walking past you could smell the evidence of accumulated human waste. Using them left a noticeable stench on clothing. Well, to me anyway. God, I hate these things!
Such is life in a warm place, in the middle of a heat-ravaged summer. The toilets were otherwise clean, which is a small blessing I suppose. I’ve endured worse and enjoyed better. Your mileage may vary on this subject. I’m just making you aware of the reality.
Unfortunately, but hardly surprising, there was a fire ban during our August visit. Signage around the campground warned of the ban but some campers still decided they were immune to such restrictions. And with no onsite campground host or seemingly any supervision by Alberta Parks, there wasn’t much stopping people from doing as they please.
This is frustrating to witness and must contribute to the poor experience Cheryl shared in her comments about Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. We didn’t endure any such unpleasantries as far as noise or rowdiness go but seeing a campfire during a fire ban pissed me off.
It is unlikely that firewood is available to purchase when fire bans are not in effect. My gut tells me that without a campground host or store or registration building anywhere to be found, firewood is not a commodity to be bought at Chinook. You’ll likely want to bring your own wood or resort to purchasing some in the nearby towns.
That said, evidence of a different time were present in all the campground loops in the form of onetime wood corrals. Most have lost their fencing, but the concrete bases remain, a testament to a time when firewood was either free or available by daily permit, a la national parks. Such is life in modern day Alberta, but it was interesting seeing these relics of the past and wonder what those times were like. I also wonder why they haven’t been converted into campsites?
Chinook lake turned out to be nicer than I expected. Created by a small dam on the east side, it’s undoubtedly small but quaint. The water is clear and while not exactly warm, it wasn’t frigid like most mountain lakes. We nonetheless did not swim in it. It may not have been as cold as I would have assumed but it was far from tolerable for my overly delicate nether regions.
I don’t think many other visitors swim in it often either. There is a beach present, but it is extremely small and gravelly. You won’t be building sandcastles here nor is there much room for sunbathing. It provides a nice view and surely some folks brave the water, but do not mistake this for a resort-like summer oasis.
The approach to the beach is attractive. A landscaped, paved trail winds down to the water’s edge. In fact, much of the waterfront indicates relatively recent investments at Chinook Provincial Recreation Area.
Further along the shoreline is a boat launch of sorts. Not for power boats, by any means, it’s an open, sloping area where canoes and kayaks can be put in the water.
Across the roadway from the beach area is a large, day-use parking lot. Some picnic spots can be found nearby and along the lake and a pit toilet is found at the end of the parking lot. We didn’t see many day-users during our stay. They were certainly present as the vehicles in the parking lot can attest but the place was hardly overrun despite pleasant weather and negligible forest fire smoke.
Surrounding the entire lake at Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is a trail. For the most part, the trail hugs the shoreline offering exquisite views of the water and surrounding mountains. It also provides a nice view of the lower portion of the campground including the day use facilities and beach etc.
At the east end of the lake, the trail diverts up a hillside. The views from here are exceptional. I think more mentally agile campers than myself must scramble up this hill in the evening to witness a potentially delightful sunset.
The west side briefly slips into the woods before crossing the source creek for the lake. Here you can also continue your hike into the massive trail network that criss-crosses the entirety of Chinook Provincial Recreation Area.
The interesting thing about this trail network, which I was completely ignorant of before arrival, is that it is for cross-country skiing. Who knew?! Everywhere where the various trails meet each other, and in fact throughout the campground as well, are trail signs much like bus stops. They indicated where you are, where you can go, the difficulty of the trail segment you are about to use and the distance to the next trail intersection.
I’ve never seen signage like this on any trails in my camping adventures thus far and I LOVED them. What a fantastic addition to local hiking. I’m so grateful to the cross-country ski club responsible for the upkeep of this system.
And boy were they welcome. Some of the trails are a real slog. Remember, the trails venture down and around the lake but the bulk of the recreation area is up on top of the slope/cliff. One particular portion of the trail system is a hard climb up from the depths! Without the signage guiding us, and warning us, we’d have had a miserable time of it trying to find our way back to site via the myriad trail options.
At one point during our adventure, immediately after surmounting the big climb, we came to a clearing with a small warming shelter for skiers. We took the opportunity to catch our breath here and come to grips with the reality of our shameful fitness levels.
Further along we stumbled across, almost into, a mother grouse (my guess) and her chicks. They were so well camouflaged along the edges of the trail she gave me quite the start when I nearly stepped on her. We spent a few moments watching them scurry around as I attempted to take pictures of them, mostly failing. They’re elusive little buggers.
The trails also contained tell tale evidence of other animals, most notably horses. I’m not sure if they are wild horses (possible?) or horseback riders enjoying the trails. This would be a nice little spot for the latter, but I saw no evidence that equestrian activities are actively encouraged.
Despite the grandness of this trail system, there were a few disappointments. Much of the non-sign infrastructure has been poorly maintained. Benches, for example, are in rough shape, to the point of ruin in some instances.
The boardwalks across creeks or swampy areas nearer the lake are a mixed bag of quality as well. Some appear repaired while others are broken.
Oh, and the viewpoints indicated on the signs are underwhelming to say the least. They may have been spectacular viewpoints at one time, but no longer. Trees have grown to obscure much of whatever was once worthy of viewpoint designation. You can catch a glimpse between branches, here and there, but sitting on the provided lookout bench will not leave you with much of a lasting impression beyond frustration.
The signs also speak of a biathlon area within the trail network. Not a common occurrence in Canada but if there was ever to be one, in the midst of a cross-country skiing trail network sounds about right. My son was eager to see this place once we explained what biathlon is, but sadly there really isn’t anything there during the summer. Assuming it is legitimate at all, the designated spot was nothing more than a small clearing in the woods.
This disappointment was salved somewhat by our discovery of a couple geocaches. Requiring brief off-trail investigation, they were a nice distraction during our hike. With so many parks removing geocaches, it was a delight to find some still exist here where surroundings are well-suited to this pastime.
For the most part, the trails are dirt. Width varies as does the preponderance of tree roots and rocks. The difficulty ratings on the signs are fairly accurate. If you’re up for a harder trail, don’t attempt it in flip flops.
If you’re more adventurous, there is plenty of wilderness (and settlement) to explore nearby Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. We enjoy rockhounding and though we’re in the mountains, Chinook doesn’t offer too much to hound. There is rock in the till exposed beside the roads but not much else. For this pursuit, you’ll need to get back to the highway.
Near Coleman, there is a small but renowned roadcut featuring volcanic rocks that include black garnets. Additionally, road cuts and outcrops expose segments of coal for which the area is famed and, in fact, exists. Eager for some rockhounding, my son and I set out to explore the backroads of Coleman in hopes of finding a public spot to snoop around. This led us to Star Creek Falls trailhead.
We ended up there purely by accident. We had no map nor prior knowledge of its existence. In fact, we didn’t even know there was a waterfall on this trail until we got back home and researched some more. Thankfully, the rock hunting near the trailhead enamoured us otherwise I’d have been far more disappointed in missing out on seeing the actual waterfall.
The trailhead exists in what was formerly a mine of some sort. Not sure what they were mining for, but there appears to be a large tailings pile with a small brook at the base and ATV trails up the side. This immediately captured our attention as we poked around the green and red pyroclast-laden rocks for some time.
The brook also had plenty of colourful, interesting rocks to snag, some of which are currently in our rock tumbler as I write. Oddly, we found several chunks of mechanically cut rocks in the banks of the brook. I have no idea why they would be here or their purpose. The boy was obsessed with them.
We did manage to explore the trail for a few dozen metres, discovering further evidence of mining activities, but ultimately turned back before ever reaching the waterfall we did not know existed. But we did find a frog in the creek, so.
This turned out to be a delightful adventure. And that tailing pile, or whatever it was, provided some excellent viewpoints of Crowsnest Mountain. Too bad the forest fire haze impacted the image quality. During clearer periods, this would make for great photo taking.
If you’re keen on more civilized recreation, the town of Coleman and its neighbours offer pretty much anything you need in an small-town, blue-collar package. Pubs and restaurants, fast-food, gas, and typical tourist fair are all within a short drive of Chinook Provincial Recreation Area. That includes the fascinating Frank Slide and accompanying interpretive centre, a worthy stop for anyone remotely interested in one of Canada’s most devastating historical disasters.
Being so close to a major mountain pass corridor might concern some campers with regards to noise. There was some. We heard a train once, though during the daytime. Certainly nothing as interruptive as the main CP line can get through Rogers Pass.
Chinook is also surrounded by crown land and you’ll occasionally hear the roar of ATVs depending on which way the wind is blowing. Also, the odd generator inside the campground might blight the tranquility of your campsite. Thankfully, we were not the victims of unwanted fireworks.
All in all, our maiden visit was a smashing success. We had to pack up in some rain, but otherwise, we had a fantastic time. Chinook proved to be a lovely surprise and a testament to the evils of my assumptions.
It is, however, a modest spot. With no services or playground or supervision within, Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is not a summer vacation hotspot per se. Your personal experience could easily be worse than ours. As such, I’ll give it 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
I really liked the place and recommend trying it out. The pit toilets and fire ban ignorers were downers for me but otherwise, I enjoyed the privacy, trails, and local geology a great deal. I think a paddle on the lake would be just peachy and I’ll be sure to bring a kayak or dinghy of some sort next time. I can well understand Tasha’s enthusiasm for the place.
If you want a rustic camping experience but with civilization close by for comfort (cell service was great), Chinook Provincial Recreation Area is truly ideal. Now pencil it into your 2022 schedule!