One can be forgiven for assuming Paddy’s Flat is a pub. Or maybe a St. Patrick’s Day festival. Heck, it could simply be how you refer to your British friend’s place of residence. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely your first thought upon hearing the name would be “campground”, yet that’s exactly what it is.
Paddy’s Flat is one of several campgrounds within small Provincial Recreation Areas strung along Highway 66 west of Bragg Creek. While not part of the official Kananaskis park lands, these campgrounds reside in the sprawling provincial forest lands that abut the eastern boundary of the parks.
Alberta Parks considers it part of “Kananaskis Country,” and you are required to have the new Kananaskis Conservation Pass to visit and/or camp in these day use areas and campgrounds. Collectively the area is referred to as the Elbow Valley as evidenced by the campground operator’s website and the existence of the Elbow Valley Visitor Information Centre as you approach from the city.
It’s honestly all a bit confusing. They couldn’t have made Kananaskis more convoluted if they tried. I just lump it in with Kananaskis or simply say “west of the city” rather than attempt to detangle the naming convention of the region. All that matters is that it’s close to home and generally nice. Oh, and super popular!
That popularity is one of the reasons that this was the first time I’ve camped at Paddy’s Flat, despite it being a convenient 45-minute drive from my home. The remaining 98 reasons are that it’s a first-come, first-serve campground only. Yes, still. While other campgrounds have been upgraded to partial or full reservation status since Covid struck, Paddy’s Flat Campground remains happily, and frustratingly, FCFS.
I’ve bemoaned FCFS plenty in previous reviews, but I’ve been taking full advantage of my, erm, unemployed status to visit a fair few of them the past two summers. When my wife’s own unemployed status unexpectedly reverted to employed, the kids and I celebrated by slipping away for two nights mid-week at the end of July.
We headed out on Tuesday hoping to find an open site at Paddy’s Flat. And we did, though the selection was less than anticipated that early in the week. I realize these spots are popular and city folk regularly snag quality campsites early, leaving only a small tent to hold it until the actual weekend, but the dearth of availability surprised me.
I suppose I should have known better, it being late July. Summer holidays were in full swing and weeklong campers are in a grove at that point. Thankfully, we were able to find a suitable campsite though not without faults as we eventually discovered.
Paddy’s Flat Campground
Paddy’s Flat is the third campground along Hwy 66, Gooseberry and McLean Creek being the first two respectively. At just 20 minutes driving from Bragg Creek, you’re close to urban services as well as some delightful restaurants and shops should you wish to glamorize your outing.
Even closer is the McLean Creek campground store, a little less than 10 minutes away. This store is rather elaborate considering its proximity to Calgary. With food, firewood, propane, showers and treats, this is a convenient pitstop should emergencies or cravings arise. Like popsicles, for example, which we stopped in for during one afternoon.
Tucked between the highway and Elbow River, Paddy’s Flat offers 98 unserviced campsites in 5 alphabetical loops (A through E) plus an overflow area plus a group area.
Loops A, B, and C are somewhat tiered to the left of the entrance road as you proceed into the valley. D and E, by contrast, are strung out successively to the right, giving the campground a rather elongated footprint.
Loop A is a proper loop with 16 sites, 14 of which are arcuate pull-through style. Loops B and C are single roads with a small loop at the end to turn around and return. And Loops D and E return to the more traditional loop structure though D primarily only has sites on the bottom portion of the loop. All sites in the latter four loops are back-in with a handful of shared sites.
The string of sites nearest the river in loops C, D, and E tend to be the most popular and, in general, are the nicest. We circled the four lower loops, avoiding A, before settling on a decent looking campsite in C (site 46).
It was an odd site, with a tiny creek trickly across the front of its entrance. I jokingly told the kids we have a river-front campsite which received very subdued chortles in response. This little stream of water didn’t impact our stay any, but it was peculiar.
The second peculiarity of our campsite at Paddy’s Flat came courtesy of the neighbouring site which sat empty for much of our brief stay. After we’d set up and settled into our mid-week adventure, I happened to notice a sticky note inside a Ziploc bag attached to the campsite post with a faded message scribbled inside. That message advised that no tent campers use this site due to generator noise.
That was a little disconcerting. We weren’t camping in tents but even with our hard-sided trailer, I find generators annoying as all hell. What was this note referring to? We found out soon enough that very evening.
It turns out the campground host resides in a rather elaborate site just up the hill in loop B. With no services at Paddy’s Flat, the hosts employ a generator for the creature comforts of “home” each night. Camp in a site in the immediate vicinity and you’ll be reminded of that generator for much of the evening.
The sticky note should have also been placed on our site. Perhaps there was at one time. Regardless, had I known we’d hear the grumbling of a generator for long periods each evening, I’d have surely chosen another spot. Possibly even the least appealing spot way over in loop E just to put as much space between myself and the mechanical nuisance machine.
Another audio-related issue you might wish to take into consideration is the playground. Yes, Paddy’s Flat has a playground!
My kids don’t care but having made such a habit of commenting on the lack of playgrounds in so many mountain park campgrounds over the years, I made sure to put an exclamation point regarding this one in my notes.
The playground is a newer, metal model. It’s not overly large but nonetheless offers climbing, hanging, and sliding entertainment for the youngsters. There’s even a bike rack available to stow their bicycles if visiting from the further reaches of the campground.
Tucked into the woods on the entrance bend to loop C, it pretty much sits right behind/beside site 45. Depending on your current breeding status, such proximity may or may not appeal to you. The playground wasn’t terribly busy during our stay, but a few older boys dropped in to wreak a little havoc that we had no trouble hearing in site 46.
So, all I’m saying is if you’re looking for a quiet getaway, this little corner of the campground should not be your first choice. The double-whammy of host generator and playground won’t help you relax by any means. Your mileage may vary.
Despite all this grumbling, our campsite was otherwise quite pleasant. Deep, with a long driveway suitable for RVs much bigger than ours, it was private and sheltered with a nicely sized firepit area.
Sites are generally amongst the trees though not entirely “forested” per se. The conifers, poplar, and aspen do a decent job of protecting campers from the sun. There is some underbrush that gives extra privacy, but we had no trouble watching our eventual neighbours’ prolonged and, frankly, baffling setup routine on our second night.
Orientation and layout of sites varies. As is size, with some noticeably smaller than others. A couple sites were even elevated, though otherwise level. Each has a gravel drive and firepit area and come with a complimentary picnic table.
A handful of select sites are decidedly more open, so if you do want more sunshine, there are options.
As mentioned, there are no services at Paddy’s Flat. Water is available in the campground via old fashioned hand pumps. There appears to be one in each loop. As per usual, the government does not guarantee water quality from these pumps. And they’re certainly not useful for filling RV tanks.
To do that, you’ll either need to bring water from home or fill up at the Elbow Valley sani-station on your way in. This dump station, designed to service most of the valley (McLean Creek has its own), is located just west of the visitor centre.
A somewhat newer installation (there’s an old, single lane station at the visitor centre that is now decommissioned), it has 4 dump stations and fresh water taps available in a large clearing with ample room for maneuvering. It’s convenient to stop here on your way to camp if you’re not prepared to bring a water-loaded RV from home.
And if you’re lucky, like we apparently were, there might be a guest grazing around the dump station. I think this was a wild horse but I’m not entirely sure. We encountered some at McLean Creek when we camped there a couple years ago, so it’s quite possible. This fellow was nonplussed by our presence and just stuck to eating the entire time we were there.
Speaking of the visitor centre for a quick moment, there is staff in it but due to Covid (as of 2021) there wasn’t much to see or do inside the building. They have washrooms and a water bottle filling station, but this isn’t a touristy stop with displays and such. I was honestly surprised to see people working there at all. You can buy Kananaskis passes if you’ve forgotten to do so beforehand.
The visitor centre also boasts free WiFi, though I didn’t have much luck connecting. You can often potentially get cell service here anyway (or close by), so the WiFi is a bit redundant. Still, it’s nice to have as a fallback and free is cheaper than data.
Back at Paddy’s Flat, if you aren’t using your RV bathroom, you’ll need to endure the local pit toilet selection. They’re the usual wooden structures found at most Alberta Parks campgrounds. The one nearest us was a two-stall job, one on each side. It was late July after an ungodly hot June and, well, they were definitely fragrant.
What they did have that I’ve never seen elsewhere, were potted plants hanging from the exterior rafters. That was an unexpected but nice touch … I guess. They did nothing to make using the pit toilet more pleasant, but nonetheless prettied up the place a bit. Not sure if this is the work of an especially attentive campground host? Perhaps a small compensation for the generator noise?
With the campground being entirely FCFS, the registration kiosks actually get used at Paddy’s Flat. How novel! One was conveniently located on the main entry road to loops B and C along with garbage and recycling bins. A sign here also informed campers about all the goods available at the McLean Creek campers store.
Wood is one of those available items, but you can also buy it from the campground host. You can inquire at their campsite, put a pink request card on your site post, or wait for them to tour around with their pickup truck. We brought our own so didn’t require this service. As such, I’m unsure of the price but doubt it’s any different than other places within the parks system. $11 or whatever for a bundle.
Aside from the playground, recreation at Paddy’s Flat is pretty much relegated to hiking some trails and/or exploring the river. We did both. In fact, to do one you must use the other.
Paddy’s Flat Trail loops around in the forest between the campground proper and the Elbow River. It’s a dirt trail with some elevation changes as you approach the river. It also curls up on the northeast side to enter the far end of loop B and has a short job into loop A.
It’s not the most scenic trail, though there’s a tiny, tumbling creek near the trail entrance from the registration kiosk I mentioned above. We explored the trails and hunted a couple geocaches with limited success, but overall hiking was a modest pleasure at best.
There’s also the problem of decrepit trail infrastructure. This is supposed to be an educational trail with numbered posts along the way describing interesting things about wildlife and nature. There’s even a brochure box by one of the trail maps but it is empty and rotting away. All the numbered posts are either broken or gone and many of the metal trail maps are in various stages of decay. It’s disappointing to say the least.
This is a very noticeable problem in many Alberta parks. It’s such a shame, though not surprising. The initial investment in these facilities, presumably in the Lougheed years, was remarkable and I envy those who lived here when everything was new and fresh. But now, it’s all being let go. There is no appetite to spend money on upkeep. I almost wish they’d just remove the stuff rather than leave these crumbling reminders of what once was all over the place.
In a similar vein, the campground maps indicate the presence of an amphitheatre at Paddy’s Flat. We looked for it but found nothing more than a small clearing in the trees where I suspect it once resided. It’s completely gone now to the best of my knowledge. Previous experience tells me it wasn’t used much in the last decades anyway. Another ghost of a richer past in Kananaskis.
As for the Elbow River itself, its very much a mountain river with large, gravel/rock bars in the midst of which winds a cold, clear river. What struck me most about the river in this particular area, is the lack of beauty in the surroundings. That’s rather sacrilege in these parts, I know.
This was especially true in the area immediately next to loop C and northeastward. There are no mountains to be seen and the banks are basically just scrappy forest. Huge piles of detritus, mostly dead trees, have accumulated on some of the bars. Add in hazy skies from forest fires, and it just wasn’t that inspiring.
It took me awhile to understand why everything seemed so … blech. What we are witness to at Paddy’s Flat (and other nearby areas) is the persisting aftermath of the massive floods a few years ago. All it took was finding a nearly buried park bench in the middle of a gravel bar for the lightbulb to go off.
Now, this isn’t to suggest the place was Xanadu before the flood. Mountains didn’t disappear. But it’s reasonable to believe that a great deal of the local attractiveness was uprooted or outright destroyed. Once I realized that, I saw the “ugliness” in a different light, and it became rather intriguing. Nature’s power is remarkable once you recognize it.
If you start exploring upstream, things get more interesting. The river narrows for a stretch where loops D and E are stretched out. The gravel bars are far less broad and the bedrock begins outcropping in intervals. I liked this much more than the flood-ravaged mess by our camping loop.
D and E campers regularly make their way to the water here to explore and play. There are accumulations of sand and a few pools among the outcrops in the water than make nice little wading areas. It’s still cold freakin’ water, but on a hot day I suppose it helps cool off.
With so much rock around, you’d expect rockhounding to be fantastic but, to be honest, the variety in the stone is limited. There are ancient marine fossils to be found but they get repetitive after a while. And the colour is mostly greys.
On the other hand, there are many large rocks and ample tree limbs for fort building, so let the imagination run wild.
One final comment before moving on. The various campgrounds of the Elbow Valley are laid out such that the McLean Creek OHV area encompasses the lands across the river from Paddy’s Flat. Midweek this wasn’t a huge issue, but ATVs and dirt bikes could certainly be heard into the evening. I suspect this grows exponentially worse on weekends.
The forest setting of the campground helps dampen the noise a little bit but does not eliminate it. And when you’re down by the river, that barrier is removed. This isn’t a secluded natural paradise, so be forewarned.
Overflow Camping at Paddy’s Flat
Before I move on to surrounding points of interest, there are two more fixtures of Paddy’s Flat worth mentioning. At the top of the valley, above loop A and near the main highway, is a long access road to the overflow camping area and the group camping area.
The access road was closed due to Covid restrictions, but the existence of an overflow area reinforces the popularity of this campground.
At the end of the long approach, you enter the overflow area though at first I didn’t realize that’s what it was. The signage back at the entrance only mentions the group area so I immediately assumed I was looking at a rather uninspired group camping section.
The overflow area is just a large gravel parking lot growing over with weeds, presumably from two years of non-use. At the nearest end is a newer-looking pit toilet in the grass just outside the parking lot. It’s no different than the pit toilets of the campground though without flowers.
Along the one side of the parking lot is a series of firepits and picnic tables, denoting the overflow “campsites”. It’s not much more than that and I suppose on a super busy long weekend, this could get cramped with RVs. Don’t expect privacy if you’ve decided overflow is better than returning home.
A single water hand pump is present in the middle of the “campsites” which is a nice touch. Firepits, water, pit toilet is pretty much all you technically need for camping.
On the other hand, the overflow area offers something the remainder of Paddy’s Flat does not. A view! It isn’t much, but those “campsites” are situated along the top of the valley ridge. Walk a few steps into the grass and you can see above the treetops and over the whole valley.
Again, there aren’t much in the way of mountains here, but it’s still a nifty view compared to the obscurity of forest camping below.
Group Camping at Paddy’s Flat
At the far end of this overflow parking lot one finds the entrance to the actual Group Area. I suppose a portion of this parking lot is usable by the Group Area campers, perhaps those just visiting for the day or with tents?
This made much more sense as a group camping spot and upon further investigation, I determined it be an excellent group camping area. It’s quite possibly the best part of Paddy’s Flat.
There is no loop like with many group areas, instead there’s a single road into a thin aspen/spruce forest. On either side of this gravel road is mowed lawn, presumably where the campers set up. You’ll see picnic tables dotting the area as well as the odd single fire pit.
I’m honestly not sure where very large RVs would park in this scenario. There didn’t appear to be space specifically for them. Perhaps the overflow lot is where they must go?
The road makes its way to a large, semi-enclosed picnic shelter. This shelter has a food locker and wood bin outside as well as the expected picnic tables and wood stove inside.
Nearby is a large, communal firepit, additional picnic/campsite areas, and two sets of horseshoes pits.
Another pit toilet facility, same as the overflow one, is also present.
Altogether, I found this Group Area to be quite appealing and would certainly consider it an option when camping with a group of friends. It’s isolated from the remainder of the campground which is really nice.
Conversely, the overflow area is close which could be a hassle were it super busy. And it is near the main highway, but not so much that you are watching traffic pass.
All in all, the group area offerings are topnotch for a non-serviced campground.
Elbow River Launch
There is plenty more to see in the Elbow River Vally than just the campgrounds. Hiking is wildly popular here and for good reason. With the modest fire smoke and lazy kids, doing a major hike was not in the cards. Instead, we set our sights on seeing Elbow Falls.
Being remarkably unfamiliar with the area, and not having a handy map at the ready (cell service dies once you’re past the visitor centre), we went hunting for this local attraction blind.
I knew it was southwest of Paddy’s Flat, but how far I was not sure. I pulled into the first day use looking area we came across assuming it would be the falls. It was not. What we had found was Elbow River Launch day use area.
Despite its name, this isn’t a traditional boat launch. You won’t be waterskiing on the Elbow River or putting in your fancy fishing boat. Kayaks, canoes, and other assorted shallow watercraft will work but even still, there didn’t appear to be much in the way of a defined launch area here.
I honestly didn’t understand the place though there was a large parking lot and pit toilets. As a basecamp for nearby trailheads, it makes sense. A couple picnic spots and what not, fine. Otherwise, it wasn’t much to get excited about and we quickly moved on in search of our waterfall.
Two kilometres further along the highway we found Elbow Falls. There was no confusion this time as signage and just the size of the place indicated we were in the correct location.
Another large parking lot greeted us, it too with a modern pit toilet structure complete with handicap parking. Myriad trails spider from the parking lot into the small chunk of forest between it and the river. Within the woods are many sheltered picnic spots and benches for viewing.
Funny thing about those benches, though. Many look out at nothing. Well, nothing particularly special, that is. This is where my flood damage theory came together.
The Elbow Falls parking lot and day use area is located above the falls where the river and valley once again broaden out. Huge gravel bars exist and amongst them are the remnants of park benches, broken and buried, and chunks of trail asphalt.
I’d never been here before (yeah, I know) so I have no knowledge of the scenery prior to the floods, but it is evident that a tremendous amount of change has occurred. Whatever those viewing benches were meant to look at is now gone. The river’s course, presumably nearer the day use area at one time, is now on the opposite side of the valley. What remains is both ugly and utterly fascinating.
Once prime picnic spots now stare at piles of gravel or barren dirt. At one point we discovered what appears to be a former canoe launch. At least that is how I interpret the embedded, fabricated stones in the ground sloping toward a now vanished river.
A few gems remain. Early birds will find a handful of lovely picnic spots. And thankfully, the falls themselves, not to mention the immediately surrounding trail network, remain unscathed.
Elbow Falls are not especially large. I suppose their popularity stems from proximity rather than any sense of grandeur. Still, they make for a lovely scene as the half dozen artists out painting them that morning will attest.
All around the north side of the waterfall is a small labyrinth of stone and metal viewing platforms and trails. I’ve no idea if there was more to this infrastructure at one time (the damage begins immediately upstream), but I thought they were well-integrated into the surroundings. Manmade, but not wholly out of place.
Sadly, here again the neglect of our provincial parks was on full display. Flood damage aside, former informational displays within the viewing platforms but are void of information. Instead, graffiti adorns the wooden bases. As a geology nerd, I love when informative displays explain how these natural formations arose and it always disappoints when they’ve been vandalized or left to deteriorate.
I’m not going to pretend that Elbow Falls is remarkable feat of Nature. By waterfall standards, it’s little more than a dramatic rapid. Would it make a nice afternoon outside, you bet. If you’re camping nearby, like at Paddy’s Flat, say, it’s worth the short drive (or long bike ride) to check it out and look around a bit. There is some beauty to be had here and even the destruction will pique your imagination.
Rating Paddy’s Flat
So, where does this all leave me when it comes to rating Paddy’s Flat. That’s kind of tough. I understand the popularity of this campground, as well as its siblings along Highway 66. Proximity to Calgary being the predominant one. It’s an easy spot to get to with fresh air (forest fires notwithstanding). What’s not to like?
That said, Paddy’s Flat campground didn’t wow me all that much. The Group Area is exceptional, but the rest of the place is nothing to write home a blog about. I’ll give it 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 knowing full well some readers will recoil at that.
I should probably give an extra quarter point for having a playground considering how regularly I draw attention to the lack of one. I think the biggest issue souring me towards Paddy’s Flat was the lack of view. No mountains and much of the river is kind of boring. I don’t know, maybe I was just in a grumpy mood when we went.
I had fun hanging out with my kids. And there are relatively interesting spots nearby, not to mention good hiking. But in the end, if I was to camp in the Elbow Valley again, I’d continue westward to Little Elbow or even divert north to Sibbald Lake. Both have more appeal for me than Paddy’s Flat did, but I won’t begrudge you for disagreeing.