One thing became abundantly clear after our amazing camping trip to Ram Falls in early July. I needed to get to Crescent Falls, stat! And with that realization, summer 2021 became the unofficial year of the Alberta waterfall.
Like most people, I’m rather fond of waterfalls. They’re beautiful natural features, of course, but they also intrigue my inner geology nerd. More often than not, the presence of a waterfall is guaranteed to package up structural geology, sedimentary geology, fossils, and rockhounding into a fascinating day or two of discovery.
That being said, not all waterfalls are created equal. Alberta has plenty of them in the Rocky Mountains but out on the plains, not so much. And those in the foothills aren’t always spectacular from a height perspective. Still cool, just not … COOL.
To the best of my knowledge, there are two exceptions to this entirely fabricated-as-I’m-writing rule of mine: Ram Falls and Crescent Falls. Neither is “in the mountains,” per se, though both are within viewing distance. And both offer an impressive vertical drop of water that won’t ever be confused for grandiose rapids.
Crescent Falls offers one additional perk, something that we desperately wanted at Ram Falls but were unable to achieve sensibly or safely. You can actually hike down to the base of the waterfall, snow fence and warning signs discouragement be damned!
Okay, I lied. There is a second additional perk. One need only drive on gravel roads for six kilometres to access the campground at Crescent Falls Provincial Recreation Area. That’s still enough to lose cell reception but it’s a damn sight better than the sixty plus kilometres of gravel road required to get to Ram Falls.
Located 22 km west of the pseudo-ghost town of Nordegg on Highway 11, Crescent Falls is an easy place to get to. This is particularly true for central Albertans. It’s a bit longer from the two major cities, 3 ½ hours from my home in southeast Calgary, but all highway driving.
If scenery is high on your wants list, highway 22 will add some time to the trip but offers a slightly more appealing view than the QE2. Beyond that, it’s a slick drive save for those final 6 km. And of those final 6 km, the last fifth of one is rather hairbrained.
The Campground Entrance
I’ve never seen a vehicle entrance as strange as the one at Crescent Falls. Sure, it’s a “provincial recreation area” not a “park” but I’m still dumbfounded that anything remotely conservation-oriented would have such an entry.
As you approach the day use area and campground that border the falls themselves, you first pass a large parking area for day users. It’s a big gravel lot with a pit toilet and signage. A trailhead exists here as well, so visitors come for more than just the waterfall.
The road takes a ninety degree turn before descending to the main day use area. The descent is rough with rain runoff ruts and large stones. At the bottom is a handful of parking spots (including handicap) next to a small, forested assortment of picnic tables. Within a few steps of this area is Crescent Falls. More on that in a moment.
Another ninety degree turn takes you to the campground found along, and at the end, of the remainder of the gravel road which parallels the river above the falls. However, a small creek separates the lower day use parking area from the campground.
There is no bridge. Not for vehicles, anyway. A cute steel and wood pedestrian bridge exists upstream a few metres but for your car and/or RV, nothing. You simply drive right through the creek, a combination of gravel and smoothened bedrock within a dip in the road. And it’s not a modest dip. Longer trailers will most certainly bottom out while traversing the creek. I was concerned our 16’ Geo Pro would scrape the bedrock and the nearby potholes surely don’t help the situation.
I still can’t believe this is kosher with Alberta Parks. Had I not seen another camper traverse the creek with my own eyes, I’d likely still be circling around wondering how to get to the campground. So weird. (Note: the campground operator’s website mentions this fact, but the Alberta Parks website does not)
Crescent Falls Campground
Once safely across the creek, your travel worries evaporate as you turn attention to finding a campsite. This is a bit of a hassle as finding a map of Crescent Falls campground is impossible. Neither the government website nor the operator website has one. A Google search also comes up empty and sadly I was not prescient enough to take a picture of one at the registration kiosk. In fact, at this very moment I’m not even sure there even was a map near the registration kiosk. I’ll do my best to describe the situation.
According to Westward Bound Campgrounds, the operators, there are 31 total campsites at Crescent Falls. All are unserviced (not surprising). The majority are back-ins with at least one that I would call a shared campsite. A handful of short, walk-in tent sites are present. The operator website mentions the former existence of equestrian campsites that have since been converted to regular campsites.
The campground layout is comprised of a long approach with a teardrop shaped loop at the end tucked into a bend in the river. The bulk of sites are around and inside the loop but others do exist along the approach. Perhaps the very best site in the whole campground is one of these, though sadly it was already taken when we arrived.
The first sites you come across, almost immediately after crossing the creek are the walk-in tent sites. You can actually see the “back” side of these campsites from the aforementioned creek and day use area.
The parking area for these sites is on the righthand side and includes a gravel lot with pit toilet and garbage bins. These tent sites are easily visible with some literally right beside the parking area. I wouldn’t clamour to camp in any of them, to be honest. There’s simply no privacy or uniqueness to them. For my money, I’d rather just find a nice, regular campsite further from the day use area.
As you can see in the picture, the walk-ins at Crescent Point are also somewhat open. There are trees around them, and you are next to forest, but none of these sites are especially sheltered from the elements. Again, this just doesn’t appeal to me.
Continuing along the approach, nearer the head of the campground loop, another three sites are present, two on the right and one on the left. This campsite on the left is the one that I think is the very best in the entire campground. It is almost entirely exclusive with only the two sites across from it (those sites are dull and will surely be the last to fill up). It’s a roomy site with decent tree coverage and an unprecedented location on the banks of the river.
Next up is the loop. Sites are found both inside and around the loop. Whereas the approach is relatively flat, the loop has some elevation change within it. You go up a hill to the right and slowly descend back to main level as you circle around. We found a great site near the apex of the hill (#6 if I recall correctly?).
Our Crescent Falls campsite was fantastic. My son and I were only tent camping, but the site could easily have accommodated a mid-sized RV. Our Geo Pro would have had no problem.
It had a driveway with large entertainment area of gravely dirt. We easily had space for our tent plus a mesh dining shelter over the worn, wooden picnic table. This left plenty of space for our reclining lawn chairs around the iron firepit.
Our site was well forested, including a genetic freak of a pine tree which twisted around itself as it reached for the stars. We had plenty of shade and, better yet, the plentiful underbrush did well at obscuring the view of nosey neighbours none of which were especially close to us.
The remaining campsites around the loop are a motley lot ranging from bigger, private sites like ours to smaller sites to shared sites to entirely open, only good for tents or tent trailer sites. At the furthest end of the loop is an enclave of campsites that I deduce to have been the former equestrian sites. These are nice too, though close together. They would make an ideal group camping area were you to come with friends.
These former equestrian campsites are blessed with easy access to the river via an earthen ramp through the trees out onto a gravel bar. You can quickly surmise this natural chute was where horseback riders would exit the campground for their daily adventures.
Along the outer rim of the left portion of the loop are additional campsites overlooking the river. They’re surely nice campsites but access to the river is somewhat more daunting than the riverside site mentioned earlier. These campsites are well above the river with cliffs of outcrop and rubble limiting ease of descent. Great sites but perhaps not the best if you’re known for wandering in the dark after a few wobbly pops.
Most of these sites are within the forest and sheltered, but not all. There were a couple sites that are essentially just grassy areas beside the road. Not my bag of candy, but with only 31 to choose from you’ll take what you can get as the place fills up.
We were there Monday through Wednesday in early August and the campground was nearing capacity. On summer weekends, I’m sure the demand far outweighs the supply at Crescent Point. Undoubtedly a handful of sites are snapped up early by folks placing a small tent with no intention of camping in it. Such is life in a FCFS campground.
Crescent Falls Campground Amenities
And Crescent Point campground is exclusively first come, first served. There are no reservations available whatsoever. This means you actually get to use the registration kiosk found to the right as you enter the loop. Find an available site, fill in the required information on the envelope, deposit your cash, and shove it into the slot.
The registration kiosk is next to one of several pit toilets in the campground. At least three, by my count: one at the walk-in tent sites, this one at the loop start, and a third back by the former equestrian campsites.
The pit toilet structures are all similar, though the back loop one seemed slightly newer. They’re all the familiar brown, wood-sided buildings with two, separate stalls. Inside is a single toilet on a concrete floor. Toilet paper and sanitizer are provided.
Also free with your pit toilet privileges is an unholy smell. Okay, these weren’t the worst smelling dry toilets we’ve ever dealt with, but they weren’t innocent either. Considering the unexpected fragrance-free experience we had at our next stop in Jasper, they were definitely a stressor on my nasal cavity.
Across the road from the registration kiosk and pit toilet is the campground water source. A squeaky handpump provides water but with no guarantee of being safe, you’d be wise to 1) boil it for ingestion and/or 2) bring your own drinking water with you.
Another option for water is the river. It’s beautiful, clear, cool fresh water but again, there are no guarantees ingesting it without boiling or filtering first won’t cause you some intestinal distress. You might enjoy violently emptying your innards in a smelly pit toilet, but I have no desire to risk such a happenstance.
Retreating back along the entrance road slightly, to your right is the campground host site. This was strange as there was a camper set up and a pickup truck present, but we never saw a soul on that site. We were at Crescent Falls early in the week, so perhaps hosting duties aren’t as pressing but it was still odd for a vehicle to be present but no people.
This apparent absence isn’t a huge issue unless you want firewood. You can purchase it from the host for $10 per 12 pieces according to the operator website. Doing so is difficult when you never see the host. We, like most people these days, brought our own but it would have been frustrating to come to Crescent Falls with the expectation of buying wood and not being able to. The only alternative would be driving back to Nordegg and buying some there.
That is all there is to the Crescent Falls Provincial Recreation Area campground. There is no store, no playground, no dump station. Any last-minute purchases will need to be made in Nordegg for what I’d call “premium pricing”. Try to bring everything with you or prepare to lighten your wallet.
Another wildcard I should mention in noise. It may be paved highway for all but the final 6 km into the campground, but Crescent Falls is still relatively isolated from major urban areas. It is surrounded by crown land that is incredibly popular with boondock campers. Weekends see an influx of day-users eager to enjoy the falls. And, of course, the mystery campground host early in the week.
Add all those variables together and there’s likely to be some noise problems during your stay. Our second night included a lively campfire gathering a couple sites up the way from us courtesy of two families shaking off some Covid cabin fever. They weren’t destructive or dangerous or excessively rude, but they were absolutely having a good time and the bevvies were flowing. Loud country music, screaming kids, and a lady with a cringeworthy, owlish laugh all left our final evening less that peaceful.
Oh, and let’s not forget generators. With zero power around, the brave folks yanking their big RVs into the campground are likely to have a generator in tow for morning coffee and such. I don’t aim to change the way people camp. It is what it is. Especially in Alberta. Just letting you know that if you desire a Zen-like camping experience then Crescent Falls has potential to disappoint. Especially if you’re trying to sleep in a tent.
That’s enough petty whining. Nobody is camping at Crescent Falls for the campground anyway. It’s all about the waterfall and the river, both of which give you a tantalizing taste of Nature’s splendour.
Trails at Crescent Falls
Despite the wooded surroundings, trails aren’t in surplus which makes spontaneous hiking tricky. There is a dirt trail that runs from the former equestrian sites all the way to the upper day use parking area. This trail is easily accessed from either end as well as campsites along the northern side of the campground.
We ambled along the trail from our own campsite as an alternative means of getting to the waterfall one time. It’s completely within the woods, so you won’t see much scenery like mountains and such, but the wildflowers, mushrooms, and critters are pretty enough.
Although the designated equestrian campsites are gone, horseback riders are still welcome to ride in Crescent Falls Provincial Recreation Area. Riders park and unload their beasts in that upper parking lot and this trail provides a means to access the river and wider wilderness while avoiding the hubbub of the day use area. Evidence of their presence speckled the trail.
This parking lot also houses the trailhead to Wet Willie Ice Climb. This is a short hike but we did not endeavour to follow it since it was August and the namesake ice was presumably gone.
Another trail that begins at the waterfall, follows the northern slope of the canyon all the way to the Bighorn Canyon lookout. You pass the lookout soon after exiting Highway 11 onto the gravel road and it’s well worth a stop.
The lookout offers spectacular views of the gorge that exists for several kilometres below Crescent Falls. I came for the waterfall and had no idea such a lengthy, impressive canyon existed. For the ignorant like me, this is a wonderful surprise that makes the trip all the more enjoyable.
Other than that, though, no formal trails exist in the area. That won’t stop the eager from exploring, however. The river above the waterfall is a typical mountain river with meanders, large rocky bars, and quick-flowing, clear mountain water. Not ideal for swimming, though you’ll find folks wading in the water to cool off under the hot afternoon sun.
As eager rockhounders and fossil hunters, my son and I spent hours exploring up and down the river next to and west of the campground. You can walk along the river pretty much from the waterfall back to the campground unimpeded. As you get closer to the campground, the valley edge steepens a bit and exposed outcrops jut into the river.
Crossing the river is no easy task, but resourceful campers had created one makeshift “bridge” out of dead trees and large rocks in a convenient spot next to the campground loop. This was the only means of getting to the other side of the river without a horse or hip waders.
And you will want to cross. Outcrops and stony bars beckon with each river meander. Getting to them is an adventure in its own right. We disappeared into the woods above a coal-bearing cliff, traversed hundreds of metres of spongy moss to discover upstream solitude where we built boulder dams and skipped stones with the cloud-covered Rocky Mountains of Jasper in the distance.
Thankfully the bugs weren’t bad at all. The forest is humid and lush here, lots of green with deadfall everywhere, but few bugs. That’s unlikely to be the case throughout the entire summer, so bring your bug sprays just in case, but I was grateful for the mosquito-less off-trail exploration.
Ultimately, it’s the waterfall that lures visitors Crescent Falls and we were quick to check it out after setting up our tent. An easy walk from the campground, the waterfalls are an even easier thing to see up close. Like REALLY up close.
There are no barriers above the falls. The day use area is right beside them as is the gravel road to the campground. The river is accessible by foot along the bars which broaden throughout the summer as water levels drop. You can literally walk right out to the very edge of the falls!
I was stunned with this realization and terrified. I’m not a fan of heights and slippery, wet stone does not comfort an anxious mind. We did sneak up as close to the edge as we were comfortable with. A zoom lens on your camera will help in this regard as well.
This lack of protection is all the more baffling when you see the endless snow fence and warning signs along the trail beside the canyon downstream of the falls. These barriers were put in place because of a tragic drowning in the spring in the water BELOW the first waterfall. But walking out to the top of the waterfall itself? That’s okay!
Crescent Falls is actually four waterfalls by my count. There are two main drops and then two much smaller, rapids-like drops. Combined, they make for a spectacular view that I encourage you to see for yourselves. I didn’t think Ram Falls could be topped, but this might have done it.
Parenting is hard. You try to impress upon your children the importance of obeying rules but also recognizing those moments when rules are meant to be broken. I decided that hiking down to the base of the falls was one of those moments, in no small part because it was obvious by the dirt trails that many others had done so previously plus the fact that there were already people down there as we looked on from above. It was all too enticing for a father and son with a love of geology.
Unlike at Ram Falls, the canyon walls at Crescent Falls had obvious worn pathways down to the canyon bottom. It was by no means a cakewalk and my eyes rolled when we witnessed a mother and children attempting to descend wearing crocks and loafers instead of proper hiking footwear. Not everyone will be capable of the descent, but if you’re relatively fit and nimble, it is certainly doable. And worth the effort.
You can get to the base of both sets of falls, though the second descent is admittedly more difficult. But even if you can only make it to the first level, the view from there is terrific, far surpassing what you get from above.
From there you are able to walk right up to the cliff face over which the water tumbles, getting misted with spray if you like. Impressive slabs of rippled outcrop define the canyon floor and more gravel bars delineate the river between drops. For a geologist, it’s just a wonder to investigate.
Sadly, fossils are rare. The sedimentary rocks of the canyon walls do not host much in the way of fossils at all. Most of the rocks containing fossils are in the river bars, carried eastward from the limestone mountains to the west. But don’t let that discourage you, the views alone are worth the taxing climb back up. Our climb back up was not only taxing, but life changing. For me, anyway.
When my son and I initially arrived at the base of the first falls, one of the Indian lads we’d seen from above started beckoning me over to where they were standing in an invisible but not unnoticeable cloud of marijuana smoke. He asked if I would take a picture of the four of them with the upper falls in the background. No problem!
After I completed my photographic duty, my son and I set about exploring the area. I ventured over to a shady spot near the river above the second waterfall. At this point, the picture requester came over and warned me not to get too close to the water. He explained about the people dying earlier in the summer and that this is where it happened. I listened respectfully and thanked him for his concern while inside my head I was thinking, “Geez, I’m not an idiot.”
Fast forward a couple hours and my son and I are making our way back up to the top. Since we were going up from below the second waterfall, our path of ascent was different than our original path of descent. I wasn’t entirely clear where we were for a moment as the trail we were using to go up seemed steeper than the one on which we’d come down. I paused to catch my breath and try to figure out where we should go next.
This is when I heard a familiar voice. I looked down the hill to discover my Indian friend coming up the trail as well. He asked if we were lost. I said no. He implored that there is an easier way up just “over there.” I thanked him and explained we were just looking around.
Then, rather seriously, he looked at me specifically and asked, “Are you okay?” I was fine. Breathing a bit heavy, perhaps, but we were, after all, climbing up a steep cliff out of a canyon. It was then that I realized with the abruptness of frying pan upside the skull that he thinks I’m OLD!!
With that, the math on my birth certificate felt all too real and for a moment the thrill of Crescent Falls dissipated. At least my kid thought it was funny as hell. Me? Not so much. Lucky for him I was too tired to push him back down the cliff!
Rating Crescent Falls
Rating a place like this always feels unfair. As a whole, Crescent Falls Provincial Recreation Area is a homerun. I absolutely loved the place. It will go down as a treasured memory with my son and a perfect cherry on top of my impromptu summer of the Alberta waterfall.
The campground, however, was … meh. I mean, it’s a non-serviced, first come, first served campground in a recreation area so it’s not expected to be much. And it did serve its purpose for us. We got a good campsite and there are a couple of truly nice ones. Success later in the week or on weekends, though, is likely to be difficult if you don’t life relatively close by.
Overall, it just wasn’t particularly special. Pit toilets were a tad gross. Lack of campground host presence was disappointing. And the entrance creek-crossing does limit the size of recreational vehicle capable of entering the campground (your mileage may vary on whether that’s a good or bad thing). I don’t know, it just didn’t impress me much. Let’s give it 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 while recognizing it is imperative to go to Crescent Falls regardless of the campground quality.
As for which is better, Ram Falls or Crescent Falls? Boy, that’s a hard choice to make. Geologically speaking, they’re practically fraternal twins. With a gun to my head, I’d lean toward Crescent Falls. The campground at Ram Falls is superior although a couple riverside sites at Crescent Falls are pretty sweet. Conversely, the access to Crescent Falls surpasses Ram Falls both in terms of vehicle access and foot access. You’d best go to both and decide for yourself.
Find another campground here.