I’ve determined that I need a time machine. Once I’ve got this time machine and done the no-brainer stuff (fix past wrongs, witness historic events, kill Hitler, buy Apple stock), I’m taking my family to the late 70s/early 80s to go camping in Alberta’s provincial parks. I want to do this because it’s become evident in the ten years we’ve been camping that those were the glory days of the Alberta parks system.
Back then, in the great oil boom of yesteryear, Alberta invested in parks and campgrounds with fervor. Kananaskis was created for starters. Wouldn’t that have been a remarkable place to visit in the first years of its existence?
Nowadays, however, provincial parks harbour a seemingly endless array of damaged trail signage, deserted entrance buildings, and overgrown amphitheatres, each alluding to a time when more staff and activities were available. The population was half what it is now which makes this dilapidated infrastructure all the sadder.
Then there’s the quirky lake escapes that have become pseudo-ghost parks. Not outright abandoned, but neither are they at peak functionality. Some are wholly unsuitable for what the old amenities suggest they were once intended.
Miquelon Lake Provincial Park is one such place. I’ve written about it before with fascination. The deteriorating and out-of-place infrastructure at that park scream of a time when it was (or was assumed to be) a great summer aquatic destination.
This past summer we visited another such (not so) frozen-in-time campground; Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park. It too is seemingly haunted by a past much different than its present and it reminded me of Miquelon Lake. And just like when we camped at Miquelon, I spent our weekend at Gooseberry Lake engrossed in wonder at what camping there must have been like forty years ago.
I’ve been aware of the existence of Gooseberry Lake since 2016 when I was hunting for a one-night stopover on our way back home from a lengthy Saskatchewan trip. I ultimately chose Dillberry Lake Provincial Park as it was ever so slightly more amenable to our timeframe. Having been so pleasantly surprised with Dillberry Lake, I promised myself we would one day try Gooseberry Lake in hopes of a similar revelation.
It remained in the back of my mind until the provincial government announced the pending closer/divestment of dozens upon dozens of Alberta parks and recreation areas. Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park was on this ill-fated list.
If any good came of this damned pandemic, it was the stay of execution it granted many of these doomed natural areas in Alberta. The explosion of covid-weary campers in the summer of 2020 all but forced the government to hit the pause button and keep campgrounds like Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park open.
Our 2020 summer schedule didn’t allow for a farewell trip. Say what you will about Gooseberry Lake, it is not exactly in a prime location. Much as I wanted to go, a 4 ½ hour drive into the prairies doesn’t easily entice a camper who can see the Rocky Mountains from their rooftop.
Summer 2021, however, was a different story. Once I confirmed the campground would continue to operate (I believe it is now under the supervision of the local community), I ensured our eventual visit by booking us a campsite for the September long weekend. That long drive is more tolerable if staying for 3 nights rather than 2 and with the park’s long term existence still shrouded in mystery, I didn’t want to press my luck any further.
Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park is located 15km north of the small town of Consort, Alberta. Consort, in turn, is roughly due east of Red Deer on highway 12. As mentioned, it’s a bit of a hike from either of Alberta’s two metropolises and doesn’t get much attention, to the delight of the locals, I’m sure.
It’s also, as mentioned, not the most alluring place in the world. There’s a stark beauty to the prairies but it’s not for everyone, especially with more visceral natural splendor in the other direction. But for a slower pace and sometimes needed dose of humility, a trip into the grasslands and farming communities can do the body (and mind) a lot of good.
Situated on the northwest shore of its namesake Gooseberry Lake, the park is tiny, encompassing just under a square kilometre of land sandwiched between the lake and the nine-hole Consort Golf Course.
The lake is itself small, though several times larger than the park and golf course combined. A kettle lake formed by the melting of a giant chunk of glacier ice, the lake has no inlets or outlets and is slowly shrinking away. The crusty white shorelines betray the lake’s saltiness and unless you’re a waterfowl or shore bird of some sort, you won’t want anything to do with the water.
Funny story. On our drive home I needed gas and stopped for a fill-up in the next town west, Coronation. The station attendant asked about our weekend which evolved into a discussion of Gooseberry Lake. He mentioned swimming in the water maybe thirty-five years ago and commented that they “always came out all covered in white.”
I can’t imagine anyone swimming in the lake nowadays. The park offers nothing to suggest this was a wise practice even 35 years ago. There’s no beach, active or abandoned. You can get to the lake’s edge via trail, but beyond birdwatching you wouldn’t want to do much else on the messy, crystalline shore.
We did happen upon what appears to be a former boat launch. Concrete slabs sloping towards the water. As a launch it is now utterly useless being too far from the water even if you wanted to use it as such. We found no co-existing evidence of a pier or dock having existed in the past though I wonder if there wasn’t something at one time that my friendly gas station clerk jumped from.
I doubt there’s fish in the lake either. I don’t think it is stocked and had there ever been fish naturally occurring, the abundant avian visitors surely ate it barren years ago. Perhaps pleasure boating was once allowed on Gooseberry Lake? Or maybe the launch is for nothing more than wildlife research access? Whatever the case, Gooseberry Lake, while most assuredly a lake, is truly for the birds.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. Birds are freakin’ cool. And watching dozens, if not hundreds, of pipers scavenge along the shores with their tapered beaks or zoom across the water in mesmerizing formation is quite a sight. Toss in a hawk, ducks, geese, cormorants, herons, and a variety of inland inhabitants including woodpeckers and catbirds and Gooseberry Lake will keep the ornithologists in your crew quite content.
I, myself, spent many relaxing moments watching and attempting to photograph the downy woodpeckers feasting in the ratty poplar trees surrounding our campsite. I eventually succeeded, but damn if those buggers aren’t flighty.
Campsites at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
We camped in site 11, one of the larger ones available at Gooseberry Lake. There is a total of 45 campsites, 21 of which are un-serviced, 6 have power only, and 18 with power and water. Our site was one of the latter.
The whole campground layout is rather odd. Honestly, I haven’t a clue what the hell happened here. As one of the very first provincial parks in the province, perhaps logical loops were in their infancy. Whatever the case, there is no rhyme nor reason to the campground layout.
Upon entering Gooseberry Lake, you pass an unused entrance building before approaching a fork in the road. Take the right fork and you’ll enter the first, lasso-like loop containing the 18 power and water sites. This is where we camped, at the very tippy top of the loop part.
All the sites in this loop are back-in. Along the straight-away, they’re typical deep, angled rectangles. Around the loop, however, things get a little wild. A couple sites are much larger (ours, for example), one has almost no privacy as it borders a maintenance pathway, and yet another is so tiny one wonders how a trailer would even fit in it.
Sites to the right, are relatively tree-covered. This isn’t forest by mountain standards. Mostly ratty poplar and aspen with some conifers, you take what you can get in a place that is otherwise naturally treeless. While not necessarily beautiful, these trees do at least offer some shelter from the sun and privacy.
Our site at the top of the loop was more open, though still surrounded by the trees and shrubbery. What we lacked in outright shade from the sun we gained in privacy from the thicket of shrubs completely surrounding the large open area within our site.
A few sites on the left side of the straight-away are completely open, with trees only present directly behind them. These are not what I’d call appealing, though they offer plenty of drive space for larger RVs.
As mentioned, all these 18 campsites have water and power. While certainly nice to have, their location is haphazard and not always convenient for hooking up. Depending on the size of your trailer and which site you choose, you’ll want to be sure to have a long extension cord and lengthy water hose. We were just barely able to hook up to services while keeping our small camper in an idea spot on the pad.
The campsites have gravel drives on which to park your RV and tow vehicle but they’re not overly fresh. Furthermore, the surrounding grass is dead or dying by the end of season. I suspect its this way most of the summer considering the heat and lack of precipitation common in these parts.
Our site was large with a spacious open area around our steel firepit, but that area was mostly dry dirt. Such is the case around many of the other campsites though hints of former gravel emplacement exist. Suffice it to say, if you get rained on prepare for messy mud.
Now, to access the remainder of the campground you’ll need to take the left fork in the entrance road. This branch takes you past a dump station and two sets of shared campsites before it again branches into three.
The left branch goes to the golf course, while the centre and right branch create a long, meandering loop around the top of the park. This is where you will find the remainder of the campsites, the day use area, the group camping areas, and a half dozen cottages.
These campsites are found in bunches along the loop, with groups of powered sites between groups of un-serviced sites with no clear explanation as to why some have electricity and others don’t.
The orientation and size of these sites are equally confusing. All are shown as back-ins and supposedly accommodate trailers, but a few are clearly only tent-worthy in my opinion. Take a close look at pictures provided on the parks website and choose wisely.
Like the campsites in the power/water loop, the tree cover and privacy varies. Some sites are wholly open to the elements while others have delightful, sparse pine cover. The lack of shrubbery eliminates privacy for some sites, but the speckled shade and desperately holding-on grass make them attractive in their own unique way.
This grand loop navigates a prominence extending out into the lake. The lower portion of the loop is closer to lake level while the upper portion gains elevation. In between is a hill or ridge that offers some excellent views of the southern half of the lake and the park itself. It is on this ridge that you’ll find half a dozen or so cottages.
I assume they’re private cottages. You cannot rent them from the parks service. And, oh boy, are they a motley bunch of old-school cabins. This is what cottages are supposed to be, not those gawdy second homes everyone builds with their oil fortunes these days.
Many decades old, they surely once overlooked a larger, and closer, body of water. With the shoreline continuing to recede, the views are less appealing if not non-existent from these quirky summer abodes. And the growing “forest” on now dry land below them only adds to the disappearing vistas.
Group Camping Areas
Across the upper road from the last cabin, and just before the last of the campsites are found the group camping areas. Group Area B is the larger of the two, consisting of a big open space engulfing a large picnic shelter.
Campers were using this group area during our stay, so I wasn’t able to snoop around much or get a look inside any of the associated structures. The picnic shelter looked nice from the outside and is fully enclosed with a tall stovepipe chimney indicating the presence of a woodstove.
There is also a small pit toilet present in the loop. Other than that, I’m unsure what, if anything, is actually available in the open space. There might be a group firepit but again I didn’t want to intrude so cannot confirm.
Gooseberry Lake Group Area A is next door and quite a bit smaller. It also doesn’t appear as accessible to RVs. There is a narrow access road to a small clearing but if you look at this in satellite view, Group Area B is by far the better suited for RVs. For tenters or small trailer enthusiasts, Group Area A is a cute alternative.
It also has an enclosed picnic shelter, though smaller than the one in B. A communal firepit is available in the open field next to the gravel area. There are several picnic tables present but otherwise no clear indication of where to set up camping units. To be honest, it looks more like a day use picnic area than a group camping spot.
I should also note here that sites 49 and 50 (site numbering is inconsistent) are immediately adjacent to Group Area A.
According to the campground map, that is the totality of the group camping areas at Gooseberry Lake. However, while we were strolling around we noticed a concentration of campers in a clearing to the west of the group areas, past the last of the campsites.
I have no idea why these campers were crammed into this space. They were obviously group camping. With Group Area B being used and Group Area A too small, I suppose this makeshift group area was the only alternative.
Upon further review, this might have actually been the last two campsites with extra trailers packed in. Oh the mystery!
Day Use Area
Further campground map confusion arises when it comes to Day Use. In the very centre of the park is a vast, open field. In this field are all the non-golf related recreational options at Gooseberry Lake; playground equipment, volleyball net, and spray park. More on these in a moment.
At the top end of the field is a gravel parking lot for visitors and a registration kiosk. Immediately to the west, the map shows a picnic area but in reality there isn’t much here. Instead, to the east, past three powered sites, there is what I would consider the true day use area.
It looks not unlike Group Area A, with a small, enclosed picnic shelter and an assortment of picnic tables and an outdoor firepit with cooking shelves. The shelter was locked up and had no windows so I was unable to get pictures of the inside.
Altogether, the “Day Use Area” at Gooseberry Lake is confusing. Parking in one spot, picnic facilities in another, map showing it should be located yet somewhere else. And none of it has an especially meaningful view of anything. If you’re gathering with friends for an afternoon picnic, it’s suitable. Just don’t expect to be staring out across the lake or within eyeshot of your kids at the playground.
Playground at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
Speaking of the playground, uh, it’s … interesting. On one hand, some of it is relatively newish comprised of metal and plastic climbing equipment. Everything else being so vintage here, I half expected either an old wooden contraption or a truly old school metal swing set and slide.
Instead, there are three separate apparatus situated in three distinct parts of the large field. There’s a larger playset for bigger kids, a smaller playset for little kids, and a four-person swing set (2 for individuals and 2 for babies).
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this setup, I just found it odd to have the pieces spread out so much. And they’re all in the wide-open, blazing sun. You get zero shelter plus the equipment is fading and taking a beating from the elements.
A single, very worn volleyball net and sand court is found in the vicinity of the playground. If you’ve got a ball, I suppose you can play but it looks as if one accidental touch of the net would cause the entire thing to disintegrate.
The whole field is also lacking in ground cover. The individual playground elements have pea gravel beds beneath them, but between them weedy grass struggles to grow. With abundant dirt amongst the stressed flora, rain (if it ever comes) is likely to make the whole field a muddy disaster.
Spray Park at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
The big draw of Gooseberry Lake is the water park. Well, it was at one time, I’m sure. Not many provincial parks have a water park on site and if you’re gonna put one anywhere, this is as good a spot as any considering the unsuitability of the lake for water sports.
Located on an elevated platform next to the shower house in the eastern portion of the play field, the spray park looks to be a lot of fun. While not brand new, it’s not an ancient installation and has various structures that spray and shoot water suitable for a breadth of ages.
My kids have grown out of the spray park age, but we nonetheless took a closer look and found the whole thing wanting. The grounds are dirty with dead mold, best as I can tell. Some of the devices are leaking steadily and when you engage the water system, only one structure initiates at a time. You cannot play in the entire water park all at once.
There were no kids playing there during our stay, but it makes me wonder how a crowd of children could possible play here with only one element operating at any one time. I found this strange and frustrating. Maybe it was a Covid matter? Or maybe, sadly, the spray park is in a state of disrepair. Either way, it was a letdown as this surely would be a tremendous lure for young families during the summer.
Shower House at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
The peculiarities keep coming, too. Let’s talk about the shower house. A shower house at a park like this was unexpected but nonetheless a draw. Where there are showers there are surely flush toilets, or so one would think. Well, one would be wrong.
Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park offers what must surely be the weirdest shower house in all of Alberta, if not Canada. A modern structure with nicely tiled shower stalls (coin operated – $1) and sinks including hot water, I was shocked to discover that the toilets are still pits. Serious!
Everything about the bathroom looks new and modern but step into a stall and you’ll find a triangular concrete abutment upon which lies a toilet seat. Beneath that seat is a gaping hole into which your human waste shall go.
I am sure there’s an important reason for this strange circumstance. Be it money limitations or, more likely, sewage/weeping bed restrictions due to proximity to the lake, I still find it bizarre to have pit toilets inside a modern shower house. And its made all the more disappointing when you realize that the golf course clubhouse has the whole kit and caboodle of modern bathroom amenities!
Not surprisingly, pit toilets are a staple throughout Gooseberry Lake including one on the actual golf course my kids mistook as part of the campground. They’re dated wooden structures, but large. The one nearest our campsite was even surprisingly modest in stink. With the heat of an entire summer accumulated by September, I was expecting a nightmare once I realized there were no flush toilets, but they ended up being quite tolerable.
There was even lighting at night which helped navigation of the otherwise dim and dingy bathrooms. The yellow sodium lighting sucked from a night sky perspective but having the ability to see in the crapper is appreciated.
For RVers, a dump station is available at the park but be forewarned it’s quite the dinky effort. Located on the left fork of the entrance road just before the shared campsites, it has two outlets.
Unfortunately, I can see no way in which two trailers could use these two outlets at the same time. They’re both located on a concrete pad but positioned perpendicular to the access road. This leaves one outlet usable and the other facing the trees. Seems odd. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the layout but consider it a single user dump station.
Fresh water is also available at various spigots around the campground. We had one of the 18 sites with water service so didn’t need to fill up our trailer tanks. For the rest of the campers, either bring your own from home or make use of the onsite water taps. They’re found at several places around the campground most notably near pit toilets. The group areas have them as well.
I found the water at our site of good quality and taste.
Each site has a firepit and the limited forest canopy should make for great campfires. On the other hand, hot, dry summers inevitably lead to fire bans, and we were unable to enjoy any campfires during our long weekend.
As such, we did not look for wood nor did we bring any. I didn’t see any obvious sale of firewood at Gooseberry Lake. The campground caretaker, a friendly local who lives in town and commutes out for daily chores, could presumably sell firewood from a pickup or his golf cart when fires are allowed. Otherwise, bringing your own or buying in town makes the most sense.
Despite the lack of a bonfire, we still enjoyed the truly magnificent night sky. Being several hours from any major urban area allows the true majesty of space to shine down upon us poor saps once the sun goes down.
With our telescope in tow, we gazed upon Saturn and Jupiter and the many constellations above us, Milky Way included. If you’re a star lover, then Gooseberry Lake is great destination. Our site in particular, with the wide central area, made for great skygazing.
Trails at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park
The small dimensions of Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park notwithstanding, there’s a decent trail available should you wish to stretch your legs. Beginning near the park entrance, the trail follows the lake contours (but in the woods), passes behind the first loop of campsites, next to the playground and field, before approaching the lake’s shore along the aforementioned prominence. It then swoops out and around the big loop, heads up onto the highlands, through an open area including a rather unpleasant junk pile before heading westward behind the group sites before exiting onto the road heading to the golf course.
For the most part, the trails are simply mowed grass. It’s not exactly stunning scenery but there are a few nice lookouts that provide a view of the lake and in turn, the birds. Other sections are just enclosed by the trees and shrubs. Additional segments cut through portions of the campground or shortcut across bigger swaths of the park such as a trail up the ridge next to the cottages.
I wouldn’t travel all this way just for the “hiking” but as a camper, it offered a nice tour around the park and access to the lake. You don’t want to disturb the birds, but if you aspire to capture some closeup shots you’ll definitely want to get down to the crusty shore.
Consort Golf Course
If you’re itching for a bit longer walk along with an upper body workout, bring your golf clubs. The Consort golf club is a delightful, cost-friendly nine-hole course that’s easily accessible by foot from the campground.
I figure these smalltown, rural golf courses are the perfect place for newbies or rusties to try whacking the little white ball around. I was not mistaken. The ladies in the clubhouse were most accommodating. I hadn’t played in years and I thought this was an ideal spot for my kids to try golfing for the first time.
Well, my lack of recent play was quickly revealed in my many errant and duffed shots. I wasn’t good even when I did play more regularly but after a dozen year pause I was even worse. Neither of my kids showed much interest. They each made a few puts but were otherwise content to just drive the golf carts. Priorities.
The course itself is nothing spectacular but is kept in good condition. It is watered so actually green, a stark contrast to the brown all around it. The holes are neither too hard nor too easy. And being so far from big population centres, it was not busy and thus my terrible drives were rarely witnessed by strangers. Win!
The clubhouse looks to be a fairly new addition. With a bar and kitchen, you’ll be able to enjoy an aftergame bevvy and some grub. We enjoyed beef on a bun after our nine holes, along with a beer while the kids had ice cream. Yup, they got ice cream there. Perhaps 8 or 10 flavours. That alone is worth a stroll over to the golf course.
The park has no store, of course. If you need anything beyond the ice cream or modest pub food at the clubhouse, you’ll want to head into Consort. The town isn’t huge, but it has the basics including food and liquor stores and gas. There’s a small printing museum there but it was closed up when we went snooping around. Likewise, a little outdoor museum and memorial to local veterans is found next to the main drag near the highway.
Gooseberry Pond (trout pond)
Last, but not least, there is fishing to be had at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park. Just not in the park (or the lake). Immediately west of the lake, across a range road and diagonal to the park entrance, is Gooseberry Park Pond, a small, stocked trout pond.
This trout pond was a reasonable 1+ kilometre walk from our campsite (you can drive to it as well) and we visited a couple times over the course of the long weekend. We’d brought our rods in hopes of catching some slippery fish but had no luck whatsoever. Not even a nibble.
I haven’t the foggiest clue when or how much stocking occurs though the signage and facilities around the pond entrance confirm that something does get put into this pond. It’s quite possible that by September, all that has been added has since been removed by anglers and the abundant birds. Or maybe we just suck at fishing?
There is some rip rap on the shoreline and a narrow beach from which to cast. It’s not the greatest and without a dock or pier extending into the water, options are limited. Much of the remainder of the shoreline is inaccessible to foot traffic.
I think you’ll have more success, or at least better chance of success, if you bring some kind of motorless watercraft. A canoe, dinghy, or aluminum boat would allow you to get to deeper water and/or closer to the reeds that surround the furthest reaches of the pond. That’s where most of the birds hang out and I figure they’re wiser in the ways of finding fish than I.
Our time at the pond was far from wasted. Not only was the walk there and back good for the body, but in the evening we witnessed some gorgeous sunsets as the sun fell below the ridge at the back end of the pond. So, if you don’t fancy fishing or haven’t got gear along, just grab your camera and head over for a beauty light show after supper.
Likewise, the birdwatching is excellent at the pond. Here you’ll find ducks, geese, cormorants, and herons. A hawk watched from nearby telephone pole. A couple of times we watched in awe as dozens of birds suddenly took flight like a squadron of fighters and flew directly over our heads towards the park. I haven’t the equipment nor skill to capture such an event with worthy quality, but it was pretty awesome.
I really enjoyed our long weekend at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park. There wasn’t the same surprise as we got form Dillberry Lake. The lake at Gooseberry is simply not for swimming, unlike at Dillberry. So, it came as advertised and that’s fine.
I admit this isn’t the prettiest park you’ll ever visit. Standards are pretty high in Alberta and Gooseberry Lake is both quirky and somewhat neglected. But that’s not to say you can’t have a fantastic camping experience here. If your expectations are kept in check, there’s every reason to put this park on your list of camping destinations.
For a Labour Day long weekend, the campground was surprisingly below capacity. If you don’t like crowds, then this is surely a place to check out. And by September, the mosquitoes were nowhere to be found. I’m sure with the stagnant lake so close, the bastards cause some grief earlier in the summer but we were able to avoid the bug spray all weekend. That said, there are wasps, flies, and blackflies which can be a nuisance.
Overall, I’ll give Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. That may be too harsh. I did have good time, but the park left me with a feeling that its best days are well behind it. Even the new additions (spray park) are in decline. That’s a shame. And those pit toilets in the shower house baffle me.
Still, I encourage you to pack your clubs, rods, camera, and telescope in your RV and make your way east onto the broad, Alberta prairies for a unique and pleasant weekend at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park. Now that you know what to expect, you’ll be sure to enjoy something a little different than the typical mountain camping adventure.