Way back in the spring, my son and I spent an impromptu weekend camping at St. Mary Reservoir along the southeastern boundary of the Blood reservation in southern Alberta. We camped in Lower St. Mary Campground below the dam and had a terrific time which was rather a surprise.
Well, the wildlife and setting of Lower St. Mary wasn’t our only surprise that weekend. In fact, as we explored the reservoir and surrounding area we stumbled upon two more unlikely surprises, namely Upper St. Mary and Wally’s campgrounds. This is my review of the former.
I was aware that Upper St. Mary campground existed. That was not the surprise. It does show up on search engine maps and Alberta Parks has an information website for it. But that website is extremely thin on details and with only a satellite image to view, its hard to properly assess the appeal (or lack thereof) of this small campground.
Furthermore, it’s up on the plains next to the reservoir. Without the shelter of the river valley and dam, there’s no protection from the whipping winds that terrorize this part of the province. That alone scared me away, never mind that by all accounts it just looked unappealing. It would do in a pinch if Lower St. Mary campground was full, but otherwise I was determined to stay away.
That judgement was perhaps hasty. When we finally drove over to have a look around, I realized that Upper St. Mary campground wasn’t as bad as I’d predicted. Sure, wind is undoubtedly an issue. And it’s not a magnificent resort destination. But there are some very pretty waterside campsites there. You could surely do worse.
Upper St. Mary campground is visible from the main highway as you cross the dam. A gravel range road a couple hundred metres south of the reservoir takes you a further couple hundred metres west where you intersect a gravel access road to the campground and the St. Mary Sailing Club private campground. In total it’s about two kilometres from the dam.
The campground itself is comprised of a single loop containing 30 un-serviced, first-come-first-served campsites. 16 of those campsites are reportedly open for winter camping according to the Alberta Parks website, though they also warn that campground roads are not plowed so access is weather dependent. Still, if you’re into winter camping, and presumably ice fishing, it’s a relatively handy spot to set up your rig.
The loop is triangular-ish with sites on both the interior and exterior of the road. There is a slight elevation change as you circumnavigate the loop. Tree cover is sparse. Let’s be honest, that any exists at all is worthy of gratitude consider the absolute dearth of vegetation in the region, just don’t expect a shady, tree-covered oasis for your RV.
Some sites at Upper St. Mary are completely barren, others have a smattering of shrubbery, and a special few have meaningful tree cover providing some protection from the sun. And trust me, that sun beats down hard here in the summer, so bring lots of sunscreen!
A handful of campsites on the eastern side of the loop back onto the water which noticeably fluctuates in proximity during the camping season. In the spring, the shoreline might seem conveniently close, but it will slowly slip away as summer passes. Regardless, a partially treed site backing onto the reservoir is pretty spiffy and the receding shoreline does make for some large, spacious campsites.
The western end of the loop is less treed but does offer some spiffy views of the reservoir and the mountains far off along the western horizon. If you can stand the sun and inevitable winds, these sites offer an unexpectedly pretty view. Privacy between sites, however, is lacking so prepare to make friends.
Upper St. Mary campsites are simple with gravel drives separated by grass. Each site comes with a permanent picnic table. They’re not in the best condition and this lack of mobility would be frustrating. A firepit is also found on most sites but considering the location with dry, windy weather, I suspect firebans are a regular occurrence during the core camping season.
This is a very rustic campground, and not surprisingly there’s not much in the way of amenities. A simple registration kiosk exists at the entrance and that’s it. Not even a tiny playground for the kids. Luckily, a campground host and some additional services (firewood sales for example) are available at Lower St. Mary campground which, as mentioned, is only a short drive, bike ride, or walk away.
Upper St. Mary does have a pit toilet and unlike the remainder of the campground, that pit toilet looks relatively updated. It’s the typical two door wood structure we all know and “love” at Alberta campgrounds but at least it’s new. Just don’t expect it to be pleasantly fragrant in August.
I didn’t see any water sources during our quick circuit of the campground loop. The official website mentions no water being available in 2020 due to system work. The same was said about Lower St. Mary campground and I’m really not sure what that means or if it ever intends to change.
Whatever the case, I highly recommend just bringing your own water from home. I suppose if you’re rebellious, you could wade into the reservoir itself and snag a pot full to boil but for drinking, it’s likely best to just bring water you know and trust.
Likewise, there is no dump station in this campground or nearby. You’ll need to ditch your waste somewhere on your drive home. Coming from Calgary, Fort McLeod is probably your best bet for that necessary evil.
The one perk at Upper St. Mary campground is the nearby boat launch. You pass this on your right as you approach the campground. It’s not the fanciest affair by any means, but it gets your boat in the water.
A gravel parking lot provides space for parking your tow vehicle and boat trailer. There’s even a couple trees to shade the lucky early arrivers.
The launch is a sloping gravel approach with a grooved, concrete pad into the water. As water levels fluctuate, I assume this launch gets shorter then longer over the summer.
One hundred metres northwest from the launch is a pier and dock complex. It’s old and ugly but does offer a spot to enter and exit boats as well as a place to cast your line into deeper water than the shoreline offers.
Altogether, this boat launch complex won’t be winning any awards, but it does the job. If you have a boat and like to camp, then Upper St. Mary offers a convenient confluence of service in a cute little package on the St. Mary Reservoir.
I’m still pleased with our unexpectedly enjoyable stay at Lower St. Mary campground. If I were to camp in this area, I would make every effort to reserve a site there first. But if lady luck was not on my side, or I was looking for a last minute FCFS campsite, I wouldn’t fear Upper St. Mary as much as I had initially.
It’s not a premium campground. You get what you pay for here. And wind-phobes like myself will likely regret the decision if a storm rolls through. Nonetheless, I was delightfully surprised by Lower St. Mary campground. I expected a wasteland of grass, nothing more, and I was wrong in that assumption. As such, I’ll give it 2.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
Everything that was great about Lower St. Mary is accessible from Upper St. Mary as well (wildlife, fossils, hiking) and the beaches of Wally’s are not too far away in the other direction. Who knows, this small, rustic campground might be your own version of heaven.
Find another campground here.