At risk of being repetitive, allow me to repeat the first two paragraphs of my last post. They’re closely related, so it’s technically “okay”. I have no intention of pulling a Creedence Clearwater Revival and suing myself for plagiarism.
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 latter.
Wally’s Campground is a rather confusing story. And not just because I’m an outsider venturing into a capital ‘R’ Rural campground. Even Alberta Parks is confused, as proven by their use of both Wally’s and Walley’s on the official webpages for this rustic campground and day use area. I’m convinced the additional ‘e’ is a typo, but they could just as easily have meant Walleye’s for all I know.
Whatever the case, Wally’s began … I think … as a day use area, basically a beach, on the southeastern shore of St. Mary Reservoir, itself on the southern border of the Blood Reservation in southern Alberta. What that original day use area looked like will remain a mystery to me. I never once visited nor did I have any prior knowledge of the place. I can tell you this, though. It’s changed … a lot.
My visit to the greater Wally’s Campground complex was for nothing more than curiosity, a time filler during our camping weekend at Lower St. Mary campground. We almost didn’t even get to it having gotten momentarily lost on the range roads south of the reservoir (insert city boy insult here).
Located 4.5 km southwest of the main highway, Wally’s Campground is reached via gravel, country road between endless grain fields. And some of that road is in pretty rough shape. The t-intersection on the final leg into the campground ain’t for the faint-hearted or delicate-trucked. It appears to have been damaged by traffic after being softened by rain. Hopefully it has since been repaired.
The reason you’d ever bother making this trip into the back forty is Wally’s Beach. Not exactly a name on the tip of Albertan’s tongue, save for the locals, I reckon. It pops up on Google maps but feels more like a software glitch than legitimate destination. I’ve never read about it nor has anyone ever recommended this beach to me. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much. Oi, was that a mistake.
What we discovered at Wally’s Beach is perhaps the greatest beach in Alberta. Now, that’s a low bar by pretty much any standard but in terms of sand length and (wildly varying) width, Wally’s Beach is an Alberta miracle. Seriously. I was utterly dumbfounded by what we encountered.
Wally’s Beach is the focal point of what is officially called Wally’s Day Use Area. The large parking lot is brand-spanking new (as is Wally’s Campground … I’ll speak to this in a bit). Fresh gravel. Green, treated lumber posts. Shiny steel cables. All in a field in the middle of nowhere. We could debate for hours the value of such an investment, but this is the first time I’ve encountered verifiable upgrades in the Alberta parks system.
Once parked, the first thing you’ll notice at Wally’s Day Use Area are the sand dunes and trees to the west. An information sign identifies the entrance to what is (was?) Wally’s Beach which you access via a trail through the dunes and trees.
Despite signage asking visitors to avoid scrambling willy-nilly over the dunes, nearly everyone does. Dunes are a magnet for exploration and you’ll see footprints scampering all over the place. Some might even be mine … sorry.
The short, direct path through the dunes and trees opens up onto a spectacular beach. Okay, it’s spectacular by Alberta standards which in turn have a very low threshold for making an impression. Still, my son and I were flabbergasted by what we saw.
In both directions, the surprisingly soft sand seemed to go on for hundreds of metres. And here’s the fun part, as the reservoir lowers over the summer weeks, the beach grows in depth. So much so, that satellite imagery suggests by late summer you could even walk out to an island clearly visible from shore. I image there are quite a few locals sunbathing here each summer weekend and I don’t blame them.
The water, on the other hand, didn’t look too appealing for swimming. In the spring, it was evident that the rising water was eroding the accumulated sand along the beach and this made for very brown, milky water. It was probably too cold for my sensitive private bits anyway. Whether this clears up during the summer is unknown to me, but certainly possible. Regardless, a reservoir such as this one, in the is part of the province, just isn’t going to have pristine, crystal clear water.
Aside from the new parking lot, there isn’t much in the way of infrastructure at the beach. It’s pretty much left to its post-reservoir native state. Expect to bring everything you need for your afternoon of fun because there isn’t a snack shack or rental outlet anywhere to be found and you’re a fair drive from any sizable town.
With this unique draw in an otherwise barren part of the province, I suppose it was inevitable that people would want to camp here. Obviously, Lower and Upper St. Mary campgrounds attest to that and have been around for decades, but neither is within walking distance of the beach. Wally’s Campground changes that.
Wally’s Campground consists of two campgrounds. There’s Wally’s Campground Loop A, the larger of the two, and Wally’s Beach Campground. At least, that’s the labelling found on Google Maps. The road sign at the actual site just says Wally’s Campground. And the government website likewise only states Wally’s Campground but has a spelling mistake and includes a note indicating water is available in Loop A. It’s all very confusing, as if everyone involved is uncertain as to why any of this happened in the first place.
More Loop A SitesWell, happen is has, and the result is a brand new campground comprised of 52 un-serviced campsites in the two aforementioned loops. All are first come first served and easily accessible along the gravel road that eventually takes you to the day use area.
Though new, as in just built this past year or two, Wally’s Campground is rather bland. There just isn’t much to work with out here. It’s flat, open prairie and the two camping loops reflect this reality.
More Beach Loop SitesThe loops and sites are gravel with rough grass between. In some cases, a few older trees can be found but for the most part, the sites are wide open with newly planted trees promising a more sheltered future. Will that come to fruition? I won’t hold my breath. We’re really good at planting trees in this province … not so keen on ensuring they survive.
All sites in both loops are back-ins with the expected fire pit and picnic table provided. Honestly, this is the last place I’d want to camp right now. Exposed to the blazing sun and undoubtedly harassed by whipping winds nearly non-stop, this just isn’t my idea of a great camping experience.
Wally’s Campground is also kind of isolated. It’s not dozens of miles from into wild wilderness, but you’re definitely removed from civilization somewhat. There are no stores or facilities out here and the campground supervisor is located a few kilometres away at Lower St. Mary campground.
I doubt the police or park service is monitoring this place regularly. In other words, it’s possible Wally’s gets a bit rowdy. I can’t confirm nor deny since we didn’t actually camp here and have only visited the place once, during an early spring day, but online reviews tell tales of some such ruckus so be forewarned.
These new campgrounds come with modern, state-of-the-art pit toilets which, last time I checked, are still pit toilets. Baked in the sun all summer, I can well imagine they’re far from pleasant come August. Still, they’re new and clean and I suppose the wind helps dissipate the stench.
Conversely, there is no dump station here. Much like with Upper and Lower St. Mary campgrounds, you’ll be forced to truck your waste to an appropriate facility on your drive back home.
Nor is there any playground. This surprised me a bit, despite neither of the older campgrounds having playgrounds either. With the beach and newness of the place, Wally’s Campground has a family-friendly aura about it. And if starting from scratch, why not build a rockin’ new playground for the kids to play on when not enjoying the sand? There’s certainly no shortage of space.
As mentioned on the website, there is water available in Loop A only. It comes from a sparkling new hand pump located next to the pit toilet. The water pump has a sign suggesting the water is not potable, so again, bring drinking water from home just to be safe.
Similarly, firewood is best brought along, assuming there are no fire bans at the time of your visit. The campground host at Lower St. Mary campground sells wood and I assume makes a daily trip out to Wally’s Campground to sell it. You can also make a trip to the host’s campsite if you’re tired of waiting or fear you’ve missed the sales circuit.
Both loops have a select few campsites relatively close to the water, depending on how full the reservoir is, of course. These sites have the potential for splendid views of the western horizon and evening sunsets. Plus, you’ll have quick access to the beach.
The smaller Wally’s Beach Campground Loop is located between Loop A and the Day Use Area. Between it and the latter, are some traditional day use picnicking areas with tables, pit toilets, and a water pump. All new. As yet, there is no large, group picnic shelter.
These day use areas are found roadside and not on, or along, the beach, so their appeal is somewhat limited in my opinion, but if you’re just looking for a sunny spot to have picnic, there is space available at Wally’s Campground. A short jaunt through the trees and dunes will eventually get you to the beach.
I doubt very much I will ever camp at Wally’s Campground. This just isn’t a setting that appeals to me. By the time the trees are large enough to provide adequate shade, assuming they survive, I’ll either be dead or in no shape for camping anymore.
Still, it’s nice to see some investment happening in our provincial recreation areas and parks. Wally’s will appeal to many; by no means do I represent all Alberta campers. Wally’s Beach alone will draw intrigue by water and sun lovers. And the slight, off-the-beaten-path privacy of the campground will interest those looking to loosen up a bit more than is typically allowed at the popular, near-city spots.
For me, Wally’s Campground is worthy of 2.25 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Its newness supersedes its shortcomings … for now. If the trees all survive and grow to provide needed shelter from the sun (and wind), then this rating could inch upwards.
Ultimately, though, there’s just not enough here to float my boat. And I say that having been pleasantly surprised by our stay at Lower St. Mary Campground. Ironically, Wally’s Campground is what I expected the entirety of the St. Mary Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area. I wasn’t keen on it then and I’m not now having seen it in person.