I haven’t the slightest clue what a gooseberry is. I’ve certainly never eaten one (assuming one safely can, of course). I’m not even sure I’ve seen one, though I most certainly have since I live and camp in Alberta, a province with not one, but TWO, campgrounds/parks named after this obscure (in a grocery store sense) berry.
The gooseberry must be rampant in Alberta, or once was. Those two namesake campgrounds exist in wildly different settings. One is located in the foothills approaching Kananaskis while the other is out in the middle of the flat prairies. If both locals are worthy of honouring the gooseberry, it’s indeed remarkable that this fruit is all but absent from the Western Canadian diet.
It also begs the question, “How lacking in imagination IS Alberta Parks?” It’s not as if Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park and Gooseberry Provincial Recreation Area sprung up simultaneously during pre-Confederation. The former, founded in 1932, was one of the very first parks in the Alberta Parks system. The latter, though I couldn’t find an exact date, likely came about decades later, eventually becoming part of the sprawling Kananaskis country.
Gooseberry Lake most surely existed as a park long before Gooseberry PRA was conceived. So why the similar name? What was so compelling about this fruit-bearing bush that earned it twice the recognition. Saskatoons are far more noteworthy yet not a single campground acknowledges this truth.
And it confuses the hell out of some Albertans, apparently. The reservation system and government websites both warn users that “this” Gooseberry is west near Bragg Creek and “that” Gooseberry is east near Consort. The golf course attendant at the Consort Golf course next to Gooseberry Lake informed us that many times folks from Calgary arrive thinking they’ve booked a campground next to a kayak-able mountain river. How they ended up driving over four hours AWAY from the mountains and not start to question their destination is beyond me.
I think it’s time we renamed Gooseberry Campground in Kananaskis. It’s the imposter in this scenario. It doesn’t follow the “Flats” convention of its siblings up the road (Paddy’s and Beaver). There could even be a contest. What a great way to engage the populace and draw attention to the amazing Alberta parks system without, you know, threatening to mine them.
We’d undoubtedly end up with a name like Dingleberry Campground or Campy McCampface Campground, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay to save oxygen-deprived Calgarians the embarrassment of trying to kayak in the midst of unending canola fields.
Besides, with a name like either of those, I’m way more likely to camp there. Yeah, you heard me. I’ve never camped at Gooseberry Campground. Driven past it a few times. Drove through it exactly once. Just never had the motivation (or reservation) to actually camp in it. Still going to review it.
Gooseberry Campground is the first of several campgrounds strung along HWY 66 in the Elbow River Valley heading west from Bragg Creek. An incredibly popular stretch of wilderness and outdoor recreation, the valley both blesses and taunts Calgarians.
The Elbow River Valley grows ever more beautiful as you head west into the mountains of Kananaskis proper. The east end is not exactly hideous, but it doesn’t have the same visual impact. That’s the first knock against Gooseberry Campground which is kind of like calling the last place contestant in the Miss Universe pageant ugly.
Our first and only encounter with Gooseberry Campground came this past summer while camping at Paddy’s Flats midweek with my kids. Our Paddy’s Flat adventure was made novel by my willingness to drive out all spontaneous like and hope to snag a first come, first served campsite. Sure, midweek made this less of a gamble but for someone who “wings it” as well as a fledgling with vertigo, this was well out of my comfort zone.
Unlike Paddy’s Flat and Beaver Flats, both of which are FCFS, Gooseberry Campground in Gooseberry Provincial Recreation Area follows the lead of its bigger cousins, Mclean Creek and Little Elbow, by requiring reservations. As such, we blew right past it without a second’s thought, only returning for a quick drive through to obtain information for this review.
As mentioned, Gooseberry Campground is the easternmost campground on HWY 66. Its entrance is on the right just west of the Elbow Valley Visitor Information Centre, itself a mere five kilometres from the HWY 22 intersection south of Bragg Creek.
The campground is a single, elongated loop that stretches back eastward between the highway and the Elbow River. If you were to walk straight north from the Visitor Centre, you’d find yourself smack dab in the middle of Gooseberry Campground.
Alberta Parks lists a total of 85 sites present, 28 of which are unserviced, 51 have power, and 6 are walk-in tent sites. The campground management company map shows a total of 88 sites based on numbering, 10 of which are walk-in tent sites. What’s the truth? I have no idea and I didn’t bother counting during our brief tour. Suffice it to say, there are 80+ campsites available.
Those campsites range in style from the aforementioned walk-in tent sites to traditional back-ins. There are two styles of pull-throughs as well; the arcuate type and the straight-forward drive through. A handful of shared sites also exist.
The entire loop is situated in an aspen/pine forest on a modest bench in the river valley. Despite the trees, I wouldn’t consider this a densely forested campground. Most sites have some shelter from the sun, but more than one that is surprisingly open. Someone got a little too trigger happy with the chainsaw, me thinks.
Over time the meandering Elbow River changes course within its broader valley. These changes can be quite dramatic, and damaging, as we witnessed during our exploration of Elbow Falls. The furthest reaches of the loop currently “touch” the river course providing some splendid views for select campsites.
This is particularly true of the walk-in tent sites at Gooseberry Campground. What the place lacks in mountain views (there aren’t any) is partially made up for by ample rockhounding and river exploring. Camping on a site with immediate access to the river and its bars is a definite perk.
I’d love to say the same about the regular campsites near the river, but those appeared to have a chain link fence preventing direct access to the river valley. Good for drunks, I suppose, but otherwise a blemish imho.
A large, gravel parking lot with bear proof lockers provides space for tent campers’ vehicles. The walk to the tent sites is quite short with some of those sites almost directly beside the parking area. All are located at the eastern tip of the loop.
You’re not far from the highway at this point, so don’t expect a silent oasis in the woods next to a river. Still nice, just not extraordinary.
Gooseberry Campground’s remaining sites are fairly typical, if a bit variable. All have a gravel drive that bulges out around a firepit. Some are small, many are large. Most are level though a few have a very slight grade to them. Each comes with a picnic table.
These sites radiate into both the interior and exterior of the loop. The aspen and underbrush provide decent privacy in most of the campsites. Sites on the exterior have the added advantage of no backdoor neighbours, though facing the river is preferable to those backing towards the highway.
A short trail runs through the centre of the loop in the western portion of Gooseberry Campground. I didn’t actually see this during our zip around the loop and only know of it from satellite imagery on Google.
I guess it’s nice for what it is. Not sure I’d want to have my campsite next to this, mind. And with all the trails in the wilds around the campground, not to mention the endless adventure available in the river valley, I’m not entirely sure of this trail’s purpose.
Services are limited, of course. A bunch of sites recently gained 30 amp power which is nice, but on-site water and sewer are not going to happen. Luxury campers, beware.
Potable water is available via old-school hand pumps dotted around the loop. This water is fresh but the parks service doesn’t guarantee its quality and thus recommends bringing drinking water from home.
If you’re coming from Calgary, that’s not such a big deal considering the relative proximity of Gooseberry Campground to home. If you’re a stickler for optimum gas mileage, you can always choose to fill your water tanks at the nearby Elbow Valley dump station.
That dump station is just a few hundred yards west of the campground, on the other side of the highway. This new dump facility is meant to service most of the valley campgrounds and is accordingly large with multiple outlets and fresh water available.
As one would expect in this style and vintage of campground, Gooseberry has only pit toilets available. They’re the typical, older wood shack style with opposing entrances. Single stalls with concrete floors, toilet paper, and sanitizer offer users a functional experience.
Now, I just popped my head in long enough to take a picture. No idea how ripe these suckers get but you can bet they won’t be marketed as a Febreze scent.
Firewood is another amenity you might choose to bring from home, though you can buy it from the campground host. This can be done multiple ways, either by visiting the host’s impressive campsite, affixing a firewood request to your site post, or taking a trip up the road to the camp store at McLean Creek.
Firewood request tags are available at former registration kiosks around the loop.
I’m happy to report that Gooseberry Campground has a playground! It’s a modern, metal marvel located in a long expanse of mowed grass to the south of the loop. A pea gravel base surrounds the multi-functional playground and some benches and picnic tables offer seating for weary parents.
That grassy expanse provides ample room for tossing a baseball, football, or frisbee. An impromptu game of soccer would work as well. It’s long and narrow, so prepare for wild tosses potentially ending up in the trees.
One last novelty worth mentioning. Near the entrance there is a large gravel parking lot that appears to be visitor parking. It is labeled as such on the management website’s old map. There’s no obvious day use or group camping space here so visitor parking is as good a purpose as anything.
That’s not something we typically find at Alberta Parks campgrounds. Not to this extent, anyway. Whether this is a good or bad depends on whom your neighbour’s visitors are, I suppose. I’ll play nice and say this is a plus for the campground, especially considering its proximity to Calgary.
Location is both the best thing and worst thing about Gooseberry Campground. It’s closest to the city, closest to Bragg Creek, and closest to the Visitor Centre, dump station, and McLean Creek camp store (outside of, umm, McLean Creek). That makes it uber-convenient for campers seeking a quick and easy camping experience. It’s no luxury glamping destination but for get-in-get-out ease, it’s hard to beat.
This also plays a roll in cell and even WiFi service. I found that I was able to get a signal through the Telus network around the Visitor Centre. It wasn’t entirely reliable, but it was there. And that will only improve as you saunter eastward. Your success will reflect your phone quality and mobile provider.
The Visitor Centre also purports to have free WiFi. I had no luck connecting to it but that’s hardly a first for broken promises at government facilities. Whether the WiFi or quality cell service bleeds into the campground is unknown to me but Gooseberry Campground is the only place in the Elbow Valley where you’ll even have a chance.
Unfortunately, this campground is kind of out-of-the-way for what the rest of Elbow Valley has to offer. It’s a bit of a drive to get to Elbow Falls. The best hiking trails are further into the park lands and the mountain views remain elusive to campers here.
I actually found it not much different than Paddy’s Flat and I wasn’t exceptionally enamoured with that campground either. In fact, Gooseberry Campground looks as if a single, large loop was air-lifted out of Paddy’s Flat and plunked down behind the Visitor Centre. There really isn’t much to differentiate them beyond the number of sites and reservation status.
I suppose it’s only fitting, then, that I give Gooseberry Campground the same 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 I gave Paddy’s Flat Campground. I know these campgrounds are popular and I’m going a bit against the grain with rating them low. It’s an entitlement issue.
With so much stunning beauty not too much further west, I have a hard time getting excited about stopping short and camping within reach, but not sight, of the very best Alberta’s parks and recreation areas have to offer.
Outside of family or friends giving me a reason to camp at Gooseberry Campground, I doubt I’ll ever actually camp there. A lot of people are cheering, having read that … one less competitor when reservations go live!
For more insight on Elbow Falls and the immediate area, I recommend reading my Paddy’s Flat review.