Stick with your first choice, or some variation thereof, is a favoured idiom that’s pretty much nonsense. My most recent reminder of its fallibility came this past summer when I chose to camp at Paddy’s Flat rather than Beaver Flat.
Or is it Beaver Flats? Even the government doesn’t know if there is one singular flat or a multiple of flats. The highway sign says there’s only one lonely flat while the corresponding websites deem the flats to be plural. One thing all bureaucrats agree on … there’s just one beaver.
Anyway, it was an impromptu, early-week outing with my kids and Paddy’s Flat was the first Elbow Valley FCFS campground we reached. As we drove around the various loops, humming and hawing about which site to choose, and then debating whether to drive further down the highway and see what the next campground had to offer, those prophetic words wafted through my mind once again. So, I said “screw it,” and we took what we thought was the best site available and went about setting up camp at Paddy’s.
The next afternoon, we set out to explore the nearby attractions, most notably Elbow Falls. Beaver Flat is just a couple more clicks past the falls, and wanting material for another blog post, we slipped over to snoop around. Whoops. Turns out sticking with my first choice was not the wisest of decisions.
To be fair, this whoops wasn’t a life-altering or life-shattering, whoops. More of an accidental fart in an elevator kind of whoops. The differences between Paddy’s Flat and Beaver Flat are modest. They’re siblings, through and through. I just felt the latter was somewhat more attractive and had a couple prettier sites available had we bothered to come look. If given a mulligan, I’d sail right past Paddy’s with Beaver on my mind.
Roughly 20 kilometres west of the Hwy 66 and Hwy 22 junction, Beaver Flat is the fourth campground in the Elbow Valley region of Kananaskis. It’s also the second first come, first served only campground, the other being … ta da … Paddy’s Flat.
Tucked into the scrappy wilderness between the highway and river, Beaver Flat has 49 un-serviced sites plus 6 walk-in tent sites making it slightly more than half the size of its big brother to the east. Those 55 campsites are arranged in an amorphous conglomeration of four (-ish) loops that beggar credibility.
Loop A is a rectangular loop of ten sites nearest the entrance. Loop B has eight sites around a small, amoeba-looking route completely within a much larger Loop D. The biggest loop, D is a squarish loop that swoops along a bend in the river showcasing eleven riverside sites before returning all the way back to the campground entrance. The remaining sites reside in Loop C which is itself two loops, with the smaller not unlike a witch’s wart on top of a formerly broken witch’s nose, plus a string of tent sites beside the river.
The majority of campsites at Beaver Flat are back-in with only the 6 walk-in tent sites and 8 arcuate pull-through sites in Loop D offering anything different. There is nonetheless a fair amount of variability in site size and layout. Though most sport the typical long gravel drive with firepit and picnic table bulb, a few are quaint and small, more akin to a tenting site than an RV site.
As far as natural setting goes, it’s fascinating how things can noticeably change in just 5 kilometres. Again, its not dramatic change, but the forest cover at Beaver Flat has more conifer content than Paddy’s Flat. There remains some poplar and aspen, for sure, but as the conifers become more prominent, I think the campground gets a bit more visually appealing.
It also makes for better shelter in my opinion. Odd, I know, considering deciduous trees are often the first thing we envision when discussing shade trees. But in these parts, the leafy trees are not grand maples and oaks with broad canopies. Instead, it’s the spruce and pine reaching for the sky that offer the most reliable sun screen.
Ironically, I did feel like more of the campsites at Beaver Flat lacked tree density than at Paddy’s. The interior of the loops may be well-treed, but the sites themselves were often quite open.
This was most noticeable with the pull-through sites alongside the river. Now, being on (or very near) the river has plenty of perks with views being first and foremost. Fewer trees are perhaps preferable here even if it means dealing with the hot sun. Hey, you’ve got a cold, mountain river in which to cool off in right at your doorstep.
A couple of these sites are what had me wishing I’d checked Beaver Flat before settling for a site in Paddy’s Flat. And one in particular (55), is truly the gem of the campground being both riverside and isolated. It obviously wasn’t available during our drive through (I’d have moved in a flash), but if you luck into getting it, oh boy, will you have a fantastic camping experience.
Similarly, the topography at Beaver Flat is more foothills-ish than it was at Paddy’s. A quick peak at a topo map shows that this campground is nestled between two “hills” in a narrowing of the river valley compared to the broadening that occurs downstream of Elbow Falls.
These are not mountains by any stretch, so don’t get the idea that you’ll be staring at towering, snow-covered peaks. But I personally prefer some undulation in my campground scenery and having the hills and cliffs right across the river (or highway) appeals to me.
That being said, the campground itself is fairly … umm … flat. It’s almost as if the name has meaning. It does drop in elevation from the road to the river, but I don’t recall it being as tiered as at Paddy’s. Caveat being we only drove through the place. We did not camp here or spend a lot of time exploring the nuances of each loop.
Privacy between sites varies but for the most part is tolerable to excellent. You won’t be able to lounge in your skivvies unnoticed, but you’ll never feel like you’re stuck listening to your neighbour’s snoring right outside your camper window.
One thing that might set Beaver Flat apart from its kin are the walk-in tent sites. If you’re a tent camper, these are worth checking out. They’re fairly private, well-sheltered in true forest, and look out over the river. Strung out in a line eastward from the southeastern corner of Loop C, the further along you go the better, with the last campsite (41) being well beyond the limits of the regular camping loops and thus, presumably, the best of all.
A small parking area at the corner of the loop is reserved for the walk-in tent campers. It even identifies specific stalls for each walk-in site. Very fancy. Oddly enough, I don’t recall seeing any food lockers here which is uncommon.
As mentioned above, all the sites are un-serviced so you can expect to find the usual bare necessities of old handpumps for water and pit toilets for waste. There’s also the river water, I suppose.
The water is potable but comes with the government warning sign that they no longer guarantee safety for drinking. Odds are it’ll be fine but boiling it, or better yet, bring your own from home, will eliminate any concerns.
You can also fill up your RV tanks with fresh water at the Elbow Valley dump station. This modern, multi-stall dump station is located near the visitor information centre towards the entrance to Elbow Valley. You can read a bit more about these facilities in my Paddy’s Flat review.
The pit toilets are the iconic (can I use that word for outhouses?) older style wooden structures found in most Alberta parks. Some are doubles (two stalls per side) and others are singles. I did not use one at Beaver Flat campground. I didn’t collapse in agony taking a picture of the interior of one, but I didn’t stick around with my head stuck inside the door long either. They are what they are, and I see no reason to expect these particular ones to be different than any others in the valley campgrounds.
Despite being on the smaller side, Beaver Flat does have its own campground host. This is kind of nice though you’re hardly “out in the boonies” here. Still, a local host is better than one situated at another campground that only patrols once or twice daily.
Firewood can be purchased from the host (I think), and I assume there are firewood tags available (likely by the registration kiosk) should you choose to purchase using that method. The store at McLean Creek campground east of Paddy’s Flat also sells firewood by the bundle. Last option is bringing your own wood which many a camper does.
Beaver Flat does not have a playground. I didn’t expect there to be one but was also shocked to find one at Paddy’s Flat. I’m not even sure how I feel about this right now. Some folks would find a playground helpful, others annoying. I was once the former and now drifting to the latter. YMMV.
Kids and adults can play in the river although that avenue is somewhat limited here. The river valley is not very wide so there is limited space to roam and rockhound. You can, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing like the broad flood plain strewn with gravel bars downstream.
Hiking is always an option in Kananaskis Country, and there is no shortage of trails around. The Beaver Flat Trailhead resides within the campground and offers an interpretive hike around the beaver lodges and ponds immediately north. We did not take the time to do this short hike but if experience is reliable, then the “interpretive” part of the trail is in need of repair. Still a nice walk, I’m sure.
You might also be able to hike all the way to Elbow Falls from Beaver Flat. Don’t hold me to this assumption, I just have a feeling you can. Regardless, longer hikes around and up the surrounding hillsides abound and you’ll be sure to find one to your liking only a short distance from the campground.
Also, a short drive or bike down to Elbow Falls is a great way to spend a few hours. I elaborated on this local attraction in my Paddy’s Flat review and encourage you to read it if you’re curious. The falls are modest, but pretty, and the flood devastation left behind in 2013 is fascinating to behold.
Otherwise, a relaxing evening around the campfire is all that’s on tap for campers at Beaver Flat. And, really, sometimes that’s all anyone needs.
I’d be hard-pressed to rate Beaver Flat any differently than Paddy’s Flat. They’re very much alike despite their differences. So, 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 it is. I’d still choose Beaver over Paddy if given the choice, especially if I could get site 55 or one of the other sweet spots along the river. And if you’re tent camping, the walk-in sites here are a draw.
Ultimately, I’d make the effort to reserve a site and go camp at Little Elbow campground at the far west end of the valley. It’s by far the superior Elbow Valley campground with the best scenery of the bunch.
Find another campground here.