When I turned 15, I got my first, non-babysitting job. It was a momentous turning point for me, but also my whole family. From that point forward, I never again spent a weekend camping with my parents and sister at our seasonal campsite in Sauble Beach, something we’d done religiously since I was 4.
My eldest child just turned 15. And though they haven’t graduated to a job yet, it does feel like we’re on the cusp of big changes to the summer camping routine we’ve been enjoying since 2011. With that bittersweet realization tugging at my heartstrings, it seemed like a good time to bring our camping career full circle and return to the very first campground we ever visited on a planned camping weekend after buying our first travel trailer. With that, spending the 2022 May long weekend at River Grove Campground in Drumheller was born.
I recall two points of note from our first trip eleven years ago. One, the towering cottonwood trees were dropping fluffy, white poofs everywhere. It almost looked like winter. Having never experienced a cottonwood bloom, this was quite the unexpected sight. And two, as proof of the RV-ing rookies that we were, we forgot to bring the trailer stabilizer crank with us and had to borrow one from a neighbouring camper. Good to get that first “d’oh” moment over with right out of the gate.
Twelve summers later, we’re wily veterans and our return visit to River Grove Campground in the heart of downtown Drumheller went off without a hitch. Not even a trickle of pit sweat backing the trailer into our campsite, unlike the veritable fountain that arrived each weekend during that first summer. And second. Possibly even into the third. You get the picture.
On my list of Alberta places that are great to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, Drumheller is at or very near the top. As a family of geoscientists with two kids, the Badlands are an irresistible lure. The Badlands, dinosaurs, fossils, coal mining … it’s a perfect storm of sorts and having it a tolerable drive from home is indeed a blessing.
But that Badlands moniker is no fluke. This can be an exceptionally harsh environment. The heat and sun are often unbearable (I’m a wimp). Winters are long and frigid. The amazing geology only temporarily distracts from a grim, desolate environment. Were it not for the dinosaurs to entice tourists, I doubt there’d be much left of civilization in the area, save for the bare minimum of agricultural services, now that the coal industry is gone. Those that call Drumheller home are a resilient, novel lot to whom I tip my hat. I couldn’t do it.
Visiting, on the other, I can do no problem. Especially in the spring when the sun has yet to crank it up to eleven. There are many others like me and thus the Red Deer River valley around Drumheller is bursting with campground options. Somewhat oddly, however, unlike most other prominent tourist regions in the province, the provincial park in Drumheller does not offer camping.
River Grove Campground
Found on the west end of town, and including the famed Royal Tyrrell Museum, Midland Provincial Park has no campground. A small first-come, first-served, non-serviced campground at Bleriot Ferry, some twenty minutes northwest of town, is the only provincially operating camping spot in the area. Everything else is private.
Our destination of choice in Drumheller, twice now, has been River Grove Campground and I’ll be the first to admit it won’t appeal to everyone. If you’re looking to get away from it all (urban life in particular), then you’ll want to go somewhere else. This is not a countryside oasis surrounded by wilderness.
What River Grove Campground is, however, is a fantastic homebase to explore the many attractions in and around Drumheller for those wanting something other than a hotel. Tucked along the north bank of the Red Deer River, River Grove Campground is located within a small residential community across the main highway bridge from downtown Drumheller. This makes it an easy walk to the visitor information centre, the community spray park, quirky fossil and antique shops, and several food service outlets, both “mom & pop” and chains in nature.
The central location is equally convenient for driving to tourist hotspots further afield, like Tyrrell, Atlas Coal Mine, Horse Thief Canyon, and Hoodoos Trail to name a few. Drumheller is hardly a sprawling metropolis, so getting in and out of town isn’t too difficult. And returning to River Grove Campground after a full day of adventuring and being able to stroll into downtown for an ice cream or cold beer suits us just fine.
On the other hand, waking to the buzz of lawnmowers leaves a lot to be desired on a weekend away from home. Nor can you escape the drone of traffic crossing the bridge. And if one of the neighbouring homes is having a backyard BBQ, I hope you like the music they’re playing because complaining to the campground staff will be even less successful than usual.
Still, I knew what we were getting when we booked at River Grove Campground, so the aforementioned annoyances didn’t irritate me like they would have had they been a complete surprise. It’s an urban campground and this is what you get. To be fair, none of it negatively impacted our weekend. Not bad for a May long after two years of pandemic. Our sleep was never interrupted, or worse, prevented entirely and the yard maintenance noises were kept to daytime hours when we were mostly gone anyway.
I don’t know how long River Grove Campground has been around, but it has to be many decades. New campgrounds just do not get built in locations like this. In fact, I’m surprised it’s still around, to be honest. In any more affluent town/city, real estate like this would have been developed ages ago. That a family-operated campground in the heart of a community still exists is kind of charming.
Campsites at River Grove Campground
Further testament to River Grove’s longevity and homegrown origins can be found in the befuddling campground layout. If you handed a preschooler a sheet of paper and a box of crayons and asked them to draw a campground, River Grove is exactly what you’d get.
This gives the place a lot of personality compared to the cookie-cutter campsites found in new developments. In no way am I complaining about it. Just wandering around and seeing all the mysterious site orientations can be a small joy. But coupled with the unscaled, Microsoft Paint campground map, I did find it frustrating when trying to choose an actual campsite.
The reservation interface does offer a description of each campsite at River Grove Campground, but without pictures and a detailed map it was really hard to know which campsite to pick. On top of that, the current Google Maps satellite image is awful, so that didn’t even offer any insight, though I suspect the canopy of the cottonwood trees would hide a lot of it anyway.
Nonetheless, you’ll want to choose a campsite, and there is an ample, if eclectic, supply available. Of the 95 RV sites, 33 come with full services (30 amp power, water, sewer). Another 50 have just power (30 amp) and water with an additional 3, yes three, having 15 amp power and water. A further 9 campsites are un-serviced.
Campers using tents are equally catered to at River Grove Campground, with a whopping 46 tent sites available. And if you’re fully invested in the glamping experience, there are 10 cabins to choose from as well.
The majority of RV campsites are back-ins, with a handful of pull-throughs to spice things up. Nearly all of them are found within the interior of the campground and along the northern boundary with the neighbouring homes.
By and large, the RV sites consist of a dominant gravel pad with a patch or strip of grass. Site boundaries are delineated, in part, by large railway ties in the ground. All are completely or partially sheltered by cottonwood and poplar trees that only grow in the river valleys in these parts. Some sites, particularly those along the boundary, also have some thickets of shrubs and such along the fence line adding some privacy.
Site size varies with some capable of handling very large fifth wheels while others are smaller and only capable of handling more modest travel trailers. None are especially private or large in width which shouldn’t surprise anyone. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sardine can, but you will assuredly be aware of your neighbours.
That said, there are a couple wider sites on the western edge of the campground (e.g. 146) and site 49 is a genuine monster nearer the entrance. If I had a do-over, this is the site I’d choose.
All campsites at River Grove Campground come with the obligatory picnic table and firepit. The tables are surprisingly light but getting a bit long in the tooth. They work, though.
The firepits struck me as a tad smaller than the typical iron rounds usually found at campgrounds. I think these are genuine vehicle wheels. Whatever the case, they do the job. Some of the tent site firepits have an additional grate welded to them for cooking. RV sites tend not to have this luxury.
In general, the tent sites are not remarkably different than the RV sites, save for size. Most have space for a vehicle and a modest tent tucked in amongst the firepit and picnic table. They also tend to be wholly gravel with little grass, if any.
There are, however, what I would call walk-in tent sites as well. A grouping of these is found across from the playground where a communal parking lot is provided and the tent sites are located on a swath of gras beneath the trees. The “walk-in” is obviously not far, but neither are you parking right next to your tent.
A unique suite of tent sites is found right by the main campground entrance. Here you’ll find 7 round, concrete platforms that at one time were home to teepees you could rent. That option is no longer available, and the teepee sites are now considered tent sites. If you’d prefer not to have your tent directly on the ground, then I suppose these sites are what you’ll want.
Finally, a string of tent campsites is found along the southern boundary of River Grove Campground. These sites should be looking out over the Red Deer River but unfortunately there is a large berm situated between the river’s edge and the campground.
This makes perfect sense from a flood-prevention standpoint but is terribly disappointing from a camping perspective. Oh, would it be nice to tent camp next to the river even if you’re smack dab in the middle of town.
Even more disappointing, that berm is outside the campground property line and a chain link fence prevents campers for venturing up the berm or along it. Again, I’m sure there are logical reasons for this, but it strikes me as a lost opportunity for a nice trail along the river.
The cabins are cute, brown, wood-sided structures that harken back to a time when cabins were in fact cabins and not second homes. I was unable to peer inside any of them, but the campground website offers pictures of their interiors, and they look to be a perfect mix of quaint and modern. Each appears to have beds, either a double/queen or two singles, and small kitchens with dining area. As an alternative to an actual hotel room, the cabins look like a good option to me.
At the very centre of River Grove Campground is where all the amenities reside. The main office, looking like an oversized cabin, houses registration services and a small store. As of summer 2022, however, the store remains closed to entry though you can still purchase items from staff through the service window.
This service window is also how you’ll check-in upon arrival. Accessed from the large deck out front, I suspect this was implemented during the pandemic and remains in effect for the time being. As such, I was unable to enter the office/store proper so can’t relate any additional facts about the structure.
Firewood is available for sale at the office and comes in plastic feed bags costing $10.95 each. We brought our own, so I can’t comment as to its quality.
Two shower houses with full bathrooms are present, one on each side of the office. The larger of the two, to the east, appears to be a newer structure and has everything you’d want in a full-service campground shower house.
There is a men’s side, a women’s side, and in the middle a handicap access option. The men’s version contains 2 urinals, 3 toilets, 6 showers, and 6 sinks with mirrors. Sinks have hot water along with free soap and towelettes.
One gripe I have regarding the shower house comes courtesy of my spouse. She noted that the radio inside plays non-stop, 24/7. Even in the dead of night, should you need to visit the bathroom, the music is blaring inside. That may annoy some.
The secondary shower house is smaller and I never used it. It does have a dishwashing station out front. With its location being closer to many of the tent sites along the river, this added amenity is welcome.
West of the main shower house, closer to the office, is a laundromat. It contains 3 washers and 3 dryers, all coin-operated. They also look newer than those typically found in laundromats.
I wasn’t expecting such a convenience at River Grove Campground, but its one I’m sure many campers appreciate. Exploring the Badlands is plenty of fun for the fit and adventurous, but in the dead of summer it’s also a sweaty, dusty endeavour. Being able to put on clean clothes after a welcome shower is a plus, particularly for tent campers.
I’ll admit to not recognizing many of the games. I suspect several are cheap knockoffs of more popular games from back in the day. But Out Run brought back memories and the Space Jam pinball made me chuckle.
Outdoor fun at River Grove Campground comes courtesy of a playground located smack dab in the middle of the entry road, close to the entrance. Space was surely limited, but it’s nonetheless an odd spot to put a kids’ playground. And dangerous. Hence the fully enclosing chain link fence around it.
The playground is a combination of a traditional swing set coupled with a wooden and metal climbing apparatus. Both are positioned within a large bed of pea gravel. It’s a good-sized playground and young kids could be seen enjoying it all weekend. Just be careful when driving past. Fenced or not, little kids have a knack for darting out in front of vehicles.
For those without water on site, fresh water is available from taps at the dishwashing site or towards the eastern end of the campground. According to the map, there are none elsewhere in the campground. This may mean a bit of a walk for some tent sites but otherwise, all campers have water either on-site or nearby.
The water is city of Drumheller water. It’s perhaps not the tastiest H20 on the planet, but it’s safe. I will say I thought the water pressure was a bit weak. That might have just been my trailer. Or perhaps the campground pressure gets taxed on a full capacity weekends? Anyway, this is nitpicking.
RVers without septic services, of which there are 62 sites at River Grove Campground, have the option of a single dump station to empty their tanks. This kind of shocked me considering the relative size of the campground. One outlet seems a bit slim.
Furthermore, the single dump station is located right in front of the shower house and arcade pretty much in the middle of the road. I fully expected a proper gong show when we attempted to leave on Sunday morning but was delighted to find no other RVs looking to use the dump station.
That was likely just dumb luck. There has got to be a traffic jam here most weekends at some point. As an alternative, the magical interwebs tells me the nearby Canadian Tire has a dump station. I’ll bet that’s better designed and potentially less congested.
Being in the middle of town, cell service will not be an issue. Additionally, River Grove Campground offers free WiFi. They profess that the WiFi is available throughout the campground. They’re not wrong, but at the furthest reaches it can be quite weak, especially from inside your RV.
We were camping in site 46 which is almost as far from the main office as you can get, and I struggled to get consistent WiFi from inside our trailer. Outside was marginally better. Our RV has a signal booster which helped a bit also. If having WiFi is crucial, you’ll want a site closer to the signal origin.
On a related note, one should be aware that the valley in which Drumheller resides is somewhat of a radio dead zone. The stations you’re happily listening to while approaching from Calgary tend to disappear as you descend into the valley. There are a couple local stations that remain viable, but it’s fascinating just how much radio reception is lost down there.
Thankfully a strategically positioned transistor radio was able to receive the Calgary AM sports station and we could listen to the Flames vs Oilers playoff games. Of course, the Flames sucked in both, so we didn’t listen for long. But we could, and that’s the takeaway of this paragraph.
You may be camping inside a town, but wildlife is not absent. Woodpeckers were busy hammering at the old cottonwoods and poplars much of the day. Other birds would swoop around as well. And at night the haunting hoots of an owl were reported by a senior ranking family member in our cohort.
In the Town of Drumheller
As I mentioned earlier, River Grove Campground is great if your goal is to explore Drumheller and surrounding attractions. Just outside the campground as you approach the bridge, you’ll find another playground. This one, a community option, is a newer metal and plastic creation with slides and tubes and instruments that’ll surely entertain the young ones.
Walk over the bridge and you’re immediately at the precipice of downtown Drumheller. To the west is a partial river-side trail leading to Newcastle Beach, a park and “beach” along the Red Deer River. For some reason we never made it to this park to check it out. Too many other adventures to have.
To the east, is the town’s spray park and beyond that the visitor information centre.
The spray park was inoperative during our visit. Or at least nobody was using it. The May long weekend is notorious for poor weather in Alberta and while this year was in no way horrible, it definitely wasn’t warm enough to be frolicking in a spray park. Come summer, though, I’m sure this little oasis is super busy. Being within easy walking distance from River Grove Campground is a blessing for parents of hot, energetic children.
If the weather remains unpleasant but you’re still hellbent on swimming, the Drumheller Aquaplex (i.e. pool) is right next to the spray park.
The Drumheller visitor centre is readily identifiable by the “World’s Largest Dinosaur” which towers overhead. Accessed from inside the visitor centre, this dinosaur is actually an observation tower. In the gaping maw of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is a platform offering a view of the Red Deer River valley looking west.
We didn’t spend the $15 for a family to take in the view largely because the weather was cool and windy the evening we were at the visitor centre. I hate wind at the best of times. I’m sure as hell not paying money to experience more of it.
As for the visitor centre itself, it’s a typical yet helpful information depot for those not familiar with the town and surrounding area. Pamphlets galore will help you find the attractions most appealing to your family’s desires. The staff are kind and can answer any questions you have about adventuring in the badlands.
One of the more unique accoutrements of the visitor centre is a status board showing the availability at all the campgrounds, hotels, motels, and bed & breakfasts in the area. I thought this was terrific and a big help for travelers not quite as anal as I am about preparations.
Doubling as a gift shop, a plentiful supply of trinkets, clothes, and all things dinosaur are available in the visitor centre as well.
Drumheller’s downtown is a quirky place. Tourist shops selling dinosaur knickknacks, fossils, and overpriced ice cream are found in several spots, again all within an easy walking distance from River Grove Campground. Eccentric antique shops, an old movie theatre, a modern craft brewery, coffee shops, hair salons, government services, and various restaurants dot the streets among apartments and otherwise empty buildings. It’s both depressing and inspiring. A reminder of what once was and a testament to the resilience of the townsfolk.
Exploring the town is well worth a few hours of your time, but the ultimate draw of Drumheller lies outside urban development. I could go on for pages more. Royal Tyrrell Museum, Horse Thief Canyon, Bleriot Ferry, Orkney Lookout, Atlas Coal Mine, Hoodoos Trail, and Horseshoe Canyon, to name a few, make Drumheller and the Alberta Badlands a great place to explore.
Your choice of accommodations while visiting all these attractions is a matter of personal taste. There really is an option for every flavour of camper. I think River Grove Campground is as good a choice as any. Sure, it holds a special little place in our hearts due to history, but it’s genuinely a great family campground. I’ll give it 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles our out of 5.
The location may not be to everyone’s liking. I totally get that. For us, it offers convenience and shelter (some of the out-of-town campgrounds are a bit too exposed to the sun). The layout is weird, the berm is unfortunate, but otherwise River Grove is a neat spot for families and tenters. We were right to try it out twelve summers ago, and right to return this year.