Well, it turns out that I might, just might, be a wee bit of a geography snob. At least when it comes to campgrounds. Case in point, Red Lodge Provincial Park.
I’ve known about this small provincial park located sixteen kilometres west of Bowden, Alberta for many years. It’s a very popular spot, garnering much praise in Facebook camping groups. When reservation windows open, it fills immediately. I just … I … it just never struck me as all that interesting.
A swath of forest hugging a meandering segment of the Little Red Deer River, Red Lodge Provincial Park is not particularly special. It’s not in the mountains or the badlands or other unique topography locale. It’s just in the middle of farmland. Something you’d mindlessly pass on your way to someplace actually interesting. Oh, and it’s sixteen kilometres west of Bowden, Alberta, a town remarkable only for a funky roadside diner and a nearby federal penitentiary.
After years of avoidance, this past weekend we finally made our way to the admired park I’d relentlessly judged. Wouldn’t you know it, my prejudice betrayed me. Not only did we have a delightful weekend of camping (packing up in the rain, notwithstanding), but Red Lodge Provincial Park proved worthy of the praise lavished upon it by more enlightened campers than I.
At roughly half a quarter section in size, you’ll be hard-pressed to feel like you’ve escaped to the wilderness. The drone of pickup trucks on the busy highway along the park’s south boundary will regularly remind you of civilization. But with the spruce and poplar forest and a lazy river bisecting it, Red Lodge nonetheless manages to invoke a warm sense of Nature.
The southern portion of the park contains the campground. There are four irregular loops (A through D) comprised of 86 campsites, 38 of which are power only (15/30 amp) and 48 being unserviced.
Loops A and B, found within a river meander to the west, are sparsely populated with only 22 unserviced campsites between them. The extra space is used for four day use picnic areas along the river.
Loop C, the only loop with electrical service, is the most central of the loops and unsurprisingly the most popular with RVers.
Loop D, also entirely unserviced, is the northernmost loop and offers the easiest access to the wilderness portion of Red Lodge Provincial Park.
All 86 campsites are back-ins. They vary in size and proximity to each other, with a rare few (e.g. sites 7 and 8) essentially shared sites. By contrast, others (e.g. site 58) are remarkably large and/or deep with plenty of space of big RVs and ample privacy from neighbours.
Our campsite (B15) was a gem. Big and spacious, we essentially had no immediate neighbours to worry about. Backing directly onto the Little Red Deer River, with access to the campground trail, and with lots of open forest insulating us from other campsites, I couldn’t have stumbled upon a much better site. The only knock on it was the proximity to the highway bridge which could clearly be heard from our site.
When I hopped online to reserve our weekend, the electrical sites in Loop C disappeared in a flash. I suspect some might even have been booked up a day early to ensure folks got what they wanted. With little time for contemplation and zero previous experience to draw upon, I snagged our site just to get something. I may be a campground bigot but I’m a lucky one!
Loop A is even closer to the highway, with a handful of sites all but backing right onto it. You could clearly see the road and/or bridge through the trees. While our campsite may not have been the quietest, it enjoyed much less noise than these sites do. Something to be aware of when booking.
And I must say, the traffic noise abated tremendously in the evening and overnight. This is not a TransCanada Highway through the Rockies situation. It’s there during the day but could be far worse.
All campsites are built with gravel drives and pads surrounding a firepit. Most are sheltered by trees but at least a couple are partially or completely open to the blue skies above. Where campsites are not too close together, shrubbery offers some additional privacy, though where spruce dominates, the forest understory is mostly barren.
The picnic tables are large, metal creations with wood tops and seats. They’re old but work just fine.
Firepits are robust metal rings with added cooking grates that swing over the fire or away from it. These are great for those looking to cook like our ancient ancestors. The grate does limit the ability to seat chairs completely around the pit somewhat, but that’s a minor inconvenience.
Group Camping at Red Lodge Provincial Park
East of Loops C & D are three group areas. One, named Beaver, is on the west side of the access road while the other two, named Magpie and Deer, are found on the east side of the road. The latter two share a common loop. I’m not sure why they are given separate names since they inevitably bleed into each other.
The proximity of these group areas to regular camping loops is another cause for celebration at the luck I had booking in Loop B. I didn’t venture over that way in the evening to confirm, but any rowdiness in the group areas will surely disrupt those in the nearest campsites.
The Group Areas are open, grassy areas with no definitive campsites within. Everything from tents to RVS just claim an area of field and setup shop. Picnic tables and garbage bins are provided along with firepit rings, one in each of which is an oversized, communal version.
Each Group Area has a newer pit toilet and a water spigot either in the loop or close by. This is common to most group sites in Alberta’s provincial parks, but Red Lodge Provincial Park has a nasty bit of torment for group campers.
Immediately south of Deer Group Area and across from Beaver Group Area is a nice, shiny, relatively new shower house! That was one of the perks I immediately noticed when I set about booking a campsite here. I’m not the most high-maintenance camper around, but I do prefer me some flush toilets and a shower house is synonymous with such luxury means of body waste disposal at campgrounds.
Unfortunately, on May 13, 2022, Alberta Parks announced via their website that the shower house at Red Lodge would remain closed for the entire 2022 camping season. Definitely not a welcome piece of news.
A notice posted on the shuttered shower house doors indicates that all potable water at Red Lodge Provincial Park is supplied by a cistern which requires costly delivery. The coin-operated showers do not cover the cost of delivery and sewage management, so the facility will remain closed until a more cost-effective solution can be found. Considering the current political climate, I don’t see that shower house returning to use for a long time.
Needless to say, I was unable to look inside. From the outside it looks like a quality amenity. It’s a shame it isn’t used. And I’m a bit surprised there isn’t a water source within the park itself. Drilling a well seems like an obvious solution. One that all the surrounding farmers have surely employed.
Speaking of water, the drinking kind in particular, Red Lodge Provincial Park does supply it to several water taps throughout the campground as well as at the dump station. This might surprise a few folks who rely on the official campground map posted on the Alberta Parks website. Folks like us.
If you peruse the legend on said map (as of June 7, 2022), it clearly states that the water taps in the campground provide water that is “non-potable”. We hauled our own drinking water from Calgary based on this information.
However, upon arrival we noticed a fellow camper filling their RV water tank at the dump station. Other campers were happily using the water taps, all of which had a bright blue “this is drinking water” sign on them. Either we’re overly cautious about waterborne infections or something was amiss with our water information.
I asked at the main office and sure enough, the water is perfectly fine to drink. The attendant seemed genuinely surprised when I showed her the online map indicating water was non-potable. Interestingly, the paper campground map available to arrivals at the main office does not make such a statement about the water. I can only assume that the online map is either out-of-date or outright erroneous.
With the aforementioned shower house closure, you’ll be stuck using pit toilets if you choose not to corrupt your onboard bathroom facilities. Being the first weekend in June, they remained relatively unscathed and non-odourous during our stay. Not sure if this is a reflection of the time of year or a testament to the cleaning regimen employed at Red Lodge Provincial Park, but I was grateful.
RVs have access to a single dump station near the main office. There is a $5 fee to use it which you’ll be asked about when registering upon arrival. There is no restriction to the actual dump station outlet itself, so I’m not sure how closely they police payment.
On Sunday morning when we left, it was pouring rain and not a single RV was using the dump station or waiting for it as we drove past. Having no need to dump our own tank, we didn’t wait around to see if that changed. If you’re adamant that you won’t pay for sewage dumping, there’s always the information centre dump station north of Airdrie on Highway 2, among other alternatives.
The main office and store is small, but adequate. The staff is friendly. They sell a base assortment of treats and toys. A small fridge full of beverages is present.
I’m hoping this is simply a result of us arriving in the first days of June and that the ice cream just isn’t available for sale yet. But I saw no evidence that ice cream is ever for sale there. Not inside nor outside the office. I suspect the website is outdated in this respect as well.
If you are in need of a special treat or even a restaurant meal, Bowden is only a few minutes away. It may not be the mightiest of towns, but it’s not devoid of services. If nothing else, the diner has great milkshakes.
The office also sells ice for $4 a bag and firewood for $10 per bag for wood and $5 per bag for kindling. We purchased none of the above, but it’s wonderful that both are available to campers. Ice especially, as it’s hard to bring lots of ice along from home without it melting.
Unsurprisingly, there is no WiFi at Red Lodge Provincial Park. Being in oil territory and close to civilization, cell service is not an issue, so the lack of WiFi won’t leave you unexpectedly off-grid.
Across the parking lot from the office/store is an ATCO style trailer emblazoned with “Craft Cabin” signage. This too was closed. I peered in the windows and saw an open, unused fridge, some furniture, and what appeared to be an teaching display on bird wings.
Yet again, I do not know if this facility functions at all anymore or if we were just too early in the season. My kids are too old regardless, but I’m sure it would be appreciated by the younger set of which there were many.
Immediately next to the Craft Cabin is an empty campsite with full services. I suspect this is where a campground host resides through the summer. Assuming they still do that. So many unanswered questions during our early June visit.
Next door, to the east, is a large grass field in which you’ll find a decent sized playground. The playground consists of a four-person swing set and a large, metal and plastic climbing apparatus with slides. Both are situated over a pea gravel base with picnic tables and benches for parents to park their behinds.
The grass field is spacious enough for throwing balls or frisbees. Maybe even play a game of soccer or bocce. It was green and fairly lush in early June but may dry out during the summer. Or maybe they water it with river water?
Two sets of horseshoe pits once graced the field at Red Lodge Provincial Park. The pits remain but the posts are gone rendering them useless. It really is sad how far out of our collective conscience horseshoes has fallen. Great game. Just saying.
Hiking Around Red Lodge Provincial Park
The lack of hiking was perhaps the biggest con in my initial assessment of this park and campground. Now that I’ve been there, I can say I was slightly mistaken. You aren’t going to find any multi-kilometre hikes to amazing waterfalls, but Red Lodge isn’t lacking in places to stroll.
A riverside trail runs from the southwest corner in Loop A to the northern end of the campground in Loop D. It hugs the river most of that distance, giving walkers and bikers a picturesque avenue to move around the campground or access various parts of the river. Benches along the way allow for good for bird and beaver watching.
The trail is reasonably wide and varies from dirt to gravel to red shale. It does, however, get really close to the rear of some campsites, notably in Loop C. If you don’t want strangers traversing your “backyard”, I’d avoid sites immediately backing onto the trail.
Otherwise, it’s a lovely addition to the park. It even comes with signage depicting and describing the flora and fauna indigenous to the area. Surprisingly, these signs are in good shape and still completely legible. May wonders never cease!
If you do wander to the northern extent of the trail, a short scooch to your right reveals a barricaded dirt road accessing the upper reaches of Red Lodge Provincial Park. Vehicles cannot pass but those on foot sure can. And beyond the barrier is an additional dirt trail not depicted on the park map.
We explored this trail which eventually takes you to the northern boundary of the park. Along the way, sidetracks veer off toward the river to the west, ending at gravel bars. There you’ll find more secluded places to explore, be it rockhounding, birdwatching, chasing the pretty butterflies, or just observing evidence of beaver activity.
I was eventually able to capture a closeup shot of a beautiful Tiger Swallowtail. Above us, a squadron of Pelicans flew past and at one point we witnessed a hawk hunting. It may not have been a long hike, but it was nonetheless fun for a couple hours in the afternoon.
We stumbled upon further mysteries in the woods along this unofficial trail. As we neared the northwest boundaries, I noticed a clearing among spruce trees. Near the entry to this clearing, near the ground, was a 4 x 4 campsite post with the number 130 on it.
I didn’t see another, but it sure piqued my curiosity. There are only 86 campsites at Red Lodge Provincial Park today, but could there perhaps have been another loop at one time? Were there upwards of 40+ more sites? Were there walk-in tent sites? What does it all mean?!?
The river’s edge near Loop D also provides a “beach” area. I put that in heavy quotes because in no way is there a sandy beach here. Instead, a muddy, de-vegetated bar on a river meander offers kids a place to play near and in the water. Surely not the cleanest activity and yet another reason to mourn the loss of the shower house.
Having a picnic next to the river is an enjoyable, relaxing activity for the locals, so don’t be surprised to find non-campers visiting during the day. The four day use areas indicated on the map are lovely little grassed areas with picnic tables and a view. Parking spots are available as well.
One of the more perplexing disappointments in the Red Lodge Provincial Park campground are the now abandoned picnic shelters. There was one in Loop B and another next to the playground (there could be others). They are marked on the map as picnic shelters, but in reality only concrete slabs remain.
Say it with me … yet, again, I have no idea why these shelters were removed. Or perhaps more accurately, why were they never replaced, assuming age/dilapidation was the reason for their demise. It seems to me that large picnic shelters would be a welcome attraction at this obviously family-friendly park. It’s a real shame that they are gone, especially the one by the playground.
You will also find fisherfolk attempting to catch some of the purported bevy of fish in the shallow river. We didn’t see any actual fish swimming around, though my son reports evidence of a fish jumping in the water when he was adventuring solo.
I’m not sure, honestly, how good the fishing is at Red Lodge. It is mentioned on the website and there were dedicated campers casting all weekend long. Both lure and fly-fishing look to be viable. It’s just a matter of whether the fish exist at all.
If fishing isn’t your bag, perhaps a short float down the river interests you. Signage at the river’s edge near Loop D alludes to this activity by warning rafters that this is the last place to exit the river. Floaters presumably enter near the highway bridge by Loop A. It’s not a long drift, though surely slow. Great for kids on a hot summer day.
Conversely, if you’re keen on more serious water recreation activities, Gleniffer Reservoir is a short drive north from Red Lodge Provincial Park. A man-made lake on the Red Deer River proper, the reservoir offers camping, fishing, and boating on a much larger scale than at the park.
We took a drive up in the afternoon and discovered remarkably low water levels in the reservoir. We’re somewhat naïve to the ways of such waterbodies and it turns out the mountain snowpack has yet to melt this cool spring. As a result, the exposed shores of the reservoir provided a fantastic rockhounding opportunity.
Riddled with colourful rocks of myriad size transported south and east by the glaciers centuries ago, the silty sand of the reservoir bottom was a treasure trove of earthen delights.
At the water’s edge, we found numerous exposed trunks from trees harvested before the reservoir was flooded. This was actually kind of cool even if it did remind you that there was once a lovely forest surrounding a modest river gorge here. The Red Deer River valley may not be Badlands awesome yet at this point, but it would have still been a cool spot prior to damming.
Back at Red Lodge, I couldn’t help but think that mosquitoes must be a significant problem at some point during the spring/summer. They were few and far between in early June (thank god), but with the lazy river, still water in some meanders, and ample grass around the campground you just know mosquitoes will arrive eventually.
We experienced such a nightmare at Big Knife Provincial Park later in the summer a couple of years ago. Red Lodge Provincial Park offers a somewhat similar setting so be forewarned and bring proper anti-bug gear.
With no mosquitoes tormenting us, that left the generator users as the most annoying living creatures in the campground. The campers in the site to the south of us ran their generator for long periods of time several times a day. Outside established Alberta Parks allowable hours, I might add.
What they required the generator for, I have no idea since the entire time they sat outside their trailer vaping. Perhaps stay home, hey?
Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned already, our stay turned out to be a very nice one indeed. I now understand the popularity of this spot which is convenient to both Calgarians and Red Deerians (??? Is that what they are called?). Families especially will enjoy this campground and park. Even more so if the rumours of ice cream come to fruition in the summer months.
I will give Red Lodge Provincial Park 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. They lose a quarter of a pickle for the shower house closure debacle. Yes, I say it’s a debacle. And I’m not pleased with the misleading map regarding potable water.
But I really did judge this place wrong and in retrospect, did myself a disfavour by not bringing my kids here when they were younger. They really would have loved this campground. It’s not perfect. My judgements were not entirely unfounded. The traffic noise is noticeable, and I worry about mosquitoes being ugly at some point. And while the setting is pretty, it’s not Rocky Mountain pretty. Okay, I’m spoiled, sue me.
Still, this park and campground offer a lovely, family-friendly outing that isn’t tedious to get to. Keep it in your rotation of potential spots for future camping adventures.