It’s time to ruffle some Western Canadian feathers. Perhaps not the wisest tack considering my reader base, but I’ve been fooled by Jarvis Bay Provincial Park twice now and I’ve got some shame to untangle.
I’m a born and raised Southern Ontario boy and as such my memories of summer are filled with images of the gorgeous sand beaches and expansive blue waters of the Great Lakes. My childhood stomping ground was Sauble Beach on Lake Huron, though a hat tip to Grand Bend is certainly warranted.
When I moved to Calgary in the late 90s after a couple years in Saskatoon, my heart was yearning for some beach/lake action. The solution to my homesickness, the locals assured me, was Sylvan Lake, a popular summer resort town west of Red Deer.
I was a bit skeptical, but desperate, so with minimal investigation (Google Maps having not been invented yet), I booked myself a campsite at Jarvis Bay Provincial Park on Sylvan Lake and anticipated a nostalgia-driven endorphin overdose.
My most vivid memory of that ill-fated camping weekend with my then girlfriend, now wife (also a Southern Ontarian), was our first view of Sylvan Lake from the campground. Upon arrival, we quickly assembled our tent before scampering down to the water’s edge to take in all the glory. There, with no shortage of bewilderment, we discovered not a beach but a cliff. We weren’t in Ontario anymore Toto.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, I decided to take my family back to Jarvis Bay Provincial Park. Not that I expected a beach to magically have appeared where clearly a beach would never exist, but I was curious to see what, if anything, had changed. I also needed to write a review for this venerable park and campground. My spoiled upbringing may have soured my perception of Sylvan Lake, but for those with a Prairie rearing, it’s still a fantastically popular destination.
I don’t recall much else from my first visit to Sylvan Lake. That cliff experience must have short-circuited my memory-making machinery. Today, the town on the southern rim of its namesake lake is an odd Frankenstein of beach/lake resort/party town and bedroom community for nearby Red Deer.
The Jekyll and Hyde halves of town are separated, strangely enough, by a set of railway tracks. Between the tracks and the lake, you’ll find the resort town with old cabins, new “cottages”, hotels, motels, bars, restaurants, attractions, ice cream shops, and, of course, the beach.
I assume the beach is wholly, or in part, manmade and it’s quite narrow. One can’t be too fussy in these parts, though, and combined with the lovely green space, playground, bike trail, and picnic areas its actually quite a nice summer setting. Assuming you’re copacetic with crowds and rambunctious youth on hot summer days. Ironically, what made Grand Bend so special in my memories would annoy the hell out of me today. Can I get a “Yay, fifty!”
We didn’t spend much time in town, venturing in only to purchase some wildly overpriced ice cream cones. You want yet another reminder of shrinkflation, check out the pathetic waffle cones at The Big Moo Ice Cream Parlor. Yeah, things are always costlier in hot spots like Sylvan Lake, but the tiny cones still shocked me. Guess they will be the “cliff surprise” of this trip. Check back in 20 years for my follow-up grumble post.
Jarvis Bay Campground
Our focus for the weekend was camping. With the calendar still in June and the weather not yet blazing hot, frolicking in the lake remained unappealing to my sensitive, albeit retired, man-bits. The kids weren’t too eager either and being in their early teens are still a couple years shy of really enjoying a place like Sylvan. When they are ready, they won’t want Dad, or Mom, anywhere nearby.
Jarvis Bay Provincial Park is a relatively small, mostly forested park on the northeastern shore towards the south end of Sylvan Lake. Although there are trails through the treed eastern half of the park, it’s pretty much just a campground.
It has expanded over the decades as the outdated campground maps posted around the park can attest. I don’t know the timeline for these expansions but am confident some of the growth has occurred in the timeframe since my first visit.
The campground is split into halves by a main access road. To the southeast you’ll find a snaking “loop” that I presume is the original campground at Jarvis Bay. This is where we camped both this past trip and on my original trip.
To the northwest you’ll find an amalgam of smaller loops, one oblong and two circular, accessed from a singular, grand loop. The contrast between the two halves of Jarvis Bay Campground is striking when pictured from above. It’s as if the designers tossed multiple loop layouts into a hat and built whatever they randomly pulled out.
In total, there are 193 sites. Or 195. Depends on which you believe; the official Alberta Parks website tally or the official Alberta Parks campground map. If you believe the former, one of those sites, just one, has water service. It’s site 18 if you’re curious. Good luck booking it!
All the campsites have electrical power (15/30 amp) which is both nice and fitting for its location. People aren’t coming to Sylvan Lake to commune with Nature. This is a glamping destination if there ever was. None have sewer.
Although there is decent variety in size and shape of campsites, nearly all are back-ins. All the sites in the original snake loop are and they’re all similarly laid out for that matter, too.
Only in the presumably newer loops at Jarvis Bay Campground will you find a handful of novel campsites, including three tent-only sites that look absolutely no different than RV sites. Three handicap accessible campsites, which appear to have finer-grained gravel as their distinguishing feature.
And five, long pull-through sites.
You’ll also find some more unique campsites with a couple having timber retaining walls that accentuate their dual-lobe configuration. Truly big RVs may not fit in these special sites, but they’re rather nifty imho.
If you do camp in a monster RV, fear not. There are a handful of remarkably deep campsites opposing the pull-through sites. Seriously, at least one of them is like a private acreage set back at the end of an extensive driveway. It’ll easily swallow up the largest toy hauler on the market or take multiple RVs. I’ve never seen anything like them in a provincial park.
As mentioned, the campsites in the original snaking loop at Jarvis Bay Camground are fairly uniform and all back-ins. Size varies so not all sites will accommodate all RV lengths. The only novelty available here are the nine sites backing onto the lake slash cliff.
We chose one of these “luxury” sites (#131). Thankfully they don’t come with a cost premium because from the comfort of your campsite, you can’t tell you’re close to the lake. The trees successfully block much, if not all, of the view.
Furthermore, a trail runs between these campsites and the cliff face. So, not only are you not genuinely backing onto the lake, you’ll sacrifice a bit of privacy to other campers exploring the shoreline.
I didn’t mind our site location. It was a good site and there’s some appeal to being close to the trail system and the accompanying lookouts. But I wouldn’t be distraught if I was unable to book one of these nine “lakeside” campsites. There is no spectacular view awaiting you.
Nearly the entire park is forested with aspen and poplar and the campsites are no different. Neither is there a shortage of underbrush. With most sites generously spaced out, the combination makes for an appealing, sheltered, private camping experience.
I wasn’t expecting as much topography within the park as there is, but the gravel drives of the campsites are nonetheless level. Some sites have a pronounced bulb for the firepit, but ours was almost uniformly rectangular. We had no trouble setting up our Geo Pro with plenty of room leftover for my cousin, who was visiting, to set up a small tent for the night.
With the lone exception of the enigmatic campsite 18, you’ll need to transport potable water to your site. For those like us with an RV, the easiest avenue is to fill up your water tank at the spacious dump station when entering Jarvis Bay Provincial Park.
If you’re in a tent, or your water needs are more modest, there are plenty of water taps throughout the campground.
In the older snake loop, the water taps tend to be located in the pathways between the “loops”. These wide, groomed paths allow pedestrians to shortcut from one portion of the snake to another and having the taps within these paths makes them accessible to many campers.
In the newer, looped portion, many water taps can be found between various campsites. Again, no camper will be inconveniently located from a water source. Seriously, I was impressed by the number of water taps. Almost makes you wonder why they didn’t just plumb the entire campground?
Jarvis Bay Campground Bathrooms
All that convenient fresh water eventually makes its way back out and the Jarvis Bay Provincial Park plumbing department has done a topnotch job of accommodating campers needing to relieve themselves.
Comprised of four separate unisex stalls accessed from the building’s exterior, you’ll have the convenience of prison only a short jaunt from your cell site.
You think I jest, but prison was the only thing I could think of each time I entered to use the stainless-steel toilets and sinks. Not that I’m complaining! I love me some flush toilets when I’m camping. They even had warm water. And I’m sure such fixtures make for easy cleaning. But they sure looked out of place in the woods.
Not that there aren’t pit toilets to haunt you. In the true loops, there are a variety of pit toilet buildings, typically with two stalls (a men’s and a women’s). A bit older than the fancy new flush toilets in snake loop, they’re still nice as far as pit toilets go.
Judging by the ample service staff witnessed around the campground, I think it’s safe to say the bathroom facilities at Jarvis Bay Campground are kept quite tidy. My experience with the closest unit to our site confirms this, though it was admittedly only mid-June.
Although the looped portion of the campground retains pit toilets, they do have closer access to the fancy new shower house near its entrance.
This robust structure comes complete with multiple sinks, urinals, three toilets, and six shower stalls including one accessible shower stall. There is power by the sinks, soap, disposable towels, and air dryers. You get all the bells and whistles here. All that’s missing is some poor schlep handing you a towel and asking if you want to buy cologne or mouthwash.
The showers are surprisingly free of cost and have hot water. However, they utilize push buttons that slowly stop over the duration of thirty seconds or whatever. So, you can’t adjust the temperature and you’ll assuredly be left shampoo-blind, feeling for the button, at least once during your shower.
I had no need to shower, so can’t attest to the duration of hot water availability. When campgrounds are busy, the hot water inevitably runs out. What the load limit at Jarvis Bay is, I don’t know, but it’s a great facility nonetheless.
If you ultimately decide to baste in your own stench, then the triple outlet dump station will be your final destination when leaving Jarvis Bay Provincial Park. The dump station costs $5 per use, a fee they will ask you about during registration.
If you refuse to pay and then use the dump station later anyway, I have no idea how well they monitor such cheats. There are no restrictors on the outlets themselves, so you could easily access them without payment. Not saying you should cheat, I’m just curious as to how Alberta Parks ensures people do, in fact, pay.
The dump station area is spacious despite its close proximity to the registration area. There is plenty of room for vehicles to maneuver without disrupting regular campground traffic.
Prior to encountering the dump station as you enter Jarvis Bay Provincial Park, you’ll be greeted at the registration office. It’s a small structure staffed with helpful parks employees that attend to you through a service window.
The office also purports to sell an assortment of necessities and a few treats. Signage on the exit side window lists items from fire starter to toothpaste to water hoses to rope to cribbage games and more. You can’t access the building personally but instead are served through another window.
Ice cream is reportedly sold this way too. Once again, we were tricked into thinking there was a genuine ice cream shop onsite as the official website mentioned enjoying ice cream while camping at Jarvis Bay. Through the window I also noticed some licorice twists and cups of gummy bears as well.
Sadly, there is no hard, scoop ice cream available but instead a small selection of popsicles and drumstick style treats are available to cool you down. Not the worst thing in the world, but dammit, I want real ice cream.
Ice and firewood are also sold through the main office. Ice is $4 per bag and stored in a cooler beside the building. Firewood, at $10 per bundle and $5.50 for kindling, is piled high in a cage not far from the office. As per usual, we brought our own wood but I’ve little reason to believe you’d have any trouble with this firewood.
On the other hand, if you want to save fifty cents, the paintball facility across the road from the park’s main entrance, sells firewood as well. As I’m sure do a lot of entrepreneurs in the area. Summer revelers need lots of dead trees.
There’s no shortage of adult and family-friendly entertainment at Sylvan Lake, from the paintball across the highway to the myriad attractions in town. And that’s not even including the lake itself, which will have plenty of boats zipping around on sunny days either fishing or pulling tubers and water-skiers.
Inside Jarvis Bay Provincial Park, however, fun for little ones is pretty much limited to playgrounds. There are three in the campground. Well, two but the second is a two-parter, so let’s stick with three.
The primary playground is a large metal and plastic climbing structure to your right as you pass the registration office and dump station area. It is underlain by sand (I think? I didn’t take a close look) and surrounded by grass and a couple trees sheltering benches for parents. A tire swing and two regular swings accompany the climbing/sliding extravaganza.
The two-part playground is located in the newest portion of the true loop portion of the campground. This smaller, metal structure is intended for kids 5 to 12 years old and is a fun little climber with slides and butterfly motifs, again in a pad of sand surrounded by grass.
A short way up the hill is the second part of this playground. It’s a single wall of instrumental noise-maker toys standing in the grass.
I suspect these two playgrounds are very new based on the amount of unfinished landscaping and piled earth in and around them. The musical playground is a neat idea but is located rather poorly in my opinion. Perhaps more additions are coming? For now, it’s just kind of off on its own in the weeds.
I was so caught up in the seeming lack of entertainment available at Jarvis Bay Provincial Park that I completely forgot about the amphitheatre. It’s located behind the shower house and I never saw it nor took a picture of it.
All the more embarrassing is that I took a picture of the posted event schedule on a bulletin board near the main playground. At the time I was delighted to see that activities were actually happening at this park, something becoming all too rare in our provincial parks. I wanted to be sure to check out at least one of the events during our stay, but it completely slipped my mind. I guess this might explain why Alberta Parks is offering these programs less and less.
Trails and Hiking
For the bigger kids and adults, entertainment beyond the imbibing kind is limited to hiking the trail network within the park’s boundaries. Though it does follow the lake shoreline and looping through the small gorge between campground loops, the bulk of the trail network is in the woods east of the campground.
And if you peruse one of the outdated trail maps in the campground, you’ll soon realize that parts of the original trail network were consumed by the campground additions. This is unfortunate, though in fairness those lost trails didn’t change the scale of the trail system much.
We went for a stroll one afternoon and enjoyed ourselves well enough. Along the lake there are some viewpoints that enable better sightlines of Sylvan Lake. There are surely beautiful sunsets across the lake in the evenings, but mostly you’ll just become more aware of the million-dollar cottages surrounding the park, the boats on the water, and the town across the water.
During our investigation we discovered a public access parking lot near the group campsites that allows non-registered visitors of the park to use the trails without entering through the park main entrance. I was a bit befuddled by this, especially with the group camping area expansion resulting in some confusion as to where the trails reside within the group camping boundaries.
We were delighted to discover four geocaches inside the park. There are fewer and fewer of these hidden treasures in parks and the quality of these were first-rate. One, in particular, was perhaps the coolest geocache we’ve ever found. Kudos to whomever created it.
A stroll through the woods is never a bad thing, with mushrooms, wildflowers, and birds to liven up scenery. The wild roses were in full bloom the weekend we stayed here, and they were definitely a treat for the eyes. But grand vistas are not to be found at Jarvis Bay. It’s a trail through the bush and nothing more. Good for the legs and the heart, not so good for the camera.
When the weather has been soggy, like it was prior to our trip, there are low spots on the trail that will pool with water and squishy mud. That’s not to discourage you from exploring but be sure to have appropriate footwear. And, bug spray. There weren’t many mosquitoes when we visited in June but they’re coming.
Group Camping at Jarvis Bay
Four group camping areas are found in the cleared, northeast corner of the park. Named A through D, the latter two appear to be brand new while the original two are somewhat older. Not as old as the trail maps though. Those show no group camping at all.
The primary perk of the four group campsites is electricity. All show green electrical boxes at intervals around the grassy loops that make up each group site. Electricity is not often found at group campsites outside of the obligatory picnic shelter outlet and lights, so this is a real bonus.
Each of the four group sites has a community firepit with gravel pad and picnic tables. These are great for … umm … groups and I really need to get out camping with a bunch of friends and family again. Been too long.
The most noticeable difference between Group Sites A and B and the newer Group Sites C and D is the picnic shelter. A and B both have one while C and D do not. For my money, a large picnic shelter at a group site is a must, so I’d be picking A or B whenever possible.
The shelters look quite new but unlike those found at other provincial parks, these have no woodstoves inside. This is another oversite in my opinion as the indoor fire can be a great source of group entertainment when the weather sucks or you’re gathering during the cooler shoulder seasons.
All four group sites are serviced by a new pit toilet structure. I’m guessing they are pit toilets based on the venting visible above the roofline. I never ventured into the bathroom since all group sites had tenants and I didn’t wish to intrude.
Water appears to come from a tap on the exterior of a centrally located “water hut”. I think there is perhaps a well inside this small building? Regardless, it’s the only water source I saw as we strolled past the group sites. I imagine most users with RVs fill up their tanks before seconding to the group area anyway.
That the group area is separated from the main campground is great. That said, the four group sites are side by side by side, so have little privacy from each other. And with the area completely deforested, even quiet campers in Group Site D will suffer wild partiers in Group Site A or vice versa.
The group area is also tucked into the corner of the park between two roads, so traffic noise is ever-present especially in the busy summer vacation season. Highway 20 runs north from Sylvan past the two northern lakes, Gull and Pigeon, and hosts vacationers, commuters, and oil-patchers alike.
As I mentioned during the group site discussion, the park is bounded by two roads, one of which is locally prominent. The traffic noise obvious in the group areas trickles into the main campground as well.
Likewise, the boats on the lake are also easily heard. There’s just no avoiding the motorized pleasures of humans.
Ironically, with every campsite having electricity, generators are one noise irritation you won’t experience at Jarvis Bay Provincial Park. I just can’t win. LOL.
But in all honestly, one would be a fool to book a campsite at Sylvan Lake and expect a peaceful retreat in the wilderness. The whole town is all about summer fun on the water and with that comes noise. It’s just a fact of life so I won’t bemoan the issue, just advise you to expect it.
It’s also possible that some revelry might dribble in from the neighbouring cottages. If you follow the trails south from the snake loop, you come to an open gate providing access to a development of large summer homes.
We didn’t hear any shenanigans over the weekend but if a good banger gets going on a long weekend, you’ll likely hear some of that too. But again, it’s a resort town! This is the whole point of Sylvan Lake.
Security Patrols at Jarvis Bay Campground
And it’s not like patrons of the park are innocent either. There was a brief stereo battle one afternoon as a site blasting new country music went head-to-head with a site blasting Indian music. Neither genre was appealing and thankfully the silliness ended quickly, but there’s likely to be repeats over the summer as the bevvies start flowing and folks kick back for some summer fun.
My confidence in this assertion was reinforced by the various security patrols I witnessed over the course of the weekend. First there was a private security company patrolling the campground. The next morning, Alberta Parks “police” did a similar patrol.
I haven’t seen official rules enforcement like this in ages! It was nice to see and took me back to those Grand Bend days when my friends and I were everything I now loathe at campgrounds. Seriously, if I at 18 was camping beside myself at 50, fifty-year-old me would whoop eighteen-year-old me’s ass. Well, try to, anyway.
That there was already such patrolling happening in June tells me that Jarvis Bay Campground lives up to its lingering reputation as a bit of a party spot. We had no issues during our stay and I’m sure the campground managers intend to keep it that way, hence the patrols. But the fact such patrols are needed at all belies a potentially raucous atmosphere at the famed Sylvan Lake.
Jarvis Bay – Conclusion
So where does that leave me? I started this review by saying I’d been fooled by this campground twice now and I stand by that summation. There may be more campsites than there were when I first visited in the late 90s, but not much else has changed.
Oh, the town has grown. A lot. It’s still got that beach resort town vibe which is great for the young and young at heart. I get why it remains a popular place to blow off steam or vacation with the kids.
Sylvan Lake is not unlike Grand Bend or Sauble Beach. Well, except for the beach. And the bedroom community suburban sprawl. It has a purpose and by no means do I want to dump all over that. My childhood experience is an unfair barometer of lake life.
But Jarvis Bay Provincial Park, on its own, is a mystery to me. I don’t understand the purpose of it being a provincial park. There’s no beach. No lake access. No day use area. It’s too far to walk to town and there’s just noise and civilization encroaching everywhere around it. It’s basically a campground with better than average campsites. They might as well just turn the whole footprint into campsites.
At nearby Gull Lake, Aspen Beach Provincial Park encompass the main beach and lake access facilities. You can walk or cycle from the campgrounds to the beach and to the ice cream shop and burger shack. That’s what I was expecting from Jarvis Bay back in ’99 and again in ’22. It just isn’t that and never will be.
I can envision many reasons to camp at Jarvis Bay Provincial Park but at this stage of my life, none really appeal to me. I could see myself enjoying a group camping weekend with some friends there, mind you. But as weekend outing that needs to be booked three months ahead of time, meh, I just don’t see it as a place I’ll go to again.
Maybe in another 25 years my curiosity will once again get the better of me and I’ll return for another visit. Imagine what my grumpy old man ranting will be like at 75! Until then … 3.0 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Mostly for spite because I so badly wanted to relive my childhood.