“Uh. Uh. Mmm. Mmm. Ooh. Mmm. Ooo. Ooo. Mmm. Mmmmmmm. Oh. Oh. OH. OH! OH!! OH MY GOD!!!”
The above is not, I repeat, not, my rating of Willey West Campground. Nor was it, to the best of my deductive skills, that of the young woman camping in the site next to ours. Based on her repetition of this mono-syllabic sequence and its ultimate punctuation by her partner’s growly grunt at approximately 4:30 a.m., I suspect it was far more a reflection of his prowess than the campground’s.
Thankfully the kids slept through the unexpected overnight entertainment, though their very presence prevented me and the missus from returning the favour. I briefly contemplated a strategically timed Mortal Kombat “FINISH HER!” but decided to let young lust run its course unaware of our involuntary attendance.
Discovering Willey West Campground
I first learned of Willey West Campground while driving my daughter to a hockey tournament in nearby Drayton Valley a couple winters ago. Approaching from the east on highway 22, the road makes a sweeping turn to the south to cross the North Saskatchewan River. In doing so, an impressive cliff face comes into view along the west side of the river valley.
Stuff like that always catches my eye, and once we were checked-in to our hotel, I immediately went about investigating this minor geological wonder that had me ooo-ing and ahh-ing like a well-attended-to woman. I may have even expressed an “Oh my god.”
It was then that I learned of Willey West Campground and made a mental note for us to one day spend a weekend at what looked like a pretty cool family campground. Covid delayed my plan for a couple summers, but in 2022 we finally made it.
Now, I can’t promise that you’ll hear mating sounds of the not-so-elusive Homo sapiens, but you will assuredly hear Homo sapiens. They are everywhere at Willey West. That is both good and bad.
It’s good in the sense that Willey West is a wonderful family campground. I’ll elaborate in the coming paragraphs but make no mistake this is a great campground for young families. Friends too. And when young kids are around, having fun, it’s never a Zen atmosphere.
It’s also very close to Drayton Valley and you’ll see plenty of locals enjoying the river itself or recreating on the large gravel bars along it.
On the other hand, it’s bad because that highway my daughter and I were driving on when we first learned of Willey West is a very busy highway. This is oil country and there’s plenty of truck traffic on that road, not to mention lumber, ranch, and crown land recreation traffic. Like it or not, you’re going to hear it. Not overnight, as much, but the rest of the time … definitely.
It’s Actually in a Provincial Park
Perhaps the biggest surprise from our inaugural visit to Willey West was learning that it is inside a provincial park. I had no idea. Nothing online gives any indication that this is anything other than a private campground.
For example, it not only has its own website, but reservations are also made outside of the Alberta Parks reservation system. Aside from the odd wording that Willey West is operated by Elevated Experience Camping, I just assumed this was a private campground not unlike Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort near Stettler.
The provincial park in question is Eagle Point, a collection of land swaths straddling the North Saskatchewan River east of Drayton Valley. The campground is the focal point of the park with day use facilities within. Combined with the Blue Rapids Provincial Recreation Area to its south, Eagle Point Provincial Park offers hiking, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing activities.
Sadly, for me, the gorge I envisioned upon seeing that magnificent outcrop doesn’t actually exist. Yes, Willey West and the park in which it resides are located in the NSR valley, but there is not a continuous stretch of cliff faces along the river. In fact, what I initially fell in lust with is pretty much the whole deal.
Despite this minor disappointment, the location remains appealing with the mighty river and its large gravel bars highlighting the transition from mountains to prairies. Embraced by forest and evidence of flood damage along the riverbanks, Willey West and its immediate surroundings give off a kind of bad boy image. No wonder some of the visitors were feeling frisky.
The Campsites at Willey West Campground
Please make note that the entrance to Willey West Campground is approximately two kilometres east of the actual campground. If you’re at the bridge looking down on the campground from above, you’ve either gone too far or not far enough. Look for signs as you pass through an industrial area on highway 22 east of the river.
According to the Willey West Campground website, they offer the following selection of campsites: 7 full-service campsites (power, water, sewer), 74 power only sites of which 59 are 30 amp and the remainder 15 amp, and 2 tent only sites without services. The majority of sites are back-in oriented but there are some pull-throughs as well (1 of the full-service site and 12 of the powered sites).
I initially reserved a back-in site but later had to switch weekends. In making such a change, we were obliged to take whatever was still available and that meant we ended up in one of the powered pull-through sites.
My only gripe about the pull-through sites is that, though ample in length, they are exceptionally narrow. As a result, we essentially had our firepit and picnic table set up behind our camper rather than beside it, as is the norm. Longer RVs could struggle to accommodate such a setup and would potentially feel cramped widthwise.
The narrowness of the pull-throughs contributed to our exciting first night as the neighbouring campsites are closer together than most of the back-in campsites. Add in a tent rather than an RV for our amorous neighbours and, well, the “ooo la la” were not as private as they presumed.
That said, these pull-through sites do have some privacy in the form of undergrowth. A thicket of shrubbery and wild flora provide ample segregation between sites meaning that had my neighbours been so bold as to perform their PornHub routine outside their tent, I would not have been able to watch it simply by looking out my camper window. Not that I was trying or anything.
A sprinkling of towering poplars amongst the more numerous and younger spruce and aspen create an almost Zeussian landscape. I suspect the area must have been logged at one time, with the unpopular poplar (see what I did there?) left standing. It may not be the prettiest forest you’ll ever encounter, but those big trees provide much appreciated shade.
The back-in sites, by far the most numerous, reside in a similar setting as the pull-throughs. Some portions are even more thoroughly forested.
Most are wider than their pull-through counterparts offering additional privacy. A couple sites we noticed in our wanderings around the campground are quite exclusive, in fact.
The firepits are large with a fixed grate over half. Like extra large. I’ve neve seen such large firepits in single unit campsites.
Picnic tables are metal framed with wood toppers. They’re a bit aged and heavey but do the job and can be moved as needed.
Other Styles of Camping at Willey West Campground
Willey West Campground is comprised of two (or three?) loops, though I hesitate to describe them as such. Basically, there’s the main road along the north boundary of the campground and five offshoots to the south. Pairs of those offshoots connect creating loops, but site numbering is purely sequential and there is no official designation of loops.
In addition to the campsites, there are 5 glamping cabins. Each has a unique design giving some much needed variety in what has become an overly cookie-cutter offering at provincial and national parks campgrounds.
Each cabin at Willey West Campground has an area for parking, a BBQ, firepit, and a small porch area. We weren’t able to get inside any of them, but a brief peeping Tom moment on my part enabled me to snap a quick, if unprofessional, shot of the interior of one of the cabins.
Nothing unexpected inside but I personally thought the exterior of these cabins were some of the most appealing I’ve seen. We obviously aren’t patrons of glamping cabins, but for those in that market, I’d recommend trying these out.
Group campers aren’t forgotten at Willey West, but they aren’t really catered to either. There are two group sites both of which are basically gravel parking lots located in the green belt between the river and the pull-through campsites.
That location is a bit odd to me. Typically group sites are tucked away somewhere distant from the regular campers to give the illusion of seclusion. These are front and centre in what one might consider prime real estate. I’d have expected another row of riverside campsites here rather than uninspired group sites.
And they are uninspired. One of them has a rundown picnic shelter, the other does not. Both have a large communal firepit and an assortment of picnic tables. Beyond that, they’re just gravel lots in which a bunch of friends can park their RVs.
The one with a picnic shelter appears to have an electrical box as well. The interior of the shelter is sparse with a small wood stove the main accoutrement. The building itself is enclosed on all sides but has no windows or doors so might as well be unwalled.
Both were being used on the weekend we stayed at Willey West Campground. The one with the shelter was packed full of families enjoying their summer. Being so close to the river is a boon, I guess. But for my group camping preferences, I’d choose someplace else. These just aren’t appealing to me. And if the group site users had been rowdy, I’d have been more than a little unhappy camping so near to them.
Pit Toilets and Shower House
Several pit toilets are installed throughout the campground for doing your business. They appear to be newer builds and replicate the standard Alberta Parks vault toilet blueprint. The one I used a single time was not terribly smelly but had a lot of flies in it.
That is perhaps unavoidable by mid-august when located close to a river. Whether the fly situation was unique to this particular pit toilet is unknown to me because I’m a baby and made the effort to visit the shower house for the remainder of our stay.
That shower house, situated in the woods of the first “loop” and near the Willey West Campground entrance wasn’t in the most convenient spot relative to our campsite, but well worth the walk for my personal comfort.
An older building, it’s not the nicest shower house we’ve encountered. The interiors were clean but musty. The concrete bunker of a building has no windows, so smells and humidity tend to accumulate. This is particularly true in the late afternoon when the weather is hot and folks are showering after a fun day at the river.
Still, it has all the amenities you expect in a shower house: sinks, flush toilets, and showers. The showers are large but dated. They’re also coin-operated ($1 for 2 minutes) and you can’t adjust temperature. As per usual, I did not make use of them so cannot comment further on their quality.
Despite a faucet handle suggesting otherwise, there is no hot water at the sinks. I’m just happy for the flush toilets.
If you choose instead to make use of your on-board facilities, there is a dump station at Willey West Campground on your way to the exit. It is set up as a dual access but only has a single outlet which is a bit odd.
It’s also the strangest single outlet I’ve come across in our camping adventures. The opening is a good foot or more below the surface at the base of a cone-shaped concrete bowl and is plugged by a ball on the end of a chain.
If it works, who cares, I suppose. Just thought it was funky enough to warrant both a specific mention and an individual photo. And if line-ups become an issue, word is there is another free dump station in Drayton Valley itself.
Potable Water at Willey West Campground
Working up a need to use all these bathroom facilities, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult at Willey West than one might expect. There is no potable water available, a rather strange circumstance considering the existence of a shower house and SEVEN full-serviced campsites. Oh, and also beside a major river. Oh oh, and a stone’s through away from a significant town.
There are a couple hand pumps in the campground, the most notable of which is found at the playground. It’s old and presumably was used for potable water at one time but is no longer tested by authorities so cannot be guaranteed “safe”. Yay richest province in the country!
So, yeah, first world problem I suppose. Most people are drinking from cans/bottles anyway. I just feel that a prominent family-friendly campground in a provincial park, that is in no way isolated from civilization, should have a reliable water source.
The Amazing Playground Complex
What it lacks in fresh water, Willey West Campground more than makes up for in family fun. Or at least tries to.
That starts with the playground complex. I say complex because it’s far more than a singular climbing apparatus. There’s an entire suite of outdoor entertainment awaiting campers in the large, mowed field at the south end of the campground.
A massive, modern, metal structure with several slides and myriad climbing stations dominates the playground. This is a terrific play structure. Never mind my teenage kids, I wish I was young enough to play on it.
Fancy a healthy afternoon puke? No problem. Have a swirl on the merry-go-round, once a playground staple that is rarely found anymore. No, I did not try it. Just the flashbacks to childhood dizziness and stomach upset is enough for me, thanks.
Or bocce? Soccer? Frisbee? All are easily playable on the expansive field that runs from the playground all the way to the base of the highway bridge approach. We even saw a father teaching his two youngsters how to swing a golf club!
You really could spend an entire afternoon here playing with the kids, family, or a group of friends. Not only are there the playground facilities, but a day-use picnic shelter also adorns this robust playground area.
Larger and somewhat nicer than its group camping counterpart, this picnic shelter is similarly walled but without windows or doors. A much larger wood stove is the centrepiece of the shelter with room for several picnic tables on either side.
And last, but not least, though undoubtedly unused and unloved, two horseshoe pits are found on an elevated green space at the edge of this excellent playground complex.
At the Campground Office
The fun doesn’t end at the playground, either. The main office is a hub of entertainment options in addition to its more sober functions as registration central.
For a daily fee that includes unlimited exchanges, you can rent board games to play. This is a fantastic idea for a campground to offer and surely comes in handy when the weather turns ugly during a family vacation.
While deciding on a game to play, the kids will surely be distracted by the plentiful supply of candy lining the shelves. This is a genuine throwback to what campground stores used to be like when I was a kid. Candy and treats everywhere. Yum!
I think my son was overwhelmed by it all, having had so little experience with such saccharine abundance at campgrounds. We settled on a roll of root beer flavoured “lifesavers.”. They were both exactly as delicious and disgusting as you are imagining.
Popular camping games like bean bag toss can be rented and taken to your site. More uniquely, oversized connect four games are also there which is a neat idea.
Immediately across the entrance road from the office is a nine-hole mini-golf course. And I do mean mini! I’ve never seen such a small mini-golf course in my life. There wasn’t a hole longer than, say, six feet. I really think I could have held out my hand and dropped my ball into several holes.
For me, this was a bummer. I really enjoy mini-golf. Some of my favourite memories as a child are playing mini-golf in the summer. But this course is just too small to be enjoyable in my opinion. Very young children might enjoy it, but anyone over 7 will likely be bored with it. The holes are just too short. Still, a great addition to a family-focused campground.
Other Office Highlights at Willey West Campground
Another unfortunate disappointment in the entertainment offerings at Willey West Campground was the defunct arcade. Originally housed in a separate building near the office, the arcade no longer exists despite being mentioned on the website.
The Willey West office is more than fun and business. A communal firepit with benches exists out front. No idea if this gets used for anything more than decoration, but it gives off a welcome camping vibe as you enter.
Like the food swap pantry. What a terrific idea this is. Forgot a can of soup? In need of an emergency child-appeasement-snack? Craving KD? Or maybe you’ve got an extra of any of the above? This little library style swap box enables campers to help each other out with non-perishables without having to drive to town.
And speaking of little libraries, Willey West has those too. Several, in fact. You’ll see the first next to the communal firepit at the main office. The rest are found around the campground next to garbage/recycling stations.
Once more, I must say this is a wonderful idea for a campground like this. And the little libraries are well-stocked. Books for adults and books for children as well as magazines can be found in each, all within a short walk of your site.
The coup-de-grace, however, has to be the public garden and herb boxes also found next to the main office. Even more terrific ideas. Want some fresh lettuce on your juicy burger after a hard day of horseshoe tossing? Just wander up to the campground garden and pick some. If you’re around later in the season, you can even enjoy a fresh, homegrown tomato.
Food Services Available
Ah, but maybe you’re too tired to make your own food. Maybe you’re enjoying the comradery around the campfire so much you can’t tear yourself away despite having a significant case of the munchies. Why not order a pizza?
Yeah, you read that right. Not your typical campground offering, is it? Well, at Willey West Campground you can order a hot pizza that will be cooked from scratch in the office kitchen and delivered to your campsite. It requires nothing more than a simple phone call.
We didn’t order pizza, being of the chips and s’mores types when having a campfire, but we did indulge in the Sunday morning pancake breakfast.
Served at an outdoor mobile kitchen situated near the boat launch, the $5 breakfast consisted of pancakes, sausage, and juice. You can eat your breakie at some patio tables in the woods next to the cooking area or take your goodies back to your campsite.
I’ll be honest, the food wasn’t mind-blowing. My pancakes were a bit undercooked. It’s a basic “stampede pancake breakfast.” Fun, but Gordon Ramsay won’t be promoting it on MasterChef. Nonetheless, a nice addition to the robust services offered at this great little campground.
River Fun at Willey West Campground
The other focal point for pleasure is, of course, the river. At the northwest end of the campground is the boat launch area, a sort of one-size-fits-all day use spot. A large gravel parking lot, not unlike the group camping spots, next to the river provides parking for visitors and boat trailers.
I was a bit surprised that boats could go in the river here. Like motorized boats, the kind that require towing behind trucks. I assumed the river would be too shallow and thus only canoes and kayaks would venture into the waters. I was wrong.
What appear to be “motorboats” powered by the same propulsion systems found on Seadoos are launched into the North Saskatchewan River and zoom up and down the river. Both for pleasure and fishing, I imagine. There were even park rangers on the water in similar craft, so I’m guessing the “pleasure” crowd needs reminding that drinking and boating is no different than drinking and driving.
The boat launch itself appears to be nothing more than a wide, sloped gravel access to the river with large rocks denoting its edges. As you can see in the picture, people use this area as a “beach”. If it weren’t for the signage, I’m not sure I’d have known this was a “boat launch” at all.
Immediately next to the launch is the actual “beach.” It’s the shoreline of a mountain-sourced river on the prairies so the term “beach” is used very lightly here. It’s rocky and plants encroach from behind. You won’t be building sandcastles here, but it still gets you access to the water for a refreshing wade.
The campground operators have provided a selection of Adirondack chairs along this strip of shoreline. Not enough for everyone, but still a thoughtful offering. And you’ll find folks enjoying the river all along its course, particularly on the big gravel bars.
A little further back from the water is a lovely picnic spot. It has several tables and a firepit for genuine day-users to enjoy a lunch near the river.
Hiking and Associated Pleasures
What? You’re bored? Sigh. Fine, how about some hiking?
Yeah, you cando that here too. It is a provincial park, after all. And while the scenery may not be otherworldly beautiful, it’s nice to get out and explore a bit of the natural … and supernatural.
There are trails within the campground, mostly shuttling folks to the shower house. These are of a practical nature and simply cut through the woods.
A more formal trail network exists around the perimeter of the campground and along the river’s edge, eventually connecting to the broader provincial park trail network.
That strip of trail along the river is mischievously named Sasquatch Trail and if you keep your eyes open, you’ll discover evidence of the mythical creatures at several spots along the way. Kids will get a kick out of finding these black sillouettes and the “factual” information provided by signage at each sighting location are a fun read.
For those who prefer to keep things grounded in reality, there are similar info signs posted for animals and plants found in the park. Best of all, these signs are in good condition and legible unlike many of their brethren at other provincial parks.
Passports are also available at the office which can be stamped at various points of interest along the trail network.
As the trail winds away from the river, it enters the forest along the east side of the campground. In here you’ll come across a crafty work in progress known as the Gnome Forest. Several displays of painted rocks and gnomes adorn the grounds at various spots along this wooded portion of the trail. You’ll also find some funny non-traditional adornments and an “tire monster” lurking in the ground.
Boardwalks and benches offer pretty passes over wet ground and places to rest and you’ll be sure to chuckle with each new artsy discovery.
We focused on geocaching another activity Willey West accommodates. There are five caches within the greater campground boundaries, a rarity in provincial parks these days. And they were pretty good too. Not too hard to find and not ruined by muggles or the elements.
Sadly, a portion of the Sasquatch Trail, notably in the southwest corner, has been damaged by spring flooding. Portions of the trail have washed away, and the map area labeled as “Paradise Picnic Area” was greatly diminished with some access trails now closed.
Later in the day, my son and I ventured further afield, exploring to the north beyond the campground edge. Here the trail is renamed Hillside Trail and follows along the east side of the river before bending inland.
The trail is dirt within the trees and then becomes grass as you gain some elevation. I suspect this wider portion of the trail is where cross-country skiing happens.
Early in our adventure we passed an outcrop hidden in the trees. We climbed up and snooped around the desiccated shales finding the odd leaf-like impression, but no obvious fossils.
Where the trails ends, we never discovered. We attempted to bushwack a bit hoping to return to the river’s edge, but had no luck so turned around and went home. The trail system is much more extensive than this description suggests and there are other entry points to the park for several kilometres northward and southward. If hiking is your game, there’s plenty more to explore than what we saw from our campground HQ.
Firewood and New Rules at Willey West Campground
When you’re finally ready to relax around a campfire, you can purchase firewood from the same number as the pizza service. It too will be delivered to your site.
The wood appears to be from onsite sources. What looked like a campground host campsite near the entrance had stacks of rough-cut wood alongside a splitting and wrapping device. Much of this wood looked to be birch, a real boon for firewood aficionados that lament the dearth of hardwood in the West.
As per habit, we brough our own wood so can’t comment on the quality of the Willey West home-source firewood. I will caution you this, however. When you check-in at the office, you’ll receive an updated rules sheet. In it they explain that as of 2022, bringing your own firewood is no longer allowed.
They continue by saying there is a grace period and that if you have brought your own because you “didn’t know”, they will allow you to burn it … for now. But don’t expect this grace period to last indefinitely.
I’m not a fan of these mandates. Forcing firewood purchases, which are inevitably overpriced and cash grabs, irks me. Just be prepared when camping at Willey West Campground after 2022. Cost is $11 per bundle, by the way.
That was the extent of our weekend at Willey West Campground near Drayton Valley. The lasting impression I have of the place is that I wish we had discovered it years ago when the kids were much younger.
I’m unsure when Elevated Experience started operating this campground, or what it was like prior to their management, but it’s clear to me that we missed the boat by not bringing our kids here when they were single digits in age. It’s a wonderful attempt at a family campground, akin to Ol’ MacDonald’s and our kids are just a bit too old to enjoy it fully.
I’m finding it difficult to rate this campground. It is by no means perfect. The location isn’t the greatest. Sorry, but that highway sucks. I don’t expect peace and quiet in this setting and obviously with families around it won’t be silent, but big trucks annoy me when I’m away from the city.
The lack of potable water is another biggie. I don’t get it, especially with potable water obviously present onsite. Coupled with the stuffy shower house that could really use a window or three and the underwhelming group sites, Willey West Campground warrants some criticism.
That said, the management is going so far beyond the norm to make the camping experience here unparalleled, I can’t help but love the place. Kudos to the folks in charge for the interesting and innovative additions to this family campground. I applaud your efforts and encourage others to support you with their camping dollars.
So, I’ll give Willey West Campground in Eagle Point Provincial Park 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. That’s higher than it deserves considering the handful of drawbacks I identified. But the attempts to up the game and enliven the family campy experience are worth an extra pickle.
If you’ve got youngsters, go check it out! Bring cousins, friends, grandparents, whomever. Just remind those in tents to, umm, keep the extra-curriculars hushed. You never know who’s listening.