Make no mistake, Pembina River Provincial Park is a delightful campground for family, friends, or any combination thereof to make merry on a summer’s weekend. Also know that on the August long weekend of 2022, I wanted no part of any of it.
Perhaps it was too soon after our bucket list mega-adventure camping through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks. Or maybe I’ve finally devolved into the hypocritical old curmudgeon whom I, myself, tormented on many camping trips back in my youth. Whatever the case, I left Pembina River Provincial Park with a persistent sour taste in my mouth that will undoubtedly cloud this review.
Pembina River is a relatively small provincial park situated in a meander of its namesake river within the historic towns of Entwistle and Evansburg approximately one hour west of Edmonton. This convenient location makes it a popular spot with young families, multi-generational families, and college kids. Toss a long weekend into the mix with with sunny, hot weather, and you can imagine where things ended up by Sunday night.
Every annoying camper stereotype was in attendance:
- The loud dude who thinks everyone wants to hear his prognosticating
- The loud chick who cackles hideously at everything she finds funny … usually the loud guy
- The young, screamy kids that are never shushed … usually loud dude and loud chick’s children
- The mom who yells for her kids rather than going two sites down to fetch them
- The grandma who’s been smoking for 58 years and has a volume control stuck at 9.5
- The folks with the generator running for no apparent reason
- The giant RV owner running the air conditioning all day despite not being in the RV
- The folks fogging their entire campsite with bug repellent like it’s 1983
- The dog people that refuse to stop their damn dog from barking at everyone walking past
- The older teens/twentysomethings blasting awful music
- The millennials blasting awful music
- The drunk all-of-the-above that view quiet times as mere suggestions
But perhaps the most annoying of all, and an new one for me, is the family that hauls along a powered toy car for their kids to play with. Sure, two toddlers riding around in a fake Cadillac or Jeep looks cute, but hard plastic wheels on gravel roads is in no way a pleasant sound. Not at eight in the morning. Not at four in the afternoon. Not ever. If you’re adamant that your precious spawn needs such entertainment … please … stay … home.
Okay, now that I have that rant out of my system, allow me to refocus and review Pembina River Provincial Park with hopefully less bias than I started with. It is, after all, a nifty park and campground even if our first experience hit a few speedbumps.
It seems that 2022 has been our year of the small, riverside provincial park. We visited Red Lodge, Willey West, and Pembina River all of which treat campers to a very similar setting: meandering river, boulder/sand bars, and predominantly forested campsites and trails. While not as awe-inspiring as their nearby mountain counterparts, they nonetheless provide an appealing oasis of wilderness in the sometimes-monotonous surrounding farm and ranch lands.
Much like Willey West in Eagle Point Provincial Park near Drayton Valley, Pembina River Provincial Park teased an impressive cliff face along the river’s course, perhaps even a gorge. And also, like Willey West, reality didn’t meet my expectations. There was some outcropping, even an impressive viewpoint from atop, but both were limited in extent, the latter not even being within the park itself.
The geology is still attractive where present, but my benchmark for being impressed has become impossibly high. Visions of hiking beneath or atop impressive cliff faces, like we did at Ram Falls or Crescent Falls, ain’t happening at Pembina River.
All About the Campsites at Pembina River Provincial Park
The campground at Pembina River Provincial Park is laid out not unlike a brain and spinal column, with camping in the brain and day use at the base of the spine. Entry to the entire complex, off old highway 16A, occurs just where the spinal column begins to broaden into a human sized brain. And that’s enough of this forced simile.
A total of 132 (or 134 depending on which source you believe: website or map) campsites line six alphabetical loops descending in elevation towards the river. According to the official website, all sites come with power except for two. Why only two? And how the hell did I end up in a powered site next to them?
Loops A, B, and C are found on the east side of the main campground road. Each is found on a bench, with the next dropped down and so on approaching the river. All three are fully forested with well-sized sites reasonably separated from each other. I’ve seen wider, mind you, but these were still comfortably private with some underbrush between.
Loop E is also to the east and is the closest loop to the river on this side of the road. It too drops down another elevation bench, resulting in 8 swanky sites backing to the river’s edge. The loop is, in parts, less treed than its uphill siblings with some sites essentially void of trees.
Oh, oh, and Loop E also houses, to the best of my knowledge, the lone pull-through campsite. It’s such a peculiar anomaly in a campground full of back-ins. If pull-throughs are your kink, you’d better be quick to reserve this one.
Loops D and F, by contrast, are found on the west side of the main campground road. Neither are true loops with only a turnabout at their ends to redirect traffic back out of the loop. Loop D is the smaller of the two and is located further uphill, its entrance nearly aligned with the Loop E entrance.
The seven sites in loop D, though surrounded by trees, are themselves wide open. This is an odd strip of sites, frankly, but they’re uniqueness kind of makes them nice I suppose. And the mix of nearby forest with open campsite gives visitors the best of both worlds?
Loop F, however, is the estates section of Pembina River Provincial Park. A long strip of back-in campsites following the bend in the river, these are the best sites in the campground. None of the sites back onto the river like those special few in Loop E, but their location at the bottommost bench of the campground gives them elite appeal.
These thirty campsites are not especially large, though deeper than many in other loops. Most are partially to almost fully open with one or two trees at front and back of the site. A couple sites at the west end have more trees. None have any undergrowth to speak of, so privacy is lacking.
What they do have, however, is a broad strip of mowed lawn behind them. A private field if you will. This grassy area is open to everyone and there is a playground and pit toilet within it. But for those camping in other sections of the campground, it is only accessible from the eastern end where it meets the main campground road, or from above along the Loop D road. If you’re exploring the river or strolling down the Loop F road itself, your only means of accessing this oasis behind the Loop F campsites is to trespass through them.
I took such a stroll on a few occasions, and the popularity of Loop F with young families is undeniable. It seemed as though every campsite had an assortment of inflatable toys resting against a tree or piled on the ground. With such easy access to the lazy Pembina River just across the way, these sites are no-brainers for family summer fun.
As a result, Pembina River campground has a genuine pecking order when it comes to campsites. Loop F is tops followed by a select handful of sites in Loop E that back onto the river. Loop D is next. Then the remainder of Loop E with the exception of the few narrow, sardine-can-like sites with firepits behind the trailer pad rather than beside. Appeal rounds out with Loops C, then B, then A as you go up the benches away from the river.
The lower sites (Loops D, E, F) tend to be more open and thus have grass between the gravel pads. Moving upwards (Loops A, B, C) enters full forest cover and the campsites become completely gravel separated by wild underbrush. The former are better located to enjoy the water. The latter have more privacy.
We were in site 54 in Loop C, a nicely sized campsite with no neighbours to the one side. With thick bushes and thin, tall trees, we had an appealing mix of privacy and shade with a trickle of sunlight. If only the front of our site had not been wide open to the list of irritants mentioned at the start of this post.
Some of the campsites are less than ideally level. Ours, for example, had a definite slope from front to back that required full extension of our trailer stabilizers in order to get it (almost) level. Not the biggest gripe in the world. I mean, stabilizers are extendable for a reason.
Otherwise, the campsites are alright. Each has a large metal firepit with an open front and small grill at the rear. A metal with wood top picnic table provides a solid, if old, place on which to eat.
Group Camping at Pembina River Provincial Park
Pembina River Provincial Park also boasts one of the oddest group camping areas I’ve come across. There is, perhaps sadly, only one group area in this campground but it’s far from your average group site.
Nearly as large as Loop B and found to the west of the main campground road, you’d be forgiven for assuming the group area is a day use area. That’s certainly what I thought it was at first.
An entrance road joins a teardrop shaped loop that for the most part is open to the elements. The forest surrounds the group area to the north and west and there are singular trees dotted along the south rim. The interior of the loop is grass with no discernable function. Around the loop exterior, however, there are a handful of pseudo-campsites (firepits and tables), some parking areas possibly for RVs, two large picnic shelters, and a vault toilet.
I’m still not convinced everyone using the facilities in the group area were part of the same group. A family nearest the road seemed to be using a firepit and picnic table as their own personal picnic spot. And with genuine group campers enjoying their weekend further into the loop, I didn’t feel comfortable snooping around too much.
Suffice it to say, you could entertain a pretty large group with two full-sized, enclosed picnic shelters (including woodstove) in the lone group area. The ample green space, though not ideally laid out for a convoy of large trailers and motorhomes, can nonetheless host a sizable group. And though it isn’t entirely isolated from the remainder of the campground, the group area is somewhat set unto its own giving a modest sense of privacy.
The Field of Dreams
It’s also immediately next to a sprawling grass field that runs from the group area to the park entrance. Half as wide as it is long, with some mounds at its southern end, this area is great for summer games requiring space. Like bocce, for example. Not only did the four of us play a few games, but a larger group of young men were playing as well.
It honestly felt like wasted space to me, which now that I write it sounds ridiculous in reference to a park. It easily could house a second group area or even another small loop of campsites. But hey, greenspace is great too. Bring your Frisbee!
Dump Station at Pembina River Provincial Park
Located centre-east of the above field, and directly across from Loop A, is the dump station. A bi-directional arcuate setup with two outlets, the dump station struck me as bit … cough … dumpy.
We had little issue with lineups when we left early Monday morning, but it’s likely a wait builds up closer to mass exodus time.
A sign off to the side indicates that usage of the dump station costs $5 for campers and $10 for others. Who those others might be, I don’t know.
Once again, this payment is wholly honour based since nobody is patrolling the dump station and it is far enough away from the registration office that no official parks person is likely to ever see you use it.
Pit Toilets and Shower House
Pembina River campground offers two options for dealing with the call of nature. The most appealing is the large shower house found between Loops A and B along the main road conveniently across from the group camping area.
Though not a new facility, the shower house is modern and includes the expected amenities: sinks, urinals, flush toilets, and showers. Strangely, both urinals were taped off and said to be not-working at the time of our visit. No reason was given. I’d have thought such a malfunction would be a priority to fix, but no.
Showers are coin-operated and accept $1 coins. I’m unsure how long $1 lasts. There are no temperature controls, so you use whatever you get. Each shower stall had a small change area, and all seemed reasonably clean. I didn’t use one but saw no glaring reason not to.
Though many times more appealing than pit toilets, the shower house is not centrally located to all loops. I’m a wuss, so I make every effort to use such a facility no matter how lengthy the walk from my site. Others may not be so high maintenance.
For those bold folk, a selection of pit toilets are located throughout the campground. Even the back portions of Loops A and B share a pit toilet and they’re both closest to the shower house. So, you won’t be too far from a bathroom.
There are two different styles of pit toilets, the newer version found at most upgraded Alberta provincial parks, and a quaint older style that we’ve only seen at Gooseberry Lake. Neither was overly odorous the couple times I ventured into one during this August long weekend, though the scent did increase as the weekend progressed. No surprise there.
These pit toilets do have lighting inside which attracts a tremendous number of moths and other flying bugs. I admit that was a bit creepy, though unavoidable. I enjoy even modest lighting in toilets for nighttime adventures. Dealing with flashlights and pyjama bottoms can be tricky. But, yeah, the moths were not the greatest company while relieving oneself.
Outside of each pit toilet you’ll find a freshwater tap. These and several others are scattered around Pembina River Provincial Park campground providing easy access to drinking water. The water was cool and didn’t taste bad. Unfortunately, some of these taps leak as well, which is both wasteful and messy.
I should also note that some of the taps are located really close to campsites. This could pose a privacy issue should you end up in one of these campsites with a too-close water tap. In fact, the users of one site near us with one such encroaching tap installed a vertical tarp to block out peeping toms filling water jugs right beside their campfire spot.
Pembina River Provincial Park Amenities
Another thought-provoking structure inside the campground is the indoor amphitheatre. The Tom Bull Theatre is tucked into the trees at the mouth of Loop E. Sadly, it has been abandoned and has been for some time based on the condition visible through the dirty windows. I suspect it’s disuse even predates Covid.
Typically neglected park amphitheatres are of the outdoor variety. Seeing an indoor version that is equally unused and unloved was sad. I wonder what they used to do inside it back when such services were deemed to be worth having?
Park Entrance and Registration
The final thing worth noting at Pembina River is the entrance/registration booth. Although staffed, it is a small office with no store or visitor services beyond guidance to your campsite and paying for dump station use (I almost wrote that with a straight face!).
You are able to purchase ice and firewood at the office. The ice is in a cooler just outside and the firewood is stored in a cage off to the side.
Wood costs $11 for a typical bundle. As usual, many campers bring their own wood, and some are super serious about this too. We witnessed one group of campers, presumably staying for the entire week, arrive with an entire pickup truck box filled with wood.
I wasn’t expecting a store at the park office. It’s too small of a park and to warrant such luxury. And the park is located between two towns that offer most services anyway. It’s not like you’ll be stranded here if something breaks or you forget a necessity.
That said, now that I’ve been to Pembina River Provincial Park and seen what goes on there, I’m a bit irked that once again there is no canteen or ice cream shop. So many families enjoy the park it seems to me that cool treats would be a good seller here on hot summer weekends.
The Day Use Area
Pembina River Provincial Park is split in two by the old highway. To the north (and a strip along the west) is the campground and associated amenities. To the south is a wilderness hiking area.
The campground space is itself split into two parts with the registration office acting as a fulcrum. To the north is the campground while to the south is the day use area. And that day use area is a rather robust, busy place.
Immediately to the left of the entrance is a gravel parking lot referred to as overflow parking. It’s actually more convenient for parking if all you’re interested in using is the big field mentioned earlier. You can access the trail network from here as well. More on that later.
The main day use parking lot, however, is found at the bottom of a steep hill heading south from the registration office. It’s a large gravel lot providing handy access to all the local day use facilities.
The bulk of those facilities are found along a stretch of grass and forest between the parking lot and the river. The lone structure on the other side of the parking lot, which for the most part is a hill up to the main highway, is a pit toilet.
A second playground has been built in the day use area which is great for youngsters that’ve grown bored with the Pembina River. A modern metal play structure surrounded by pea gravel this playground is a nice add to the day use are that is otherwise a long walk from the campground playground.
The picnic shelter is in the grass, but several additional smaller picnic spots exist in the woods nearby. Strung out along the riverside trail, these picnic spots have a firepit and picnic table on a gravel/dirt pad. Some are immediately next to the parking lot while others are further along the trail offering a bit more privacy.
A single freshwater tap outside the picnic shelter provides drinking water for those picnicking. Handy, that.
For a small park in a small town, the day use area at Pembina River struck me as rather nice. I’m sure it’s popular with the townsfolk. Even those looking for a tolerable day trip from Edmonton would find a picnic by the Pembina River enjoyable on a summer weekend.
The Pembina River
The Pembina River itself is intriguing. The water appears deep rusty red. I hate to say it, but it kind of reminded me of small rivers meandering through farmland back in southern Ontario, discolored by cattle excrement and whatnot.
I know that is not the reason for the Pembina’s unique colour, but that’s where my mind went. It’s just so distinctly coloured compared to almost every other river I’ve thus far seen in this province.
The river is shallow but maintains a relatively swift flow. I believe there is a dam further upstream. Many day users and campers can be found along its banks wading in the river or digging pools and building structures with the rocks on the meander bars.
The other popular pastime on the Pembina River is floating. A local company offers leisurely floats down the river ending at the park. You rent tubes and the like, enter the river upstream, and enjoy a couple hours floating down the river under the warming sun. The company then picks you up at the day use area.
We did not purchase such a float but watched the many that had as they approached the park. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Perhaps on another trip we’ll indulge.
Many campers also make do with their own, shortened version of a river float. They will take their personal floatation devices and enter the river at the day use area and then float to the northeasterly boundary of Pembina River Provincial Park. Signage along the riverbanks at this point warn floaters to disembark or forever be lost to humanity as they make their way to Hudson Bay.
There isn’t a genuine beach along the river. You’ll have to go to nearby Wabamun Lake for that. That said, despite the dominance of bouldered, rocky bars there is a section that is decidedly sandy. A bit mucky when it’s wet, perhaps, but nonetheless it’s sand and the little ones will surely enjoy building castles and digging holes in it.
Hiking in Pembina River Provincial Park
If water fun isn’t your bag, or you simply need a change of scenery, then hiking might interest you. For such a small provincial park, Pembina River has a surprisingly large trail network with some surprisingly difficult climbs to boot.
There are two distinct trail networks in the park and they reflect the two halves of the park. Well, three if you want to get particular about it. And that’s really only three-ish since the third is not entirely inside the park’s boundaries.
The campground portion of the park has an array of short pathways interconnecting the various loops and amenities. Loop A even goes so far as to have a trail running through its interior. These aren’t hiking trails, obviously, but they do make navigation of the campground slightly easier when on foot.
A larger, genuine hiking trail follows the river’s meander from the northeast extent of Loop E all the way back to the southmost tip of the day use area. This trail, like its inner-loop siblings, is mostly gravel though several short shoots from the trail to the river are now dirt.
Sheltered by forest for its entire length, the easy flat trail is not big on visual appeal but is nonetheless an enjoyable stroll. Sadly, spring flooding has damaged portions of it, most notably at the Loop E end.
A sign and makeshift barricade warn campers that the trail extending from Loop E is closed. When water levels are low you can walk quite a bit further east along the banks and bars which we did. Evidence of the flood damage was seen not long after.
Still, an enjoyable means for strolling around the Pembina River campground. And as noted earlier, at the day use end the trail is bounded on either side by several quaint picnic spots.
The second trail network is found in the highlands south of the highway. This more traditional trail network offers hikers a couple more kilometres of exploration in the forests on top of the plateau overlooking the river.
The top trails are flat and often mowed making for easy walking. A single viewpoint at the south end grants hikers views of the Pembina River and the distant train bridge. You’ll often find floaters making their way into the park below. It’s a nice lookout. Too bad there is only one.
Getting up to the plateau is no easy task. A dirt, rooted, and many-staired half kilometer climb from the highway that starts across from the day use area will test your fitness.
For those unable or unwilling to attempt this climb, fear not as there is a secondary entrance and parking lot open to the public at the east end of the plateau immediately off highway 16A. This offers much easier access to the trails but will likely require a drive from the campground.
The third-ish hiking trail is accessible from the park but starts outside the park before returning into the park and then finally exiting the park. Make sense?
From the day use area, you can follow a roadside trail over the car bridge and then down the embankment into the trailhead. There are two routes on this trail, both of which again challenge hikers with a steep climb out of the river valley.
Aside from a few sections of deteriorating boardwalk and/or steps, the bulk of the longer trail is dirt and root. The straight shot is entirely dirt and root. We went up the former and down the latter, slip sliding a bit and breathing heavily along the way.
At the top, you exit the forest cover at the side of a road on the eastern edge of Evansburg. That’s a tough way to get into town to snoop around but I’m sure some have done it. I hope to hell they rewarded themselves with an ice cream.
While little of the three trail networks offers much in the way of inspiring views, each is a nice way to exercise the legs and see a little nature. Wildflowers and berries, when in season, attract critters of all sorts and you’ll see them flitting about, especially on the plateau.
For added pleasure, there are a few geocaches hidden on the plateau and in the woods up to Evansburg. We were able to find a few as we made our way around the park.
Evansburg and Entwistle
Being sandwiched between two lovely little historical towns, I recommend venturing out of Pembina River Provincial Park to have a look around. This likely requires a car ride or lengthy bike ride (or walk) but it’s worthwhile in my opinion.
The buildings are your typical historical stalwarts: a school, a workshop, an old homestead. Each is filled with antiques appropriate to the function of the building. Many were of an fitting bygone era while others were more modern though still old by my kids’ standards (hello 70s/80s!).
The museum itself was not open while we were present, so we didn’t get inside to see what it had to offer. That was unfortunate but didn’t lessen the appeal of visiting town.
As it was a long weekend, we also noticed signage along the main highway as we approached from Edmonton advertising a larger weekend market and celebration in the town of Seba Beach.
About a fifteen minutes’ drive east of Pembina River Provincial Park on the western shore of Wabamun Lake, Seba Beach is a happening resort town. The long weekend activities included a bouncy castle at the local school, a used book sale at the fire hall, a larger market at the community centre, and later in the day, a community parade. And that doesn’t even mention all the shops and recreational activities available all summer long.
We didn’t stick around for the parade, but we did leave with some interesting new reading material and bellies filled with delicious treats of pecan tarts and croissants. All worth the extra driving.
Trains, Trains, Trains
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I though you didn’t like this campground much? This is starting to sound like you loved it!” Well, allow me to gripe some more then.
Trains. Cool machines but awful when camping. And if you’re camping along TransCanada Highways, trains are almost always hiding somewhere waiting to disrupt your quiet. Pembina River Provincial Park is no different. Remember the train bridge we snapped photos of from the lone trail viewpoint?
We started hearing faint train sounds during the day. I think we heard some the first night too, though I’m unsure. By the second evening no doubt remained, we were definitely hearing trains. Not horns so much, but the steady chug of diesel electric engines. Likewise in the early morning.
There must be either a rail yard or some rail related industry near the park because for hours at a time we could hear the far-off drone of an idling train. It wasn’t noisy enough to disrupt sleep, per se, but once you heard it, it was hard to stop hearing it. Like an earworm that won’t go away.
Party, Party, Party
Of course, the trains were nothing compared to the rowdy campers that truly let loose Sunday night. Friday night had been peaceful. Saturday night, there was some merrymaking but nothing that extended past quiet time. Sunday, though, oh boy, several groups of campers were in full party mode.
In the late afternoon, the folks across from us were already drunk and playing loud music in hopes of getting their little kids to dance and make smoker-granny cackle. They played hip hop and R&B music which I gotta admit was shocker.
Then, after supper a gang of young folks behind us in Loop B got drunk and started playing loud country music (both the good kind and the awful kind), also a shocker. They were celebrating a birthday and by 9:30 were singing horrible, bellowing, out-of-tune happy birthdays to whomever’s birthday it was. This lasted a couple hours before they were either told to shut up or were kicked out.
Ultimately, rain was our friend that final night. Despite partially ruining our own campfire plans, the rain forced the revelers to scurry inside. I can only imagine how late into the night they’d have kept going were it not for Mother Nature’s tears.
As if to remind us of what the rain ruined, the next morning the folks across from us decided the door locking horn on their pickup truck was funny as hell. For no obvious reason, they’d make it beep a dozen or more times in a row and then laugh. This happened a dozen times before the novelty wore off.
I have no idea if it was “cool uncle” or the kids themselves had been given the truck keys. Either way it was an annoying way to wake up. So, we ate breakfast and got out, stat.
Before I wrap this up, I want to mention wildlife. We didn’t see anything remarkable or big (or scary). Despite the humidity of the weekend, even the mosquitoes were fairly mild.
The birds, however, were some of the strangest I’ve yet encountered. Not for their looks but their behaviour. Usually, it is squirrels or chipmunks scoping out the campsites looking for scraps of food. Some are even bold enough to approach humans.
At Pembina River it was the songbirds that filled this niche. Chickadees, sparrows, and some other bland bird unfamiliar to me were not in the least bit shy nor easily startled. They’d hop in looking for an easy meal, one even so bold as to look around under our picnic table while we were eating. Bloody amazing to witness.
I obviously have mixed feelings about Pembina River Provincial Park. I can see the appeal of the place. It’s a nice little park sandwiched between two nice little towns not too far from Edmonton. It has all the necessities for a super fun family camping weekend. I totally get why it’s popular.
I even get why folks were having a good time and bending the rules a bit. I’m not a total prude, yet. I just wasn’t in the mood for any of it that weekend. So, I left with a bit of sourness in my mouth which, now that I’ve had a couple months to digest, is admittedly unfortunate.
I’ll give Pembina River Provincial Park 3.50 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I’d likely have given it 2 on the day we left and I’d likely give it close to 4 had we visited a different weekend. It’s not a perfect park, but for its size and location it’s not too shabby at all. And neighbours are always a crapshoot with public parks. Your mileage may vary, as they say.