Truth is parks systems are not centrally planned networks. No committee sat down prior to the first settler setting foot in an area and said, “Okay, we will have a park of this size with these amenities here, and here, and here.” Parks are far more organic, with multiple generations holding varied agendas adding and removing haphazardly over decades. As a result, there’ll be at least one park that leaves you scratching your head. From my perspective, Alberta’s head scratcher is Tillebrook Provincial Park.
Sandwiched between the TransCanada Highway and the main CP rail line six kilometres east of Brooks, Alberta, Tillebrook Provincial Park makes no sense to me. There is no obvious reason for it to exist. Not there. There’s no natural feature to protect. The closest historical structure, the Brooks Aqueduct, is outside the park boundaries. And Brooks sure ain’t no tourist mecca, it’s only claim-to-fame being a giant meat packing plant. To the best of my knowledge, public tours are not available.
And to be honest, the whole area is not the prettiest. It’s flat, dry, and, frankly, grim. Great place for a meat packing plant, not so much for a park.
Adding to the oddity, Kinbrook Island Provincial Park is only ten kilometres to the south and it, at least, is on a manmade reservoir thus offering swimming, sailing, and fishing. Look a little further afield and the famed Dinosaur Provincial Park is a reasonable 30 minutes of driving to the north. Those parks make sense. Tillebrook? Not so much.
As such, I’ve made zero effort to camp at Tillebrook Provincial Park. Oh, I’m intrigued by its existence, but until this past summer I’ve had no desire to step foot in the place. That all changed when circumstances evolved unexpectedly.
We cancelled our original Labour Day weekend camping trip to Saskatchewan but still wanted a last-minute night away with a campfire and some stargazing to cap our 2022 camping season. With few options available at such late notice, and a decent spot available at Tillebrook, we threw caution to the wind and booked a site for Friday night.
A funny thing happened over the course of that lone, long weekend Friday. Tillebrook Provincial Park, the park that makes no sense, turned out to be a surprisingly nice little park. Perhaps I’ve been treating it unfairly all these years? Perhaps you have too?
Now, before I get into the nitty gritty, I must remind readers of the park’s location. It’s found east of Brooks in a plot of land bounded by the TransCanada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Low expectations are great for unexpectedly good experiences, but even low expectations can’t paper over the reality of traffic noise.
No, it was not as noisy as locations through the mountains (trains) or nearer to Calgary (roads) but neither is it quiet. The overnight trains thankfully only blew their horns once, but they took a long time to pass by and the engine chugging woke me a couple of times.
Automobile traffic isn’t steady and does dip overnight but you’ll nonetheless hear the odd transport truck whip past in the darkness. Everyone’s mileage varies on this issue, so I’ll leave you to decide for yourself.
Tillebrook Provincial Park fully embraces novelty by offering five circular loops for camping. Three of the loops (A, C, D) are dual-looped with a ring of pull-through campsites whereas the remaining two loops (B, E) have back-in sites.
Usually, loops A through D have electricity and loop E is the lone non-powered loop. However, during our stay in late summer of 2022, an electrical malfunction had rendered loop C non-powered as well. I’m sure this will be rectified at some point, but it’s worth double-checking before booking your site in loop C if you require power.
None of the sites have water service at site, but potable water is readily available from multiple taps located in each of the five loops. Additionally, RV fill-up can be found at the dump station.
There are no sites with sewer service. Not at all unexpected.
Campsites at Tillebrook Provincial Park are relatively uniform in dimensions. This is particularly true of the pull-through loops where the entrance and exit loops, both perfect circles, limit variance in site length. The back-in sites have slightly more variability, though none are abnormally long or short. All sites will accommodate most motorhomes and trailers.
The sites are level and consist of packed gravel pads with grass, now dirt, between them. What grass there is, was remarkably green for a September weekend in an area that gets very little rain during the summer. Watering of campsites undoubtedly occurs, but even that wasteful practice cannot save grass from constant foot traffic.
Much of that foot traffic occurs immediately next to the gravel pads and around the firepits. Again, not surprising as this is where most campers spend their time at a campsite. And, hey, as much as I may chastise for watering grass in a provincial park, it was nice to have some “lawn” for nostalgia.
Speaking of firepits, ours was terrible. A tall, metal firepit with partial grill, not unlike those found at every other Alberta Park campground, the one on our site had no cut-out through which to actually view the fire. This inadequacy frustrated our marshmallow roasting as the tall, uncut rim of the firepit forced a steep angle to reach the coals with our sticks. Uneven roasting coupled with dropped marshmallows made for no shortage of cursing these firepits by all four family members.
While wandering around the campground, I noticed that not all firepits sported this malformed shape. Some had the traditional cut-out one would expect, but many did not. I’ve never before seen such a tragedy of firepit engineering and hope never to again.
The width of campsites at Tillebrook Provincial Park isn’t the best. They’re not sardine cans by any means, but you won’t in any way feel isolated from your neighbours. I suppose they’re a perfect compromise in a way. And with no underbrush or shrubbery between sites, you’ll have full view of the neighbour’s RV.
On the other hand, there is a surprising number of trees at Tillebrook Provincial Park. This is no small wonder considering how bereft of natural vegetation beyond tumbleweed there is in the greater Brooks area.
The word oasis gets bandied about too much in my camping blogs, but in this case, it really is one. Not full forest, mind you, but with many towering elm and cottonwood trees (I think), there is plenty of shade dappling each of the campsites.
And you’ll want that trickle of shade considering the temperatures and blazing sun that routinely bathes this part of the province. Even on Labour Day we were treated to plus 35 Celsius during the afternoon. That’s definitely not my preference, so I was delighted to have some foliage to protect my sensitive body.
Sadly, some of these majestic trees are dying or dead. Honestly, cottonwoods are never all that attractive a tree at the best of times. Thankfully, new trees have been planted around the park, so a continual presence of shade trees can be expected at Tillebrook Provincial Park for years to come. Knock on … cough … wood.
Trees aren’t the only peculiarity at this park. I was equally surprised to find a staffed park office. And I don’t mean a small kiosk in the middle of the entry road. A life-sized, pyramidal, tin clad, guest-services building is present near the entrance to the park.
The interior is admittedly sparse. Whatever the building’s original purpose, its services have been whittled down over the decades, but there were nonetheless items available to purchase, informative signage and displays, plus a kind staff member available to answer questions and whatnot.
Items for sale include a small selection of emergency camping essentials. An old school chest freezer contained bagged ice and next to it was a Nestle frozen treat cooler. At the other end of the room was a glass fronted fridge filled with pop and water. Chips and chocolate bars are also available. To round out the offerings, there’s an assortment of maps, a display about local birds, and a flush toilet.
Handy for travelers, I suppose. I’m sure may cross-Canada adventurers from the East pull in here for a night’s rest on their way to the mountains. Still, I’m stunned such an isolated and relatively small park has this service considering how many bigger parks in Alberta have had similar facilities shut down or never had one to begin with.
Outside the office is a shed filled with bags of firewood. I assume you purchase inside. As is our custom, we brought along our own wood, so I’m unsure of the cost. Sorry. I was just so happy there wasn’t a fire ban considering the endless weeks of hot, dry weather we’d had leading up to this short visit.
Behind and to the north of the park office is a green space serviced by a u-shaped road with some parking at its apex. Just beyond this parking area is a rudimentary baseball diamond. The diamond is entirely grass, infield and all. Were it not for the backstop, you’d never know this was meant for baseball.
I’ve no idea if anyone plays. I suppose locals in Brooks might scoot out for a pick-up game at Tillebrook Provincial Park. Of course, they could do that in town as well. This strikes me as an odd amenity in a place full of oddities.
Some shade trees within the u-shaped drive make for what could be nice picnic spots but that doesn’t appear to be the purpose of this space. I don’t actually know what the purpose of it is, frankly, but immediately across the park entrance road is a larger, defined day use picnic area.
Another, longer, though narrower, loop road with a handful of pull-through drives between the mowed grass and treed green space make for a decent picnic spot. This must surely be geared towards travelers on the TransCanada looking for a spot to park their campers and have a quick lunch before hitting the road again.
There are picnic tables and garbage facilities for convenience, but beyond the spotty shade there isn’t much draw. If you’re camping at Tillebrook Provincial Park, you’ll be hard-pressed to do more than glance at the day use area as you drive past when entering or exiting.
Instead, campers in the park will be drawn to the large outdoor activities area to the southwest of the aforementioned park office. With a playground, shower house, volleyball court, and picnic spots, this is easily the entertainment hub of Tillebrook Provincial Park.
Unfortunately, it surrounds the large dump station. Don’t get me wrong, as dump stations go this has got to be the nicest we’ve ever seen. Two long drives with a manicured lawn between them plus trees and shrubs give the impression you’re dumping your waste directly into someone’s well kept backyard.
There are two outlets and oodles of space for multiple RVs to line up while awaiting an opening. Fresh water can also be found here to fill your tanks. It’s a great dump station. Free, even. Just a shame it’s built into the same space were all the kids and parents will be playing.
For the younger set, that play will focus on the large metal playground. With two slides, one of which curves, and a multitude of climbing options, this is a nice, newer playground with a pea gravel base and shade trees all around.
Older kids, or maybe even the adults, can enjoy a competitive game of volleyball in the “court” nearby. I put quotes around court because it’s just a grass field. It may have had sand at one time, but that’s now grown over. Nonetheless, there’s a functioning net strung between two poles. All you need is a ball. And once again, the trees provide some shade to help maintain your energy when playing.
The picnic spots here are a step above those found at the day use area. Set beneath the dappled shade, there are picnic tables and large firepits for a good and proper afternoon/evening picnic. With lots of mowed, irrigated lawn and close to the playground and bathroom, these handful of picnic spots are lovely.
They’re also green. As in the grass. On a sunny, hot August day (+35C), myriad sprinklers were shooting water across various lawns to keep this oasis of a park alive and green despite its location in the very dead and very brown Alberta Prairie. I’ll let you decide if that’s as idiotic as it seemed to me.
Finally, south of the playground and with a parking lot bordering the dump station is Tillebrook Provincial Park’s shower house. This must be a newer facility, because I’m sure such a luxury was not part of the original park infrastructure.
The shower house has everything you’d expect. A handful of sinks with metal mirrors, urinals and toilets, and several showers including one that is wheelchair accessible. The showers, too, are free but only offer the non-temperature-adjustable push buttons to engage the water.
We were there only one night so I didn’t shower, thus I cannot comment on their effectiveness. The showerheads didn’t look the greatest, but at least the showers exist. I’m sure they’re a treat for those family vacationers putting down hard kilometers on the TransCanada.
If you’re not as high-maintenance as I, or perhaps in a bigger rush, there are pit toilets situated in the centre of each of the five camping loops at Tillebrook Provincial Park. These cute little units are new additions to the campground judging by their pristine exteriors.
Inside is the expected green plastic “toilet” connected to hell beneath the concrete base. They looked to be kept clean, but I avoided them regardless. It wasn’t all that much further to the shower house from our site. Odours within surely varies with the season and the daily weather.
Despite the park office including a staff member, Tillebrook Provincal Park also has a campground host. This place is better funded than Kananaskis!
We didn’t see or interact with the hosts. We never really do. Nice to know they’re around, though. And hopefully they keep things in order when the campground is full and folks are looking to let off some steam. It was mostly quiet our lone night there, but you never know what you’re going get on long weekends.
I found the campground surprisingly peaceful. While walking to the bathroom at night, I could hear one site getting a bit rambunctious, but that noise didn’t travel to our site around the bend. Overall, I was impressed that this whole park wasn’t a gong show party spot considering it was the last long weekend of the year.
You may not yet be convinced that Tillebrook Provincial Park is a fun place for camping. I can understand that. I’m still not sure myself whether I’d want to spend an entire long weekend there. I suppose a quick road trip to Lake Newell for some swimming or a visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park would easily liven up your stay.
There are, however, a couple other modest attractions worth noting. Within the park itself, there is a small trail network that circumnavigates the perimeter almost entirely while connecting to each of the camping loops and the office area.
We didn’t make the effort to tour the entire trail but did have a peak at it while we investigated the ball diamond area. It appears to be a simple mowed trail winding through the trees and underbrush. In no way is it fully sheltered so be sure to apply sunscreen and, probably, bug spray.
By the start of September, we were well beyond the worst of mosquito season. There were still some around along with plenty of small dragonflies munching on the little bastards. We still required long pants and repellant in the evenings. And if you venture into the long grass like we did, you’ll get a bit more inundated by them than you will at your site.
Wasps and flies were also aplenty. Buzzing around our food and drink, they too were a nuisance but not so much as to ruin the experience. Whether that holds true earlier in the summer remains for you to discover.
Our long grass adventure stemmed form a desire to try out our newly purchased telescope in what we hoped would be dark sky. Sadly, Brooks is ridiculously bright and only a short distance form Tillebrook Provincial Park. This, coupled with a lack of skill with our new toy, limited our skygazing to some basic views of Jupiter and Saturn. Still fun, but less than we’d hoped for.
Birding is another popular pastime at the park based on the displays in the park office. We didn’t set out to see birds but were thrilled to briefly witness two great horned owls traverse the trees in the green space beyond our loop. Amazing birds! I wish they’d stuck around longer so I could have taken a picture.
Our other bird sighting was a majestic hawk proudly perched upon the Brooks Aqueduct. Well, the hawk and a swarm of idiotic pigeons, that is. Ugh. But the hawk was cool. As was the aqueduct.
The Brooks Aqueduct
The Brooks Aqueduct is an interesting remnant from yesteryear. Part of the vast irrigation system that makes more of the uninhabitable prairies habitable, this heritage structure is worth visiting if you’re already in the area.
I can’t honestly say it’s worth a long drive on its own, though. They’ve attempted to make it a bit of a destination with a small public space that includes a small playground, some picnic spots, and a bathroom.
Sadly, I don’t think anyone is maintaining this modest infrastructure anymore. The bathrooms were locked up and the rest of the structures looked to be deteriorating. Some information placards explaining the aqueduct and its history could still be read, so it wasn’t a wasted trip. I just wouldn’t plan to picnic here.
The annoying farmer’s kid next door zooming around the aqueduct grounds on his noisy motorbike didn’t make for a peaceful visit either. I guess when you’re bored out of your skull, irritating city slickers is Grade A entertainment in Brooks.
The aqueduct is a short four kilometre drive from Tillebrook Provincial Park. If you’re eager for some exercise, you can walk to it directly which is a shorter two kilometre path as the crow flies. You’re completely without shelter from the sun once you leave the campground loops. The broader park boundaries and surrounding farmland is entirely treeless. And it’s honestly not a visually stunning walk. But, hey, it’s a bit of exercise.
I’m glad we went to see the Brooks Aqueduct. Although nothing more than a remnant stretch of elevated, concrete waterway, it’s a funky bit of history. Weird stuff got built back in the day. And the physics of the syphon that diverted water beneath a railroad line is fascinating all on its own.
And with that our spontaneous, single day, long weekend camping “trip” came to a close. I don’t imagine we’ll ever be back for another night or a full weekend. Surprising though it all was, it’s still not a destination campground in my book.
That being said, I have a much greater appreciation for Tillebrook Provincial Park. I expected and pointless, trainwreck of a campground and was taught a valuable lesson regarding assumptions. I’ll give this plucky park and campground on the TransCanada highway 3.85 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
It’s not a gem, by any stretch, but it is certainly an oasis that offers far more than I ever imagined considering its location. I wish the light pollution had been far less, okay non-existent, which would have made our skywatching endeavour far more successful. Everything else, though, was pretty good.
Tillebrook is an obvious overnight spot for campers exploring the West. And for local families or groups of friends, it’s a wonderful little spot that’s easy to get to with several amenities you wouldn’t expect it to have. You’re close to a large town with all services (cell coverage as well). It even works as a topnotch overflow spot for Kinbrook Island Provincial Park.
But I still don’t understand why it exists. To quote Mr. Spock … fascinating.