The lure of fossils is strong in this household. Well, with half of it, anyway. Our day at American Fossil Quarry only poured gasoline on the embers of this passion. This led to the purchase of a self-published book showcasing rockhounding locations throughout parts of British Columbia as a Christmas gift. That book, in turn, inspired a nine-day camping adventure that took us to Otter Lake Provincial Park.
After our first day of driving to Kamloops, we headed south to Princeton. The book revealed several spots of interest in this area, and we were keen to go hunting. Unfortunately, we successfully found only one of the treasures gleaned from the book. In one instance, a coal wall had been eviscerated by an actual coal mine. In another, we were able to match the exact spot shown in a picture from the book, but the prized fossils were nowhere to be found. Thankfully, the roadcut outside Princeton rewarded us handsomely with awesome Eocene fossils.
Expecting to explore multiple sites when we planned the trip, I booked two nights in the Princeton area. Camping in a tent, I was wary of roadside and/or railroad-side campgrounds. Options around Princeton were limited with the Princeton Municipal Campground literally situated on a strip of land crammed between Crowsnest Highway and the Similkameen River.
I was forced to look a little further abroad, recognizing that extra driving would be required. I finally settled upon Otter Lake Provincial Park, a thirty-five-minute drive northwest of Princeton. Not ideal for travel, but I wouldn’t be complaining about the scenery when we retired to our campsite for the evening.
OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK LOCATION AND SETTING
Getting to Princeton proved a far more enjoyable drive than I anticipated. BC is littered with beautiful, scenic roads, and old highway 5A from Merritt to Princeton is rewardingly pretty.
From Princeton to Otter Lake Provincial Park, things got wilder. The road is curvy and narrow, oh, and rough in parts. The scenery remained appealing, but I didn’t get much opportunity to take it in as I was focused on not driving off the side of the mountain.
It’s a 32 km drive from the town centre to the park. The time it takes to make that drive will depend on your chutzpah. I can’t imagine hauling a large trailer up this road. Even our small Geo Pro would have been an adventure, so I was glad to be tent camping on this trip.
Along the way, you pass through Coalmont and then Tulameen. The former is certainly the harder up of the two. On first pass, it almost looks like a ghost town. Tulameen, by contrast, is in the midst of a renaissance with plenty of money coming in from the big cities to the west. Abbostford is a three-hour drive and downtown Vancouver, almost four. And while not as big or well-serviced as Princeton, Tulameen can help you out in a pinch.
Otter Lake Provincial Park is submerged in a lovely tall spruce/fir forest. This provides shelter but also limits views of the surroundings unless you are on the lakeshore with uninterrupted sightlines. From there you can see the rounded, tree-covered mountains of BC’s interior.
OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK LAYOUT
The campground at Otter Lake Provincial Park houses 45 unserviced campsites, one of which is a host’s site. The campsites are located on the inside and outside of a singular loop that is divided in two by the main entrance road. For lack of a better nomenclature, I’ll refer to the halves as left and right.
There are 4 pullout, arcuate style campsites, all in the right loop (one of these is the host’s site). The remainder are all back-in campsites. One lonely campsite is located on the main road dissecting the loop. This is the site we ended up with.
Sites vary in size and orientation with some being quite large. Ours, for example, was far better suited to a large RV than our tent. If you care to venture up here with your massive RV, you’ll likely find a spot capable of holding it, but I’d reserve such a spot to be sure.
Six double sites are present for folks camping together, three in each half. A few campsites back onto the lake which makes them nicer than the rest.
OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK CAMPSITES
Back-in sites typically consist of a long, gravel drive with a gravel bulb around the firepit and picnic table. All of this is elevated above the surrounding natural groundcover. Most are quite spacious, but the approaches aren’t always level.
Pullout sites have an arced drive next to the living space. The two are separated by large boulders in some cases. They also didn’t look as elevated off the forest floor as much as their back-in cousins.
The picnic tables are BC Park’s finest immovable wood and concrete behemoths. I love these tables but loathe their static positioning. The firepits are round with an open front and a grill on top.
Tree coverage varied more than I expected. Satellite imagery shows a relatively solid forest across the campground, but the reality on the ground wasn’t so uniform. Most sites were sheltered by conifers, but some had openings that let in sun.
Ours was one such campsite, perhaps the worst of the lot. On our second day there, we returned to our site tired from a long day of fossil hunting to find most of our site bathed in hot sun. We swapped our dirty hiking gear for shorts and t-shirts and scurried our lawn chairs to a partially shaded corner of our campsite.
We were greeted by a variety of flies that quite enjoyed pestering us. Not mosquitoes, mind you, but the littlest of black flies did bite. The larger ones were just persistently annoying. The mosquitoes didn’t like the sun and waited for it to set before coming out for a snack. Not overwhelming but annoying at times.
NOISE AT THE CAMPGROUND
Despite its modest size, Otter Lake Provincial Park is a bustling place that gets quite loud at times. It’s very popular with families of which there were many camping during our early July visit. Families get loud when they’re having fun.
They get louder still when they bring ATVs along. I suppose I should have expected as much being out in the wilds of BC. You don’t get this far off the beaten path in logging country and expect to find granola crunchers. Thankfully the blasted machines were kept to daytime and evening use only.
Generators are also a plague and surely to be found in a campground with no electricity. Bah humbug.
BOAT LAUNCH AT OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK
The boat launch at Otter Lake Provincial Park is a bit of a mystery. It exists, that much I know. The familiar grooved concrete pad sloping into the water is found exactly where it is supposed to be according to the park map. But it does not appear to be operational judging by the yellow rope strung across it and the two concrete parking berms at its start.
Oddly enough, immediately next to it is a dirt and gravel slope that does appear to be usable. Perhaps not for motorized watercraft on trailers, but I think folks are launching canoes and kayaks from here.
A gravel turnaround is associated with the launch. A short road connects to a larger gravel parking lot capable of storing vehicles and trailers. You would enter this parking lot first as the main entrance road to the park terminates here.
No signage identifying a reason for the launch being closed was evident. And boats were certainly on the water, so that’s not the issue. SeaDoos as well. There was even a boat on a trailer in the large parking lot the one day. Very strange.
The park isn’t terribly large, though larger than the campground footprint. Nonetheless, there is not much of a hiking trail network within the park nor does the park connect with any trail system outside its boundaries.
At the east end of the campground, between sites 11 and 12, is the trailhead for a nature trail. The official maps do not show where it goes, and the BC Parks website only says it goes along the lake. We didn’t venture down it to investigate further having worn ourselves out pretty good during the day.
There are some very short trails inside the campground. Some are dirt shortcuts worn by the feet of lazy campers. Others are dirt trails connecting places like the boat parking lot to the beach. Short, foliage encased trails that only provide a service.
BEACH AND PET AREA
There are two beaches at Otter Lake Provincial Park, but only one is labeled as such. The other, though, is cool in its own special way.
The official beach is located west of the boat launch. It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a beach. Then again, it’s a mountain lake and soft, sandy beaches are not the forte of mountains. Primarily pebbly dirt and sand with bushes on one side and water on the other, there’s not a lot to do at this beach.
I doubt many people go swimming in the cool, weedy water and you won’t be building incredible sandcastles here, but you can surely sit in the sun if you like. Or as my picture hints, launch a paddle board or kayak from shore.
The other beach is labeled as a pet area. It looks like an old boat launch in a way. That it is an official pet area (i.e. dogs) is kind of a neat idea.
There are two short trails to the people beach, one from the large parking lot and the other from the boat launch. The dog beach is right at the east end of the large parking lot. You can’t miss it.
THE BATHROOMS OF OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK
It should be no surprise that the toilets at Otter Lake Provincial Park are of the pit variety, and yet it was a surprise to us. You see, the BC Parks website states that “there are four pit toilets and four flush toilets located in the campground.” That … is a lie. A disappointing, cruel, lie.
There are four pit toilets and zero flush toilets. Each is a single, wood unit or oversized outhouse, for lack of a better description. They’re unisex and usually found in pairs. Inside is a plastic toilet, toilet paper, and a simple latch to prevent strangers from accidentally interrupting your “me time”. They smell, too, of course.
One hack I’ll share. The lone pit toilet by the large boat parking lot gets used far less than the other three which are scattered about the campsites. It’s only a small improvement in odour, but every bit counts.
There are four water taps in the park, each located next to a pit toilet. These are interesting tap contraptions, with a large, brown casing from where the water tap extends. On top is a drinking fountain, below, a catchment drain.
These should be potable water, and they likely are, but each had a warning sign affixed stating that water should be boiled for two minutes. This always spooks me, and I end up not drinking the water. We used it for cooking since it would be boiled, but who wants to drink hot water when thirsty? And I wasn’t going to trust drinking straight from the fountain.
Otter Lake is a small campground, but I was still a bit surprised there was no dump station present. Perhaps my expectations are too urban? Too Albertan? I just thought there would be one, not that I was going to need it.
Where one would go to empty RV tanks is a good question. I’m not convinced Tulameen has a dump station and I very much doubt Coalmont does. Presumably Princeton would, but I honestly don’t know. That’s a bit of a trek from your campsite regardless.
OFFICE AND STORE
There was no chance of there being an office or a store at a small park and campground like this. Upon entry there is a noticeboard with all the information you need to camp at Otter Lake Provincial Park. You can reserve sites, which is what I did, or you can snag an empty site upon arrival.
Reservations are posted on the noticeboard and the campground host will come round to your campsite later in the day.
For any dietary or camping needs/emergencies, you can try Tulameen’s Trading Post. I didn’t go inside, but this retailer does sell gasoline. More than likely, you’ll have to return to Princeton.
PRINCETON, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Princeton is a cute but hard-luck logging and mining town in south central British Columbia. Located at the junction of the Crowsnest highway (the southernmost leg of TransCanada roads) and old highway 5A (now usurped by the Coquihalla), Princeton has all the small-town amenities you’re likely to require on a road trip (gas, fast food, groceries).
The old downtown core is lovely with what appears to be attempts at rejuvenation. The local museum, which has displays of the fossils found nearby, was something we’d hoped to visit on our initial drive through on our way to Otter Lake Provincial Park. Unfortunately, it closed at 4:00 on weekdays and we arrived at 3:59 to find the place already locked up.
We made use of the Princeton services for sustenance and gasoline. When we finally left the area and passed the Princeton Municipal Campground, I was contented with my decision not to camp there. It’s a pretty spot, highway notwithstanding, but there’s no way I’d have slept a wink in a tent.
The campground host has a pullout campsite near the start of the right loop. Besides confirming your arrival and site registration, the host will swing by offering firewood at $10 per tub. It’s a cash transaction and you pretty much just wave them down as they pass.
I remain unsure if the firewood guy and the campground host are the same people. They converse with each other and spend some time together on the host campsite. But the wood selling truck did not appear to spend the night inside the campground. I’m not sure what the deal is.
RECREATION AT OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK
Otter Lake Provincial Park is perhaps on the remote side of things, but it’s still a family-friendly place for summer getaways with the camper. Sadly, it has no playground despite ample room for one. The only hint of recreational activities besides the beach and water was a single horseshoe pitch in the woods next to the parking lot.
CELL SERVICE AND WIFI
Be aware that there is not even a hint of cell service at, or anywhere near, Otter Lake Provincial Park. You are in the boonies despite the activity in the towns of Tulameen and Coalmont. I lost coverage just prior to Coalmont on our way up from Princeton (Telus). Needless to say, we were off the grid while at the campground.
Likewise, there is no Wi-Fi at the campground. Not that I was expecting there to be.
WILDLIFE AT OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK
When camping in the wilds of BC, seeing wildlife is almost inevitable and Otter Lake was no exception. Luckily, no bears were witnessed, but plenty of other critters were sighted during our stay. On one occasion, a deer came strolling right through the campground, which got all the dogs in a dither.
Birds were also plentiful, including loons out on the lake and woodpeckers in the trees. Crows were continually watching for opportunistic thefts from campsites as were the squirrels and the cutest little chipmunks.
The lake is surely stocked for anglers, and we saw plenty of chunky minnows and young fish from the shoreline.
RATING OF OTTER LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK
I’m torn on how to rate this campground. Nothing about it should have been a surprise to me. It’s a small park in a somewhat remote locale. It’s exactly what BC parks in such situations are like.
And yet, that misleading website entry proclaiming the presence of four flush toilets that don’t exist really irked me. I likely would have ended up booking here regardless, but that information certainly swayed my decision. Getting the arguably ugliest site in the campground didn’t help either.
That being said, Otter Lake Provincial Park was far from the worst campground we’ve ever been to. It served our needs, and we had a great time hunting fossils and exploring the area around Princeton. I would definitely go back and the many happy families camping around us confirm the park is well received. I’ll give it 3.4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
A little harsh, maybe, but never lie to me about toilets!