Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Whistlers Campground, Jasper National Park

Oh Lucerne campground, you failed us
Location: 10 minutes south of Town of Jasper
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Google or Parks Canada (Campground)
Camping Facilities: Car Camping (Backcountry in the park)
Grade: D
Stargazing: Low light pollution, but obstructed by trees and difficult to find clearings; apparently Marmot Meadows is your best bet
Summary: Poor service, loops from hell, no privacy, dense sites, but somehow still attracts wildlife.
Thoughts: So you've just spent the day exploring Mt. Robson and you want to set yourself up for a day of enjoying Jasper National Park, just a little ways down the road.  Well, the best bet would seem to be Lucerne campground at the eastern border of Mt. Robson Provincial Park.  The town of Jasper is just a few km east of it and you can wake up as late as 9am and still be on a beautiful trail by noon.  That was our plan but it was not meant to by on that mid September day as the Lucerne campground had seen its last camper of the year and had been gated up for the season.  The next option was to carry on to Jasper National Park itself. The first surprise to us (though it shouldn't have been, as this is the case in Bruce Peninsula National Park as well) was the day use fee.  Not only were were required to pay for camping, but you had to pay $19.60 (per family, the same cost as two adult entry fees) simply to breathe the air in the park.  So if you and your family are sleeping in a camper at Whistlers campground and plan on having a fire, the stay in a serviced site will cost you $66.60 (equal to a night's stay in the house of Hades), which strikes me as a touch steep.
Car Camping at Whistlers Campground
- where privacy is for RVs only
It was already 9 pm by the time we arrived at the gate, we didn't really feel that our $20 was well spent. But alas, thems the rules and the parks system is underfunded.  For those who plan on spending longer than 7 days in any given 12 month period, the best bet is the national parks annual pass; it pays for itself after 7th day or part thereof. We figured it was worth it after the fact and the park staff kindly allowed us to apply previously paid entry fees to annual pass.

Once at the campground entrance (a 20 minute drive from the park entrance checkpoint), we had to the pay our camping fee: $26.40 per night; $35.40 if you want to have a fire...see rant below.  It was no small sum considering that we'd just gotten used to paying BC's low, low camp fees of between $16-21 per night per group.  Again, we just nodded and accepted it, given the state of underfunding that our national parks find themselves (though they're still in much better shape than our American cousins). The agreeable mood we were in was pushed aside by a grumpy replacement upon our arrival at the wood lot (where you pick up all that wonderful unlimited wood you just purchased at the gate).  The wood lot was nearly picked clean, with remaining wood either being spindly kindling or large blocks of wood that would have been stubborn to ignite (I kid you not, there were 1 foot cubed blocks!). As well, much of the wood was half buried within the cold, wet earth, so you needed to pry it out and shake it off before use.  It was a bit ridiculous. The next day, when we went to renew our permit, we opted to just use our own wood (we'd purchased some in BC) but were told that if you burn any wood in the park, you had to pay the $8.80 fee (irrespective if the wood was provided by the park).  It's not a huge deal, but come on.  The payments to the park system were beginning to feel more and more like charitable donations.  

How many neighboring campsites can you spot?
Finally came time to pull into the site itself.  It was dark at this point, so we couldn't really get a grasp of the layout, but the sites were extremely close together, even those in adjacent loops. Heck, even the sites adjacent to the adjacent loops were pretty darn close to us.  Hence, loops from hell.  Ordinarily loops are arranged outwards from the access road (see here), but some genius had decided the campground could much denser if the access road was actually a ring road around the campsites.  So in the end, you have sites coming from every direction (you'll see what I mean by looking at the campground map).  As if car camping wasn't bad enough, this was just the worst density I had seen (but not the worst I would see on my trip out west).  And on top of that, there is no understorey to speak of, so don't expect any privacy other than inside your tent.  As well, what is the deal with these picnic fire pits instead of an in-ground proper fire pit?  Does anybody what to sit around this little doo-dad and chat over burning swizzle sticks at night?  Come on, man!  One has to wonder if it's their way of limiting how much wood you use - I'm all for conservation guys, but don't treat campers like infants. There are better ways to control how firewood is consumed. 

Given that we'd paid to stay in a campground with showers, we thought that we'd make use of them.  While not a totally wretch-inducing, skin-crawling experience, it was not one that I would like to repeat day after day.  While they were as clean as you can expect for a campground shower, a few stalls were broken and a lot of the other campers were kind of creeping me out - one guy "accidentally" forgot to lock his stall, as well as "accidentally" leaving the shower curtain open while standing around buck naked (lure much, fella?), while another dude was talking (well, more babbling than talking) to himself rather loudly for the duration of my time in the shower facility.  Now I know that Parks Canada can't screen for weirdos at the gate, but I kinda wish they could.  
A rutting elk in Jasper National Park
A comment about the Parks Canada website: it's mostly terrible.  Campground maps are nearly non-existent, and some images, such as Jasper park map, are of terrible resolution.  Guys, I know the budget is suffering, but this is supposed to be a world-class nature attraction.  

A warning; Sept-Oct is Elk rutting season, so you need to be prudent about how approach elk.  There were plenty of buggling elk roaming the campground (which the park staff try to control, and I think they do as good a job as they can), so be sure to accompany your children on those late night trips to the washroom.

 In summary, I don't recommend camping here unless you have no other option in the Jasper area.  There are plenty of primitive camping opportunities that are cheaper and, from what I can tell from the maps, less crammed (i.e. WapitiWabasso and Pocahontas, especially Pocahontas) . It's fine for a night or two if you really must come here, but it would make for a pretty miserable vacation spot.


A redeeming aspect of staying in Whistlers campground is that it's close to some great hiking.  Check out this beauty of a hike on Bald Hills, just next to Maligne Lake.  Some incredible scenery, and given that it was mid-Sept, we had the place mostly to ourselves.  Consult this book for more hiking ideas. 

Bald Hills Summit

Review: Pyramid Mountain Campground, Wells Gray Provincial Park

Helmcken Falls
Location: 30 mins north of Clearwater
Website:  BC Parks or Wells Gray Tourism
Map: Park Map or Google
Camping Facilities: Car Camping (Backcountry available in park)
Grade: B
Stargazing: Light pollution low, but mostly obstructed
Summary: Decent privacy, basic services, close proximity to nice scenery
Canyon beyond Helmcken Falls
Thoughts: My experience in Wells Gray park was limited to the corridor, since I was on an extended car camping trip.  While I'm sure Murtle Lake is probably worth the trip to the park on it's own, I can't speak to that yet.  What I can say is that the very short hikes to many spectacular waterfalls gives you a pretty good reason to make the trip to the park for the day.  On top of that, a reasonably well designed car campground at Pyramid Lake is a good enough reason to stay the night so that you can spend more time here.  For a mere $16 dollars, you'll have a hand pump for water and basic bathroom facilities.  If that's all that you crave, then you're golden.  Sorry folks, no showers here.  We were also warned of a black bear roaming around the second campground loop (which was closed at the time), so it's important to behave like you're in bear country (food stashed away in your car, odour free campsite). 

While we wanted to do more hiking while we were here, the trails were deserted on this particular September weekday.  It was making my wife very nervousm, and made me a little nervous too, seeing as all my BC friends were telling my about the necessity of carrying bear spray ("This ain't Ontario, fella!" they'd say).  So we opted to keep to the shorter trails and enjoy the easily accessible scenery.  Fortunately, that isn't a bad thing in this park, with some beauty trails just off the roads.

Dawson Falls
The Pyramid campground itself was pretty nice for car camping, with decent understory, but were positioned directly across from each other at some points which was just strange. Come on guys, stagger them a little!  Still the spacing was good, the picnic tables are rock solid (a common feature in BC parks) and there was only a single loop, not a grid of sites, so you'll only see two or other three other campsites, tops.  The park operations contractor came by around 9pm and picked up our fee, and even had firewood for sale.  Pretty good service and very friendly as well.  The canopy cover is generally pretty thick, and we couldn't really find a nice open area for star gazing, but it didn't matter, we had a great time just sitting by the campfire with a mug of wine.  One final note is that Trophy Mountain would probably be worth a visit if time allows, given that you can drive most of the way up the mountain, then it's a 12km round trip to the panoramic look out above Sheila lake (at Skyline Ridge).  From the Green Mountain Viewing Tower, this seems as though it would provide an outstanding view of the surrounding area.

Wells Gray is a  great destination, though venture deeper into the park if you have the time. 

Sunset over Mahood Lake, Green Mountain Viewing Platform

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Steelhead Provincial Park

Location: 1 hour from Kamloops
Camping at Steelhead Provincial Park
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Strictly Car Camping
Grade: D-
Stargazing: Acceptable
Summary: A parking lot next to a lake
Thoughts: Being from Ontario, I have a certain expectation of crappiness that comes when one considers a stay in a car camping park.  The sites will be dense, there will be little that resembles a natural ecosystem, and there will be limited privacy.  The baseline expectation I had prior to arriving at Steelhead Provincial Park in BC was knocked a few notches down after my departure.  I don't know if people just have a different approach to camping in BC, but I was shocked at what was considered a campground upon my arrival from Highway 97.  There is little here that meets the low Ontario standard of car camping. 
Hello neighbour! Sites are separated only in spirit.

After the skies started to darken on the first day of a trip through the western moutain ranges, my wife and I started to narrow down the spots we could stay that would represent reasonable progress along our trek, but that was close enough Kamloops that we could just pick up a few last minute items for the rest of our trip (bear spray, we had been told, is essential in BC).  We turned up our noses as Juniper Beach as we passed by, since it looked like nothing more than a parking lot when viewed from the highway. Instead, we settled that Steelhead Provincial Park would be our best bet...which, to our surprise, was also little more than a parking lot. 

You start off by finding yourself a parking stall (each is equipped with a fire pit and picnic table that doubles as your permit post) and the campground host makes their way around to check you in.  The check in is simple (they take credit and debit cards for the $21 fee - 2012) and they also take the opportunity to sell you wood wrapped in plastic.  I believe the price was 2 bundles for $12 or 1 for $8.  We took the opportunity to stock up a bit, because we didn't know if future parks would be providing wood and the plastic wrap prevented a wood splinter mess in the back seat.  Gone are the days when BC Parks provided free, unlimited firewood at their kidding, there are signs everywhere stating that they no longer provide free, unlimited firewood...seriously?  Free?  Unlimited?  Was their operating revenue burning a hole in their pocket?  The host will provide you with a slip that will be clipped onto your picnic table (see above).

The campground has showers (hence the $21 camping fee, rather than the typical $16) and a beach that looked unloved as it was littered with driftwood, coarse sand and was generally unappealing. 

To be clear, the customer service at this campground left nothing to be desired.  However, as you can see from the photos, the designers of this park were not trying very hard; there's hardly any undergrowth, the sites are gravel and it wasn't clear to me where you'd pitch your tent if you weren't sleeping in a camper.  Some of the northwestern most sites were of slightly higher quality, and the scenery was probably the only somewhat redeeming feature. In the end, I can't really thing of any good reason to actually recommend that you stay here unless there is some sort of mechanical trouble with your car that requires you to pull off the road to save the lives of you and your family.