Monday, April 1, 2013

What to see in the Western Canadian Mountain Ranges

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  But at the same time, I think it's worth listing off some of the sights that impressed us the most, given that no trip to mountains of BC and Alberta is ever long enough.

Lussier Hot Springs
If you've never sat in a hot spring and aren't a fan of water parks, this is your best bet in the area around Radium Hot Springs.  Avoid Radium!  It's over developed and is like sitting in a public pool.  This is all natural and hopefully it stays that way.

View from the Big Beehive
Nobody ever told me that I needed to see the Big Beehive.  I'm not sure why it was never mentioned.  Sure the view overlooks the Trans Canada as it follows the Bow River.  That doesn't detract from the beauty though.  Wow!

Bald Hills Summit
Another off season beauty.  A long, but rewarding trail. I recommend departing from the trailhead around 10 or so; that way you'll have as much time as possible to enjoy the view from the top.  Just pack a lunch and stare out into the endless wilderness.

Meadows in the Sky Parkway
Sure, it's a just a short jaunt up the Trans Canada.   But don't let that fool you - the scenery is disproportionate to the effort it takes to get here.  There's even a shuttle bus to take you directly to the fire tower lookout trail, providing access for nearly anyone who wants to experience this place.

Plain of Six Glaciers
While the tea house is definitely not without its charm, you shouldn't forget to see its namesake. This is the reason the tea house is here people!  Try to come late summer, around noon, so you can catch the glacial avalanches.  You'll feel the thundering snow deep in your core.

Peyto Lake
This spot has an aura that you'll never forget for the rest of your life.  If you manage to escape the crowds at the main look out, you'll have the opportunity to stare out in wonder at Peyto's impossible blue hue with nothing but the pikas and ravens to keep you company.  Transcendental.

The Entire Icefields Parkway
Wow.  My wife says the Icefields Parkway is emblematic of Canadian Wilderness - a vast, pristine treasure trove of beautiful scenes, many of which can be easily accessed by car.  There is some remarkable scenery here.  But if you put in a little effort and venture past the first loop or the first lookout, you may find you have the amazing views all to yourself (especially in the off season)

Wilcox Pass
While there's probably a point where hiking here gets monotonous, we never reached it.  Just a phenomenal place to visit in the off season, where the crowds are small, but the scenic value (and solitude) can be enormous.

Lake Louise at Dusk
Everybody has seen a shot of Lake Louise from the Chateau Lake Louise during the day.  But how many have seen Lake Louise at Dusk?  I imagine most people have taken shelter in their warm cocktails in the chateau's swanky restaurant at this point of the day, but they don't know what they're missing.  Head to the western shore and watch the moonrise from one of the many trail-side benches.  You won't regret it.

Review: E.C. Manning Provincial Park - Lightning Lake Campground

View from Cascade Lookout -
many of the distant peaks are located in the US
Location: 3 hrs from Vancouver or the Okanagan
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Campground Map or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car camping at this campground, backcountry available elsewhere in the park
Grade: B
Stargazing: Very good, if you can make your way to the lake at night
Summary: A nice campground in a fantastic park.

Thoughts: It was a good start to our camping experience - a great horned owl positioned itself just above our picnic table to get a better look at what we were doing.  It was too dark for photos, but the memories will suffice.  Not that these owls are in any way rare, but having one calling out, sitting at the fringe of your campsite gives you a sense of wilderness (even if he was just cruising for scraps).  E.C. Manning park is beautiful spot that is probably well-loved by Vancouverites during the peak season, and fairly well attended by visitors in low season (the campground was probably half full on this Saturday night in late September). A fun fact - Lightening Lake campground is just 10 km from the US border.  There is no shortage of backcountry camping sites in Manning, and hiking opportunities abound.  There is also a beautiful drive you can take to the Cascade Lookout, then further on to the Subalpine Meadow trail, which offers some spectacular views.

Why is there a trail running through
these sites?
The Lightening Lake campground succeeds where many car camping parks have failed in the past. They do a pretty good job of providing good understory to improve privacy and sites are reasonably well spaced out.  The staggering of sites isn't perfect, but if you try hard enough, you can probably position yourself so that you aren't peering into other peoples sites. One interesting feature is that there seems to be a trail running behind the sites in the southern part of the larger loop; good for connecting parties requiring multiple sites, but I can't figure out why else they would do that. I'm sure most people don't want strangers traipsing through the back end of their campsites, so it's a bit odd.

The shore of Lightening Lake
If you can make your way down to Lightening Lake at night, you might be able to catch a good glimpse of the stars.  Otherwise, I'm not sure how much success you'll have.  There is also a trail around the lake (the Lightening Lake Loop Trail, funnily enough) but it looks dreadfully boring since you're just circling the lake.  There are plenty of great trails to be discovered in this part (unfortunately, due to time constraints, not by me), why would you waste 2 hours circling the same view?  The Lake does seem to have a nice picnic area, and might be a nice change of pace to set up for breakfast, watch the sun rise, stuff like that.

Map of Subalpine Meadow Area
What I can highly recommend is the drive to the top of Subalpine Meadow, which has one short loop (for those in rush) that can give you a taste of the scenery in this park.  If only there were enough time in a 2 week tour of the western mountain ranges to fully enjoy a place like this.  But I must say, my friends, 2 weeks is probably not enough time to spend in this park alone, given the hiking and camping options available here.  For those who are just searching for a fun weekend in the outdoors, you're sure to find something that suits your desires in Manning park.  For those who plan on staying longer, I envy you.

Review: Vaseux Lake Provincial Park

View of Vaseux Lake
Location: 30 minutes south of Penticton
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Strictly Car Camping
Grade: C+
Stargazing: So-so, but some washing out from the lights of Penticton and Kelowna
Summary: Convenient to wine country, but painfully close to the highway
Park entrance from our campsite
Thoughts: If you're making your way around wine country, there is no shortage of bed and breakfasts that are happy to gouge you for a stay in one of their quaint, wall-papered rooms.  Okay, gouge is a bit strong, but as I stated previously, there are options for staying in wine country so that you can focus your spending on the most important aspect - the wine.  Vaseux Lake Provincial Park represents another option.  This is a first-come, first-served operation, with the operators stopping in on occasion to ensure you made your payment (though we just deposited it in the collection box - nobody showed up to check us in).  It's also located very close to the bird sanctuary of the same name, so close that you can hear them from the shore.

The sites are all oriented along the shoreline, giving each camping group access to a little spot of shore.  This is a wonderful thing too, considering the view that you get of the cliffs across the shore.  While we were happy with the lake access, the main problem with this site is that you're tightly sandwiched between the highway and the lake.  It's a span of no greater than 20 meters from lake to road, so you're guaranteed to have highway noise if you sleep in a tent.  But solitude and serenity were not the intention when the Vaseux Lake park was set up; this spot is strictly a stop over for drivers and potentially wine aficionados looking to sleep on the cheap (hello!).  It's a great place to rest before venturing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains area, which is just to the west.  Another good thing about this park is that it tries to provide you with some basic privacy by including some shrubbery between sites - with mixed results.

Stairs from our campsite to the waterfront
Sure, it's not glamorous, it's not remote, it's not quaint, and it's not chi-chi.  Vaseux Lake is inexpensive, reasonably well planned (given the limited space it uses), conveniently located in the middle of wine country and has some very nice natural scenery to make you forget that you're sitting on the roadside. Worth the $16, for sure!
Campfire on Vaseux Lake

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: Bear Creek Provincial Park

Bear Creek, the campground's namesake
Location: 10 minutes north of Kelowna
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps and BC Parks Campground
Camping Facilities: Strictly car camping
Grade: B-
Stargazing: Forget it, too close to Kelowna
Summary: A reasonably good suburban camping experience
Thoughts: As you travel through the Okanagan wine region, whittling away your savings on wine, it's best to try to save your money where you can.  After all, accommodations are secondary to the real attraction (the vino).  After being directed to the grass-spattered parking lot that is Willow Creek Family Campground ($32 for that!?), we consulted the BC Parks website on our phone and found this little spot just north of the city.  A remarkable improvement (for the same price) over our friends at Willow Creek (sorry guys).
The dense understory provides plenty of privacy

Bear Creek has everything you need - hot showers, cheap accommodations, well-placed understory between most sites, decent fire pits and a loop layout.  There is a trail along Bear Creek that flows through the park, as well as a waterfront trail accessible at the northern side of all loops. There is even a pretty expansive trail on the west side of the road (the Dave Brewster Trail, named after it's designer).  But you must remember, this is car camping.  Decent car camping, but car camping, nonetheless.  And it's situated just outside a city of 140,000 people.  There is also a huge lawn with an irrigation system (this part of the province can be dry, so it's necessary) that keeps the grass green late into the season. This aspect might remind you of typical suburban scenes, with the RVs parked one after another along the road, backing on the greenery fed by spitting sprinklers.

Okanagan Lake from Bear Creek's waterfront trail
(aside: It might sound like I'm complaining about nothing here, but there's something offputting about a campground with an irrigation system, striving for a perfect lawn.  I imagine it's great fun for families to have a nice open space for the kids to run around it, but to me it's just a little too much backyard ambiance.  And if that's the impression it gives, then why go camping in the first place - unless these are the Vancouver condo dwellers come to see what open space feels like. There are plenty of nice public parks in cities all over BC, do we really need to sleep in one?)

Irrigation in full-effect
Okay, that rant is probably disproportionate to the actual amount of enjoyment that is lost by staying in such a setting.  Bear Creek is in fact a very nice car campground, probably some of the cheapest real estate in the Okanagan and is very well designed overall.  Thumbs up!

Free Camping in BC!

I kid you not, there are in fact plenty of free camping sites in Beautiful British Columbia.  It's a wonderful thing too; considering just how much natural beauty there is in this province, you could easily fritter away a fortune on park fees trying to explore it all. The free camping is found in the province's Recreation Sites - from what I can tell these are all over the province.  Just head on over to this website, search by activity (camping, of course) and start planning/dreaming.  You can also search by region, which will bring up a handy table where you can see exactly which Recreation Sites have fees and which are free to use.

For example, Little Bear Bay a "great place to watch orcas and cruise ships roll by", has free car-access camping. Does such a thing really exist?  Apparently it does.
Screen capture of the "Search by Activity" feature on the BC Recreation Sites webpage
- Select the "Camping" activity alone if you want to find some free backcountry options

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: Illecillewaet Campgroud, Glacier National Park

Illecillewaet's rushing
mountain stream
Location: 1 hour east of Revelstoke
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Parks Canada or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Strictly car camping
Grade: A-
Stargazing: Tough to find a good clearing, with all the trees and mountains, but they're nice to look at as well.
Summary: Good privacy, beautiful scenery, excellent park resources
Thoughts: There's a bit of an abrupt transition that hits you on the drive between Banff National Park and Glacier National Park.  Sure, you enter a different mountain range but that's not it.  Very suddenly the crowds diminish, the traffic subsides and you find your self in a beautiful place that is completely devoid of kitsch.  There's a genuine feel about the natural environment captured by the boundaries within Glacier that seems to be missing the Epcot-centre feel that you get from roaming the streets of the town of Banff or the tacky tourist shops that find in Jasper.  Sure, there's a visitors centre in Glacier, fully stocked with fridge magnets, t-shirts and knick-knacks.  But its really just a minor part of the visitors centre which functions mostly as an interpretive museum for you to learn as much (or as little) about the patch of our planet protected by the park's boundaries.

Wood shed with wheel barrow and barrow-bike
Due to it's distance from large metropolitan centres, you don't get any daytrippers in Glacier.  You strictly find the folks who are trying to explore this region of Canada, most of them by car, but also plenty of them on foot in the backcountry of this rugged wilderness.  Alpine huts and backcountry campsites are dispersed amongst the mountain scenery.  Ah what a splendid thing it would be to sleep atop the Selkirk mountains, but given the late season and the size of our party (2), we opted to remain on the beautiful Illecillewaet campground instead.  Illecillewaet is nestled next to a mountain stream just before the Trans Canada highway veers west, just south of the Roger's Pass Discovery Centre (visitor's centre).  (It's a treacherous turn; one night, I awoke to what sounded like garbage truck emptying a dumpster.  In fact, it was the sound a transport truck jack-knifing and flipping over while taking the sharp turn at too high of a speed.  I realized this upon our departure the next day, when I saw cab and its eviscerated trailer laying across the highway, with it's contents spilled all over the scene.)
Food storage lockers

This campground has a pleasant, uncrowded lay-out, with loops instead of a grid.  There are plenty of trees that act as physical barriers between sites, further increasing seclusion.  As well, the sound of the mountain stream drowns out much of the noise you might otherwise hear from other occupants, adding that much more privacy to your stay.   The services provided within the park are on par with the best you'll find in the national parks; warming huts, a few nicely maintained washrooms (no hot water, no showers), lockable food storage bins, and a very nice wood shed, equipped with a wheel-barrow-bicycle so that you can transport your load of wood with great ease.  All in all, about the best your can hope for in car camping site - maximum privacy that can be afforded (it's still a popular national park after all), great amenities, and adjacent to close to some very nice hiking trails.

Warming hut
In sum, Illecillewaet is a winner in the National Park system.  A nice balance between comfort and privacy, situated in a genuine wilderness zone in one of the most scenic parts of the country.

Atop the Meadows in the Sky Parkway,
a close drive from Glacier

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Dry Gulch Provincial Park

Panorama of Radium (apologies for the quality,
but you get the sense of the space)
Location: 5 minutes outside Radium Springs
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Exclusively Car Camping
Grade: B+
Stargazing: Canopy blocks it out, but if you can find an opening, it's probably not terrible (though you're close to the Town of Radium Springs
Summary: Small loops with decently segregated campsites
Thoughts: Nice hiking trail, quiet (in late September)
Lussier Hot Springs - worth the trip,
if you've never seen natural hot springs
After a few attempts in BC's Provincial, we were generally skeptical about what each following park would provide.  Would it be another disaster like Steelhead or a winner like Pyramid Campground in Wells Gray?  This one probably beat them both, since it was extremely quiet (likely due to the lateness in the camping season) and had sites that were pretty well spaced out.  Much like Pyramid, this one has hand pumps and some flush toilets, but no showers.  I can't recall if there was hot water in the comfort station, but if I were to guess, I'd say no.

The only reason I would suggest coming to this area is if you have plans to explore further south.  Radium Hot Springs seems like a water park for the enjoyment of families and if that suits you, then great.  If it doesn't, then you better get driving.  The only undeveloped, natural hot springs in the area are an hour's drive south of Radium - the Lussier Hot Springs.  These are definitely less crowded (though we went on a Sunday night in the offseason and it was still tricky finding a spot where my wife and I could sit together), but have no admission fee and you don't feel like you've entered the Magic Kingdom.

All in all, Dry Gulch is better than staying in one of the cheesy hotels in the Radium town site, with roomy sites, decent privacy and good spacing between campers.

View from hiking trail leading from Dry Gulch Campground

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Banff National Park - Lake Louise Tent Campground

View of Lake Louise from Big Beehive trail
Location: 2 minutes outside Lake Louise village site
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: C-
Stargazing: Not bad
Summary: Electrified fencing, decent camping experience, convenient location.
Thoughts: There is so much to see in the Lake Louise area of Banff National Park (Lake Louise itself, great hiking, Morraine Lake - which used to be on the back of the Canadian $20 bill), it's nice to be able to spend some time in the area to explore it to the fullest.  If you can't muster up the scratch to stay at the Chateau Lake Louise, then the next most convenient option is to stay at the car campground at the village.  At this point in exploring the Rocky Mountain National Parks, we had started to get a feel for how parks are typically laid out.  Lake Louise is neither the worst, nor the best of what these parks have to offer.

What is the story with these fireboxes?
The sites here are densely clustered, so as a result privacy is limited.  This of course is typical for car camping everywhere, and especially in the Rocky Mountain National Parks. We can always hope that this was a result of smart planning in an attempt to reduce ecological impacts and one somewhat humorous aspect of the campground suggests that this is the case; the campground is completely surrounded by an electrified fence to keep bears from wandering in for a cooler raid. Still, the lay out is not as weak as Tunnel Mountain Village I.

Once more, the sites here are equipped with these ridiculous elevated fire grills.  Whoever purchased these for the parks system wasn't thinking about the enjoyment of campers (perhaps they're just easier to maintain and in addition to limiting the usage of firewood?).

All in all, for the access that Lake Louise Tent Campground provides its occupants, it's a natural choice.  There isn't a heck of a lot to see in the campground itself, but plenty to see within a short car/bike ride.

Moonrise on Lake Louise

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Tunnel Mountain Village I, Banff National Park

Tunnel Mountain Campground I
Location: 5 minutes outside of the Town of Banff
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Campground or Google
Camping Facilities: Car Camping Only
Grade: D
Stargazing: Meh
Summary: The densest camping you'll ever see.
 Thoughts: Just outside the town of Banff, in what seems to be a suburban residential area, you'll find Tunnel Mountain Village I and II campgrounds.  The reason for their existence is singular - a place to park your car and pitch your tent when exploring other parts of the park.  There couldn't be any other purpose, since this is about as utilitarian as a campground gets.  Dense plots (618 of them!), with a sky shrouded by trees (and drowned out by Banff's street lighting), placed amongst a tightly woven grid of campsite access roads.  As a result, privacy is not a consideration.  (You'll get a good feel of it just by looking at the map.)  So you'll see and hear everything your neighbours do and they'll find the same.  One positive point is that the facilities were clean.  But why would they create campsites without firepits?  Western Canada is not short of firewood.  Did they run of out iron spark guards and shovels?

No matter what scenery you'll find by gazing from the periphery of the park (don't let the park website above fool you), it cannot redeem the lost opportunity that is this campground.  It's just there so that you pitch your tent while you see some real beauty elsewhere in the park.  I'll let the photos do the talking.

How many campsites can you spot?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: Columbia Icefield Campground, Jasper National Park

Location: 1 hour south of Jasper
Morning view from Site #13
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Jasper Park (Parks Canada) or Google
Camping Facilities: Rustic Car Camping and Walk-in Camping
Grade: A
Stargazing: Good but not amazing (though it should be...)
Summary: What car camping should aspire to be
Site #13, with log stools, recessed from the road
Thoughts: Given the likely demand for car camping at this location, being right in the heart of Jasper National Park, along the Icefields Parkway, and adjacent to the Columbia Icefield Family Craziness Centre, the existence of this modestly-developed, peaceful, non-electric campground is a bit of a low-impact miracle.   All car campground designers should endeavor to produce work of this quality, where users will find a greater degree of privacy, beautiful scenery, low noise (most sites are reasonably far from the highway), easily accessible services (toilets, firewood and water) and opportunities for socializing.

A warming hut inside the campground loop
Facilities are rustic but generous.  There is an ample number of latrines, which are built on concrete slabs and are spotless (hand sanitizer is provided for those who desire it).  There is also a warming hut in the NW corner of the loop, which I imagine is great on the early spring nights.  This campground includes radial walk-in campsites, stemming off a single car-camping loop.  The views from the sites on the western side of the loop are outstanding, where you can watch the sun set on the glacier-capped mountain range across the highway.  The rest of the loop is probably more sheltered from road noise from the Parkway, but without the mountain views.  The water is a reasonable walk from all sites, though it might be a bit cumbersome for those using the walk-in sites (though they're all close to a mountain stream that provides the drinking water, you'll just have to treat it yourself).

A walk-in campsite
The walk-in campsites to the SW seemed a bit claustrophobic, but without the understory, you'll lose privacy.  The ones to the SE (up the hill, on the north side of the stream) are a little more open, if that's what you want, and are closer to the treated water station.  The site pictured here is one of the SW sites, across the bridge on the south side of the stream.  I don't think any of these sites have views, but are more secluded than anything you'll get on the main loop.  But they all have tent pads (just as the car camping site do) and are pretty spacious.
Drinking water source - a mountain stream (pristine!)

We ended up on site #13, which we selected based on its view, and because it was sheltered from its neighbouring sites (as sheltered as car camping gets).  It's hard to beat the view from this site.  The only issue is the traffic noise, but you won't hear too much of it at night, when traffic dies down (especially in the off season). This is an honor system campground, where you are expected to deposit your fees into drop box for collection by park staff.  National parks allow you to provide a credit card number, so you don't have to carry exact change (which we found was an issue with some parks we stayed at in BC).

Given the options available after Labour Day, this is probably your best bet for car camping.  The only administrative problem we found when we arrived, we found that the contract for the firewood supply had run dry by that point in the season (late Sept; guess there weren't many fire bans that summer?).  We were essentially pick scraps of kindling from the wood pile, but the plus side was that staff posted a notice telling campers that they weren't expected to pay for the use of these scraps.

One bizarre note; we were camping in early fall, with cold nights and a new moon, yet we could hardly see any stars.  I'm not sure which phenomena were at work here, but it didn't make any sense, especially since there aren't any lights for many kilometres away.

Bottom line: this is the best campground south of Jasper on the Parkway.

P.S.  Stay away from site 12A - it's probably the least private site and on top of that, everybody strolls through it to access the outhouse.