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