Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Finding a Last Minute Campsite in Alberta

It's almost the weekend and you want to go camping, but haven't booked a campsite. Is it possible to still go? If you're flexible on location, and timing, absolutely! While we usually book campsites several months in advance, we have found nice campsites in Alberta last minute on several occasions.



Here's how to get a campsite in Alberta without booking months in advance!
  1. If you'd like to book at campsite at a reservable campground, check for campsites or cancellations 3 or 4 days before you want to travel. Alberta Parks allows cancellation up to 72 hours prior to 2 pm on your scheduled date of arrival and Parks Canada allows cancellations up to 3 days before arrival date, so this is one way to get a campsite at the last minute.
    • Find an Alberta Parks campsite here. Pro Tip: Enter your desired camping dates and type "all" in the 'Search for' box, then select "all campgrounds" to see what is available throughout the province. This will save you entering (or knowing) the name of each provincial park or campground that still has space. 
      AB Parks Camping Reservation Site
    • At time of writing, 3 days before the May long weekend, there were 61 spots available in Cypress Hill Provincial Park350 km from Calgary, has cell service, 11 reservable campgrounds, 1 equestrian campground, and 4 group campgrounds. Elkwater is a full service campground with 166 sites that is open year round. Firerock has 139 unserviced sites and power sites. Loop A is near the lake and shower building. 
    • Find a National Parks campsite here
      • The following reservable campgrounds in Banff are all open now: Tunnel Mountain Village 1, Tunnel Mountain Village 2, Tunnel Mountain Village 2 O'Tentik, Tunnel Mountain Trailer. Lake Louise Trailer campground is open now and reservable after June 20. The rest, including Two Jack Main and Two Jack Lakeside, open after May 25. 
      • Elk Island National Park reservable campground: Astotin Lake. More info here.
      • Jasper reservable campgrounds: Whistlers, Wapiti, Wabasso or Pocahontas.
      • Waterton reservable campground: Townsite Campground. (If you can't make it this weekend, go May 26-June 4 for the Waterton Food Festival!)
        Kinbrook Island Provincial Park's great beach
  2. Stay at a First Come First Served (FCFS) Campground. Pro Tip 1: Go midweek (Monday to Thursday). Pro Tip 2: Contact the Campground Operator at FCFS campgrounds to see when campgrounds typically fill up (e.g. Friday by 4 pm) to avoid disappointment. 
    • Alberta Parks FCFS Campgrounds: With FCFS campsites at 159 campgrounds, you are bound to find a campsite! We've had good luck short notice at the following campgrounds.
      • Sibbald Lake PRA, 70 km from Calgary, 134 unserviced sites, no showers. B Loop is a generator-free zone perfect for tent campers! Lots of easy hiking trails in the area. Sibbald Lake and nearby Sibbald Meadows Pond are stocked with rainbow trout.
      • Willow Rock (Bow Valley Provincial Park), 78 km from Calgary, cell service, showers, flush toilets. Hike the Flowing Waters Trail from camp!
      • Lundbreck Falls PRA, 207 km from Calgary, 56 sites including 8 walk-in sites, power sites and unserviced sites, great fishing, pretty 12 m waterfall. N showers.
      • Fish Lake, Goldeye or Two O'Clock Creek in the David Thompson Corridor. There are 12 more campgrounds to choose from plus 4 group camping areas! Approx. 300 km from Calgary on the Icefields Parkway or Cowboy Trail. Sites are unserviced, no showers.
      • More great last minute campgrounds with FCFS campsites: Tanya Schwarz recommends Paddy's Flats - 98 sites and Gooseberry PRA - 85 sites in the Bragg Creek area. Suzi Smart recommends Cataract Creek near Longview - 102 sites, Bleriot Ferry near Drumheller - 28 sites, and Chain Lakes near Nanton - 21 sites.
      • Lower Kananaskis Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
    • Banff National Park FCFS Campgrounds: Castle Mountain and Protection Mountain are unserviced campgrounds on the Bow Valley Parkway with FCFS sites. Mosquito Creek, Rampart Creek, Silverhorn Creek, and Waterfowl Lakes are unserviced campgrounds on the Icefields Parkway with FCFS sites. These campgrounds open or or after May 25.
      Peyto Lake Lookout is a gorgeous hike along the Icefields Parkway
    • Jasper National Park has 7 FCFS campgrounds: Snaring - 66 sites, Kerkeslin - 42 sites, Honeymoon Lake - 35 sites, Jonas Creek - 25 sites, Icefield (tents only) - 33 sites, Wilcox - 46 sites, and Icefields Centre (RV & trailers only) - 100 sites. Wilcox opens May 31 and Kerkeslin opens June 21; the rest are open now! More info here.
      The Athabasca Glacier is a must-see when in Jasper!
    • Waterton Lakes National Park FCFS Campsites: Crandell Mountain Campground has 129 FCFS sites along the beautiful Red Rock Parkway with flush toilets and water (no showers). Belly River Campground has 24 unserviced FCFS sites; bring your own water. More info here.
      Red Rock Canyon
  3. Get off the beaten path. 
    • Smaller, rustic campgrounds tend to fill up slower than their full-service peers. What they lack in plumbing (no showers), they make up for with dark skies and a closer-to-nature experience. 
    • The David Thompson Corridor has 15 campgrounds (plus 4 group campgrounds) to choose from. We like Fish Lake, Goldeye, and Two O'Clock Creek best. Most, if not all, provide free firewood each night!
    • Lundbreck Falls was a fun find last summer with great fishing and proximity to Crowsnest Pass hikes and historical sites. 
    • Crescent Falls is a short drive off the David Thompson Highway
  4. Look for a spot at a private campground. While private campgrounds tend to be more expensive than national or provincial park campgrounds, they offer several amenities like tennis courts and wading pools.
    • Mount Kidd RV Park is a full service campground in the heart of Kananaskis with large, treed sites, laundry, showers, a concession.
    • Sundance Lodges, a short drive from Kananaskis Village, has tipis, trappers tents and unserviced campsites.
      Tent camping at Mount Kidd in February
  5. Be flexible. Everyone wants to go to Dinosaur Provincial Park this time of year, so if you don't luck out with cancellations, try nearby Tillebrook. Modest, but well maintained Tillebrook puts you 42 km from Dinosaur and only 21 km from Kinbrook Island's sandy beach. Can't get a spot at popular Crimson Lake? Try Heritage Camping at nearby Rocky Mountain National Historic Site instead and day trip to the lake!
    Dinosaur Provincial Park in spring
  6. Enlist the help of friends and family: If a friend or relative can leave town early or already has a reservation, ask him/her to take your tent and save you a FCFS site at their campground. Note that your tent must be set up - parks policy is that you must have a sleeping unit (trailer, tent, camper van) on the site - and your friend/relative must pay within 15 minutes to hold your spot. Bring extra marshmallows to thank them for the trouble! 
    Elkwater Lake, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

Other Options

  1. Group campsites: This is a great option if you know a lot of outdoorsy families. Find an Alberta Parks Group Camping Area here.
  2. Walk-in camping: Walk-in campsites don't fill up as quickly as traditional "front country" campsites, but the walk in is usually short and the sites are often prettier too! Check out our tips for walk-in camping and where to stay near Calgary.
  3. Random camping is permitted in Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ) and Wildland Provincial Parks with some restrictions. Note that random camping is NOT permitted in Alberta's Provincial Parks or Provincial Recreation Areas. For more information, see Alberta Parks - Random Camping.
Bike the Tunnel Mountain  Bench Loop from any of the Tunnel Mountain campgrounds!
CBC Radio's David Gray and I chatted about long weekend camping on The Eye Opener on May 17. Listen to the podcast here (fast forward to 24:34 for my segment) or view the CBC transcript here.

What is your secret to getting a last minute campsite?


Disclosure

I am an Alberta Parks Ambassador and have received free camping at many of the aforementioned campgrounds, but all words and opinions are my own.

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