This may prove to be nothing more than a testament to my ineptitude, but having lived here for 15 years and actively camping in these parts for 4 years I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea this place existed. I’ve driven to Banff many times over those 15 years and it just never registered that there was a Provincial Park located between the TransCanada and The Bow River less than an hour from Calgary. Only when looking for a new place to camp in late June of 2014, seeking a little variety from our typical weekend adventure at the wonderful Mt. Kidd, did I discover Bow Valley Campground.
The beauty of Kananaskis
Bow Valley Provincial Park is in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains and comprises the northernmost portion of the greater Kananaskis parks system. The park straddles the Highway 1 (TransCanada) just east of Canmore. Bow Valley Campground is one of four campgrounds in the park and is representative of the camping experience we’ve come to expect in Kananaskis Country. It is very similar to Mt. Kidd, providing a wilderness type camping experience but still maintain some modern amenities for those not wishing to re-enact the first settler’s experiences.
The campground is comprised of several camping loops strung along the Bow River. Most sites are located amongst conifer forest and dense undergrowth. Sites are dirt and gravel with reasonable space between neighbours. Sizes vary dramatically with some being small and inaccessible to today’s large modern campers. This shouldn’t be a hindrance to most though as there is plenty of choice for all types of camping. There are fire pits on each site.
We were in Loop D/E and our site had power and water and backed right onto the Bow River. The river was flowing high but never felt dangerous and this provided a peaceful, picturesque view.
There are plenty of trails all over Bow Valley Campground for people to go on hikes. We went and found one geocache which made for a nice adventure. Lots of wildflowers were in bloom while we were there which was nice despite the dandelions throughout the wooded campground. It’s really a nice wilderness camping experience which is perhaps a bit of a surprise considering it still feels so close to developed rural and urban areas.
The playgrounds are nice, big modern affairs and the kids quite liked them. The one in our loop is bizarrely in the woods with the main access route directly through a campsite. Odd that. The only other entrance is via a trail from the main road. No idea what the thinking was behind that.
The store is incredibly well stocked for a little campground store. There are food, treats, camping gear, toys and other assorted junk. Canmore isn’t too far away should a bigger item be required, emergency help needed or simply bad weather forces a run for dryer climes with the kids. Wood is $8 for a typical sized package.
The noise of civilization
All is not roses, however, and I must say that noise is an issue. Old highway 1A and the main CPR line run parallel to the campground on the north side of the river. They are easy to hear and see, especially when in a site backing onto the river, and are a near constant reminder that we are not far from civilization.
The highway is not terribly busy but there is heavy truck traffic on it. The rail line is very busy, particularly during the day time, though trains run 24/7. These trains are the big boys so prevalent in Western Canada and they are loud and long as they make their way to and from the coast.
Then, as if campers were yearning for a little variety, there was also a helicopter making regular trips above the campground and it too was very loud as it flew low. This must be from the nearby casino and was a genuine nuisance on Saturday though I don’t imagine there is much the campground can do about it.
And finally, yes there’s more, one motorboat made a trip up the river and back. Again, noisy but what can you do. This isn’t genuine mountain camping. There are some compromises to be made with being close to a major city.
Friends of ours camping in another part of the loop were kept awake one night by partiers but the revelers were gone the next morning so presumably kicked out by management. There are regular patrols during the day and the campground is overwhelmingly filled with families with young kids so I’m inclined to think the partier incident was the exception rather than the rule. Yes, families can be noisy too but not until two in the morning.
A few niggling frustrations I need to mention. The campground maps online and provided at the campground (simple photocopies) are out of date. For example, the map says Loop D/E has a drinking water tap located by the washroom which is not true. The website also indicates that Bow Valley Campground has flush toilets and showers. This is technically true, and one of the reasons we chose to camp here, but these facilities are only available in one spot, near the main entrance/store. All the other washrooms in the loops are simply pit toilets. This was a bit of a shock for us as we were expecting flush toilets and the kids are still terrified of this type of rustic waste disposal. Frankly, I’m not the biggest fan either. And with the strung out nature of the loop layout we found ourselves in the furthest loop from the flush toilets. Luckily we were able to use our trailer washroom, something we try to avoid in general, during the night.
Finally, there were bear sightings before we arrived so bear safety was a priority but we didn’t see any activity and the other campers were diligent in heeding warnings against leaving food out and unattended.
We’d certainly entertain camping here again but would likely refrain from any prolonged camping outing here simply because of the noise due to helicopters, trains and heavy trucks. The campground is pleasant, with picturesque views, appealing hiking trails, quality playgrounds, and its location relative to Calgary is enviable. But it’s hard to have a peaceful experience with all that noise. If given the choice I’d go somewhere else more often than not simply to avoid the noise even if the kids view the trains as a novelty.
I give Bow Valley Campground 3 1/4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. The noise and pit toilets diminish what otherwise could be a fabulous campground.