Have you ever slipped away to the mountains with the family to go camping and abruptly found yourself in a Juicy Fruit commercial? This happened to us at Ellison Provincial Park just outside Vernon, British Columbia. Late one evening, and thankfully only one, four young lads set up their tent across the way from our site, sat themselves around the picnic table with a couple acoustic guitars and proceeded to play “music” for a few hours in the dark. They had few camping supplies and the equivalent in talent but no shortage of narcissism. If only I’d had the stones to interrupt and smash the damn guitars at least one version of those infamous commercials, dare I say the best version, would have been fully re-enacted.
Located on the eastern shore near the northern end of Okanagan Lake in the dry, grassy hills southwest of Vernon, Ellison Provincial Park is a great campground but with a few asterisks needing mention. I was smitten with this place almost immediately. The long, leisurely drive through Vernon cottage country was both scenic and surprising. Not local to the area, I had no idea such a thing existed. You’d certainly never get this impression while driving through Vernon on your way to better known resort areas to the south. This park must be a popular spot with the locals looking to camp or just get to the lake on a hot summer’s day.
Ellison is quite picturesque in that ugly, sparse way that the interior of British Columbia can be. Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir dominate the scrubby, often caterpillar ravaged, rocky hills. Lush and green this place is not but it is nonetheless stunning scenery especially in contrast to the glistening blue waters of the lake on which it borders.
The trees provide some pleasant cover from the blazing sun, but no one would ever mistake this for dense forest so privacy is rather limited between sites. On the other hand, the sites are pleasantly big with hard-packed gravel pads surrounded by shrubs and rock. You may not be isolated from your neighbours but you are by no means on top of one another either. I had no problem with this setup.
Each site has a firepit and a robust picnic table which is fastened in place so we were unable to move it under our awning or anywhere else. I understand why campgrounds do this, especially government parks, but that doesn’t mean I forgive them the inconvenience. As for the firepit, we never got to use it since there was a fire ban during our August visit. It’s safe to say fire bans are a regular occurrence in these parts. So much so, in fact, one wonders why they bother having firepits at all since the bulk of the summer must surely be off limits to any type of campfire.
The campground sites are void of services; no power, water, or sewer. This is “real” camping, save for the ability to drive your large RV onto site, and you see a lot of families tenting, which is cool. We don’t, but it’s cool that others do. Generators are allowed but only for two hours in the morning. Of course there is always some dumbass that ignores this rule. Thankfully there were no exceptionally ignorant abusers of generator usage during our stay. So if you’re up to a more rustic experience, this is a wonderful compromise of service free camping without being extremely isolated or completely void of hygiene maintenance.
Because there are washrooms and fresh water here. The washrooms are adequate with several unisex single unit flush toilets and sinks throughout the campground plus a larger washroom complex with showers in a convenient central location. The showers are free but operate on a push button timing system that give you a minute of water and then shut off. You have no control of temperature either. Sink water is cold only and there are no dryers or towels.
There is no power in this campground at all, so when it is dark those single washrooms are pitch-black as is the walk to and from them. Quality, bright flashlights and lanterns are highly recommended for convenience and safety.
One unique feature of Ellison is the fresh water taps conveniently located throughout the park with handy water fountain tops on them for drinking. These are a most welcome refresher for playful kids and adults alike when the temps hit the mid-30s Celcius or more. And you will be playing here. The playgrounds are terrific. One located in the midst of the park also has a sports field beside it and another big playground is located at the beach. The playground apparatus is in excellent condition and provides lots of fun for the kids. All those water fountains get good use from campers.
The terrain is hilly and rocky and the trail down to the pet beach is very steep so you’ll want to be in fairly good health when visiting, not to mention in possession of more than flip flops for footwear. This rugged landscape does provide lots of opportunity for adventure, though, and there are more than a dozen geocaches hidden throughout the park. We spent several hours hunting four of these geocaches throughout the park, all of them hidden in locals far more challenging than anything we’d done previously. Finding the caches was a joy but the true pleasure came from the scenery we witnessed during the hunt, including a bald eagle that flew past only a few metres away at eye level from a cliff along the lake. This alone made the trip worthwhile.
Then there’s the water. We are on a lake, if you recall. Another nice hike down the hills brings you to a decent beach with some semblance of real sand, though still not real soft beach sand. There are some rocks and small cliffs along the side of the beach and jutting out into the water which are excellent for jumping from. There is also a treed area just back from the beach that provides some shade for folks like me. Amongst these trees there are about eight picnic tables set up for use as well as another fresh water tap/fountain, outdoor shower and washroom.
The scenery from the beach is quite attractive so if hiking isn’t to your liking, a day of relaxing and sunbathing can also be visually rewarding. Be forewarned, though, that wealthier folks from nearby lake homes like to come to the beach via their boats. There are docking buoys in the water for them to anchor to and then they swim into the beach for the day. Not particularly a problem except that the odd entitled nouveau rich can be a tad self-absorbed and rude as was the case when we were there.
Pets are not allowed at the main beach but there is a separate dog beach accessible from another trail. This is a great idea that should keep dog owners and dog avoiders equally happy. Overall the beach is fairly clean and kid friendly. There are lots of little fish in the water that the little fisherboys and fishergirls keep busy trying to catch with their pails and nets.
Alas, all is not perfect at Ellison Provincial Park. Unfortunately, the south end of the park is bordered by a communal cottage resort development. Our site and a handful of others peered directly into the backyards of neighbouring cottagers. When the neighbours in the housing development finally showed up, you could definitely hear them. Were they inclined to party it would be a real nuisance since they aren’t subject to the same curfews as the campground. And vice versa, I suppose. Also house/backyard lighting definitely impinges on the campsite at night. This seems like a silly thing to have done but lots of silly things get done in this valley when it comes to developing recreation facilities for wealthy Calgarians and Vancouverites. The bulk of the campground, though, is away from the park boundary and thus not looking into neighbour yards. There are some truly spectacular sites here up on the cliffs looking out over the lake.
All in all, I found Ellison Provincial Park to be a great camping experience. I give it 4.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 and would happily return to camp there again. The only caveat is that I’d make sure to book a sight early enough to get a site away from the cottage development bordering the park. That blemish aside, this is a great Provincial Park and worth a visit if you’re in the Vernon area.