It’s never a good sign when your friends from the area respond to the revelation of where you’re camping with scrunched up faces and incredulous declarations that, “Nobody goes to Pike Lake!” That’s not a particularly ringing endorsement even if it was uttered at least partly in jest. This reaction weighed on my mind as we wound our way northward towards Saskatoon, a city in which I lived and worked for a year and a half after graduating university. I was already unsure of my choice of campgrounds for this portion of the trip but there was no turning back now so onwards to Pike Lake Provincial Park we went.
Upon arrival, my first impressions of Pike Lake Provincial Park did little to dispel the concern stemming from my friends’ reactions. Our site, a pull through, was a partial mud bog. Now, the rain on the Canadian Prairies this summer of 2016 has been significantly a-typical. I also understand that such vagaries of weather are well beyond a park’s control. Shit happens. I get that. But having a portion of the campsite RV pad all muddy and rutted from previous campers was a disappointment, not to mention a frustration. This is not the conditions one would expect from a provincially run park and campground within a stone’s through of the largest city in a province. Luckily we were able to position our trailer at an angle over top of the muddy portions, allowing us to step out onto dry ground but this shouldn’t have been necessary.
Oh, but there’s more. A large pond had established itself in the grassy area between our site and the next. Such puddles were present between a few other sites as well, but ours was definitely the largest. The pull through sites in this part of the campground are fairly large so this makeshift pond wasn’t a huge issue aside from providing ample breeding territory for mosquitoes. Thankfully our kids aren’t twits and resisted any urge to go running through it.
Water is becoming a theme here so I should probably mention the very first thing we did after checking in and that is filling up with potable water. Almost all the sites at Pike Lake are electrical only; a few don’t even have that. Therefore it is imperative that one fills up the trailer water tank for the coming days. The main water tap is positioned right beside the dump station. This in and of itself is not troublesome nor is it strange as most campgrounds have this kind of set up. Unfortunately, at Pike Lake the dump station is located right beside the access road and if you pull up to get water you essentially block the dump station with your unit. All around this is just a poor design.
Also, the fact that there are only two dump station outlets and one of them requires some sort of magical feat to turn the trailer around 180 degrees to access is concerning. On busy Sundays with plenty of campers leaving after a weekend of recreation, the lineup for the dump station must be unbearable. With over 200 sites on the premises, this is a woefully undersized and poorly designed dump station in my opinion. It’s free, at least and luckily we were leaving on a quiet Monday and avoided an irritating departure.
Okay, just one more water-related gripe. That tap by the dump station isn’t the only place to get water. There are several potable water taps located throughout the campground allowing for easy acquisition of drinking water for cooking or, umm, drinking. I suppose if your campsite is near one of these taps you could hook up a hose and fill your trailer from one of these. There was one very near our site in fact. I didn’t attempt to use a hose to fill our trailer or anything but we did find this convenient for fire dousing water. The problem was that there was another sloppy muddy mess enveloping the base of the tap. Spillage combined with regular rains had made this water station a right bloody mess. You had to straddle the puddle and mud while trying to fill your pot or bottle. Again, why there isn’t a more stable concrete base to these taps is beyond me. Not a good look Saskatchewan.
If I were to end my review here, Pike Lake Provincial Park would likely owe me a baby dill pickle for its negative ranking. Fortunately, for the park at the very least, there is a great deal more to share and much of it is solidly on the positive side of the ledger. Like the firewood situation.
Each site comes with the customary picnic table and fire pit. The fire pits here are elevated BBQ style pits you often find at day use areas for cooking. This isn’t particularly ideal for simple campfires but I suppose they serve a dual purpose this way. Viewing from the backside of these units was impossible but they were capable of rotating a full 360 degrees so you could face it in the best direction to avoid windblown smoke to the face. More importantly, though, firewood was free. This was a wholly unexpected surprise considering we were still primarily located on the prairies where trees aren’t typically a prominent feature. Besides, even parks in forested areas charge for firewood, isn’t that right Alberta?
A large pile of wood was accessible through a gate along the boundary of the campground, conveniently a short walk from our site. This wasn’t premium firewood by any stretch of the imagination, likely accumulated from dead fall and other waste in and around the park. But it was cut in sizes that fit the BBQ units and while much of it wasn’t split it was nothing a good camping axe couldn’t correct and it was reasonably dry considering all the rain. And hell, it was free. Can’t go wrong with free.
There are two playgrounds within the campground area, one of which was just a few meters from our campsite. They are dated but full of equipment which the kids were thrilled to climb and swing and hang from. The playground by our site was a primary gathering spot for kids in the campground and our children were eager to spend as much time there as possible. They enjoy playgrounds like most kids but I’ve rarely seen them this keen to play in one. Not everything has to be shiny and new to be effective, especially if there are new friends to spend the time with.
Once again the dreaded pit toilet makes an appearance in my camping travels. There are a handful of these wooden sheds located throughout the campground. In a unique twist on the conventional pit toilet, these stink holes were topped off with an RV-style “flush” toilet. I’ve never seen this combination of pit and toilet anywhere else. It alleviated some of the stench, I’ll give it that much.
For those like me who prefer a modern bathroom experience, there is a large, centrally located “Service Centre” in the campground. At the Service Centre you will find a laundromat, flush toilets, and a shower house. There are three showers, one of which is handicap accessible, so you should have little trouble finding one free. And speaking of free, showers were also thus, yet another unexpected and nice perk though I can’t help but think if they charged for showers like most parks they’d have a few extra bucks to pay for better RV pads on the sites. Similarly the laundromat is only $1 per load which is pretty cheap by today’s standards.
The sites themselves are not too bad, mud and puddles aside. Most of them are nicely sized, some bigger, others smaller, and typically they are decently shaded by giant, aged poplar trees. These big old giants are in the final stages of life and you see many stumps around indicating that they are slowly being removed. Two such stumps existed on our site but the remaining trees, partially dead in their crowns, offered enough shade to keep us comfortable during the daytime. You won’t feel the forested feeling you get in the mountains but you won’t feel exposed either. There are lots of thick shrubs lining the boundaries of the campground and along the main roadways. An August visit will even provide you with an opportunity to pick some plump, purple Saskatoon berries growing in these thickets.
Sites do range in size a fair bit and you need to be aware of that when booking. As mentioned above, the pull through sites where we camped all have large grassy areas between them which give campers some space. The back in sites do as well, though some are quite shallow and would have difficulty handling the really big rigs. There are some sites, I think they are double/shared sites, that are very squished. I would avoid these like the plague even if I were camping with good friends.
For a park that apparently “nobody goes to”, the campground was near full during our midweek stay so some people either don’t mind or don’t know about the bad rep. If I were to hazard a guess, I suspect the skepticism among the locals stems from the lake itself. Pike Lake is a lake in only the most generous of terms. It’s an oxbow lake, an abandoned meander of the South Saskatchewan River, and requires “topping up” with water to keep it from disappearing completely. As such it smallish, about 2km long, and narrow with swampy areas at each end. This would only become a resort lake in a place desperate for lakes.
There is a modest beach along the lake made up of muddy sand. It is long but narrow and while it provides sand castle opportunities for the kids and a spot for sunbathers it is likely to fill up quickly on weekends. You can also rent paddle boats and water tricycles and other motorless water toys here. Prices range from $10 to $20 for ½ hour. I have no idea if that is a reasonable price or not, but I’m not sure I’d bother regardless.
Bordering the beach and then the lake itself where the beach ends is a large, treed greenspace filled with picnicking enclaves. A minor trail system links this space up with the beach, the main day use parking lot, and a small observation deck amongst the reeds. These picnic spots look fantastic and I’d have been eager to investigate them further if it weren’t for the mosquitoes that invested this wet, shaded area. This reality is damn near criminal. When the mosquitoes are gone they must be quite popular for day users but when we were there only the bravest of the brave ventured into them for any length of time.
A nice looking mini-golf course is located at one end of this day use area. It costs $4 per person (under 3 is free) and $5 per person for glow golf which they host on certain nights. The course looks well cared for and the holes appear to be variable in difficulty and imagination unlike the dull, but free, course in Cypress Hills. We did not play, much to my son’s chagrin, and perhaps a little to mine as well, as our interests were drawn elsewhere one particularly sunny day.
If there is one jewel in the faded crown of Pike Lake Provincial Park it has to be the pool complex. A large, amoebic shaped pool that grades from a wading pool to neck deep on an adult and topped off with a waterslide, this more than makes up for any shortcomings of the lake. The pool is fenced in and includes a large grassy area for laying in the sun, as well as the usual pool accoutrements. The waterslide is large and is a lot of fun for kids of all ages. The pool costs $2/kid and $5/adult to use for the day. You get a black light stamp that lets you come and go as you please for the day. Children 7 and under must have an adult in the water with them. A large change room at the pool entrance has men, women, and family change rooms so you don’t have to arrive in your swimwear if you’re day tripping from the city.
We were at the pool on a pleasant Saturday in mid-August and while the pool was full it wasn’t overwhelmingly packed. They have numbers restrictions and at one point an announcement was made that they were approaching capacity and that if you left the pool you might not be able to return immediately. So there are limits to how busy the pool gets and if you did show up and couldn’t get in, there is the beach or mini-golf to bide your time.
There are three lifeguards on duty at the pool which is a bit of a surprise. I’m used to campground pools having zero supervision but this is a government run pool so I guess they have higher standards to meet. The water is cool when getting in but comfortable. All in all, it’s a pretty cool pool experience for the price and definitely the centerpiece of Pike Lake.
Next to the pool complex you’ll find a store and concession building called The Huddle. Here you can buy food essentials for inflated prices, some water/beach equipment, and the bare basics you might have forgot or run out of while camping. The restaurant serves the usual fast food assortment of burgers and dogs and there is a large fridge full of cold beverages. Ice cream and other cool treats like Blizzard knockoffs are also available. All that’s missing is a liquor license and a patio.
All of this is situated in the large Day Use Area and is an easy walk from the campground proper. There is a large green area for playing catch, Frisbee, or soccer and two beach volleyball courts have been erected here as well. And a nice, newer playground is there too. That damn rain has flooded even portions of these recreational areas but all were still useable. It’s an admirable, full-service day use park and not deserving of the scrunched faces it gets from my friends.
The campground remains the question mark for Pike Lake. There are group sites available and they appear to be nothing more than a mud pit or a grassy field. They have picnic tables and the same raised BBQ firepits, a couple have a makeshift shelter and pit toilet hut. None are terribly appealing to my eye though several were being used. Undoubtedly they are a little better in dryer weather but I still found most of them lacking.
An investigative stroll led me to a peculiarity in the heart of the campground where I found a large recreation hall. It was locked up so I couldn’t enter to see inside but I assume this can be rented for large group gatherings. The park may also run programs there but I am unsure. This is an interesting addition to a large park like this and I wonder how popular it is. The noise restrictions of the campground undoubtedly limit it for use as a traditional party hall for celebrations. That’s good for the campers, of course, but having a reception out there would be kind of fun and unique.
There are also small camping cabins available to rent. Called Night Owl Camping Cabins, they are in the park but appear to be privately owned and operated. They look like cute, solid, little cabins for those not wishing to rough it in a trailer or tent. People were in the ones I saw so they are popular and kept in good condition. What they are like inside, I have no idea.
Okay, I just have to share this peculiarity. I’ve never seen anything like it. Each day up to a half dozen campers drive by pulling a small portable sewage tank to dump at the dump station. This is a wholly new ritual to us. Are they seasonal campers compensating for the lack of sewers? If not, how the hell has this become such a fad for local campers? And why do they need to do this daily? How much sewage are they creating? Such a bizarre sight but it gave us a chuckle each morning.
Noise became somewhat of an issue during our stay. It was nothing like the trains that haunt us in the mountains and not a full-fledged gongshow either, but enough to be noticed. One night while sitting by the fire we noticed an odd number of vehicles coming and going as we approached eleven o’clock. With no full-width baracade at the park entrance (there’s just a toll booth on the actual highway) I suppose there is nothing to prevent people from entering or leaving at all hours of the day. We even saw someone leave with trailer in tow at ten at night. That was weird.
Our section of the campground was mostly quiet, save for a yappy dog or outburst from a crying kid, however we were able to hear some louder gatherings in a different area of the park. This didn’t disrupt our night or sleep but had we been closer, it would have been frustrating. There were also some rowdy walkers passing through after the evening’s glow golf event finished up. And then there was some clown honking their car horn at nine o’clock for no apparent reason. That clown was greeted by a shout from our scary neighbour. Thankfully this didn’t last for long. Oh, I musn’t forget to mention the thoughtful souls filling up air mattresses with a hair dryer at 9:30pm. Sigh. This was definitely not the peaceful place Grasslands was.
So how do I rate Pike Lake Provincial Park? That’s a tough one. I honestly don’t feel it was nearly as bad as my friends’ reactions suggested it would be. I’ve seen far worse campgrounds and had far worse experiences traveling. That said, it certainly isn’t anywhere near the perfect place. I think Pike Lake is a fabulous day trip spot if you live nearby. The pool and entire day use area is terrific but the campground is lacking. It is serviceable and screams potential if they’d just put a little money in it to upgrade the facilities. The abnormal rains this summer undoubtedly impacted the appearance and functionality of the campground. It would be interesting to visit during a nice, dry summer.
Ultimately, I give Pike Lake Provincial Park 3.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a good family-oriented campground and park. That pool is a gem and if I lived in Saskatoon we’d definitely make day trips on sunny weekends. I would camp there again and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others but it would come with a list of warnings and caveats. I’m not sure there are too many other options near the city as an alternative. The Gordie Howe Campground within Saskatoon is likely the best option but it is very difficult to get a site there. The options are limited and despite the grimaces from the locals, Pike Lake Provincial Park wasn’t so bad. It just needs a hug and little sprucing up.