They may not have heard of Grasslands National Park and they may have reflexively cringed at the utterance of Pike Lake Provincial Park but there’s not a Saskatchewanian who doesn’t know Waskesiu and they unabashedly love the place. Now that I too have visited this mythical vacationland in Prince Alberta National Park I fully understand, and champion, this love affair.
I have long heard about Waskesiu ever since my short time living in Saskat
oon. Even here in Calgary I know of many Saskatchewan ex-pats who travel back to this treasured spot each summer for family vacations. I never got to Waskesiu during that year and half I called the flatlands home and I have long yearned to right that wrong. This summer I finally did and like a towel on a cold bathroom mirror after a long, hot shower everything suddenly became clear to me. The resort town of Waskesiu, found along the southeast shores of Waskesiu Lake in the southeast corner of Prince Albert National Park not quite an hour’s drive north of Prince Albert in Central Saskatchewan (though you’d mistakenly say Northern Saskatchewan because we all forget about the massive spread of Canadian Shield in the top half of this Prairie Province) is a magnificent, beautiful, and stereotype-busting place well-deserving of the rave reviews.
Now, even more so than with Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, this review is sort of a fool’s errand. Prince Albert National Park is the eighteenth largest national park in the country, surpassed by a dozen northern/arctic parks that you are unlikely to ever visit, and is roughly half the size of Banff; it is a huge park. It certainly dwarfs any park we visited on our camping journey this summer. To review the entire park would be impossible based on a four day stay in one corner of it. That stay may have been in the main, resort-oriented portion of the park, but a portion it remains so keep that in mind when reading further.
Wow! Once again I am forced to express amazement at the presence of an entire resort town in the midst of a National Park. Perhaps my thinking is naïve on this subject, but I was always under the impression that Banff and Jasper were exceptions to the rule. National Parks were meant to preserve nature in its truest state not the weekend warrior developments of fun-loving Canadians. I suppose the latter helps fund, and justify, the former. Either way, we were a bit surprised to find what I would call Banff Lite here in the wilds of “northern” Saskatchewan.
Far smaller than Banff, the town of Waskesiu is nonetheless to Prince Albert National Park what Banff is to Banff National Park. With restaurants, shops, hotels/resorts, cottages, campgrounds, and park offices (there’s even a bloody movie theatre here), Waskesiu has everything needed for a fun-filled, summer family vacation. Silly as it may sound I had zero expectations of this when we set out on our trip, this in spite of the enthusiastic cheerleading all my Saskatchewan raised friends engaged in.
If you’ve been following along with my growing repertoire of campground reviews you’ll know that I have just the slightest gripe regarding the building of giant cottages or more accurately, second homes. To me cottages should be tiny, quaint, and rustic with old, thrift store furniture and kitschy décor from past generations. As the oil boom raged through Alberta over the past couple decades such cabins have become a vanishing relic as the nouveau rich knock them down and build gaudy trophy vacation homes.
Well, at Waskesiu you will bear witness to cutest little summer cottages on the planet! A quick history lesson first. When the park was opened back in the twenties this was already a blossoming recreational spot and the summer vacationers had built a tent campground along the lake. Those tents were like work camp style tents not the family camping tent you’re thinking of. Eventually those tents were replaced with portable cabins that were more stable and weatherproof but could be dismantled and stored for the winter. Fast forward and these cabins are moved off the lakefront. The former “campground” is turned into a park and the portable cottage owners eventually start replacing them with permanent structures. Permanent, yes, but still delightfully cute looking more like oversized garden sheds or a container home than a cottage.
There are dozens upon dozens of these wonderful little cabins lining the streets of Waskesiu next to the main street and within easy walking distance of downtown and the main beach. Their footprint is limited by lot size and tradition. There just isn’t room for them to be replaced by modern gargantuan cottages. I doubt the long-time owners of them would even dare if they could anyway. Nonetheless, they’ve put a lot of effort into giving each cabin its own personality. They’re just a joy to look at and are unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere.
That’s not to say there aren’t normal sized cabins around. And, yes, a smattering of near-giant, second homes have sprung up even here. I must admit there were a few in prime locations, right by the water with nothing but grass and a bicycle path separating them from the lake, that I would gleefully tattoo “hypocrite” across my forehead in order to own. Usually I’m either disgruntled or disinterested when seeing the cottages and cabins near where we camp. This time I was fully and unrepentantly envious.
We, of course, were in our lowly trailer and passed all these cabins and cottages a couple times each day during out trek from campsite into town. There are two large campgrounds at Waskesiu up the road from the cute cabins. The first, Red Deer Campground, is what my friends refer to as the “old people’s campground”. It is a large, tightly packed, primarily drive-through site campground. In a way it is not unlike the cute cabin compound only with fifth wheel trailers instead of garden shed cabins. There is power, sewer, and water at each site plus showers, flush toilets, and the like but, oddly, no fire pits. The sites, while closely spaced, are more open with far fewer trees and lots of grass. It’s a pleasant looking campground if you’re looking for an easier time of it and being closer to town also makes it somewhat more amenable to walking.
We were camping in the next campground up the road, Beaver Glen. Beaver Glen is a giant, 200 site campground with only electrical service. Fully ensconced in the boreal forest, it is very much reminiscent of Mount Kidd or other Kananaskis campgrounds except no mountains. Tall, skinny spruce and aspen surround all the campsites providing ample shade the entire day. It is quite the stark contrast to neighbouring Red Deer but more attuned to its park local.
There are almost two dozen lettered loops in Beaver Glen each with about a dozen campsites. The loops are unique in their respective orientation and size giving Beaver Glen a very natural feel which is quite appealing. Sites are serviced by electricity only, with potable water being available at the dump station or from taps located randomly throughout the loops. And each site has a fire pit with moveable cooking grill.
Some of the sites were a little closer together than at other forested campgrounds we’ve visited but by no means were we on top of each other. In fact, in one direction there was a large wooded area between us and the neighbouring sites. Our site was nice with a leveled gravel pad. It did slope off to the rear quickly, though, and we had a bit of trouble getting our 23’ trailer leveled properly. You would be very hard-pressed to get a much larger trailer in that spot. And you won’t be parking your tow vehicle in front of the trailer either. There was quite a variety of site sizes so you can find ones suitable for larger rigs, but any of those giant, triple-axel toy haulers are likely better suited for the Red Deer Campground where there is more room to maneuver.
There are five shelter/kitchen/washroom/shower/water/garbage/firewood complexes throughout Beaver Glen, placed in the spaces between groups of loops. You are never terribly far away from one of these excellent service centers so despite the natural surroundings you don’t need to rough it too much and can remain clean and groomed for trips into town. The full-service bathrooms are quite nice too with toilets, urinals, sinks, and showers and are kept clean and stocked. The showers are free and have hot water and, oh baby, do I mean hot. The sinks have hot water too but also have those annoying auto-shut off taps that make hand washing so damned difficult and sloppy.
Here again, in this massive, beautiful campground, there was not a playground to be found. I wonder if this is a principle at Parks Canada or something unique to the two Saskatchewan national parks? It’s a shame because young kids love playgrounds and they come in handy when it’s time for parents to cook meals or just get a few minutes reprieve from the mimi-mes. There is no shortage of space to build one. It wouldn’t even need to be exceptionally fancy. A few swings, a slide, and some climbing equipment to occupy energetic kids.
There is a large, fancy dump station at the main entrance to Beaver Glen. This looks quite new and is an impressive setup with several stations available for dumping. With 200 sites I imagine it still gets quite busy on Sunday mornings as the weekend rush leaves but at least they are trying harder here than at most other campgrounds (yes, I’m talking to you Pike Lake Provincial Park).
Firewood is $8.80 per day for all you can use. We first encountered this unique system at Elk Island National Park a couple years ago and it still surprises me. Sure it’s cheap and makes for great fires but it does seem a little contrary to the conservation and pro-nature ethos of a National Park. And why $8.80 for all you can use? It might as well be free which, I might add, it is almost everywhere else in the park (more about that in a bit). The firewood is almost entirely poplar, which surprised me considering all the spruce around us. Thankfully this was high-quality, dry, crisp poplar which was far better burning than the poplar shit at Pike Lake. Huge piles of split wood is piled up by the bathroom service centers with roadways right up to the pile allowing you to back up your vehicle and load up for several days’ worth of wood if you so choose.
You are back in bear country here so there is a sheet of rules you must sign upon check-in regarding keeping your site clean and storing your food inside vehicles and trailers. Rangers will confiscate coolers left outside. We even saw a scrawny, young bear upon our arrival. After filling up with water at the dump-station we went around the first bend to find this small, gangly black bear ambling across the road into the campground. A bear trap was set up nearby suggesting they are trying to catch it, though with apparently little success thus far.
One of nicer perks of the Beaver Glenn campground at Waskesiu is that it has its own beach that you can you can reach by trail. It is a wonderful beach by prairie standards. Comprised of sand with glacier transported igneous rocks in it, as well as pieces of driftwood, there is plenty of space to set up your sunbathing equipment for a nice day in the sun. The beach itself appears to be a large dune along the shore which has been unearthed for beachgoers. It really is a nice beach despite the rocks and wood which honestly aren’t so prevalent as to be a frustration. You can dig in the sand and build sand castles without issue and you won’t eventually hitting the organic-rich, clay soil typically found at “fake” beaches at over-sized sloughs.
The water is cool but not impossible to swim in. We all swam in it, including me and I’m a wimp with cold water. It is refreshing on a hot day but you don’t fully acclimatize to it once in and there were more than a few shivers on the beach afterwards. Waskesiu is a pretty large lake, not Great Lakes size, but definitely bigger than the Alberta lakes we’ve camped at so I imagine warmer water temps are solely under the control of Mother Nature and how much summer sun she bestows upon the park.
The bottom of the lake is a pleasant surprise; no weeds at the shore! It drops off to thigh depth fairly quickly but then flattens out and you can walk out pretty far without it going over my head. The lake bottom near shore is sandy with rocks but not so many that your feet hurt. As you move to deeper water, the bottom becomes lovely soft, silty sand. There also appears to be subtle sand bars on which a bit of weed grows, but those are well out from shore and between the bars there is nothing but soft sand. This is a true joy compared to most lakes out here, including our own community lake in Calgary. The water is clear and clean with no algae bloom or swimmer’s itch warnings to ruin the experience. A swim area is roped off to keep the multitude of boats out.
We headed to the beach mid-morning on a nice, sunny weekday and found a near-empty Beaver Glen beach. It likely fills up in the afternoon more, and on weekends, but we had a peaceful, private morning at the beach much to our delight. Having access to this campground-exclusive beach available rather than muscling our way onto the main beach in town where everyone else goes, is a real perk for Beaver Glen. Almost makes up for no playground … almost.
If Waskesiu was nothing more than Beaver Glen campground and beach it would still be a wonderful camping spot, but what gets all the raves is the resort town that comes along with it. Each day we found ourselves making our way into the town of Waskesiu, usually by bike though it is walkable, to look around and inevitably enjoy a tasty ice cream cone. There are clothing stores and some crafty type shops alongside restaurants, a movie theatre, and a small but fully stocked grocery store. It isn’t cheap food at the store so don’t arrive expecting to buy all your sustenance upon arrival, but they do have a lovely little bakery inside with fresh bakes pies, cookies, and buns.
The main park office is in the heart of town and you can get all the information you need there for adventures further afield in Prince Albert National Park. This is critical for those wishing to do off-the-grid camping, hiking, and or canoeing. There is a spot for renting bicycles of all configurations as well as a small museum sharing the history of the park and it’s most infamous former resident, Grey Owl. The museum is free and has a self-guided audio tour function. A nature centre is also present with displays and information about the park’s animals along with games and toys for young ones. This too is free and was interesting when we visited but is apparently undergoing an upgrade so it was in a transition phase, shall we say. Hopefully the upgraded facility will be a bit more robust. This is a national park, after all.
Town is also where you will find the large, main beach just across the road from the park office. This is where revelers from the cottages, Red Deer campground and all the resort hotels flock to on sunny summer days. We checked it out on just such a day, though not with our swim gear on, and the beach was packed with sunbathers and water lovers. I can’t imagine how busy it must get on a Saturday, never mind a long weekend. This main beach area is large with a nice, sandy, dune-like beach and clean, clear water. There is also a huge playground complex here which enthralled the kids. Too bad it isn’t closer to, or in, the campground.
Next to the playground is a huge grassy park. This used to be the “campground” for a tent city of sorts when the park first opened. All the tents and portable cabins were moved across the road, away from the lake, and the area is now an
impressive park with a Frisbee golf course and several large, wooden cook shelters each with picnic tables and a wood stove. The park even provides wood for these, presumably for free, as there is simply a large pile of split wood next to the changing room building. I’ve never seen such a setup but it must make for terrific family picnics. Nearby you will even find public tennis courts.
Getting around town and back and forth to the campgrounds and cottages is very easy. You can drive, of course, but I recommend using the terrific trail system. These Red Deer trails, there are four I believe, encircle the campgrounds, town, lake etc. and are well-groomed and wide, allowing hikers, joggers, and cyclists all to comfortably and safely use them. We followed the yellow trail on our bikes from the main beach back to our campground and Beaver Glen beach access taking in the lovely scenery of the lake and those amazing cottages.
The Waskesiu resort complex, as I like to call it, is just wonderful but for those who appreciate a less developed experience, Prince Albert National Park has plenty more to offer. There are a few back country campgrounds with fewer services but far greater privacy and tranquility throughout the park. An extensive trail system exists outside the town centre for avid hikers and you can even get to Grey Owl’s original cabin via trail and/or canoe. You might even stumble upon wildlife, something we saw very little of in the bustling town and campgrounds of Waskesiu. There is a free-roaming bison herd living in the southwest corner of the park but aside from birds and butterflies, we didn’t seem much during our stay. Well, aside from the bear, that is.
A little closer to town, you can find some nice day area type spots. We went to one called Paignton Beach with some friends. It’s another narrow beach along the western shore of the lake about 20 minutes from town. It has picnic areas with fire pits and picnic tables, pit toilets, a large shelter, and, yup, more free firewood piled high for picnickers to use. The beach is narrow but similar to the ones in town with soft sand and clear, clean waters. A large peninsula of sand at the end of the beach would make a spectacular spot for an afternoon but the wind was pretty intense there the day we went so we opted for a more sheltered area.
We loved our day and evening at Paignton Beach. There are a couple more such spots around the lake and they are a great getaway from the congestion and bustle of town. They are popular, though, so don’t expect to be all alone canoodling on a beach. Our friends own a pontoon boat so that provided far more enjoyment than canoodling anyway. Well, longer enjoyment, anyway.
They put the boat in at the park marina, north of the campgrounds and met us at the beach. You can literally drive these pontoon boats right up to the shore. The kids were all treated to several outings on the tube being pulling behind the boat. This, along with knee-boarding, waterskiing, and presumably fishing are all popular water activities and you see several boaters on the water much of the day. Again, this must only intensify on weekends and long weekends. The marina offers rentals for those without boats, but a look through Red Deer campground and the cabin villages suggests that plenty of people have boats.
I could drone on and on and really not do this park justice. This is a place we absolutely will be returning to in the future. The kids raved about it like they were Saskatchewan born and bred. It really is a spectacular place for a family vacation, camping or otherwise. Perhaps the best testament of the enjoyment to be had at Waskesiu is the dearth of useful blog photos I took. I was having too much fun to remember to take pics of washrooms and other boring facilities. Guess you’ll have to go see them for yourself.
I’m going to give Beaver Glen Campground, Waskesiu, and Prince Albert National Park a full 5 out of 5 Baby Dill Pickles. Sure, I can nitpick about the lack of a playground in the campground and the somewhat underwhelming Nature Center but everything else is so fantastic that would come across as unnecessarily petty. The locals and ex-pats are bang on about Waskesiu. Put it on your calendar as a future destination for a camping adventure.