The planning stage for our major camping adventures inevitably becomes an exercise in frustration. When it comes to choosing which attractions to see, our wish list always has far more on it than we have time. And when we’re hauling a trailer across the country, we also want to leave time for, you know, camping in it. Thus we spend painful hours deciding which attractions to skip, many of which are just as appealing as the ones we keep. It’s a chore as enjoyable as ripping bandages off the hairiest part of your body.
Despite our best efforts, there remain days in which we schedule too much and need to have a campsite booked just to park our trailer and sleep for a night. It needn’t be fancy, just convenient. A quick pit stop in the direction of the priority destination we have left too little time to drive to after a day stuffed with sightseeing.
There’s the old adage about life giving you lemons. Well, sometimes life doesn’t toss you lemons at all. Instead, it gifts you the best damn lemonade you’ve ever tasted! Five Islands Provincial Park was exactly that; delicious, refreshing, chilled lemonade.
Back in January our trip was shaping up nicely. We had begrudgingly trimmed some premium destinations (the Maritimes are bigger than they look!) and the resulting trip was looking busy but tolerable, hitting four national parks over the span of three weeks. Still, our inner rock nerd got the best of us and we had two geology stops on our itinerary, Joggins Fossil Cliffs and Fundy Geological Museum, that would chew up a full day as we moved from PEI to southern Nova Scotia. A four hour drive at the end of a busy day was not appealing, so I set about finding a reasonable spot to spend the night. I found Five Islands using Google and never gave it further thought until we set about finding the place after our visit to the museum. As a single night fill-in, we had zero expectations for Five Islands but it ended up being one of the highlights of our entire trip. Lemonade indeed!
As we entered the park, once again I was struck by my naivete at not expecting hills. And though the drive from Parrsboro was visually appealing, and hilly, I was still dumbstruck to discover Five Islands is located on the side of a big hill. Nor was I wasn’t expecting or looking forward to anything but a hot meal and some bedrest. My paws were killing me. Then the clerk at the park entrance pointed to a poster on the wall and stated that if we wanted to see “that” we should make haste since low tide was ending and we would need to be back to a safe position nearer the campground by 7:30pm. It was already after 5.
What I saw in that aged, gift shop poster was a stunning cliff face with multiple white-crested, red sandstone lobes encased in dingy, dark basalt framed by green conifers above and the blue waters of the Bay of Fundy below. My geo-senses began to tingle and I knew our rock exploring was not, in fact, done for the day. We hurriedly set up camp and rather than eat immediately, the four of us scurried off to the exposed tidal flats of the East River and on to the cliffs upon which the park itself rested.
We spent two hours on those cliffs and rocks and beaches and tidal flats. It was incredible. At first, walking along the rocky shore scouring the bounty for the perfect rounded igneous stone. Then rounding Old Wife and first witnessing the Redhead Cliffs as the poster became reality. All of us were awed, even my daughter who doesn’t quite share the love of geology that the rest of us do, couldn’t resist the unexpected beauty of this place. It really was spectacular.
The views of the cliffs and the five islands that give the area its name provide a magnificent 360 degree panorama that will appeal to even the most cynical nature humbug. But for geologists, both professional and amateur, those cliffs are rife with wonders. Documenting the fiery Triassic/Jurassic boundary as Pangaea split apart and lava spilled over this part of North America, lots of interesting geological structures can be seen in the cliff face from faults and folding to modest metamorphism and slim quartz intrusions. I had a blast scurrying all over the place pointing out these features to my mostly bewildered children. They don’t often see me quite so animated.
The kids spent their time scouring the beach and the scree at the base of the cliffs for the prettiest rocks to add to their collection. They were not disappointed, assuming you ignore the bruised ego of the loser in their rivalry to find the “best” rock. It’s no wonder that a published pamphlet entitled “Nova Scotia Pebbles” was available at the Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro. Beachcombing in Nova Scotia is a genuine treat. And no need to polish the rocks upon returning home. Mother Nature has taken care of that already.
When we finally returned to our campsite as the tide encroached, we were all in solemn agreement that it was a damn shame we were only staying here one night and, worse yet, would be hitting the road straight away the next morning. We easily could have enjoyed multiple days at Five Islands Provincial Park. Not bad for a place we booked simply because we were too lazy to drive further one day.
That’s enough geo-fawning, let’s talk about the park itself. Similar to Graves Island, Five Islands Provincial Park is primarily a campground. There are 87 sites at Five Islands, most of which are open and for good reason; the views are stunning. Site 24 just might be the prettiest campsite in Canada. Well its’ the nicest I’ve ever seen. It is perfectly situated for viewing the islands dotting the bay, the tides ebbing and flowing, and the sun setting behind the hills across the river mouth. As you can see from the picture, a veteran camper had already snagged this site before our arrival.
Our site was a little further up the hill and further inland from the cliffs. Our view of the bay was obstructed by trees, but we could easily move to more advantageous viewing spots out the backside of our site. The sites are comprised of level gravel pads surrounded by grass with the odd conifer dotting the landscape. They are also spacious, so the lack of vegetative privacy is not an issue. Most appear to be purposely oriented to maximize the view which I may have already mentioned is quite appealing.
There are two loops, A and B, with most of loop A consisting of serviced sites and the smaller loop B being mostly unserviced sites. There are also plenty of walk-in sites in both loops; far more than I’ve seen at other campgrounds pretty much anywhere. Between sites the grounds have been left feral. The weeds kind of give the place a rundown look at first but after awhile you begin to appreciate the wildness in context of the beauty around you.
The sites come with picnic tables and large, keyhole shaped fire pits which are great for cooking over or simply enjoying a campfire. We picked a serviced site and had both water and power even though we chose to cook over the fire and didn’t hook up to water hoping to avoid the dump station in the morning. This was not much trouble as there is a dishwashing station by the main shower/bath house at the entrance to loop B.
The park has all the facilities you expect but I feel it worth noting that everything is located either up a slope or down a slope here. We definitely got a good workout walking from our site to the flush bathroom and showers several times. That’s not a bad thing, but be prepared to get some exercise. The alternative is driving everywhere and that requires lots of backtracking from one loop to the other.
Pit toilets and fresh water taps are plentiful throughout the park, as one would expect with so many unserviced and walk-in sites available. They are clean and reasonably tolerable as far as pit toilets go, despite the aged look of the buildings. As you might expect, I always made the trek to the modern facilities up the hill.
The shower house and bathrooms appear to be relatively new and has the same layout as at Graves Island. Same layout but better maintained, mind you. The one criticism I would offer is that the showers were very hot. I know, that’s not a complaint one typically makes about campground facilities, but it’s true nonetheless. Employing those push buttons that douse you with water for a few seconds, there is no way to adjust the temperature and they’ve definitely got the water heaters set on high at Five Islands Provincial Park.
Another novelty regarding the showers is the hand blower mounted several feet up the wall outside of the shower stalls. I’m guessing this is for people to dry their hair, unless giants are known to camp here regularly. It’s a bit comical and something I’ve never seen before but also genius in its own, quirky way.
As I mentioned above, there is a covered cleaning station for dishes just outside the bath house with large sinks that will accommodate the biggest of pots. Using this during our only meal allowed us to avoid using the dump station located near the main entrance next to the group site. Not that it would have mattered as there was no lineup when we left. And since we didn’t use it I don’t know if it is free or not. I assume it is and it appears to have but one station which could produce potential line up issues on Sunday mornings.
The group campsite is a bit odd. Mostly it’s just a grassy area with a sign saying “group campsite”. There were a couple tent trailers set up, but you’d be hard pressed to get anything much bigger in there. It appears to be primarily the domain of tenters. I don’t quite understand Nova Scotia’s fear of groups of trailer campers gathering but their parks definitely don’t provide accommodations for such events.
There is also a day use area which is also mostly just a grassy, hillside area with some picnic tables. It’s downslope of the campground and next to the walk-in tent area portion of loop A. It is free to use and has quick access to the beach/tidal flat area of East River. Word is you can even dig your own clams in the estuary, free of charge. I did not know this at the time of our visit nor would such knowledge have made a lick of difference on account of me hating seafood. But still cool, I guess.
Near the entrance to the day area is a newly built, entirely enclosed picnic shelter that the park is advertising at the office and in the washrooms. I suppose this would be ideal during inclement weather or for larger groups visiting for the day with picnic tables and a wood stove inside. It’s a nice addition and likely popular for groups of tenters in the nearby group site.
One of the more pleasant experiences at Five Islands was the campground hosts who made the rounds of the entire campground twice daily to meet and welcome campers. That’s a lot of hill walking, folks. They must be in fantastic physical condition. These folks were very friendly and after chatting with my kids, returned with a Nova Scotia flag pin for each of them. Campground hosts are all the rage, but rarely have they been as kind as the ones here.
Sadly, Five Islands is not perfect. The playground, which is located a bit out of the way to the side of loop A, isn’t much to rave about. A simple wooden structure with a couple climbing bars and a curly slide, this could certainly be improved. Coupled with the poor location, kids are unlikely to be bothered using it which is a pity because Five Islands is a terrific family campground otherwise.
Without a robust playground to entertain the kidlets, your remaining option for fun is hiking/cycling and Five Islands provides a modest but delightful selection of trails to explore. A short trail skirting the edge of the campground connects the loops with the day use area. The other three are more substantial and explore the three main parts of the greater park; the river estuary, the park interior, and finally, those amazing Read Head cliffs.
We did not use the larger trails as we walked to Read Head via the tidal flats. Had we stayed longer than one night, I am quite sure we would have ventured out along the other trails. The condition of the trails varies from trampled to grass to gravel, with the better groomed portions suitable for bikes as well.
For the life of me, I can’t recall what was available for purchase at the main office. There was an ice cooler and a deck for sitting. I think there were a few snack items for sale but mostly this office is just a welcoming registration building. You aren’t far from towns should you need to buy food or emergency items.
What more can I say. Five Islands Provincial Park was just such a delightful surprise. Our trip was filled with expected wonders, but stumbling into this unexpected wonder was quite the stroke of luck. If I were planning the trip now, I would absolutely include a couple more days to explore both the park and the surrounding area. It’s just such a beautiful part of Nova Scotia and a joy for geo nerds like me and my wife. I give Five Islands Provincial Park 4.25 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s almost perfect, but the weak playground and the overly hot showers are a knock I can’t ignore. Similarly, the lack of Wi-Fi is an oversight in 2018. Otherwise, what a gorgeous campground and park! You can expect us back in the future.