I discovered Aspen Crossing early last summer while searching for potential campgrounds we could go to after a couple of our booked camping weekends were washed out, literally, by the June flood. Though we didn’t actually camp there last summer, this past autumn I did book a night in the Canadian Pacific caboose cabin and dinner in the dining car as a surprise 10th anniversary gift for my wife (more on that later). This year I eagerly suggested it for a camping weekend with some friends which we did on the June 14, Father’s Day weekend. Here are my thoughts on all that is Aspen Crossing.
Not Your Typical Prairie Campground
Aspen Crossing is a unique enterprise out on the prairies about an hour (depending on which quadrant of the city you live in) southeast of Calgary. I’m not familiar with the history of the place but it is obvious that the proprietors are enamoured with rail history as there are several old rail cars present on site. Many are in disrepair or but presumably awaiting restoration for use while others have been fixed up and are used as a restaurant (Pullman dining car) and rental cabins (two cabooses, one red, one yellow). The main business centre looks like an old train station (not sure if it truly was or is just a replica). All this gives the place a distinctive flavour that harkens to the railway past of the West.
There is an active garden centre selling plants and trees but also a variety of knick knacks and novelties. Upstairs there is even a small museum of train related items. There are some farm animals present like chickens, ducks, and even a big peacock who likes to make his presence known; for all the beauty of their feathers peacocks sure don’t have a pleasant honk! Some baby pigs were also on display. These aren’t petting zoo type animals but they are all safely cooped up with easy viewing for the children.
The campground itself is a work in progress but quite unique for its prairie setting. I suppose one of the advantages of running a campground at a garden centre is that there is plenty of landscaping knowledge and products around to make a visually unique campground. And the campground here is certainly a sight compared to the typical scenery out here on the bald-ass prairie. Aspen Crossing appears as an oasis in the midst of crop fields. They’ve got lots of flowering annuals decorating the grounds but the more obvious landscaping characteristic are the campsites. There is no grass, just leveled gravel pads with fire pit areas all surrounded by trees and shrubs and mulch. It’s quite stunning, actually. Not your typical campground décor. Now, this certainly isn’t lush greenery like one would encounter in wetter, warmer climes nor does it have the primitive feel of the mountain campgrounds but it is certainly a contrast to the surrounding prairie countryside. And much of this greenery is well established so the trees are quite tall and do provide some shade and a bit of a sense of privacy.
It’s obvious the campground remains a work in progress. There is a small existing wood playset but a new, larger one is in the process of being built (foundation only present when we were there in June 2014). There is a long, raised path that’s been built alongside the campground running up to the garden centre and restaurant area which I suspect will be home to some future train shuttle perhaps? There are some nice pathways being built as well but for now the main walkway and service road to the commercial area from the campground is mostly dirt and can get quite muddy and messy when it rains. There is also a pathway built from the campground through a field to a slew called Pequito Ponds which makes for a nice stroll with a loved one or adventure with the kids. An abandoned rail spur borders the property as well which presumably would make for another interesting hike if one were so inclined.
The Hand Dryers Are A Bloody Marvel
The campground amenities are all nice and new, which is a novelty of sorts. The bathrooms appear to have been only recently built so everything is nice and clean and working. The hand dryer is a bloody marvel but beware it’ll scare the crap out of you or your kids the first time. I think it scares the water off your hands rather than drying them. The existing play set is a little worn but a new one is coming. There isn’t a lot of green space around for playing sports though one spot where the washroom septic system is located would work for some. Sports requiring big space like soccer or baseball or Frisbee would be tough within the campground area.
We were on a fully serviced site and the sewer connection looked brand new as well. The power might have been a touch older but still pretty new. Water pressure was fine though our onsite tap leaked which was odd considering the newness of everything. The site was remarkably level. It was a pull-through and here is one gripe I have with the layout. These pull-through sites are angled and the utilities connection point is well back from the larger fire pit and picnic table lobe. With our 19’ trailer located for utilities hookup there was no way for us to incorporate our trailer into the fire pit and picnic table area. Perhaps this is not as much of an issue for giant trailers which I realize is the more common RV these days but some of us like to pretend we’re still actually camping and don’t bring mobile mansions with us. It would have been nice to have our awning and trailer exit closer to where life was happening on site.
Unbeknownst to all of us at the time of booking the weekend we chose for camping at Aspen Crossing was Train Days. This turned out to be a terrific stroke of luck and a great way to spend the weekend camping and celebrating Father’s Day. There was a large model train display set up in the greenhouse, children’s train rides, hay rides, bouncy castles, pancake breakfast, and a BBQ/beer tent in the afternoon. I’m not sure which, if any, of the above are available all season long but it made for a terrific weekend despite the wet weather.
The kids loved the train ride and the tractor pulled hay ride which toured around the Aspen Crossing grounds. The pancake breakfast was a hit ($8 per person over 5) and a reasonable value. The model trains were neat to see and quite the elaborate setup. We didn’t attend the BBQ/beer hall since we were actually
there to camp and thus had those exact same items waiting in our coolers. The only blemish on the weekend was the face painting that cost $10. I have no idea where that price came from but it was terribly out of whack with our experiences elsewhere. It was not a surprise to see this novelty unused by pretty much everyone but a few brave souls.
I would definitely go back to Aspen Crossing to camp and will surely do so in the future. Going on the Father’s Day weekend, if Train Days is to become a tradition, would make for a wonderful family camping trip each year. There are group sites with shelters for group feeds too and that would be something to try with a group of friends. I really liked this campground and look forward to seeing how it continues to grow and change in the coming years. I’ll give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 a rating I expect to increase as more work is completed.
The caboose cabins are located within the campground but can be rented year round as they are insulated and heated. Last October I surprised my wife by taking her there for a night to celebrate our 10th anniversary. It’s a unique setup and the Canadian Pacific caboose we were in is nicely furbished with wood, modern kitchenette and a large comfy bed. There is also a bed up in the roost so room for taking the family on an adventure too if one were inclined. I believe the other caboose has two sets of bunk beds so room for a family of four. Since this was a 10th anniversary outing I chose the caboose with the queen sized bed, if you catch my drift.
The only problem we encountered was an unpleasant accumulation of flies in the roost portion of the cabin. There were dozens of them buzzing around like little black zombies bumping into the windows in failed attempts to exit from where they presumably entered. Not exactly a terrific start to our anniversary evening and had we brought the kids with us it would have been a significant issue. As it was just the two of us and we were sleeping on the big bed in the main portion of the caboose we didn’t raise a fuss and spent our first hour or so there killing flies or chasing them out the windows. A nuisance but once remedied we had a fine time in the caboose.
Doing this in October meant the campground was entirely empty, almost. One family of campers was there and for some reason they were put in a site immediately beside the caboose. No idea why they needed to be so close to us with an empty campground to chose from but the result was our romantic (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) evening included a serenade of campfire and kids chirping. If one were to go in the summer the campground would obviously be full and provide a different dynamic to the experience.
I would certainly recommend trying these caboose cabins. They are quite neat and will fascinate a spouse or kids. But for almost $200 a night one shouldn’t have to be dealing with fly infestations like we did. That’s unacceptable. So despite a cool experience I can only give 2 ½ Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. If the fly situation were remedied these cabins would be terrific.
Pullman Dining Car Restaurant
As part of our anniversary night we had dinner at the 1887 Pullman Dining Car restaurant (reservations recommended) that was once the private business car for former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. This too is a unique experience and we were quite excited. Keep in mind it is one dining car so there is limited seating. It is also not your traditional restaurant seating. One side the dining car is filled with shallow u-shape seating which allows you to sit beside each other but not across from each other. There are small two person tables on the other side of the car which would allow a couple to sit across from each other (these were full during our visit).
So if you were a party of four, say, you could not all sit across from each other and converse as one normally would in a restaurant. Similarly there is no means to accommodate larger groups by easily moving tables together like in a traditional restaurant. I think there is one bigger group room at the front of the car, but don’t hold me to that.
This isn’t to say that the restaurant seating experience here is poor or disappointing, it’s just different so be prepared. It also means that you will potentially be part of other diners’ dinner experience. The night we were there a larger group of friends was dining and spread out over several of the seating areas. One person in this group, unfortunately sitting immediately behind me, was particularly loud and overly confident in his expertise in everything wrong in Calgary. No fault of the restaurant but it did make for a frustrating anniversary dinner having to listen to this blowhard all night.
But I’m giving an unfair impression. This is a great little restaurant. The food was delicious; warm and prompt and very good value especially when compared to the offerings in the big city which all seem overpriced and small proportioned these days. We were quite delighted with our dishes; flavourful, filling, and pleasant to the eye and nose. We had wine and dessert and were thoroughly stuffed by the time we were finished. A terrific meal and a place we would not hesitate to frequent again in the future. If you’re looking for something unique and want more than average restaurant fare without the gourmet pretentiousness then Aspen Crossing is worth the drive to check out. I give the restaurant 4 ½ Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 with the awkward seating situation being the only drawback.
Overall, Aspen Crossing is a very cool and unique enterprise. It’s a quick 1 hour drive from Calgary which makes it nice and close for weekend outings. It also makes it close for just a drive and dinner if one wished. We will certainly be frequenting the campground again in the future and most likely the restaurant too. Check it out.
This review is my own opinion. It was not soliceted nor was I paid any money or given any gifts for doing so.