Rarely does a camping trip peak during the drive to one’s destination, but if you’re heading to Jasper from Calgary this is every bit the possibility. I’ll say this ad nauseam, but Icefields Parkway is a treasure of a highway. Wow! The views are beyond spectacular and last for hundreds of kilometers.
Driving along a glacial valley in a north-south orientation through the Rocky Mountains provides a fascinating and unique perspective to this famous mountain range, one superior to the more familiar east-west orientation through Banff and into BC. To your west you see the blunt, rocky faces of the thrust sheets exposing the sedimentary layers in all their textured glory; a geological history exposed for all to read, with only a few tantalizing secrets withheld by the cover of alpine glaciers. In contrast, to the east, you see the backside of these massive, sloping thrust sheets, a pronounced exposition of Nature’s unrelenting power. And in between, cradling the highway like a multi-hued nursery blanket, is a carved valley of full of grasses, trees, lakes, and braided rivers.
Such persistent beauty certainly sets the bar high for campground expectations. Luckily, Wapiti Campground in Jasper National Park is up to the challenge. Located six kilometers south of the Jasper town site, Wapiti Campground is one of three large, serviced campgrounds in Jasper National Park; Whistlers and Wabasso being the other two. There are several additional rustic, unserviced campgrounds in the park. These are typically first come, first serve campgrounds and significantly smaller than the big three. Being somewhat high-maintenance in our camping expectations, our family of four prefers the front country style campgrounds and the luxury of reserving sites. With the big three as our only options, then, we chose Wapiti due to its proximity to Jasper and its bounding the Athabasca River.
With 28 separate camping loops and 364 individual sites, Wapiti is a BIG campground, though shockingly only half the size of Whistlers. Most of these loops are cute, little circular rings with half a dozen sites each. There are three larger loops nearer the river plus a fourth large loop near the highway which I presume is some sort of overflow since it is nothing but a parking lot with electrical service. We chose a site in loop FF which backs onto the river and is furthest from the highway in hopes of limiting traffic noise and to provide easy access for riverside strolls. We were successful on both accounts.
Sites in Wapiti are just what you would expect in mountain national parks; large, spacious, and surrounded by tall, spindly pine trees. Each is garnished with a level, gravel pad and power. None have sewer or water service. There is no underbrush, so privacy is limited but you are so distanced from neighbouring sites that it really doesn’t matter. As such, there is lots of room for the kids to wander, explore, and play as well as plenty of space for cook shelters and tents in addition to your RV.
In our immediate spot the trees remain alive and healthy, but there are beetle bitten brethren nearby. This one blemish became ever more noticeable the closer we got to Jasper. Great swaths of red blotted the forests on the mountainsides and into the valleys like rusty fire scars. Millions of dead and dying trees. It’s so heartbreaking to see this. It’s truly sad to think this entire campground could eventually become a deadwood meadow. For now, though, it is wonderful.
The picnic tables are permanent, concrete behemoths with thick wood tops. You won’t be moving these under your RV awning, I can assure you. This may limit your ability to set up camp to your exacting desires but in the sheltered woodlands it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
When booking this site, having never camped in this area previously, I was charmed by the idea of a site backing onto the river. Unfortunately, I was charmed by a two dimensional map and didn’t realize that there is actually a cliff face between our site and the river itself. Dirt pathways along the river provide several access points to scramble down to the river from the campground, so we weren’t completely isolated from the water, but it does add an element of danger. With a steep, rocky, dirt cliff to descend and a fast flowing mountain river waiting at the bottom, I wasn’t comfortable letting my young kids just run off and play unsupervised. This was unanticipated and unfortunate. That being said, with proper supervision and accompaniment, we were all able to enjoy the perks of riverside camping, going on exploration hikes several times a day.
Our large loop has its own bathroom with flush toilets and sinks, another checkmark on our desirables list. Similar washrooms and kitchen shelters are dotted throughout the entire campground. All are clean and functioning and, yay, no pit toilets!
Wapiti has two shower houses, one near the entrance and the other in that overflow, parking lot loop. Again, both are clean and have full bathroom facilities along with walk-in showers. The showers are no cost which is an added bonus and we enjoyed being able to freshen up each night during our stay.
The shower house near the main entrance has five shower stalls plus one toilet along with three sinks. This is the same for men’s and women’s (I asked, I didn’t look). Though the showers are free, they use those push button things that only stay on for 30 seconds and thus require constant pushing. This isn’t such a big deal considering the cost but still an annoyance. The water temperature also fluctuates, particularly on busy weekends, so be prepared for showers ranging from lukewarm to scalding hot. And you can’t adjust this so you must endure what you’re given.
The real gripe I have, though, is with the shower heads which extend from the wall a mere four inches at most and point straight down. They are not adjustable and require acrobatic maneuverability to use properly. I can’t imagine how a large person properly washes or rinses in them as I was constantly banging my head into the wall trying to get my nooks and crannies cleaned.
A dump station is located at the main entrance, also free, and you can get drinking water there as well. There are no fresh water taps within the campground loops, so you’ll want to load up your RV before heading to your site. For tenters, or those looking to fill a jug, there are fresh water taps available outside the loop washrooms/kitchen shelters but they remain inaccessible to large vehicles.
A large firewood station is located near the main entrance and many small wood piles could be found in several of the empty sites. As a national park, Wapiti campground offers the delightful, though perhaps not so green, option of buying fire permits that allow you to use as much wood as you wish for a daily fee. It might be wasteful, but it is certainly cheaper than buying burlap bags of wood like one does at provincial parks. Unfortunately, there was a full fire ban in the park during our visit so no campfires were happening much to the dismay of the kids. On the bright side, we didn’t smell like smoke our entire trip.
An extensive trail system exists both within the campground, particularly along the river, and outside the campground along the highway. The lovely, sheltered pathways winding through the campground allow for delightful strolls of varying duration. At one end of the campground, the trails lead to a day use picnic area with charcoal bbqs and picnic tables. They don’t appear to get used often and I’m not really sure who would use them. The groomed roadside path allows you to walk or cycle to the neighbouring Whistlers campground, or all the way to town. It’s a great system allowing for hours of exploration and nature viewing.
Wapiti does have a playground, which is a bit of a rarity in national parks. It’s a modern steel playground based with washed pebbles and has benches around it for parents to sit on while supervising. Our kids liked it and asked to go play at it daily. Disappointingly, it is located between the parking lot overflow loop and the highway at the far north end of the campground. This is hardly a central, or convenient, location for a playground. And with its proximity to the highway, with all the dangers than entails, again I was obliged to accompany my children to the playground. They are now at an age where we are experimenting with some freedom, particularly to enjoy playgrounds unsupervised, but this ill-advised location shut down such experimentation for the duration of our stay.
It’s also a pity there is no ice cream shop or even a snack shop in the campground. I realize we are only six kilometers from town and this is a national park and all that, but there’s something fun about biking to the campground store for a treat of ice cream after a busy day of fun. Any such indulgences, or even last minute forgotten items, will require a trip into Jasper to purchase.
Wapiti does, however, house one of the most unique little programs I’ve ever seen at a campground. It is a tree planting program, no doubt part of an attempt to combat the devastation of the pine beetle but also to improve privacy between sites. All around the sites you’ll find rings made of river rocks enclosing a small sapling labeled with a bright piece of ribbon indicating the year in which it was planted. At the bathroom is a public watering can with an explanation that campers are encouraged to water the saplings. My daughter was more than happy to spend half an hour each day dutifully watering little trees all around our loop. This is a great little program, one I not only hope works, but gets rolled out to all national park campgrounds.
We camped at Wapiti in early August, presumably prime time for the tourist season. The front entrance had a “full” sign almost continually during our visit and yet there were always empty sites near us. Not many, and fewer as the evening approached, but still some. I can only assume these are reserved sites for campers that do not show up? Otherwise, there is a disconnect between what the office advertises and reality, yet another reason to reserve your site beforehand rather than roll the dice on one being available when you show up. I am not a gambler when it comes to camping with my kids. They aren’t terribly understanding of aimless campsite hunting.
We spent three nights at Wapiti Campground in Jasper National Park and I’m inclined to give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. With a little tweaking, it easily could be 5 out of 5, but the shower head issue and the playground location were unnecessary frustrations. We found Wapiti to be a delightful family campground though Whistlers certainly seems more popular for families with kids. It is bigger and has more playgrounds so I suppose it draws more families, but you won’t be disappointed camping at Wapiti with your children. Especially if they love to explore for rocks along riverbanks like mine do. Like the Jasper National Park itself, Wapiti is a beautiful place to visit. Despite the ravages of mountain pine beetle, it remains a wonderful preservation of nature that you should well consider visiting. I know I will be back.