Recently, two months of pandemic-induced self-isolation inspired a couple nights of backyard tenting for me and my son, overnight thunderstorm included. It was a delightful experience that had me reminiscing about my childhood summers at Sauble Beach where my sister and I spent our nights in a canvas tent alongside the family travel trailer. Overnight thunderstorms were great back then too.
Energized by this trip down memory lane, and with Alberta provincial parks re-opening on the first of June, I packed up our SUV and the two of us headed out for a midweek taste of “real” camping at Chain Lakes Provincial Park south of Calgary.
It would be but a single night of tent camping. I didn’t want to overwhelm the lad on his first outing without our trailer. It’s one thing to spend the night in a tent with all the comforts of home twenty paces away. Quite another with no refuge but your car. And as luck would have it, there were a few hours that one chosen night when I wasn’t sure the car was going to be enough.
I have now camped at Chain Lakes Provincial Park twice. The second time last week, the first eight years ago. Both times I and my companions endured a raucous storm seemingly intent on destroying our mobile habitats. I’m either remarkably unlucky or this park has a weather problem.
That night eight years ago was quite the experience. It was one of our earliest camping trips as a young family and we were joined by my aunt and uncle and friends of theirs. We had our new-to-us travel trailer. The rest were in tents.
We’d all been down by the lake watching my very young kids play on the playground when ominous clouds moved in from the west. One of the wiser in our crew suggested we make our way back to safe shelter pronto but even that came too late.
Halfway home on the winding pathway to camping loop B, the storm unleashed its fury drenching us with rain and hail, winds whipping from all directions. We ran the remaining distance. My wife and I tossed the kids inside the trailer and then frantically attempted to stow our billowing awning we had left up. Our guests saved their tents but would lose the dining shelter, it’s pathetic aluminum frame no match for the gusting wind. We rode out the storm with all eight of us squeezed into our 19’ RV enjoying a few specialty bevvies to calm our nerves.
That experience, one we chuckle about now, was front and centre on my mind during this second visit as dark clouds again moved in west of the lake while my son and I prepared our evening meal. With only a tent, I wasn’t looking forward to a frantic camp teardown and hiding in our Pathfinder if a similar storm hit us. Luckily, or should I say “luckily”, no rain or hail came. Instead, we were lashed by wild winds for several hours through the night as my son and I lay there sleepless, wondering if the tent might take flight with us as hapless captives.
Considering the spectacular mountain camping immediately west of Calgary and more prominent lakes to the north, Chain Lakes Provincial Park doesn’t get the attention it might otherwise receive. That is both understandable and unfortunate. Nobody would argue it rivals Kananaskis or Banff or Sylvan Lake, for example, but neither should it be disregarded entirely.
For starters, the scenery in this part of Alberta is some of the prettiest you will ever see, in my opinion. Yes, the Rocky Mountains are impressive, but the rolling foothills of green grasslands, willow, and pockets of aspen southwest of Calgary are a 360 degree postcard of beauty. This is especially true in spring when everything is fresh and green giving the region an Irish vibe.
As a result, the drive to Chain Lakes Provincial Park can just as easily be the highlight of your trip. Highway 22 cuts through impressive ranches making a picturesque trip regardless if you’re approaching from the south or north. I, however, prefer coming from the east. The 39 kilometres of highway 533 from Nanton is one of the more underrated highways in Alberta. Each time I drive it, I think to myself that this is the one place where I would actually want to live in this province. Then I dreamily check out the local real estate listings and the notion rapidly evaporates.
First and foremost, Chain Lakes Provincial Park is a day use area. An hour drive from Calgary, it’s a great little spot for a picnic, a day of fishing, or a paddle on the water. The eastern shore within the park boundary is lined with alternating green space and gravel parking lots. Picnic tables, benches, and pit toilets provide day users with convenient amenities to enjoy an afternoon or an entire day.
For those not as keen on a picnic, or perhaps working/living in the vicinity, the Taste of Country Cookhouse is a quality concession stand located within the park. Offering the usual burgers and fries fare, plus the all important ice cream, this little restaurant is open most days during the summer season (note … during my latest visit, concession hours had been reduced due to Covid19 restrictions).
A fair sized pair of playgrounds are situated next to the cookhouse, offering little ones lots of exploratory fun on the metal and plastic contraptions. These aren’t the largest playgrounds by any means, but they have some interesting swing adaptations and are more robust than I might have expected at a place like this. With no playgrounds in the camping loops, they are also the only ones in the park so during busy weekends they undoubtedly get crowded.
The lake itself is fully artificial, created by two earth dams filling up a shallow valley in which a creek once resided. The result is a long, finger-like lake surrounded by rolling ranch land. The lake is regularly stocked with trout and is a popular fishing spot. Motorized boats are allowed on the lake but there is a 12 km/h speed limit so no waterskiing or other exciting activities.
The wind which seems ever present, delightful as a breeze but terrifying as a storm, requires caution when on the water. The rapidity with which storms can arise is a concern but otherwise the speed restriction makes the lake a delightful spot for kayakers and canoers alongside pontoon boats and modest fishing boats.
You’ll also find anglers casting from the shore. We tried briefly, catching nothing besides a bottom rock that stole my lure. I didn’t witness any other successes, so I don’t feel too much a failure. Near shore is clear of weeds for the most part, but with few protruding natural or artificial prominences into deeper water, I’m not sure shore fishing will ever be all that successful.
My suggestion is to get a boat or just forget the fishing entirely and enjoy a leisurely paddle around the lake. A boat rental kiosk would be a nice addition. I don’t know how feasible that would be for a smallish park like Chain Lakes Provincial Park, but I wish someone would try and make a go of it. I’d have been keen to rent a canoe for an hour.
If you do own a boat, there are two boat launches. Both are capable of handling trailered boats but only one has a dock associated with it. The dockless launch was being used by a family of kayakers when we were snooping around which makes sense. The primary launch, busy with powered boats, also has a large parking area for boat trailers and tow vehicles.
There is a single, small beach at water’s edge which is honestly quite lame. I don’t know if anyone swims here as I assume the water stays quite chilly all summer long. I imagine the beach is therefore mostly for sandcastle building. But even as a sunbathing spot it leaves much to be desired. My kitchen is bigger than this little piece of sand.
Despite Chain Lakes Provincial Park’s obvious appeal as a day use area, camping here is nonetheless enjoyable. The campground, nestled between the lake and highway, has 121 campsites in three loops.
Loops A and B have power while loop C does not. None of the sites have water or sewer. Loops B and C are available by reservation whereas Loop A is first-come, first-served. Except, that is, during global pandemics like the one occurring as I write.
Due to Covid 19 social-distancing protocols, only 50% of the campsites in the three loops are open and all are available solely through reservation. In other words, Loop A, which is typically fcfs, required a reservation to use in 2020.
This temporary policy change could have caused me grief as I was humming and hawing about making a reservation for our outing. It was a Tuesday night in early June, after all, and I didn’t expect there to be trouble acquiring a site by just showing up, even if only half were available. My discomfort with adapting on the fly won out and I booked a site which proved prescient since there was no means for claiming, and paying for, sites in the usual fcfs manner.
Sites are modest, consisting of level gravel surrounded by grasses and scrubby willow for the most part. Some are a bit swampy, even; the surroundings not the sites themselves. Most are reasonably spaced offering a bit of privacy, but not much. There are no tall trees either so shelter from the sun is limited, especially in spring when full foliage has not come out yet.
Most sites are back-in but a few drive-through, arcuate sites exist in each loop. Site depths range widely with some only capable of accomodating 20’ trailers (or tents) while others can handle the big rigs. I also saw a couple of sites close enough together to be considered shared sites but during the pandemic they were unsurprisingly unavailable for use.
Fresh water taps dot each loop providing drinking water just a short walk from most sites. Similarly, each loop has at least one pit toilet and a garbage station. There are no kitchen stations at the pit toilets suggesting tent camping is not a common occurrence here.
The pit toilets are all newer, unisex buildings. Each has two separate, spacious stalls with concrete floors and decent ventilation. Some have solar panels to power overnight lighting. They are also gloriously odour-free on the second day of the camping season!
Empty, clean, and as yet void of heavy weekend usage, pit toilets at this time of year are as close to real bathrooms as you can get. Even more shocking, despite warnings of limitations due to Covid19 protocols, all were stocked with sanitizer and toilet paper. How long that lasts remains to be seen, but for our short visit it was great not having to haul my own supplies each time nature called.
Despite the lush green in early June, this area can get extremely dry. As such, none of the campsites have fire pits. Propane devices are allowed when no restrictions are in place, but wood fires are only ever allowed in the single communal fire pit of which there is one per loop.
These communal fire pits are larger than the typical site-specific kind and communal firewood is provided free of cost by the park. With picnic tables and a large grass area surrounding the fire pit, there is ample room for groups of social campers to gather for an evening of revelry and s’mores. So long as there is no fire ban, of course. How keen campers will be to partake in these communal campfires during a pandemic is anyone’s guess. The night we were there nobody lit a fire. Considering the wind that eventually came, that’s a good thing.
Group camping is also available at Chain Lakes Provincial Park (with the exception of this summer, 2020, due to, you guessed it, Covid19). There is a single group site and it’s a bit odd. Rather than an isolated field, the group site here is an extension of Loop C. Think of Loop C as a poorly drawn figure eight, with regular camping allowed in the bottom part of the eight while the top strip is the group area.
This long, strung out group area is comprised of individual campsites exactly like those in the rest of the campground. Some of the regular Loop C campsites back onto group campsites, something I would not be fond of discovering upon arrival. I prefer my group sites seconded from the regular campers. The whole purpose of group camping is to be with a bunch of friends/family and getting a bit louder than otherwise appreciated.
I took a quick look through the group area but didn’t see a communal fire pit. I found that weird too and assume group campers can only enjoy a campfire by joining the regular Loops C campers at their communal fire pit. Again, not an appealing arrangement in my mind.
On the other hand, the northern end of the group sites border on open space with a trail running to a ravine, views of the lake in the distance. It’s not much but it is a more picturesque than what the other loops see. And, hey, the group folks get their own pit toilet and water so there’s that.
Trails exist in the other loops as well, but they aren’t much. Essentially, they are paths to the day use area. That’s convenient, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not going for a hike here. The trail in Loop A isn’t even 100 m in length. Loop B’s is longer, winding through shrubberies, but it isn’t going to scratch your hiking itch.
RVers with the means to avoid pit toilets have the option to pay for the automated dump station when exiting the campground. I hate these damn things and thankfully as a tenter, didn’t need to use one of the two pay-per-use stations. Cost appears to be $6 but at least one of the payment machines had a torn paper sign taped to it stating it is not working.
Cell service was a bit glitchy out here. I’m on the Telus network and at our campsite in Loop A service came and went depending on where my lawn chair was positioned or where my hand was pointing. By the lake, service was fine. In between it varied. I’m not sure how other networks will behave here. There is no wifi.
I also stumbled upon a campground host. Well, their site anyway. Nobody was there and portions of the site were restricted with pink, fluorescent ribbon. I assume this all has something to do with Covid19, so who knows how much the host will actually be around during 2020. I presume during normal summers the host is present 24/7. Whatever the case, the site is in Loop B.
Beyond what I’ve written about already, there isn’t a whole lot to do here. There is some wildlife, notably songbirds that either serenade or irritate depending on your point of view. They start at daybreak and are relentless. We had what I think is a winter wren, perched immediately above our tent singing for all it’s life. You might find that enchanting, but after a night of poor sleep due to the windstorm, it was annoying as all hell.
A couple mule deer visited the grass field around community fire pit in the morning. Droppings from many other visits were visible at several spots around the loop. We also saw pelicans soaring high above the lake and heard the eerie calls of loons filled the silence between wren cries. And curious gophers are everywhere.
Much to my delight, and surprise, mosquitoes were absent. I can’t imagine this is commonplace all summer long, but it made my day not having to douse in DEET. The persistent breeze likely keeps bugs away to some degree, but I fully expected a mosquito nightmare with everything still so wet.
The Ranchlands MD administration office is located at the park entrance. It’s a gorgeous building that looks more like a national park visitor centre than an office building. Too bad it isn’t. My son and I both agreed it would make a great house. Maybe with the current provincial government angling to sell parks, it soon will be.
Walking along the dam offers better views of the lake, exposing its reach to the north. At various spots you can also see the Rocky Mountains peaking through the foothills that dominate the scenery. And on some hilltops, you will find ghostly silhouettes of trees bravely standing against the elements. It won’t ever warrant the accolades that Kananaskis and the mountain parks receive, but Chain Lakes Provincial Park is pretty, nonetheless.
The spillway from the dam is also worth a walk to witness. You can see it form the highway looking like some odd shimmering metal art installation. Up close, though, it’s a cascade of water sliding down a sloped concrete spillway. It looks very cool and would make for a fun waterslide were it not for the chain link fence and warning signs denying such adventures. Or the back current at the spillway base surely to drown you.
If you are camping at Chain Lakes Provincial Park, be sure to plan a few hours to explore nearby attractions. The quaint town of Nanton has antique stores and art galleries housed in old brick and board buildings harkening back to the town’s more affluent past. The Bomber Command airplane museum is a must see including the rare Lancaster WWII bomber housed within. And a visit to Nanton wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the famed candy store.
North of the park you’ll find Bar U Ranch National historic site, the preserved core of a once massive, thriving cattle ranch. At it’s peak, Bar U sprawled over 160,000 acres with 30,000 cattle and 1,000 Percheron horses. It’s a great place to learn about the early days of ranching with a welcome centre, displays, and working exhibits in the various buildings. They even have some horses, still.
All in all, we had a nice stay at Chain Lakes Provincial Park. Despite the windy night and poor sleep, it was great dad and son time. This park won’t blow your mind but it’s a short drive from the city with pleasing surroundings that makes for an easy outing. I’ll give it a solid 3.25 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.
If I’m looking for a true summer vacation, I won’t be going here. It just doesn’t have enough to entertain a family with kids heading into their teens. Of course, having a boat changes that statement a fair bit.
For a convenient weekend, or midweek escape, it’s ideal. It has a decent playground and the concession is a definite bonus. The beach, though, is a huge disappointment. I’d also prefer more trees, but you can only play the cards nature deals you. And the communal fire pit situation won’t appeal to everyone. But as a day use area for locals and city folk alike, it’s perfect. If I owned a canoe, I would visit far more regularly.