Who says growing old is all bad? Sure, it sucks in a lot of ways, but sometimes there are unforeseen benefits to that faltering short-term memory. Unlike with forgetting why you went to the kitchen by the time you get there, a memory while you’re out for a drive can lead to unexpected discoveries. And who doesn’t like a pleasant surprise?
My most recent “oops” that became a “I’ll be damned” occurred at the tail end of a quick camping excursion with my son to Chain Lakes Provincial Park. Despite relentless winds disturbing our sleep, we had enjoyed a delightful overnighter in the tent but were struggling to find something to do the next morning. We’re both insatiable rockhounds and there just isn’t much in the way of rocks to hunt around the Chain Lakes unless you’re comfortable with literally disassembling the earth dam itself.
Not wanting to our fun to end on a solemn note, I brainstormed an alternative based on foggy memories of a day use area existing not too far from the park. Further into the foothills and mountains than our current location, and probably had some sort creek associated with it, whatever I was remembering would offer an ideal finale to our outing. We could pack up camp, drive to this day use area to find cool rocks and have a picnic lunch before heading home. Sold!
Now when I was twenty, I’d have known every detail of our destination perfectly based on nothing more than a brief glance of the place online. Unfortunately, I’m 48 and that brief glance from not more than two days earlier made only a single, correct impression upon my brain; the name of the spot. Indian Graves.
With the help of Google maps and some roadside signage, we made our way to the poorly named Indian Graves … campground. Yeah. It’s a campground, not a day use area. A provincial recreation area to be specific, but definitely not a day use area. In fact, there is signage specifically stating that it is not a day use area. Whoops.
Nonetheless, we were intrigued by what we did find in no small part because there wasn’t a single soul present. Of the thirty-eight un-serviced campsites in two loops there wasn’t a trailer or tent anywhere. And yet a notice posted near the entrance stated all sites were reserved for the upcoming weekend (we were there on a Wednesday). Sure enough, on each site post was a reservation ticket with name like little yellow tombstones. But while we were there, Indian Graves campground was a ghost town.
So, we did what all dumb white people do in every slasher flick ever made; we went snooping around. And if you think that’s a tad hyperbolic, check out this wood carving nailed to the campground information board and tell me that isn’t an ominous warning? Well, assuming you can get past the uncanny resemblance to the dog from Little Rascals.
What we did find was lovely. A very minimalist, rustic campground to be sure, but also perfect for those wishing to truly get away from it all without having to drive hours away from civilization. There was even a creek there with lots of rocks for us to plunder.
Indian Graves campground is located thirteen kilometers west of Highway 22, just north of Chain Lakes Provincial Park. Those thirteen kilometres are gravel but nice and wide with just a few some soft spots and uneven Texas gates to be careful about. The access to the campground is also gravel, as expected. The campground loop roads are gravel too but growing over with grass and such. You’ll be able to get any size of rig back there so long as you keep in mind that what the Duke Boys did on such surfaces was television make believe.
Likewise, the sites are a motley affair. Remnants of a gravel pad can be found on most, but the dandelions are doing their best to hide them. Some sites are wide open while others have varying amounts of aspen or spruce providing shade and privacy. Each comes with a steel fire pit and well worn wood picnic table.
I think this would be a fantastic tenting spot. Quiet and secluded with soft grass on which to set up your tent. Not that RVs cannot be used here and surely many do since this is also an equestrian-friendly campground with six corrals for lodging your beast of burden. These pens are not the elaborate, covered stables found at true equestrian campgrounds like Sandy McNabb or Bluerock, but they’ll do the job for weekend cowboys.
Despite the individual fire pits at each site, there is also a larger, communal fire pit in the centre of Lower Loop. I’m guessing an intimate, obscure place like this is popular with small groups of like-minded friends who enjoy a more social bonfire experience. I also suspect most, if not all, campers would be wise to bring their own firewood for either type of evening entertainment.
I have no idea if you can buy firewood here. There is a park office located at the entrance of Lower Loop including what appears to be a cabin for a ranger to stay in. This is such a small campground I never expected such structures and yet the office looks relatively new and there is office-like equipment inside visible through the windows. Perhaps during the peak summer season someone mans this station, at least on weekends? And maybe when they do so, they sell firewood?
In addition to the group fire pit, there is a large cookhouse picnic shelter for campers to share. Inside are more picnic tables and an iron woodstove. It’s nothing fancy but offers cover from the rain and a nice spot for everyone to break bread together.
As mentioned, there are no services here. Water is available from an old-fashioned, red handpump complete with a warning about drinking it. Between the handpump and the creek beside Lower Loop, you can get fresh water easy enough just prepare to boil the crap out of it. Or, as is wise, bring your own supply for drinking.
There are pit toilets in each loop. They’re the newer kind which is nice and perhaps unexpected considering how “old” everything else is at Indian Graves campground. My son had to use one prior to our leaving and he found the first stall he tried filled with unpleasantness. I’m not sure why that was the case, especially with it being so early in the year and with a late start due to COVID-19 no less, but hopefully this was the exception rather than the rule.
Horses are restricted to Lower Loop because Upper Loop allows campers with off-highway vehicles. That loop is connected to the OHV trail system throughout the greater recreation area. OHVs and their owners are not allowed in Lower Loop and vice-versa. Old-school and modern horsepower do not mix!
Conversely, Lower Loop connects to another trail system, this one for hikers and horseback riders. As we were only there for an hour, we did not partake in any hiking beyond an aborted attempt to find a trailhead near the office. The signage showed several robust hikes into the hills, including up to Indian Graves Ridge which offers a lovely backdrop to the campground.
Perhaps most unexpected of all was the playground. It too is tucked away in the centre of Lower Loop and is a relatively modern, metal set that should entertain young kids well enough. Considering I’d have lost money on any bet regarding the very existence of a playground at a place like Indian Graves campground, this is a definite plus.
If there is any lingering confusion, beyond the mysterious park office buildings, it would be registration. Indian Graves campground is obviously reservable, despite having old-school first-come, first-served registration kiosks in each loop. You won’t find this campground on the main Alberta Parks reservation system.
Instead, Indian Graves campground has its own website, separate from Alberta Parks, with an online reservation inquiry form to send in. Communication and confirmation come via email followed by payment with credit card over the phone.
I’m do not know if this is the only way to camp at Indian Graves campground or if mid-week, fcfs campers are welcome. The fact I did not actually camping there is part of my problem. And with COVID-19 changing, well, everything, I will leave it to you to resolve this mystery.
So, what is the ultimate verdict on our failed day use foray? It’s a bit unfair to judge a campground solely on an unscheduled hour of exploration based on a mistaken recollection. I did not camp here, so how great it is really isn’t within my expertise to state. Take that into consideration when deciding on whether to camp at Indian Graves campground.
Based on our little bit of snooping around, it’s not a bad spot if you’re looking for rustic camping. This isn’t a resort campground but with a playground, provisions for horse lovers, and a lovely natural surrounding it’s sure to please rockhounds, hikers, and ATV’ers alike. The latter likely make it a noisier than ideal place, but c’est la vie in Alberta. Indian Graves campground is an otherwise fine option, particularly for those in Calgary and towns south thereof. I’ll give it an asterisked 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.