Ah, there they are … mosquitoes. I knew we’d run into them sooner or later. Not as bad as the infamous horror show that was Portage La Prairie, mind you, but present in sufficient numbers to be annoying once the sun started to set. Sibbald Lake Provincial Recreation Area for the not so desirable win.
Thankfully, we brought our screened dining tent. My daughter is ridiculously reactive to mosquito bites and I have no desire to hang with the little bastards, so a bug free area to enjoy our meal and play some cards was most welcome.
I had never heard of Sibbald Lake before. My knowledge of Kananaskis, even after twenty-two years living next door to it, is proving embarrassingly ignorant. I only discovered Sibbald Lake when researching possible locales for another midweek COVID-19 escape, this time with my daughter. Even then I only learned of it when my desired destinations were booked full on the only night we were free of homeschooling burdens.
It turns out Sibbald Lake Provincial Recreation Area has a pretty big campground and day use area. There’s even a sign on the TransCanada Highway. One I’ve unknowingly passed dozens of times over the years, yet never noticed. Go figure.
The road to Sibbald Lake, once you turn south from the TransCanada, is a bit odd. It starts out paved before turning into a wide, graded, gravel road for a few kilometers. Then the gravel disappears for a short stretch with only hardened mud present before returning to gravel and then suddenly to aged, potholed asphalt. Signage indicates this is a logging road so be forewarned that big ass trucks could be coming at any moment.
Similarly, Texas gates are present at a couple spots as ranchers use these lands to graze cattle. You’ll want to be cautious traversing these gates as they pack a wallop if you’re speeding. We didn’t see any cattle during our stay, but dried-out piles of evidence that they exist could be found around the recreation area.
Sibbald Lake campground consists of 134 un-serviced campsites in 5 loops, A through E. If you look at a campground map, strangely missing from the Alberta Parks website, it’s actually 3 loops. Loops A and C have mirror twins in Loops B and D with a central access road separating each from its twin.
From what I can gather on the website, loops C and D are typically reservation only while A and B are, presumably, first come first served. But during this wacky 2020 pandemic and with only 50% of sites open to use (as of mid-June), they all require reservations. Whether they return to usual booking patterns in the future remains to be seen.
Loop E is a slightly smaller loop tacked onto the campground like a pimple. It is for tents only though otherwise indecipherable from the rest. This is where we ended up camping and it was the perfect spot to once again teach a child about the wonders, and woes, of “real” camping.
Though not yet in the mountains proper, Sibbald Lake campground lies well within the foothills between Calgary and Canmore. In these parts, the foothills are forested unlike their windswept siblings further south. Pine and spruce with stands of aspen make for a well-sheltered and reasonably private campground. In other words, the kind I like best.
Oddly, despite only allowing tents, the sites in loop E are no smaller than those in the RV accessible loops. This makes for wonderful, spacious tent camping. You will have no trouble finding a shaded spot to escape the sun and there’ll be no crowding of your temporary structures.
Although the RV sites are just as big and sheltered as the tent only sites, the majority are arcuate, pull-through style sites enabling campers to set up shop parallel to the loop road. These aren’t my preferred type, but they are undeniably convenient for those nervous about parking trailers. And depending on the dimensions of your RV, this layout offers added privacy from nosey snoops on the roads.
The exceptions to this rule are the dozen or so sites along the southeast edge of Loops C and D. These sites have nothing but parkland behind them and are all traditional back-in style. They aren’t the prettiest campsites I’ve seen but are easily the most private at Sibbald Lake. If I were camping in a trailer, I would attempt to book one of these deep, roomy spots.
All sites come with a wooden picnic table, some in rough shape, and a steel fire pit. Barring a fire ban, you can enjoy an evening bonfire or cook your daily meals like our ancestors did. Firewood can be purchased from the campground administrator’s campsite for $10 a bag. That’s not a smashing deal and since we were only here one night, we decided to pass on a fire altogether, preferring a lively, mosquito-free cribbage marathon in our screened, dining tent.
As mentioned, there are no services on any of the sites. This is rustic camping in the truest sense short of backcountry. Not bad considering Sibbald Lake is less than an hour from the western edges of Cowtown. I only wish people treated it better. It was disappointing to discover damaged trees on our site from idiot campers hacking off bark for fires or using nails to hang tarps.
You would be wise to bring potable water with you. That’s easier to do in volume with an RV than a tent, of course. There are old school water handpumps around the campground from which you can get water, but the signage warns about potential danger in drinking it. If you’re comfortable boiling it before ingestion, or just a risk taker of the diarrheic kind, by all means make use of the handpumps.
RVers should keep in mind that there is no dump station here either. Nor is there one nearby. This impacts both your arrival and departure as there is nowhere to fill up your water tank or empty your gray/black tanks.
For the former, you’ll need to bring water from home and swallow the extra fuel costs for the load. What you do with the latter isn’t so clear. Either venture further into Kananaskis or find a spot in the city on the way home.
Despite the rustic nature of this campground, the aged condition of the picnic tables being exhibit A, the pit toilets at Sibbald Lake have all been upgraded. Each shack has four individual, private pits with concrete floors. Two of the four are a bit larger than the other two should you require more room to manoeuvre.
All stalls come equipped with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. There’s even a second sanitizer dispenser on the exterior wall so you can disinfect after using either doorknob. If you prefer the two-ply toilet paper, bring your own.
In Loop E, the pit toilet was clean and odourless, much to my delight. We were there midweek in mid-June after a late start to the camping season due to COVID-19 which undoubtedly helped. Where the smell level gets to over the summer is something I’d prefer for you to find out.
Sibbald Lake Provincial Recreation Area is bear country, among other critters, and at the end of the tent loop, near one of the handpumps, is a suite of eight bear-proof food lockers. If you don’t want to stash food in your vehicle, bring your own padlock and you’re good to go. We had an SUV and stowed our foodstuffs inside it.
The surroundings give an air of peacefulness, but only to a point. Even on a Wednesday with half the campsites closed, you were constantly aware of others. Conversations carry on the breeze and the chopping of wood and movement of vehicles were continually interrupting the solitude. Not in a party sense, but enough to disappoint what at first looked to be a Zen-like stay.
On the other hand, the animals, notably birds, were less intrusive than what I experienced at Chain Lakes Provincial Park. There was no irritating winter wren stationed above our tent squawking bloody murder. We saw birds, mostly magpies and crows. Squirrels were busy in the woods between campsites. And we saw the strangest little fish jumping out of the water to eat bugs down at the lake. Otherwise, the beasts were largely out of site and out of mind, mosquitoes the exception.
The campground, not surprisingly, has no store or concession. You can backtrack to the city if you need anything or push further west to Canmore. Some of the more elaborate campgrounds in Kananaskis, like Mt. Kidd also have stores which might be a bit closer in a pinch. For our one night stay, having any sort of convenience store was unnecessary and I suspect campers frequenting this type of campground don’t need one either. Nor should they. Sometimes less is so much more.
Furthermore, there is no cell service either. Well, at least not with Telus. I’m assuming other providers are the same as this is common in much of Kananaskis. It’s nice and forces one to disconnect from our overly digitized world, but it did limit my ability to send pictures of my daughter and I getting along so fabulously, something my friends and family really needed to see to be believed.
The campground has one playground. It’s a decent, relatively modern, metal affair similar to others in the various Kananaskis campgrounds. Not huge by any means, but capable of entertaining the young ones for awhile. It’s located in a grassy area just off the main intersection between Loops E and A.
Sibbald Lake itself is a rather small lake. My suburban community lake is likely as big, maybe even bigger. There is no beach or really any open area for water play. Motorized boats are prohibited and with no boat launch, you’d have a hard time getting a motorboat in the water anyway. Canoes, paddle boards, and even dinghies are fair game, and we saw some of each in the water and stowed along the shore.
The lake is stocked annually with rainbow trout. You can fish from shore but with much of the shore wooded there aren’t that many convenient spots to do so. Of course, with the fish leaping out of the water to eat bugs, you only need a pair of rubber boots and a net to acquire your supper.
It’s kind of odd that this entire provincial recreation area is named after this small, unassuming lake. It isn’t even really part of the campground and with no beach or play area, it’s more a visual feature of the day use area. Not that it’s far from the campground. There are several trails to take you there and it’s a modest walk from most campsites.
There are two loops that make up the day use areas though the smaller is referred to as a hike staging area. Regardless of nomenclature, both offer picnic spots for visitors during daylight hours. Instead of the usual strip of grass with picnic tables, the Sibbald Lake day use area resembles campsites.
Positioned around the outer edge of the loop road, each spot has a little pullout for parking with large rocks separating this from the picnic area. There is a fire pit and picnic table just like those found at our campsite. I have not seen this setup before and I think it makes a lovely setting to enjoy a lunch or s’mores.
The hike staging loop is similar but has a large cookhouse shelter for group use as well as more parking. The afternoon we arrived and the morning before we left, the parking lot was filled with the vehicles of hikers heading off on the many trails around Sibbald Lake campground.
The shelter is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but otherwise is your typical Alberta Parks picnic shelter with tables and an iron woodstove. Like the rest of the campground, save for the the pit toilets, it’s seen better days.
From these two loops, day users can access the lake in an informal way. As I’ve mentioned, there is no beach or boat launch. Instead, users have just kind of beat their own paths to the water. Behind one day use spot there’s a wooden stairway down to the water suggesting an intent to be used for doing so, but all other pathways to the lake are just dirt through the trees.
I’m not sure what to make of this to be honest. It doesn’t strike me as appropriate “park” protocol and it surely has impacted the flora in the immediate area. Getting a canoe or paddle board into the water seems a no brainer for visitors but the lack of proper access feels like a mistake.
I should note that an extended access road from the staging area takes people to the private Camp Adventure located on the north side of the lake. You can walk down this road, and there is a trail that intertwines with it a few times, but the camp itself is off limits.
The highlight of Sibbald Lake Provincial Recreation Area is definitely the hiking. Several hikes loop out from the campground and day use areas with difficulties ranging from modest to hard. We stuck close to home and twice enjoyed summitting the Sibbald Flats hike which takes you to a delightful aspen grove on top of a hill. The view of the surrounding foothills with the Rocky Mountains in the distance and a smaller lake below is well worth the climb.
It’s not an overwhelming climb by any means. We weren’t mountain climbing. But there is a definite and noticeable elevation increase that will challenge the out of shape or lung impugned. Hey, that’s me! Thankfully I brought a bag of M&Ms to reward myself at the top where we rested on these unique benches that allow for a rejuvinating, slouched viewing of the vista.
The only blemish to the view was the evidence of clearcutting all around. Some fresh, some regrowing, both a reminder that this is not a park.
The other great pastime available at Sibbald Lake is geocaching. There are literally dozens of them in the recreation area varying from simple micros to large caches. We found a few in the trails by the lake and up to the flats including one at the summit. Many more dot the various trails radiating out from the campground. Dedicated geocachers will be entertained for multiple visits chasing down these treasures.
Now that I know of its existence, I would absolutely camp at Sibbald Lake again either with a tent or with the whole family in our little Geo Pro. I may even visit for a day trip sometime. The hiking and geocaching are terrific and the proximity to Calgary makes it a winner for an easy, low-maintenance camping trip. As such, I give Sibbald Lake Provincial Recreation Area campground 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5 though I fully understand some of you rating it higher.
In a perfect world, the lake would be bigger and have a beach, the campground would have power and maybe water, and there would be a dump station. But the world is imperfect and sometimes camping trips aren’t about pampering. This is a great little find.