Our inaugural family camping trip coming out of the Covid-19 lockdown felt like a good time to venture south and visit one of Alberta’s newest provincial parks. Considering recent announcements by our current provincial government, it’s likely to be the last new provincial park for quite some time. And that’s assuming it gets to stay a park, a frustratingly real uncertainty these days.
Created in 2017, Castle Provincial Park (and its sibling Castle Wildlands Provincial Park) is located west of Pincher Creek, encompassing a northwest extension from Waterton Lakes National Park. In other words, more gorgeous Rocky Mountain landscape because no one could ever get enough of that.
This begs the question, why did I wait until 2020 to camp here? After all, this was a provincial recreation area prior to its graduation to park. It’s not like I couldn’t have camped there in any of the twenty-odd years I’ve lived in Calgary. What took me so long?
Well, that’s an easy question to answer. Incredible, natural beauty notwithstanding, there is one overwhelming certainty when traveling to southwest Alberta; wind. Lots and lots of wind. And if there is one thing I loathe, it’s wind.
I’m all for a light breeze. Even the odd refreshing gust is tolerable. But continuous, hair-whipping, face-blasting, vehicle-door-wrecking bluster? Thanks, but no thanks.
This year, though, my desire to visit new campgrounds finally surpassed me desire to avoid wind and we made our way to Castle Provincial Park in late June. We were rewarded with a scenic drive through rolling ranch lands with the Rocky Mountains in the background, stands of twirling wind turbines, and, yes, growing, persistent wind that culminated in a brisk gas fill-up in the town of Pincher Creek.
Pincher Creek is a pretty, foothills town that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live in. Sorry. The surroundings are stunning but damn that unrelenting wind. I’m convinced if it wasn’t for the wind, the population density of this province would skew far more to this area than it currently does.
Our stopping for fuel in Pincher Creek was likely unnecessary but having never been down that way before, I didn’t want to risk a fuel shortage. I had plans to visit different spots within Castle Provincial Park on top of towing an RV to and from Cowtown. With no obvious services immediately near the park, a pitstop in Pincher Creek seemed wise.
It turns out the hamlet of Beaver Mines has a gas station and convenience store (including firewood) only ten minutes from the park. This is a much more convenient pitstop for Calgary campers as it removes any need for backtracking to/from Pincher Creek, enabling a straighter path to the city using Highway 22 (Cowboy Trail).
That said, if you need a dump station, you’ll find yourself heading to Pincher Creek since neither Beaver Mines nor Castle Provincial Park has one. The local Co-op has a public dump station in the main parking lot. Likewise, proper grocery supplies and/or camping equipment/repairs will require the broader service selection available in Pincher Creek.
Castle Provincial Park has four campgrounds, three of which accept reservations. After much humming, hawing, and indecision, I settled on Castle River Bridge Campground as our weekend headquarters. As the only campground with powered sites, it won over my pampered heart.
A single loop tucked into a bend of the Castle River, Castle River Bridge Campground is conveniently located a short distance off the main highway that eventually takes you to Castle Mountain Resort. That road, highway 774, is paved but the park roads to the various campgrounds are all gravel.
There are twenty-five campsites at Castle River Bridge of varying configurations and privacy, all with thirty amp power. The power posts even have a modest nightlight included to help you find the plug in the dark. None of them have water or sewer. An additional five campsites have been converted to comfort camping with fancy, new cabins on them.
All sites have the obligatory steel firepit and wooden picnic table situated on a level, gravel pad. Ten of the sites are the arc, pull-through style while the rest are traditional back-in.
The entire loop is sheltered by trees of some kind, be it aspen, spruce, fir, or poplar. Depending upon which trees surround your chosen site, the degree of privacy and shade can vary, though none are in any way wide-open or crowded together.
Our site was a bit thin, having mostly aspen to block the sun. It offered a pleasing mix of light and shade that would keep most campers happy. The shrubbery closer to the ground, mostly wild rose, helped with privacy from neighbouring sites.
The portion of the loop closer to the river (we were on the opposite side of the loop) typically has denser forest with bigger trees including large poplars (maybe they were cottonwoods?). As a result, these sites are far more shaded and their proximity to the river makes them a tad more pleasing in my opinion.
Much to my delight, Castle River Bridge Campground was not overly windy. There was certainly a breeze, a nice reprieve from the warmth, but nothing like that experienced east of the park.
Unfortunately, the absence of disruptive winds was replaced by swarms of awful mosquitos. From the very moment I put our tow vehicle into park and ventured outside to determine if the trailer was in a good spot, the bastards were all over us. I’d have rather had wind!
I don’t know if this was merely seasonal misfortune (third week of June) or if the mosquitos haunt this campground all summer long, but they definitely put a damper on our enjoyment. We ate all our meals inside after a failed attempt to play boardgames in our screened dining tent. One only has so much patience for massacring mosquitos each time someone enters or leaves the tent.
Thankfully, bug density dropped precipitously nearer the river. We spent plenty of time exploring up and down the riverside. The gravel, point bars were filled with colourful stones we collected. Even the trails and roads we explored were far less inundated with flying torture stingers. For whatever reason, though, our site was a borderline nightmare.
It was quickly evident that the government has invested a fair amount of money into this campground. The power is new, as are the lovely comfort camping cabins. These are unlike any we’ve come across at provincial or national parks.
Actual wood structures, each contains bunks and a kitchen/dining area separated by a curtain. Outside they have a wood deck with sheltered BBQ area complemented with a firepit and picnic table. I found these little cabins quite attractive. It’s a shame they’ll be left to deteriorate with time.
Similarly, the pit toilets have been upgraded to sturdy, unisexual, dual units of concrete and wood. Some even have snazzy faux-rock exteriors. You’d never know they were outhouses just from looking at them.
Even more surprising, each had electrical service allowing for light during the night and … this will blow your mind … an electrical receptacle. I have never seen such a feature in any dry toilet anywhere but what a great idea. You can now charge your phone or use your electric shaver while relieving yourself, just like at home.
The pit toilet odour situation varied quite a bit at Castle River Bridge Campground. Most pit toilets were clean and tolerable. One, however, was unconscionable. The pit toilet nearest the entrance, and equidistant as the nice one to our campsite, harboured an almost vomit-inducing smell. Mouth-breathing wasn’t even a solution. I do not know why this specific unit was so foul, but we avoided it like a plague thereafter. The remaining units, including the pretty faux-rock one, were fine.
The water situation is somewhat perplexing. There is only a single hand pump for the entire campground, located at the day use area near the campground entrance. I suppose the river is close enough to many sites to act as an alternative, but I expected more pumps to be present.
Not that you are encouraged to drink this water, anyway. Boil it lots or use it for dishes is about the extent of it. You’re encouraged to bring your own potable water, which is a bit of a nuisance and cost if hauling a heavy RV. I do wonder if water and dump station were on the to-do list had the previous government remained in power?
Castle River Bridge Campground is currently available through reservation only. This, I believe, is a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and is potentially a temporary situation, exclusive to 2020. There are two self-registration kiosks with message boards suggesting this campground is typically, or was once, first-come first-serve. I like reservations for the surety of getting a site, but it’ll be worth checking on the status of registration in future years.
The entirety of Castle River Bridge campground is fenced off from the surrounding wilderness. This includes a new, wooden fence along and perpendicular to parts of the river with funky ninety-degree notched openings. I do believe this is to prevent cattle from entering the campground (they can’t figure out the sharp turn) while allowing humans to exit.
As mentioned, Castle was a provincial recreation area prior to becoming a park and among it’s alternative uses is cattle grazing. Hence the Texas gates on various roads. I always find this an odd thing for “protected” areas to allow but then again, Alberta.
There are no obvious trails within the campground other than a handful of beaten, dirt paths to the river. We were nonetheless able to find our way to interesting lookouts along the river and enjoyed some geological sightseeing.
The steep cliff on the other side of the river is an imposing sight. Bank swallows nest at its top and in the evening they come out hunting mosquitos (yay!) which is always a fascinating, if dizzying, sight.
Birds of prey also call the area home, feasting on the endless supply of gophers living in the meadows between forest plots. On our final night, my son and I headed back to the river for a final bit of hunting rocks and saw a hawk flying in sweeping circles down a ways.
As it looped closer to us, we could see that this bird was holding something in its talons. Eventually it came close enough that I was able to capture a clear shot with my modest telephoto lens. With some additional zooming, we could see that this red-tailed hawk held the torn remnants of a gopher. Lucky me; unlucky gopher.
If genuine hiking is your thing, there is a network of former off-highway vehicle trails present throughout Castle Provincial Park. In the northwest of the park, these trails remain active for OHV use but south, around the campgrounds, they no longer allow such vehicles.
This makes for great hiking trails, though they may not have the typical end destination associated with hikes. They presumably also offer excellent challenges for mountain bikers. Wary of mosquitos in the bush, we chose to stick to the river side and explore there rather than venture out for any elaborate hikes.
Castle River Bridge Campground is small, so I suppose it’s no surprise it lacks a playground. With all the upgrades happening in the last couple years, I thought adding one might have made sense. With power at campsites and the comfort cabins, they’re targeting a more glamping, family clientele so a playground seems reasonable. There’s certainly room for one.
Fishing is the other option for entertainment. You’d be limited to fly fishing, I suspect, considering the brisk water flow. The bridge for which the campground is named is a wood bottomed, steel truss creation that reeks of creosote. It is, however, surrounded by accessible, low banks to cast from.
Evidence of Castle Provincial Parks previous life as a provincial recreation area can be found all over the place. The most noticeable, and shocking to us, was the free, “crown land” style camping seemingly everywhere we looked.
It took us awhile to figure out what was going on with all these RVs set up in empty fields, many immediately across the road from our paid campsite. There were even some firepits out in these fields. An entire miniature campground was setup near the bridge, along the river, with admittedly gorgeous views of the mountains in the distance.
Honestly, I felt a bit put off by this. Sure, Castle River Bridge Campground has power, but that’s just a recent addition. And the other campgrounds do not have electricity. The pit toilets are a “luxury” but anyone camping close by could just as easily stroll over and use one. There is nothing to stop them from doing so. Those further away may chose to drive over and park in the day use area and scoot in for a quick release.
These free camping areas are called Designated Camping Areas and require a permit to validate your usage. Some are nothing more than a field while others offer incredible views. There is one spot in particular, on the road to Castle Falls Campground, that sits high, overlooking Castle River, with glorious views in all directions. Not surprisingly, it was occupied.
I don’t know if these holdovers will remain a feature of Castle Provincial Park. You certainly don’t find this in other provincial parks. The petty side of me finds it a bit unfair to those paying to camp there, but I’m sure those who’ve long enjoyed free camping in this area would be just as put out were it to be taken away.
The aforementioned day use area is quite limited. There is parking for maybe three vehicles. A short path takes you to some picnic tables set up near the river’s edge in amongst the trees. It’s a quaint little spot, with some shallow bars you can walk out onto and sunbathe. Not the sprawling day use areas found at other parks and I doubt people make the trip in from town to picnic here. My wager is that the handful of people we saw using it were from the designated camping areas.
I should mention that both Castle Falls Campground and Beaver Mines Lake Campground are short drives from Castle River Bridge Campground. Both have day use areas as well and each offers scenic vistas and recreation.
Castle Falls has more river exploration and Beaver Mines Lake has fishing and boating. The latter also has the trailhead to Table Mountain which offers spectacular views of the park. If you’re up for a good workout, that’s a hike worth taking.
As you’ve no doubt discerned, there is no office or store at Castle River Bridge. Nor is there cell service or Wi-Fi. It’s semi-rustic camping with electricity. And that’s just fine. Come prepared or make the jaunt into nearby towns for emergencies and/or treats. I think it would diminish the place if too many luxuries were added.
We camped Monday through Wednesday and the place was peaceful and quiet at night. During the day, the sounds of logging trucks could be heard periodically as they shuttled up and down the main highway. It wasn’t annoying, by any means, but noticeable. Again, it’s a park in transition.
That’s the sentiment I was left with after visiting Castle Provincial Park. Transition. It’s not yet a full park but it’s no longer a provincial recreation area. What it ultimately ends up being is anyone’s guess. Politics will undoubtedly influence any further evolution.
As for Castle River Bridge Campground, our stay was enjoyable enough but not exceptional. In future posts you’ll learn why I’d have preferred either of the other two campgrounds. And the mosquitos really put a damper on things. I still recommend trying it but hope for your sake the bugs aren’t as bad as we endured. Bring DEET!
We enjoyed exploring along the river but admit that rockhounding isn’t for everyone. There are some exceptional views, but you’ll have to walk a little bit to see them as they aren’t immediately visible from the campground proper. The hawk, though, was very cool.
I’ll give Castle River Bridge Campground 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. The recent improvements are noteworthy. If it’s your first time in Castle Provincial Park or you absolutely need power, this campground will do you just fine. And comfort campers will love those posh cabins. But overall, it was a bit “meh”. There just isn’t much to do in the campground or immediate surroundings. Make it your HQ while exploring further afield and you’ll be happy.