2020 has been an abnormal, difficult year. A long, strange trip, if there ever was. From the pandemic, and its ongoing fallout, to the uncertainty of the provincial government’s plan to dramatically change the status of nearly 200 properties in the parks system, a dark cloud has hovered over Alberta campers this summer. Here’s my silver lining.
Turmoil aside, Alberta Parks’ decision to convert many first come, first serve campsites into reservation only campsites, a bid to stem the spread of COVID19 through the handling of cash, has proven most beneficial to me. Coupled with our lingering unemployment that enables us to camp during weekdays rather than weekends only, we’ve been afforded the privilege of camping at campgrounds we’d otherwise have ignored. One such place is Etherington Creek Provincial Recreation Area.
I honestly can’t recall ever hearing about Etherington Creek or seeing it on the Alberta Parks reservation website before this summer. Not that I was looking for it. I was aware of it’s nearby sibling, Cataract Creek thanks to neighbours/friends camping there, but never Etherington Creek. Whether ineptitude on my part or lack of promotion on the ministry’s part, I found it this year and in early July we spent two nights there camping and exploring.
Having stuck almost exclusively to provincial parks in previous years, broadening our horizons with the addition of provincial recreation areas has been enlightening. The whole tossed salad of conservation designations in the parks system is rather confusing, but as we explore and learn, some interesting facts are presenting themselves.
Etherington Creek Provincial Recreation Area is smallish enclave of camping, both RV and equestrian, in the midst of the Cataract Creek Public Land Use Zone. What makes this situation a bit unique to other similar setups is the fact that the Cataract Creek PLUZ is a crown land area designated for snow vehicles only (outside of camping equipment).
In other words, all other OHV, like quads and dirtbikes, are forbidden. That’s exciting since to the best of my knowledge, snow vehicles are only used when there’s, umm, snow. As in winter. So all these snowmobile trails are essentially left for hikers, bikers, and horse-riders to use in summer, unlike most other PLUZs which allow summer offroading activities.
This makes the PRAs within Cataract Creek PLUZ more than your average non-park campgrounds. Consider me a fan. That Etherington Creek PRA is also easy to get to, all the better. It’s just six kilometres south on the gravel (groomed but sometimes washboardy) HWY 40 from Highwood House, itself just a half hour west of Longview (southwest of Calgary).
Etherington Creek is a strung out (not in that way) campground complex comprised of three camping loops, a day use area, a group site area, and an equestrian area. All are more or less in succession of each other and at the very end of the campground is a gate entering the snowmobile trail network.
The three camping loops (A, B, C) are basically two loops with loop A, located right at the entrance to the campground loops, having only 7 sites, none of which are especially appealing. Loop B has 20 regular campsites plus 7 walk-in tent sites. The remaining 29 sites are in loop C.
With the exception of a couple sites in loop A, the entire campground is found within a dominant lodgepole pine forest. These pencil-straight conifers provide lovely shelter overhead but have little understory to provide privacy from neighbours. Not to worry, however, since the sites are large, often deep, and with generous spacing that eliminates any sense of crowding. Being here in the early week, we had no neighbours anyway.
Campsite configurations at Etherington Creek are predominantly back-in, but a few pull-throughs exist as do some double sites. As is our custom, we took a back-in site with a grassy meadow nearby in which I’d hoped to do some stargazing at night with my telescope.
All the RV-friendly sites have long, gravelled approaches and living spaces with a firepit and picnic table. The land undulates throughout the loop and combined with each site’s elevated pad and natural topography, it gives each site a unique flavour and layout.
The firepits are noticeably larger than the typical metal option at most park campgrounds. These were more akin to the group firepits than the individual site ones. I haven’t any commentary on that as far as good or bad goes, just sharing the fact since it was something I immediately observed.
The walk-in tent campsites are accessed from a designated parking spot in loop B. Located between the loop and a smaller creek running between the campground and the main highway, the trails to these sites and the sites themselves are dirt covered with dead pine needles. Each has a firepit and picnic table.
That little creek by loop B makes for some exceptional campsites in said loop. About three of them back onto this creek and though increased mosquito count might be a concern, the scenery, not to mention playfulness, of these special sites are second to none in the campground.
Not that the other sites are ugly. Not at all. They are roomy and the surrounding forest between each offers plenty of adventure for kids who will no doubt note the lack of a playground. The absence of such an amenity is a shame for young families venturing this way. With all the space available at Etherington Creek, even a small playground seems like an easy perk to add.
At the entrance to the campground loops, across from loop A, you will find the campground host. They have their own spacious, but dull, campsite and sell firewood. During normal operations, I think you can just show up at this site and purchase the wood ($10 per small, plastic-wrap bag) but during the pandemic you had to sign a sheet indicating you wanted wood and it was delivered to your site later.
Each loop entrance houses a small registration kiosk alluding to this campground’s usual first come, first serve status. Whether that was the case for the entire campground is unknown to me. Likewise, I have no idea if this will revert to such status in future years. With Etherington Creek campground being on the province’s defunding list, all bets are off as to what will happen post-2020.
Water, power, and septic are non-existent on all campsites. Not a huge issue for most but our stay was made adventurous when I learned the very hard way that even the slightest corrosion on battery cables with render your RV electrical system a shit-show. Assuming we were experiencing a full-scale electrical fault that required professional maintenance upon return to our home, we spent the two days hooking the trailer up to our SUV whenever we absolutely needed power. Like for opening and closing the slide, for example. Fun times!
There are a handful of hand pumps for fresh water throughout the Etherington Creek PRA. Each warns to not drink the water which seems to be a universal passing the buck of responsibility throughout the Alberta parks system. We brought water from home though you might be able to get some at Highwood House.
Located at the junction of HWY 541 and HWY 40, Highwood House is a convenience store with gas pumps and an RV dump station, the closest place for such services to the campground. Not necessarily an issue for campers from nearby, mind you. Even Calgarians likely don’t need to fill up or anything here. But it remains a handy convenience for emergencies during your stay in this general region of Kananaskis.
Pit toilets are also sprinkled about the loops and PRA. A bit older in vintage, they were otherwise clean and sufficient for our needs. Each has a men’s and women’s side, both providing toilet paper and hand sanitizer. In early July, with the late start to camping season because of COVID, they were also still fairly fresh. Actually, they were strong with chemical smell which suggests the campground management takes odour control seriously. Me likey.
Day Use Area
Next in line, seemingly tacked onto the south end of loop C, is the day use area. Looking more like a large, uncared-for parking lot, it’s … not much. There’s a pit toilet, a dumpster, a couple picnic tables and firepits, a message board for outdoor activities rules, and a trailhead for an e-bike trail (no idea). It’s otherwise a gravel loop with a grassed centre that people park in for some reason. There was even a camper set up to one side which seemed utterly wrong, but nobody made them move. It’s not like real campsites were unavailable.
I can’t imagine anyone coming to this “day use” area for anything other than parking before going on a hike. There is nothing appealing about the spot. It’s not beside anything notable. It’s basically a giant sign saying “meh”.
Group Site Area
Further along we reach the group site area. This was quite a nice group area, I must admit, but it was closed for the summer due to pandemic restrictions. Though the entry gate was shut to vehicles, I was able to walk in and have a look around.
It’s basically a fourth loop with a large, central group firepit replete with gorgeous log benches. Now that’s a massive firepit. And those benches are awesome. With individual RV sites rimming the loop, each also having their own firepit, this is a terrific group site. It even has its own water pump.
At the western edge of the group area are two octagonal picnic shelters, one small and one large. The smaller of the two has nothing in it. I’m not sure of its purpose beyond storage, perhaps. There is a large wooden box next to it that also appears geared towards storage. The larger shelter has a wood-burning stove inside and several picnic tables. It also backs out of the forest onto a meadow.
I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect this whole group area is designed for use in the winter as much, if not more, than it is during summer. It would make a fine group gathering area in the summer, for sure. If our Miquelon Lake crew ever restarts our annual gatherings, I will immediately suggest this as an alternative option. But for snowmobilers in the winter, I imagine it’s a perfect staging area for weekend skidoo warriors.
Finally, next to and beyond the group area are the equestrian sites. Oh my, are these a joke. Compared to the group site and the campground sites, this area looks all but abandoned. With the exception of the site number two, I can’t imagine how any camper with both an RV and a horse trailer would find any space for their equipment. It’s as if the designer expected them to show up on horseback.
Most of the sites are grassed areas overgrown with weeds and/or wildflowers and shrubs immediately next to the road. Each has a picnic table and firepit along with a dilapidated horse-tie structure. Considering the topnotch facilities at Sandy McNabb, or the volunteer efforts at Bighorn in Ya Ha Tinda, this is wildly lacking in nearly everything.
A pit toilet is located central to the sites along with a water pump. The sites are strung out in a row so they all back onto lovely wilderness, mostly non-forested grass and shrubs here. And there was one dedicated horse camper present while we were investigating the area. I’m just surprised this is all there was to it. Live like a real cowboy, I guess.
The Rest of It
One of the primary drivers of our visit to Etherington Creek was the creek itself. We’re avid rockhounds and love looking for cool stones and fossils in the riverbed and bars. Unfortunately, the creek was a bit of a disappointment, at least in the reach closest to the campground loops.
A large bend in the creek has been recently and dramatically engineered with large rip rap along the outside bank. Based on strangely placed signage, I suspect this area was heavily damaged during the 2013 floods and what we now see is the engineered response in hopes of limited future impacts. That’s fine, and understandable, but was nonetheless unexpected. And though we found lots of fossils in the limestone rip rap, this wasn’t a great, “natural” place to explore.
The northerly stretch of the creek, heading towards the main highway, is far more in its natural state but that is also heavily wooded and with steep banks in several places. Not the easiest place to explore so we mostly avoided it.
Thankfully, the creek continues south, and west, were the snowmobile trail happens to parallel it for kilometres into the front ranges. We took a lovely hike down this trail, stopping to admire the creek at various lookout points, and even exploring some shaly outcrops on crown land. The weather turned on us, so we headed back earlier than we’d have liked, but this is definitely the highlight of activities at Etherington Creek PRA.
Were I to return in the future, I’d plan much more time for hiking and exploring these unused trails. They are used by snowmobiles in winter, like a skidoo highway, so they are much wider than a typical hiking trail. Snowmobile clubs are also doing their part to maintain them including the building of bridges over creeks and such. These trails web for tens upon tens of kilometres all over Cataract PLUZ, so if you’re game for hardcore hiking, there is lots to explore from your Etherington Creek base.
I should note there are other trails present as well. Normal, dirt footpath trails. But despite the hiking available, geocaches were few to none. I’m not sure why that is. I can’t imagine there is a concerted effort to prevent them from being placed here. Perhaps nobody has bothered to try, though I find that doubtful considering the abundance of geocaches literally everywhere else on crown lands.
Wildlife was certainly present. A young white-tail came for a snack in the field next to our site. A spotted sandpiper lost its freaking mind every time we ventured too close to its hidden nest near the creek. And the squirrels visiting our campfire were well-versed in human interaction.
Wildflowers were also plentiful along the trails. We encountered several sprawling patches of Indian paintbrush on the hillsides.
I rather enjoyed Etherington Creek Provincial Recreation Area and recommend giving it a try. It can have 3.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I’d certainly come back. It may not have all the bells and whistles of
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park campgrounds, but it’s not bad at all for a PRA. The regular sites are great and that group area is sweet.
It does lack a playground and the immediate scenery beside the campground is a bit mediocre. Sorry, but that engineered river really bothered me in a setting like this. The day use area is pathetic but the proximity to Highwood House is a plus. It’s a convenient escape for Calgarians unable to (or not wanting to) snag a spot in the more popular destinations. And the PLUZ designation for winter only noisemakers is a dream.
The fact that this campground is on the government’s list to be removed or, knock on wood, find a private partnership, is unfortunate. It’s a very nice campground and should be getting more attention and investment, not less.