I thought I’d found heaven, man. Then people showed up and my paradise was lost. Forget the brown acid, self-absorption is the bad drug. And generators. God, how I hate generators. If you need an Instapot for cooking during a two night camping trip, stay home. Seriously. To hell with generators.
That, unfortunately, is the lingering aftertaste of what was otherwise a fantastic camping trip. As mentioned in my Big Knife Provincial Park review last week, I’ve been exploring provincial parks less travelled, or less known, anyway. That investigation uncovered two destinations that piqued my interest; Big Knife and this place, Police Outpost Provincial Park.
Situated on the Canada-USA border, 13 km east of Waterton Lakes National Park, the 220 ha Police Outpost Provincial Park is easy to miss. As a first come, first serve only campground, it barely registers on the Alberta Parks reservation website map. In a decade of camping at our provincial parks, I’ve never once noticed it on the map.
And why would I? It’s quite small and hidden way down there near the border, not to mention overshadowed by the much larger and far more famous, Waterton. Even after learning of its existence, we still nearly didn’t go camping there.
Our initial plan was to go to Ram Falls Provincial Park but good ole Alberta weather (mid-August overnight temperatures below zero with a chance of flurries) quickly kyboshed that idea. If there’s one thing southeastern Alberta has going for it, it’s heat and just like that we were headed to Police Outpost Provincial Park.
Nonetheless, I remained hesitant. I knew nothing of this park and few people in camping circles mention it. This part of the province is also notorious for wind which is a natural force I find little pleasure in beyond a slight breeze. I was likewise worried about bugs. The last time we’d ventured south, back in July, we’d endured a hellish campsite-mosquito experience at Castle River Bridge campground. I did not desire an encore.
But, hey, it was now August and presumably the bats and dragonflies had worked their predatory magic. And if they hadn’t, well, a stiff breeze is always helpful in keeping them at bay. Besides, even I will take a frisky wind over sub-zero temperatures in the middle of summer. I’m all for winter but prefer it stay in winter.
And, anyway, there was a singular, stunning, natural feature luring me southward, overriding all my worries and neuroses. Known as Ninaistako to the Blackfoot peoples, Chief Mountain dominates the skyline in this part of Alberta and Montana. Every online picture I saw from Police Outpost showed this majestic, well it’s not really a peak, chunk of thrusted, Precambrian rock and I absolutely needed to see it for myself. It did not disappoint.
Chief Mountain’s distinctive outline becomes visible even before getting to Fort MacLeod on Highway 2 and over the next hour’s drive only grows in stature. From further away, it’s clear this mountain is part of a broader range of peaks, but from the confines and surrounding ranchlands of Police Outpost, it stands almost solitary, like an indominable commander surveying his lands. Its name is well chosen.
The Road to Police Outpost
A fortuity of exploring these lesser known parks is the new parts of the province I am visiting. In doing so I am also discovering some of the prettiest drives in the province. These are not famous roads like Icefields Parkway and admittedly are not in that league of beauty, but they are nevertheless scenic.
My latest favourite highway is a winding collection of range roads colloquially known as Police Lake Road. Cutting east to west from Highway 2 south of Cardston through rolling ranchlands to Range Road 270 just 4 kilometres north of the entrance to Police Outpost Provincial Park, the 16 km of newly paved road is very pretty, especially when travelling westward.
Nearer the park are some ranch houses set among the rolling terrain with clear views of Chief Mountain. I’ve rarely said of any Alberta home “now THAT is a place I could live” but the thought crossed my mind several times during our approach.
Police Lake Road was an unexpected pleasure in another way. It’s paved. Not properly paved, mind you, but surfaced with asphalt. And recently. It looks more like an initial basecoat, hardly the thick, proper paving found on most roads. If left like this, it will undoubtedly deteriorate in short order with potholes and bare patches, but it’s still superior to a gravel road which is what we were expecting based on all available information prior to our departure.
Choosing a Site
I was immediately infatuated with Chief Mountain. Be it sunlit in the morning, washed out in the afternoon, or darkening with the setting of the evening sun, I couldn’t resist the urge to photograph it. In doing so, I also fell in love with Police Outpost Provincial Park. It’s as if the park was created solely to offer viewing of this magnificent mountain. Honestly, I could easily have just sat in a lounge chair beside my tent on the grassy hillside drinking in the view for the entire stay.
Unfortunately, that is not possible. Well, it may have been possible … until caught. Might even have been worth the attempt since supervision during our Sunday to Tuesday stay was decidedly lax. But we brought our trailer, not a tent, and even a relatively small travel trailer would not go unnoticed parked on a hill well outside the campground loop.
That, too, was unfortunate since there are no views from the campground. Completely encased in scraggy aspen, you can’t see anything but trees. That’s fine for shade and privacy from neighbours, but it eliminates any views beyond what’s at the end of your driveway or straight above.
Normally, I would applaud such a situation. I’m no fan of beating sun, and down here it most definitely can beat. I also enjoy a sense of separation from nosey neighbours. Here, however, with that rocky sentinel standing guard in the west, I desperately wanted a view of it while sitting around my campfire.
Even a view of the lake would have been appreciated, the campground being somewhat elevated from the lake level. Neither was in the cards and so while certainly a nice enough and welcomingly shaded campground, it was one that I regularly departed throughout our stay.
Choosing a site was no simple matter. Though no two sites were identical, they varied little in setting and layout. Some were longer, a couple perhaps wider, but by and large all were the same gravel pad and approach. We circled the loop two full times before settling on a site the third go around.
With the majority of the sites empty, we opted for extra privacy and chose a site in the north part of loop with nobody around us. A rundown motorhome was situated in site 1 but appeared deserted, only a small sign in the windshield indicating it was associated with the park management company. We never saw anyone camping in this sit. Perhaps its use is limited to weekends?
Sites 2 through 12 were empty. We chose site 7. We enjoyed our seclusion for approximately one hour when a pickup truck hauling a larger travel trailer entered the campground and immediately backed into site 8, directly across from us.
Thankfully, this older, childless couple ended up being quite quiet. Even their little dog, which had all the earmarks of an annoying football-waiting-for-a-foot, was mostly silent. Still, in a campground over two-thirds empty, why, WHY, pick that site? They didn’t even circle the loop to see what was available. They just entered and jammed that RV right into the site across from us. Little did we know they would be the least of our troubles.
That night, as we put the kids to bed and prepped my telescope for stargazing, a pickup truck hauling a tent trailer showed up. It was nearly eleven. They chose site 11, two down from us, and proceeded to spend the next hour setting up their creaky old tent trailer, awning, and dining tent without the slightest regard for volume of their voices or that of their squawky three year old squawked.
The next morning, we were greeted by their generator. It was not especially early, so not outrageous, but still a generator. The same generator that came on later that day to cook supper. A meal that included rice, I assume, accounting for the Instapot and my subsequent loathing. Their voices again pinned to 11 on the volume dial.
This same afternoon, a third pickup truck arrived hauling a fishing boat, followed by a motorhome. Site 1 remained the domain of the ghosted manager motorhome. Sites 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10 and more than a dozen in the higher numbers, remained open. Naturally, they chose site 5, immediately beside us because, hey, we were obviously on to something and who could risk being too far away from whatever that might be?
They too had a generator, which greeted us the second morning presumably to make coffee. At that point we determined that staying a third night was not going to happen. Lord knows a pickup truck hauling some sort of recreational vehicle would arrive that afternoon and take site 9, on our other side, the only sensible empty site of the twenty some available.
And, so it was, that despite absolutely adoring this place, we cut our trip a day short. Even an early week camping trip was no match for The Stupids. The camping Gods had a laugh at our expense this time around. Still, we left Police Outpost Provincial Park with warm feelings.
The Campground at Police Outpost
A circular loop of 46 campsites is found to the south of Outpost Lake approximately two kilometres from the entrance. All the sites are single back-ins, splaying off on either side of the main loop road. As mentioned, none of the sites are reservable which keeps this park somewhat of a secret. That secrecy leads to a situation I’ve never encountered at a provincial park anywhere; you can book seasonal sites at Police Outpost.
At the loop entrance is the expected registration kiosk. Across from this is an information board with the usual regulations and warnings posted about fishing and bears. On this one I found a notice about seasonal site rentals. There are only a handful available and you can lease them for 3 or 5 months. I read it thrice out of disbelief.
I’m not sure what to make of this. On one hand, I’m thrilled that there are no cabins in this park, long a burr in my saddle. But to turn around and allow seasonal rentals seems equally inappropriate for a provincial park. It does suggest that this campground rarely, if ever, fully fills up. At least, I think that’s how I would interpret this strange anomaly in provincial park camping. Whatever the reasoning, I think there was only one camper taking up this offer, so it may all be moot.
A few yards from the registration kiosk is a freshwater spigot. Here again peculiarities came to the fore. The official Police Outpost Provincial Park website advises visitors to bring their own water, stating that onsite water is ill-suited for drinking or cooking. Fair enough, this is becoming quite common at non-A-list provincial campgrounds.
However, when I approached the water tap for my obligatory blog picture, I noticed there was no ominous, Liberal-red warning sign on the post accompanying the tap. Instead, there was a friendly, Alberta-blue sign stating that the water provided from this tap was “Facility Treated Drinking Water.” Waaaa?
I couldn’t believe it! Genuine, treated water. For free. In this park, way down here? Inconceivable. Yet, there it was before my very eyes. I found another such tap and sign on the other side of the loop and again at the dump station. We certainly didn’t need to haul City of Calgary water for three hours only to drain it on the return trip, but we did. While I’m thrilled that potable water is available at Police Outpost, a proper disclosure on the website would have been appreciated. Consider this, that.
Group Camping at Police Outpost
The exception to this drinking water shock is the group camping area where an old-fashioned hand water pump still exists. It even had warning sign beside it. At least it worked. I guess group campers are expected to ingest enough alcohol that any potential waterborne nasties are thoroughly destroyed.
That group camping area was quite nice. One of the better I’ve seen at a provincial park. Accessed by a separate road but ultimately located southwest of the campground loop with a wooded area separating the two, this group area itself was a loop in an open field. From the lowest end of this field you could see the top of Chief Mountain, so there was a bit of a view here. But the sloping nature of the area left those mountains views limited once you moved further into the centre of the loop, despite the lack of trees.
An enclosed wooden picnic structure with small concrete patio was the focal point of the group area. Inside was the ubiquitous iron woodstove and a couple picnic tables. There was no power. To one side was a large, group firepit. To the other, a concrete bunker-like pit toilet.
That pit toilet was less than fresh. I’m not sure how busy this group area has been during the pandemic, but the men’s toilet was a bit ripe. A fully concrete structure, the pit toilets were a bit daunting. I am unfamiliar with this design but you will likely survive a tornado in it.
There were no individual sites for group campers, just a gravel loop road surrounded by mowed grass. A few random picnic tables were strewn about as well as garbage bins. And unlike the campground proper, the group area requires reservations.
And once again, rarities arise at Police Outpost Provincial Park. Something that has been missing from nearly all government campgrounds we’ve visited this summer is a playground. Well, there’s one here. It’s not huge, but it is newer than most, being one of those brightly coloured metal jobs seen at schools everywhere.
That it is located next to the group area is a bit strange, though obviously a boon to group campers with kids. A short, dirt trail through the woods from the main campground loop quickly takes you to the playground, so regular campers can use it as well. I’m sure its location is more a function of convenience than intent.
On either side of the group area approach road, and again separated from the actual group area by a small wooded region, is the overflow area. This too was just mowed grass with a gravel access road in its midst. Unlike the group area, though, a few regular sized firepits were placed, denoting pseudo-sites. And, of course, picnic tables are available as well.
The existence of an overflow area kind of rejects my summation that the offering of seasonal campsites means this campground is rarely full. I have no idea what to think about it all, frankly. It’s just … unique. But the overflow is certainly welcome in a FCFS only campground. Nothing worse than going all that way only to find no place to camp.
Amenities at Police Outlook
None of the main campground sites have power either. Nor sewer or water. That’s no surprise save for the treated water taken all the way to the campground but not to individual sites. A persnickety type might question how a park can have facility treated water but no power anywhere else. I am not that type. At least not in public.
The pit toilets in the campground loop were of the typical more-recent design found at many Alberta parks. Unlike their concrete cousin in the group area, the two wood-clad structures on either side of the loop were relatively odour-free and clean. The inward taper of the toilets was odd and had me nervous about inappropriate junk contact, but otherwise they were a reasonable place to do one’s business.
If you’re using your RV as a bathroom, you’ll be delighted with the dump station. Located right by the park entrance, the two-outlet dump station is a common setup. The cost is $5 but runs on the honour system, so I doubt many people pay it. And the approach we used sloped away from the outlet for some reason, resulting in a long and likely incomplete drainage of our grey tank. Cleaning water is available at the outlets themselves and that fancy, treated water can be accessed from taps at the end of each dump station runway.
Fishing at Police Outpost
As far as recreation goes, fishing is the undisputed draw of Police Outpost. The lake is unique in this respect too, being a trophy lake. Based on some quick research, this means that though the lake is stocked with trout like many other Alberta lakes, catch restrictions have been implemented specifically to enable the fish to grow large. Large fish = trophy fish. Hence the limit of 1 trout greater than 50cm in length. It never clarified if that was daily or otherwise.
I have no idea how successful this program is but judging by the activity at the boat launch, it must be good enough to draw a crowd. Located on the south shore of the lake, at the end of the park road and a short walk from the campground, the boat launch is functional and spacious. A large, gravel parking lot offers plenty of space for boat trailers of which there is undoubtedly many on weekends.
The launch itself is a single, ribbed concrete ramp. There are two docks associated with the launch, both to one side. Using encrusted goose poop as my guide, I would say the dock immediately next to the ramp gets much more use by people than does it’s mate.
A fish cleaning station has been constructed in the parking lot near the launch. Some picnic tables on the surrounding grass and pit toilets allow the boat launch area to double as a day use area. It can also be accessed by trail.
One such trail, a short offshoot heading from the north end of the parking lot takes you to an opening in the reeds. It almost looks as if it was a boat launch itself at one time. This is perhaps the best spot to fish without a boat other than the docks.
There are other viewing spots along the lake’s shore, but most are narrower and/or have thick seaweed and reeds in the casting area. Casting from the boardwalk is another option, though it concerns me that should you catch anything you’ll have to pull the fish up out of the water a full metre or two over the railing which might not be the healthiest for the captured fish.
We attempted to fish, briefly, first on the island and then from the open spot mentioned above. We had zero nibbles and lost a lure. A space can be wide as a barn but with wind and unskilled casters, the reeds eventually win.
We did see fish, though. Lots of schools of minnows as well as a couple larger fish. I suspect that fly fishing is best from shore and use a boat of some kind if you prefer trolling. We are ill-equipped for either option.
Of course, paddling is just as fun on a lake like this. It can get windy, but otherwise, it’s a nice spot for a leisurely afternoon in a canoe or kayak. Why I imagine you’d quite enjoy exploring the reeds in your human-powered watercraft, collecting all the lost lures from unfortunate shoreline casters like myself. The bright green and yellow one is ours.
Swimming, on the other hand, is not a thing here. Oh, I suppose you can try if you’re brave. That opening for fishing is a good spot to wade into the cool waters. You can likewise try taking a dip from the island. But as for a beach, or designated swimming area, sorry, you’re out of luck.
Lake Trail at Police Outpost
That leaves hiking, and associated activities, as your recreational alternative should fishing not be your forte. For such a small park, it is blessed with two great trails; Lake Trail and Boundary Creek Trail.
The Lake Trail, not surprisingly, hugs the southwestern shore of Outpost Lake from the boat launch to the boardwalk and onto the island. It’s a dirt trail of comfortable width with little elevation change winding through the thick aspen and cottonwoods (I think).
Along the trail are several short offshoots to openings for viewing the lake. Each has a metal bench on which to sit. I imagine when this park was initially established there were great views of the lake to be had along this trail. Now, though, it’s so thick with vegetation you don’t even know the lake is there outside these viewing spots.
It still makes for a nice walk with lots of wildflowers and berries growing along the trail. Saskatoons were ripe and plentiful just begging us to bake a pie. We did not … but we did try a few. And the fireweed was blooming in earnest carpeting portions of the woods with purple.
The boardwalk onto the island is lovely, if rickety. The island is much like the trail itself, though on more of a hill. The viewing areas are found at the bottom of wood and dirt stairs leading to the south shore. There are no picnic tables on the island, but these little enclaves are lovely spots to relax and watch the birds. Each has a bench.
And there are plenty of birds. Lots of water and marsh loving birds can be seen, from grebes to pelicans to ducks to blackbirds. Some of the dragonflies are even as large as birds. You may even catch site of a hawk circling overhead, hunting critters in the grass. And the haunting loons enliven the dark night. As do the bats, though they stick to the land.
Although the boardwalk is attractive and offers the only foot access to the quaint island, it is deteriorating. The railing is built with non-treated lumber and is faded and warped. The base is treated, but portions are no longer level and one board was even broken. I never felt in danger of falling through or off this structure, but it won’t be long until that’s a reality barring repairs. Still nice, though.
Boundary Creek Trail at Police Outpost
The Boundary Creek Trail is a whole other story. Starting at either the campground or the scenic lookout, this 4 km trail takes you on a large loop through the grasslands and hills that dominate the south and west portions of the park. It’s simply a gorgeous trail with incredible views of Chief Mountain.
At the highest point you witness an unfettered three-hundred-sixty degree view of the entire park and surrounding miles of wetlands, forest and mountains to the west and rolling ranchlands with patches of aspen and cows to the north, east, and south. It’s a fantastic view, but breezy. Hold onto your hat!
Along the southern reach of the trail there is a short, secondary leg that takes hikers to the Canada-USA border. There’s an old border marker present and the expected red, white, and blue warning sign complete with surveillance camera.
I get why this stuff is there but it still seems a bit funny considering that if you really wanted to sneak into the United States you could easily do so by jumping the fence twenty feet on either side of this camera and keep right on walking. I mean, is someone seriously watching that image 24/7?
And yes, there is a border fence here. Not the industrial eye-sore Mexicans must bear, but a wood and wire farmer fence. I think it’s a park boundary fence, more than anything, and meant to keep American cattle out of Canada. I assume we even built this one. You’re welcome, Americans.
Along the way, the dirt and grass trail that looks to have been created by a lawnmower, winds around the hills through grassland flora. Wildflowers are plentiful and various dragonflies flitted about sometimes using us as resting spots. Mosquitos, thankfully, were few and far between. This stroke of luck was perhaps more seasonal phenomenon combined with the strong breeze than normal operating procedure at Police Outpost, but I was happy. A July visit may not have gone as well, bug-wise.
The trail passes some sloughs which offer birdwatchers a few ducks and whatnot to observe. They’re quite attractive little swamplets with myriad shades of green and yellow and the far-off mountains reflecting in the dark waters. Some benches are provided along the trail for rest and contemplation while Nature nurtures you.
If you’re not afraid of the dark, or in good company, a stroll up this trail at night is glorious. The night sky is incredible. Uncountable stars and the Milky Way blanket as far as you can see, the only blemish a damned antenna tower to the southeast with blinking red lights. We saw constellations, planets, and meteors. Well worth the anxiety of being out in the “wild” at night. To think that was once the norm for humanity.
Boundary Creek Trail is also an interpretive trail. Well, it was, anyway. The remnants of the interpretive signage are found at several points along the trail, usually in broken masses of wood and plastic. This kind of thing breaks my heart and is all too common in Alberta parks these days. I know … money. Nobody wants to pay for this stuff. It’s still a shame that all these investments from years ago have been left to rot away.
We started our exploration from the campground and finished up at the scenic lookout. This is an admittedly odd scenic lookout because you can’t see much from it. It’s a smallish parking lot with some picnic tables and signs found directly next to the main park road about two-thirds of the way in. To the southwest is the large hill from which that panoramic video was shot but hikers have lost much of the elevation now and can see nothing but the immediate hillside.
In the opposite direction is the lake but aspen blocks much of the view. This might have been a hell of a viewpoint at one time, but it really ain’t much nowadays. On top of that hill is the true scenic viewpoint but your car has no means to get there.
Birdwatching and landscape photography are obvious pleasures when out on the trails. As is geocaching. There are four geocaches in Police Outpost Provincial Park, two of which are in surprisingly great condition. That’s a none-too-common occurrence anymore and we were thrilled to find and rummage through these excellent caches.
Day Use Area
I must admit, however, that the day use area is a disappointment. Found on the west side of the lake near the boardwalk access, it’s exactly what you would expect here. And it’s also underwhelming. A large gravel parking lot with a pit toilet at one end. From there dirt paths take you down a slope to an assortment of picnic spots among the trees and shrubs alongside the Lake Trail.
These picnic spots are basically picnic tables placed in small clearings with overgrown gravel and dirt pads. There are no firepits or bbqs and absolutely no view. You just sit at a picnic table staring at bushes, some of which have pretty berries on them, if you’re lucky. Who knows, Yogi Bear might sit down for a visit
Again, at one time there may have been views of the lake from some of these spots but no longer. As a day use destination, Police Outpost must surely be popular for people from Cardston or even Lethbridge. But they’d be awfully disappointed coming here, hoping to have a picnic while looking out over the water, only to discover you simply cannot.
Campers cannot see anything either, but they can at least have a campfire. Each site has the obligatory firepit and picnic table. You can even buy wood here, also a not-so-common service at parks this summer. How you do that is beyond me.
Beside the water tap near the campground registration kiosk, is a firewood bin. It’s locked up tight and has a sign saying to “see host for firewood.” Well, the host was nonexistent if my assumption is correct about that derelict motorhome. If they show up on weekends, or even later in the week, fine, but during our stay we saw nobody.
Near the park entrance is a residence for park management. The washroom cleaner commuted from here once a day. I suppose you could try inquiring there about firewood, but the no trespassing sign is a deterrent. Catch them during bathroom cleaning duties, I guess.
Whatever you do, the posted price is $8 per bag. I am unsure how big that bag is since we never purchased one (brought our own wood) nor saw any other campers purchase any. And I think I would have noticed if they had since several of them decided to camp immediately around us.
The unused wood corrals at each pit toilet in the campground were an all-too-obvious reminder of a time when firewood was either free or available in bulk for a one-time fee. It may not have been good wood, likely rotten aspen and poplar, but oh that must have been a bonfire lover’s dream. Alberta just doesn’t do oil booms like they used to.
Well, I’ve now written 4,929 words, pre-editing. I should probably stop and finally rate this place. I’ll give Police Outpost Provincial Park a sterling 4.75 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Not bad for a place with no power, water, or sewer on site. Oh, but that view! It won me over, annoying neighbours notwithstanding.
The day use and scenic viewpoints are a bit meh. The group area is above-average and the playground a definite plus. The trails are a delight and I must assume the fishing is better than most. A beach might be nice but it’s not that kind of lake (are any in Alberta, really?). Police Outpost is not the high-end, touristy resort type park with campground found in the famed mountain areas but it’s a damn treat nonetheless … oooo … ice cream would have been nice here.
I unequivocally recommend you go here at least once. I can only hope your neighbours are less annoying, but I assure you it will be well worth the visit. Police Outpost is an absolute gem and I have no doubt the locals and those in the know would love to keep it a secret. Sorry, it’s just too beautiful to keep quiet about. I am so glad I found this place and gave it a shot. You should too. Hail to the chief!