Nothing piques my interest in a campground more than a terrible review. In particular, I love a bad review bemoaning the strictness of management. I say this in dead seriousness and with full recognition of my hypocrisy relative to my younger days, but if you’re pissed off that a campground won’t let you have “fun” then that’s a campground I want to visit.
As with all blanket statements, reality has a tendency to test your sincerity. My reckoning came while hunting for a place to stay near Fort Steele, British Columbia. I was taking my son on a promised gold panning trip and we needed a place to recoup after long days of fortune hunting. Two viable options quickly presented themselves and that’s when the fun began.
While reading Google comments for each campground, it soon became obvious that there is some animosity between the two campgrounds in this small, former gold rush town. At first, I found the bizarre negative reviews comical. Were people really angry about one owner claiming name theft by the other owner? And for that matter, was one owner really claiming that?
Turns out the answer is yes on both accounts. I still can’t refrain from smiling when thinking about this. It seems so … childish? I mean, sure Fort Steele Campground and Fort Steele Resort & RV Park share a locality in their name. Considering it’s the name of the actual town in which both campgrounds reside, it hardly strikes me as theft. Lack of imagination, perhaps. And any confusion on the part of patrons, of which I am sure there is plenty, is more a testament to the stupidity of humanity than nefarious naming intent.
Nonetheless, further investigation of the Fort Steele Campground’s website revealed a distinct distaste for their younger, crosstown rival. So strong is this dislike, they’ve chosen to no longer accept reservations in part as a means to differentiate themselves from the competition. In fact, when you arrive at Fort Steele Campground a giant sign tells you to turn around and leave if you have a reservation because if you have such a thing you’ve gone to the wrong bloody campground.
I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years of camping. Of course, I had to try it out. Someone this passionate about their campground I had to see in person. Toss in additional complaints regarding onerous rules and a flippant remark about “trains” at the “other place” and my heartstrings were strumming like a Martin guitar.
Our plan was to camp Monday through Wednesday, so I figured we would have little trouble finding an available site for our tent. Still, the Kootenays are a popular summer playground for Albertans and I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be left holding the (tent) bag after a long drive. I’m a reservation lover through and through.
I sent a message via Facebook asking what was the likelihood of a campsite being available and was pleased to receive a response stating that there should be no problem. Already this experience was off to a promising start as I find too many businesses offer internet based communication options but ignore them entirely. Fort Steele Campground had already slid into my good graces just by answering.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for this trip was wavering by the time we hit the road. We had originally planned it three weeks prior, but I postponed it, much to my son’s disappointment, for the following two reasons.
First, the gold panning kit I’d ordered from a local supplier had yet to arrive. We already owned a single pan that would have worked, but I didn’t fancy the idea of driving five hours for us only to take turns.
Second, the weather forecast was calling for highs of plus 31 with nothing but sun. Some might consider summer weather like that a blessing, but I call it torture. I’m just not into heat, especially with baking sun. Considering our entire reason for going was to spend hours out in the open, I used my considerable clout as Dad and postponed the trip.
Three weeks later, however, the gold panning kit had arrived after additional delays and with summer soon ending, we had no other option but to go. The weather forecast for Fort Steele this time? Daytime highs of plus 36 with nothing but sun. Oh, was that joke on me!
Fort Steele Campground
Found in the heart of the Kootenays, approximately fifteen minutes northeast of Cranbrook, Fort Steele Campground is tucked away in the treed hills south of its namesake town. A nondescript kilometre of dirt road winds back from the main highway to the main entrance. You could easily miss it if you weren’t looking for it, especially when approaching from the south. There are no large, obvious signs advertising the campground’s presence and I’m sure I would have otherwise driven right past, none the wiser.
Traffic cones block both the entrance and exit to the campground encouraging campers to stop at the office upon arrival. Greeted in short order by the owner, I completed the registration form and listened intently to the list of rules shared with me. The list was perhaps a smidgen longer than the norm and it was certainly delivered with authority, but none of it struck me as cold or unbearable. Fort Steele Campground is, after all, a private campground and if this is what the boss wants then so it shall be. I found it all rather comforting, to be honest. There are few things more frustrating than unenforced rules.
Fort Steele Campground consists of a single main road with fifty-some campsites lining either side of it plus a small turnaround at the end. There are two distinct legs to the campground which resides in a valley surrounded by treed hills. The first portion is wider and more open with fewer trees before it makes a ninety degree turn to the left. Here the trees thicken somewhat and the valley narrows.
That first leg houses the guts of the campground. All the facilities are located here stretching from the entrance to the turn. Most of the sites in this leg have services including power and water. Some even have sewer service.
The sites in the second leg, after the turn, only have water. I know, it’s a bit weird. But in a dry, hot place like Fort Steele, it was a welcome novelty. Even those of us camping in tents can appreciate fresh water at our beck and call.
My first thought after reaching our campsite was that Fort Steele Campground reminded me a lot of Kinbasket Lake Resort, a place we’d visited many years ago during the early years of family camping. Both are privately owned campgrounds with strong-willed but generous caretakers and both have a decidedly homemade, do-it-yourself flair to them.
Not everyone will appreciate such character, but nobody will be bored by it. I fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. I’d never be so disingenuous as to say a place like Fort Steele Campground is a gorgeous resort, but its quirkiness does appeal to me. I may not set out specifically to spend a vacation here but with other reasons to be in the area, it’s a fine spot to set up the trailer (or tent) for a few days.
The campsites are as unique to each other as Fort Steele Campground is to its peers. Aside from small, metal, numbered stakes, there isn’t much in the way of delineation between them. Each has different dimensions and orientations from its neighbour. Some are wide, some are narrow, and some appear almost amorphous. It’s a hodgepodge of variety that adds to the homegrown feel of the place
Of course, that’s also a nice way of saying there’s no privacy. I wouldn’t describe Fort Steele Campground as a parking lot but compared to mountain park campgrounds, the sites are close together with little vegetative separation. That’s not wholly unexpected in a niche, out-of-the-way private campground in a less than lush environment but worth noting for those of you use to expansive mountain campsites.
Big RVs are welcome here and will fit … barely … with some coordinated manoeuvring. We watched in wonder and amusement as a large fifth wheel was crammed into a site I was sure was too small. They made it work, though.
Some of sites oriented parallel to the road rather than perpendicular offer modestly more more privacy but expect to get to know your neighbours regardless. Even in the tenting area where we were located, it was not only a little tricky deciding where one site ended and another began, but locating your tent was critical so as not to receive a constant deluge of sparks from the firepit next door.
Now, I’m not trying to denigrate the setup of Fort Steele Campground to the point of scaring you off. Not every campground has the luxury of taxpayer funding or the backdrop of Kananaskis. We lucked out in not having immediate neighbours surrounding our site. On busy weekends, however, there will be a limit to your ability to stretch your legs, so to speak.
Shelter is similarly sparse. The hillsides are forested but not as densely as in other, wetter areas. Inside the campground this is compounded by the need to create the actual campsites. Sites are primarily grass and dirt, the latter of which likely ebbs with the time of year and amounts of precipitation.
Large coniferous trees are scattered throughout the campground offering some shade, just not enough to create a canopy. You will inevitably receive blasting sun at some point during the day. On some sites, it’ll last much of the day.
That said, the hills of the valley walls are more sheltering than the individual trees. In the tenting area, which orients roughly north-south, the sun eventually falls behind the western hill alleviating its scorching grip on your campsite. In mid-August, this happens in the late afternoon conveniently soon after our return from treasure-hunting making for a lovely reprieve during meal preparation. It was still plenty warm but at least the sun was not frying our exposed skin.
Thankfully, Fort Steele Campground has an even better escape from the sun; a pool. It’s not large. It’s not fancy. And yes, there are a lot of rules regarding its use (only compounded by our being there during a pandemic). But was it ever a welcome relief after a hard day of gold panning and fossil hunting. To slide into that refreshing water and cool off was heaven.
The water is kept clean and modestly warm. There is a makeshift solar, water heater next to the pool which manages to keep the pool comfortable without becoming a bathtub. When busy, it undoubtedly fills up so don’t expect to swim laps in hopes of burning off s’mores calories.
With COVID on the prowl, the pool was restricted to three “groups” at any one time. Guests were asked to limit their time in the pool if they noticed a line forming. Being early in the week, we had no trouble getting into the pool when desired and had fully one third of it to ourselves.
Across from the pool, in an island of grass between the entry and exit roads, is a modest playground. Like everything else at Fort Steele Campground, the playground is an organic, old-school creation with a steel slide, wooden playset, a volleyball net, and a “horse” contraption that shimmies back and forth with the riders.
Older folks will find this very nostalgic. Young kids not yet mesmerized by elaborate, modern playgrounds should also find it fun. At 11, my son had little interest in playing on it preferring to romp in the pool. Can’t say I blame him. But there were certainly little kids finding great joy in the available playground equipment. And it did take me back to playgrounds of my youth.
On the other side of the playground and the entrance road is the main office. It’s an old, small cottage-like building decorated with antiques and signs including a welcome from the owners. This is where I registered for our site.
There does not appear to be a full-fledged store inside, but I do believe you can buy ice. In normal, non-pandemic years there may be more on offer but in 2020 it was basically just a registration office. Being so close to town and not terribly far from the city of Cranbrook, I doubt there would be much need for an elaborate campground store anyway.
Behind and next to the office is some kind of residence. During conversations with the owner I learned that they have a house further up the hill hidden by the trees, so I’m not sure as to the function of this building. It’s not their “home”, per se. Perhaps it is a secondary house used only during camping season? Whatever the case, this is most likely where you will find the owner upon your arrival.
Next to this home is the trailer of the campground host. I was introduced to this gentleman but beyond that didn’t interact with him or see him much. All my conversations happened with Bob, the owner. I suspect Bob doesn’t spend the entire summer roaming his campground, in which case the host picks up the slack while maintaining the place. Regardless, there are plenty of campground personnel at your disposal should issues arise during your stay at Fort Steele Campground.
I found this comforting. It’s nice to see a campground with engaged and committed ownership. So many of my summer camping outings are spent at campgrounds where parks staff may show up once over the course of a couple days or the host moseys by briefly in the afternoon. It gives you some confidence that rules will be enforced. Which made it all the more confounding when they weren’t.
Our first night turned into a bit of a nightmare. Soon after ten, we called it a night, put out our campfire, and retired to our tent. Not long after, new campers arrived and began setting up in the last campsite on our side of the road.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. They would set up their tent and get themselves to sleep. Long day son the road never go as initially planned. Well, when all was said and done they idled their car for a full hour and a half with the headlights on. I kid you not. They had young children, including a baby who was definitely not impressed. I couldn’t believe it when they began chopping wood to start a fire at midnight.
It wasn’t until maybe two in the morning that their nonsense subsided and I was able to fall asleep. I kept wondering where the patrols were. Where was the check up from the campground host or management. I’d read all the reviews stating how anal they were here, and the signage was impossible to miss, yet here was a group blatantly breaking all the rules and they were ignored?
The next morning, I was choked but being a coward when it comes to confrontation, I decided to keep my frustrations to myself. We only had one more night to go and we would be out exploring all day anyhow. If the nonsense repeated that second night, I would make a snarky comment as I left and write a scathing blog post. Passive-aggressive is my game!
The owner approached me outside the bathroom and asked how the night went. I shared some of our experience and he was visibly disappointed both with the campers and his own lack of judgment. He’d been suspicious of them but relented due to the late hour and presence of a baby. A warm heart beneath the cool exterior.
Long story short, we left for the morning and returned at lunchtime to be told that the offending campers had been kicked out. Wow! He followed that up with an offer to have us move into any open site in the campground, even a powered site, at no extra cost. We had no need of such luxury but my disappointment with the previous night abated. This guy did not mess around.
At the dogleg of the two campground segments, two more structures are found. One is a large picnic shelter that looks a bit past it’s best before date. Although potted flowers decorated the openings, there doesn’t appear to have been much inside for quite some time. This again might be an anomaly due to Covid. Hard to know.
It would provide a nice spot for a group picnic if several friends all camping at Fort Steele Campground at the same time. It would also provide welcome shelter during downpours, or worse, especially for those with tents. Beyond that, it’s just a rundown structure with bat houses and directions to additional campsites.
Across from the picnic shelter is the bathroom complex. A large, elevated building that reminds me of a customized ATCO dog house. Also like Kinbasket, the bathroom is a resoundingly homemade affair. It is clean and functional offering everything you could want in a campground setting but it is not going to be featured in Home and Garden magazine.
The bathroom features regular, household toilets, albeit older ones, in enclosed stalls. Next are stand-up shower stalls and at the end, a single urinal. Along the wall across from these is a series of sinks with smalls mirrors and hand soap. And it all works which is all anyone cares about.
That one toilet stall is immediately in front of the entry door is a bit unnerving since said door is often propped open due to the stifling heat, not to mention humidity from the showers. Not the best setup for those with performance anxiety. Otherwise, this DIY special was just fine despite its hokey appearance. And the showers are free. Can’t go wrong with that.
For all the talk of excess rules and signage at this campground, I must say some commentators are missing the humour in them. There are rules posted everywhere but they weren’t alone. Consider the “no skinny-dipping” sign at the pool or the “weather rock” by the campground residence. Those are done purely in jest.
This sense of humour is most obvious in the bathroom where pictures of laughing horses are strategically positioned above the urinal. I personally thought it made for a good mix of serious and silly. I don’t know, I kind of like it.
Perhaps the quirkiest part of the whole campground is the dump station. It’s literally located in grassy area between the bathroom building and the campground road. It’s a single outlet and aside from the presumed installation convenience of being near the flush-toilet bathroom, I haven’t a clue why it is where it is.
This strikes me as a wildly inconvenient location, especially when it comes time for the Sunday morning evacuation of weekenders. Maybe most RVers just use sites with sewer service, I don’t know. But trying to utilize this dump station without blocking the road looks impossible for anything larger than the smallest of RVs. Very odd, but hey, at least they have one.
Although our trip was focused on entertainment offerings outside of Fort Steele Campground, there is some to be had within, notably hiking. The campground is situated on an 80 acre property and uses only a small portion of that for camping. The bulk of the hilly, forested property is ribboned with trails ideal for post-meal digestive walks.
The trails begin at the very end of the campground road. A combination of dirt roads, ATV trails and genuine footpaths, you can explore every nook and cranny of the Fort Steele Campground property via these trails. The property is almost entirely forested so there isn’t much in the way of scenery beyond what’s directly around you. There are no lookouts with breathtaking views of the mountains, for example. I must admit that was disappointing. I enjoy a good walk but prefer having something to see.
Along the way we encountered Outhouse Alley where the wooden remnants of what must have been the campground pit toilets are discarded. A small, hilltop clearing was home to a pile of broken picnic tables and other scrap wood from the campground. It’s not the most enticing scenery, I agree, and yet it strangely fits with the atmosphere of the place.
We eventually took our exploration off trail and climbed a hill in hopes of gaining some views, which we did. Not clear views but close. The mountain tops peaking above the trees, basking in the sun were a delight. Birds and critters will accompany your hike but so too will the mosquitoes who are just as desperate to hide from the sun as you are.
All in all, the trails aren’t spectacular but are nonetheless a nice addition to the Fort Steele Campground experience. Had we not been so busy with our other adventures, I’d have liked to make the 45 minute trek to see the baby turtles the owner told us about. Something to look forward to the next time.
Fort Steele Heritage Town
By this point your biggest remaining question is likely, “Why go to Fort Steele in the first place?” That’s a good question. Located a few kilometres north on Highway 93/95 from the junction with Highway 3, Fort Steele doesn’t exactly scream destination. Without the glamour and postcard beauty of the Rocky Mountain Parks further east, the Kootenay region has a more blue collar feel. And with the hotter temps and dryer climate, there’s just a harder edge to it all. Fort Steele comes across as nothing more than a village on the way to somewhere more appealing.
And while Fort Steele is a real village with real people living in real buildings, the biggest single part of it is an historical town dedicated to the long ago gold rush town it once was. Even that sits half empty with only an old map to show where buildings once stood when this was the epicentre of activity in the area. It’s equal parts fascinating, sad, and unnerving.
Now a tourist attraction, reminiscent of Barkerville near Quesnel, old Fort Steele is an interesting if derivative pioneer village. We visited on the morning of our departure, spending a couple hours looking into the century old buildings of a once thriving town. Once more COVID put a damper on our fun as most of the buildings were closed to entry. You could peer into windows but otherwise the genuine experience was unavailable because of the pandemic.
Along with the typical pioneer town staples, there is an old North-West Mounted Police barracks. The town is, after all, named after the famed Sam Steele. This makes for a slightly novel one-two punch of having a pioneer town and a fort combined in one location.
If you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth a visit, hopefully when the pandemic is over and you can enjoy all that Fort Steele has to offer. We would have loved to snoop around inside some of the old buildings, like the assay office which had a small but tantalizing display of rocks and minerals visible in the corner of the room. But to make a special trip from as far as Calgary is a bit much.
The attraction also boasts a steam train that circles around a portion of the property. I enjoy old trains as much as anyone but paying for short, circular rides isn’t in my wheelhouse so we chose only to look. With plenty of old machinery and old buildings, both refurbished and left to ruins, Fort Steele Heritage Town is enjoyable. We, however, were there for other reasons. Shimmery, golden reasons.
Wild Horse River Recreational Gold Panning Site
The downstream stretches of the Wild Horse river which joins the Kootenay river just south of Fort Steele is one of several public gold panning reserves located throughout British Columbia. It’s also the closest to Calgary.
Alberta has neither the history nor presence of gold that neighbouring BC does. Southern Alberta, in particular, is completely void of the substance. For Calgarians seeking non-hydrocarbon fortunes, you have two options; a trip to the Edmonton to pan for flour gold on the North Saskatchewan river or make the trek to Fort Steele and play in the public panning reserve of a genuine gold rush town. Being a complete novice and wanting to give my wide-eyed boy a taste of the real deal, I chose the latter.
And it worked! It took us a bit and there were moments when I thought we’d proven ourselves to be fools, but after a couple hours my son came to me with a golden speck in his pan and anticipation in his eyes.
I looked. Then looked again. Sure enough, he’d found gold. From that moment on, the trip was the greatest outing of the young lad’s life. Hell, it jumped pretty high up on my list too. It was well worth the drive, and the heat, and the horrible first night, for that moment.
Then it got better. I enjoy the lure of gold as much as the next delusional geologist, but my greater passion lies with fossils. I love finding fossils. Unfortunately, for all the amazing fossil finds in Western Canada, few locations are open to public plundering. You can’t exactly hike into Walcott Quarry and start wailing away on the Burgess Shale with your rock hammer in hopes of unearthing the perfect specimen for your fireplace mantel.
As luck would have it, about a decade ago a fossil bed was discovered on publicly accessible land next to the gun club in Fort Steele. Full of trilobites (and pieces thereof), this find became a hotbed for fossil enthusiasts. Knowing that we would be in Fort Steele, I just had to have a look and see if we could find ourselves a fossil.
My online investigation warned that the site has been well picked over and when we finally found the place, reality revealed that to be quite the understatement. Where I was expecting an outcrop, what we found was a massive heap of split and discarded shale. It was shocking. Perhaps this is why Walcott Quarry is not open to the public!
We struggled to find any hint of a fossil for the first hour. Fresh evidence of other seekers was everywhere, notably in “holes” dug into the rock pile as fossil hunters sought untouched slabs or even the mysteriously absent outcrop. Where that actual outcrop exists (or existed) is beyond me.
Eventually we found a couple shards with partial bits of trilobites in them. A small victory, but one that gave us a valuable clue as to which rocks were most likely to harbour fossils. Our hunt intensified.
By then, though, it was mid-afternoon and so bloody hot. I was drenched in sweat and growing disappointed with the lack of fossil payoff. This had to have been a great site at one time, but we’d missed that window by years.
I slipped into a shaded area and began poking around one of the excavations made by a previous searcher. I soon found myself struggling to remove a slab stuck into the right side of the hole. Odd. I focused my efforts and eventually pulled out a large, thick slab of untouched shale. It was not virgin outcrop but definitely a piece much larger than any of the millions of chunks all around us.
I called my son over and began to split the rock, watching with wonder at what treasures might be hidden within its thin layers. Sure enough, the rock peeled apart revealing a nearly complete trilobite fossil!
More slabbing ensued revealing additional bits and pieces. I eventually stopped not wanting, to ruin the excellent specimen we’d already unearthed. We spent another hour desperately hunting for more anomalous slabs but found none. Still, that near complete trilobite was so cool to find. Both of us were thrilled.
We had come to Fort Steele with the hopes of finding gold and fossils. We left with both. And that is why you go to Fort Steele. What a wonderful experience for my son and I. I’ll savour it for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to go back with the whole family. Now that we know where the gold is I need labourers!
As for our stay at Fort Steele Campground, it was a perfect compliment to our adventure. I’ll certainly stay there on our next visit. I appreciate that some might find the owner a bit overbearing, but I have no problem with it. Hell, I appreciate it to some degree. It’s his place, built by his family with a long history in the area, damn right he can run that place any way he wants. And if you don’t like the rules, odds are I won’t like camping with you anyway.
That being said, Fort Steele Campground won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s quirky and not overwhelmingly gorgeous. Sure, it’s not right beside the main highway or next to railway tracks like the name-stealing competition, but you can still hear both. Those big logging rigs aren’t exactly quiet and it takes more than a kilometre of space to fully deaden their noise.
The dirt sites rather than gravel make for a messy stay. The trails are nice but again, they’re hardly gorgeous nor do they lead to any spectacular views. A stroll in the woods is fine but I’d have loved a bit more. The playground is quaint and the pool, a small but welcome perk. You can’t go wrong with warm nights by a fire and clear skies overhead.
Fort Steele Campground is a place I will return to whenever I’m camping in the area. I recommend it for your stay as well. It’s a well run, family-friendly, no nonsense campground and that appeals to me. I’ll give it a solid 3.25 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Like its distant cousin, Kinbasket Lake Resort, some will find that outrageously low and others will find it outrageously high.
As for the town itself, Fort Steele may not be the premier destination on your to do list, but it’s an underrated little spot in the Kootenays. If you are fond of geology and history, all the more so. Bring a pan and a rock hammer and hunt for nature’s gifts. Or just bask in the hot hot sun, if you’re into that sort of craziness.