So, this is … umm … well, this is embarrassing. Prior this past summer, I … uhh … I’d never been to Lake Minnewanka. Truth be told, I’d never heard of Lake Minnewanka. Seriously. I had no clue. None. And if I ever did hear of it, that knowledge certainly never took up any semblance of permanence residence in my Teflon grey matter.
Come to think of it, that’s a rather impressive failure for someone who has lived in Calgary for more than two decades. I’ve driven past Banff many a time, usually on route to campsites or hockey rinks in neighbouring BC. I’ve stayed in Banff, most notably for lavish corporate Christmas parties back in the boom days (God, I miss those). Never once, apparently, did I think to look north and wonder if there was anything over there. Turns out, there’s a hell of a lot!
Now, in my defense, Banff is not a favoured destination of mine. The town, that is. Sure, it’s pretty and all. And those Christmas parties were an obnoxious delight (Have I mentioned how much I miss them?). But mostly Banff is just an expensive, pretentious tourist trap that I’m content to avoid as much as possible (willing exceptions made for company Christmas parties).
As such, the idea of camping anywhere near the place doesn’t appeal to me. Incomparable natural beauty can only compensate for so much tourist overcrowding, and if there’s one thing Banff has in surplus it’s crowds. Besides, I’ve done the obligatory winter stay at Douglas Fir Resort with the kids to enjoy the only pool in Banff and the indoor playground and am all too aware of the nearby forested parking lot that is Tunnel Mountain Village.
Hey, if you’re visiting from places afar and enjoying the wonder of Canada’s Rocky Mountains in your RV or tent and desperately want to see the town of Banff, by all means make use of Tunnel Mountain’s campground convenience. Otherwise, why would you ever want to stay there? Blech!
With that bias weighing heavily on my decision-making, I never bothered to look anywhere else in the vicinity of Banff townsite for a place to camp. That began to change these last few years as I watched, with growing fascination, at the struggles of fellow camper/bloggers trying to reserve campsites at Two Jake Lakeside.
The widely held desire to camp at this particular campground, which I’ll write about in a subsequent posting, awakened me to the reality that there is far more to camping in Banff than Tunnel Mountain. My trying to understand what was so alluring about Two Jack Lakeside led to my woefully belated discovery of the not-so-little lake existing on the north side of the TransCanada Hwy, a potato gun shot’s distance from Banff.
Never one to shy away from being a sheep, I determined that we too needed to camp at Two Jack Lakeside. And if that didn’t pan out (it’s damn near impossible to get reservations there), well Two Jack Main struck me as an ideal consolation prize in what is undoubtedly one of the most hotly contested camping destinations in Canada.
My first attempt at doing so failed, as happens far too often when trying to book summer holidays in January, as Parks Canada had us do prior to 2021. My luck would change in 2020, however, as I nabbed a spot at Two Jack Main for the Labour Day long weekend. Quite a coup that was, I figured, though not the holy grail of Two Jack Lakeside. Who knew the high point of my 2020 would come in the second week of January!
By the time the September long weekend rolled around, half my family was thoroughly camped out after we’d made camping our sole summer refuge from Covid isolation. As a result, only my son and I would close out the camping season with a father-son outing at Two Jack Main.
With it being the end of summer, and in the mountains, we were reluctant to tent camp as we had done a couple times in July and August, choosing instead to use the RV. I even took the opportunity to sleep in the bottom bunk where my daughter usually resides, thereby eliminating any need to stow kitchen table each night. It’s the little things.
Speaking of little things, with 380 non-serviced campsites in 44 loops, Two Jack Main Campground is decidedly not. It may be dwarfed by the Tunnel Mountain Village campgrounds, but it is no less impressive a campground. The layout and setting is everything we’ve come to expect from a campground in Canada’s national parks. It may not have the wow factor of Two Jack Lakeside, but you won’t be disappointed with your stay at Two Jack Main.
The exception would be those of you with huge RVs. Your stay at Two Jack Main will not be disappointing because it won’t happen at all. The campground pretty much eliminates anything over 27’ in length. That’s a decent sized camper but a quick scan of any RV dealership lot will reveal significant demand for units bigger than that.
And the need for such size restrictions became evident the minute we arrived at our site. Rather than the typical side-by-side configuration, it had the fire pit and picnic table directly behind the gravel RV pad. The pad was also very narrow, cut into the tall conifers, leaving little room for slides or movement. Rated by Parks Canada for trailers up to 21’, it was a cozy fit for our 16’ Geo Pro. I had to step slightly sideways between a tree and the rear edge of our camper to reach the fire pit.
The sites are not small, however. There is ample, wooded space between them and to the rear of each. At no time did I feel cramped or lacking for privacy. It was a delightful spot, despite the unique configuration. Just a bit surprising as to how confined the pad dimensions are.
The lodgepole pine offers nice shelter from the sun but in doing so blocks much of the scenery. You won’t be awestruck sitting around your campfire staring out at glorious mountain vistas. To get those you will need to go adventuring.
On the other hand, those pine trees offer perfect perches for ravens to roost overnight. I’m all for nature but read a little Poe in your lifetime and a raven sitting overhead as darkness falls will leave you a little on edge.
Not surprisingly, there was an abundance of tent campers to be found at Two Jack Main. RVs were certainly in the minority and those that were present, like ours, trended to the smaller size. This skewing towards tent campers, “real campers” if you will, gave Two Jack Main a different atmosphere than you might find at more resort-like campgrounds.
I found that appealing though it might rub some the wrong way. I’ll admit to some surprise having expected it to cater to international tourists in motorhomes and the like, but I suppose those travelers gravitate to the Tunnel Mountain campgrounds.
All 44 loops are circular with 7 to 10 sites found around the perimeter. The loops are situated in groups of 2, 3, or 4 serviced by an entrance road radiating off the main campground road. There is no primary loop that will take you full circle to and from the entrance. You wind your way into the bowels of Two Jack Main and once at the end, you must turn around and work your way back out. Not a huge issue, but it does mean if you are camping in loop 44, for example, you’ll have a fair drive in and out each time.
Each site has a fire pit and a picnic table, as expected. My one critique of the sites, besides their constrained layout, was that they were quite dirty. They may have had robust gravel pads at one time, but that has long worn away or been covered over. Fine dirt now dominates, and your hands will get quite dirty picking up wood and chairs around the campsite.
Not all loops are created equal, either. According to the official campground map, loops 14 through 17 are designated as group camping. They’re otherwise identical to the regular loops and not especially segregated from them either. Still, nice to have the option for group camping here. I’m sure there is plenty of demand in this popular national park.
Likewise, loops 1 through 4 have a special designation as well. Although they were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic during our visit in 2020, these four loops have been upgraded for equipped camping. Again, they are the same campsites and loops as the remainder of the campground but have additional accoutrements for visitors without their own gear.
Each of these equipped sites has a wooden platform, presumably where a tent is set up, and a green storage bin. It remains unclear if that bin contains the additional camping gear or is solely for food storage. I suspect the former. Whatever the case, this section was closed during our visit so I am unable to elaborate as to the use of or popularity of these equipped sites. They sound like a great idea to me and ideal in a place like Banff that sees plenty of international visitors who are unlikely to be hauling camping gear around with them.
Each grouping of loops has at least one, sometimes two, combination bathroom and picnic shelter. Looking like cabins, these buildings are all dated and worn but otherwise satisfactory for their intended uses.
Inside each semi-enclosed picnic shelter is a sink with running water and an iron woodstove on a concrete block. Wooden tables and benches are also present. These shelters aren’t huge by any stretch but nonetheless suitable for groups to dine/visit together or hide from the elements. (Note – these shelters were all closed during our stay due to the pandemic)
Immediately outside of the shelter is an outdoor kitchen station that tent campers can use for cleanup. Basically a sink within a dilapidated wood enclosure on a concrete pad, these stations are in need of some TLC as well. A single, freshwater tap resides next to the enclosure providing convenient drinking water near all campsites.
The washrooms contain sinks, urinals, flush toilets, and hand dryers. There is a power receptacle by the sinks and lighting that stays on all night long for some inexplicable but annoying reason. There are no showers or hot water (showers are available at nearby Two Jack Lakeside). And modern is not the first word that comes to mind. My campground bathrooms needn’t be magazine photospread worthy, but the yellow tiling and leaky taps attest to them having been unchanged for many decades.
You’ll note in the picture that one of the sinks is covered with a garbage bag. This too was done as a Covid-19 safety protocol. It made for potentially slow exits from the washroom but if one were properly following safety measures you wouldn’t have entered the bathroom if someone else was inside anyway. With half the loops closed for the pandemic, camper numbers were halved as well, which limited the inconvenience such sink restriction measures might have caused.
Considering the size limitations of the campsites and predominance of tenters at Two Jack Main, the quaint sizing of the dump station shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are, in fact, two dump stations; a single station beside the exit booth and a newer, dual station towards the entrance to loops 1 through 4.
Neither is especially, umm, special but they get the job done. The dual station is a bit more convenient and spacious but either work. And there is a freshwater tap at each for filling up your water tank. Here again, the newer, dual station is more ideally located for filling upon arrival.
Some of the loops, though not all, have food lockers. Banff being what it is, some campers may be cyclers or on foot. And although plenty of people are milling about, this remains bear country so food safety is a must. These lockers, when present, can be found near the bathroom/shelters. An additional suite of lockers is also located at the main entrance.
That main entrance is a minimal affair. A small kiosk where staff will great you, complete your registration, and send you on your way. Not much more is needed, but it must be noted that there is no store here. Not a huge issue, obviously, with the town of Banff mere minutes away by car. Just beware that even emergency ice purchases cannot be accommodated within Two Jack Main campground.
You can get wood, though. Like all the mountain national parks, firewood is sold by fire permit. $8.80 per day gets you all the wood you can burn. Or, as is the case with my son, all the wood you can chop. Kid loves swinging that axe!
The wood is found in large parking lot area near loops 5 and 6 (note to self … never camp in loops 5 or 6). There is plenty of wood available, mostly spruce and pine, though we were lucky enough to snag a couple pieces of birch. The wood was dry and burned well in our funky fire pit.
I don’t ogle fire pits often, but these were the nicest I’ve seen possibly ever. They weren’t new by any means, but their design was spot on. A central flip grate for cooking with a flat platform for pots on either side is a mini stroke of genius. And when it’s time to just enjoy the fire, flip the grate out of the way and you’ve got a nicely sized campfire at your service.
Nice as Two Jack Main is, there isn’t much to do within its confines. Here’s my broken record moment. There is no playground for the kiddies here. I still do not understand why Parks Canada refuses to build playgrounds in their large campgrounds.
Nor is there any open space for tossing a frisbee or kicking a ball. I understand people are in a place like Banff National Park to explore nature and the trappings of tourism, but options for kids to burn off energy during meal prep wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Even in paradise, a campground can be more than just a place to sleep.
The one activity Two Jack Main does offer is hiking. There is a dirt trail that circumnavigates the campground. At least I think it does. Hard to know since I couldn’t (and still can’t) find a map for this trail. We headed south from our loop 34 campsite expecting it might circle around to the entrance but after finding ourselves only going deeper into the woods, we turned around and went back to site.
It’s a nice trail, don’t get me wrong, and does head in the other direction as well, but a map of where it goes would be most welcome. Additional trails are noted on the main campground website map, showing connections between certain groups of loops. And one can speculate that trails from Two Jack Main will also take you to other places in the park like Two Jack Lakeside or Two Jack Lake itself.
One thing this trail revealed is that the campground is situated on a ledge of sorts. While the whole campground appears level, the other side of the trail reveals a steep decline. And yet, despite this obvious elevation gain from Banff townsite and the TransCanada highway, the noise of civilization is evident, albeit not overwhelming.
I heard vehicles and trains now and then. Not disruptively so, but noticeable. Two Jack Main isn’t some secluded paradise. In fact, I was mortified upon our arrival when two, then three, airplanes kept circling directly over our campsite every twenty minutes. I was worried it was some jackass sight-seeing operation but turns out they were waterbombers fighting forest fires to the north and using Lake Minnewanka as a water source. They stopped these flights at night and were thus forgiven for the jolt of panic they induced in me.
One of the nicer perks available at Two Jack Main is bus service to town. A transit route loops from town to Lake Minnewanka and back, offering stops at both Two Jack campgrounds on its way around. Evidence enough that this campground is still very much within the tourist sphere. It’s a lovely campground that provides an illusion of escape from the tourist onslaught, but that really is just an illusion. And for those wishing to include the Banff experience in their stay, a bus service to the town and major attractions is perfect.
For all the raves that Two Jack Lakeside garners, I feel like Two Jack Main is perhaps underappreciated. It may lack a postcard view, but it is otherwise appealing and conveniently located. I liked it though I suspect having my maiden visit occur during a pandemic limited my exposure to overwhelming crowds and unruly campers. The long weekend alcohol ban surely helps, but not so much has having half the campsites closed and international travelers barred from the country. In a normal year I might be less enamored with the place.
Nowhere was this more evident than when my son and I finally attempted to go see what all the fuss was about regarding Lake Minnewanka. We hopped in our vehicle and made our way over on a long weekend Saturday morning around 10:00. Despite all things pandemic, the large parking lot was already crammed full, not a spot to be found. A park employee was directing traffic in and out of the lot, pullouts along the roads leading to and from the area were quickly filling up with cars, and pedestrians were everywhere.
I honestly can’t fathom the nightmare this place must be in non-pandemic summers! We left and returned that evening at 7:30-ish finding a far less frenzied and congested attraction. There were still people there, but we easily found a parking spot and passed far fewer folks as we explored the place. Much to my relief.
Oh, and what a place it is. This must be the largest day use area in the country. Just a massive, sprawling picnic and outdoor recreation extravaganza. With plenty of recent investment too, judging by the shiny new facilities exhibiting a stark contrast to those in Two Jack Main campground. There are beautiful new picnic shelters and washroom facilities dotting the premises, including a massive washroom complex near the entrance.
Lake Minnewank is quite large and a boat launch allows powerboat owners to launch their craft for a day of fishing or watersports. That launch, found right near the entrance from the main road, is not well located but nonetheless offers boaters a robust spot to put their toys into the water.
If you don’t have your own boat but still wish to partake in some fun on the water, you can rent many kinds of watercraft on the dock complex next to the launch. Everything from kayaks right up to motorboats are available for rent. And if you’re not keen on doing your own driving on the water, then the boat tours next door are your best bet.
The rentals appeared to be inoperative due to Covid, but the boat tours were running. Taking you on a leisurely tour up the lake and back, the scenery must be spectacular. We didn’t partake in a tour in part because I’m cheap (and the tours are not) and in part because the aforementioned forest fires were blotting the view somewhat.
If you’re just looking for a spot to picnic, plenty are available. And by available I probably mean available first thing in the morning after which it becomes a crapshoot. And if you didn’t bring a picnic or are just hungry from a hike or boat ride, there’s even a café in the midst for you to grab a bite and a bevvy. We didn’t try that either, but it looks like a nice enough spot.
Trails wind through the day use area and eventually connect to a large trail network that takes you into the wilderness on the west side of the lake. There is the option to hike many kilometers along the lake and back country camp if you wish. During our stay, this trail was restricted to only the first kilometer or so due to bear activity. No problem for us but if you have grand hiking adventures in your plans, you’ll want to triple check trail status before coming.
We did make our way to Stewart Canyon which is a nifty, if modest, canyon emptying into the lake. A footbridge crosses the crystal-clear tributary below and offers some attractive views of the landscape and lake. The hike along this trail was pleasant enough though even as dusk was approaching, we crossed paths with other people. Again, this place must be a congested nightmare during regular summers.
After our initial visit to Lake Minnewanka was aborted, we ventured back to camp but stopped for some spontaneous exploration at Upper Bankhead. Having no familiarity with this area, I wrongly assumed that the Bankhead ghost town was to be found along the trail here. I was wrong but unaware of it until we’d spent two hours hiking to nowhere.
My kid loves ruins. Not such a fan of nature hikes. And though there was one ruin along this trail and some interesting mine cave-ins, it was mostly just a lot of walking in the bush up a mountainside. Not quite what we had in mind … or planned for. We were hungry, agitated, and briefly lost on an errant shortcut.
As we grumpily drove back towards Two Jack Main campground, we passed a sign for Lower Bankhead a mere 500m from Upper Bankhead but on the other side of the road. This is where the actual ghost town resides and is accessible a few meters from the parking lot. Talk about a kick in the groin!
After a much-needed rest and refueling, we ventured back to Lower Bankhead and took in the ruins much to both our delight. The stout concrete foundations and rusted machinery will intrigue young and old. Sure, it isn’t the most amazing attraction in the world, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to realize that a large coal mine and boomtown sprung up inside a national park. Testament to the reality that “park” means different things to different people at different times.
I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see the Bankhead ruins, but if you’re in the Banff area, they’re worth investigating. If nothing else, they offer an easy, informative stroll in the outdoors. And if you’re sneaky, you can even snag a chunk of coal for your kids’ Christmas stocking if so deserved.
That I managed to spend 22 years living so close to all of this but knew nothing of its existence, despite even spending nights in Banff, is truly bizarre. And, as I said at the start, embarrassing. Talk about not seeing the end of your nose. There is so much more to Banff than I ever realized.
Still, it’s not my preferred scene. I’m happy to now know of it and to have witnessed it. Even happier to have done so in a low traffic summer. Thank you Covid. But I don’t envision myself scrambling to return in the near future. Maybe in 22 years I’ll get the urge.
However, if you are looking to camp near Banff, you can’t go wrong with Two Jack Main. I’ll give it a solid 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Sure, it could use a little sprucing up, a trail map, and maybe a playground for the kidlets, but it’s otherwise a delightful spot. I enjoyed our stay.