Remember 1999? Amidst the anticipation of the coming new millennium and the growing Y2K panic, George Lucas gave millions of now-grown-up Star Wars fans the first of three prequels to his legendary space opera. The hype was unsurprisingly intense and the reviews, perhaps equally unsurprising, were mixed.
I landed firmly in the disappointed camp and I wasn’t even a rabid fan of the original movies. There was plenty to bemoan but like many others, Jar Jar was the focal point for my loathing.
Here’s the thing. Jar Jar wasn’t for me. Nor was he for any of the other adults who were kids when the first trilogy happened. He was for the new kids. The kids of 1999. It took me a few years to figure that out.
I was reminded of this epiphany last summer when I first saw the lauded Two Jack Lakeside campground with my own eyes. In my opinion, it doesn’t live up to the hype. But much like Jar Jar Binks, I realized Two Jack Lakeside isn’t for me.
To say that Two Jack Lakeside Campground is a popular spot is a bit of an understatement. It’s true of all the campgrounds in Canada’s vaunted mountain national parks, but just a little more so for Two Jack Lakeside. It was this popularity that drew my attention to it in the first place. And it’s not hard to understand why.
Tucked away on the southern shore of tiny Two Jack Lake, an odd tributary “lake” of the much larger Lake Minnewanka, and a mere 6 km from Banff townsite, this campground inhabits premium real estate to say the least. It’s also a fair bit smaller than its nearby brethren all of which are monstrous campgrounds.
Elite location combined with limited supply is a realtor’s wet dream and makes for an uber-competitive scramble once the booking season opens. I’ve taken my own stab at securing a spot in this near-mythical campground the past few years. I’ve never succeeded. That too is not hard to understand.
With only 74 campsites in total, Two Jack Lakesde is certainly small by Parks Canada standards, especially for a hot spot like Banff. But it gets even more niche. Of those 74 sites, 10 have been converted to Otentik sites. A further 23 are walk-in tent sites, leaving only 41 campsites for people using recreational vehicles like me.
Those 41 RV sites are not a free for all either. Only 5 of them can accommodate a unit up to 27’ in length. If you boast a trailer beyond that, you’re out of luck. An additional 7 can handle up to 24’ and a further 1, up to 21’. The 28 left over are only rated for an assortment of tent trailers, camper vans or various sized tents.
In other words, with our modest 16’ Geo Pro travel trailer, we have only 13 sites from which to pick. Considering the frenzied competition to capture one of those precious few sites, it’s not hard to understand why we ended up camping at Two Jack Main for the September long weekend.
But like I said, Two Jack Lakeside is not for me. It’s (mostly) for tent campers. Walk-ins especially. Those 23 walk-in sites are located right in the heart of Two Jack Lakeside, some practically right on the shore, no doubt providing this campground its name.
These are the sites that earn Two Jack Lakeside’s fame and kudos. And rightly so. They’re not all spectacular, but a handful are undoubtedly that. Those that aren’t, well, they’re only lesser by comparison to the prime of the prime.
They also make for stark contrast to the remainder of the campground where the sites range from satisfactory to meh to ugh. For all the hype, I was literally shocked at how awful some of those “other” sites at Two Jack Lakeside are. Seriously, if you can’t get one of the walk-in sites or you’re hauling something bigger than a doghouse on wheels, just go to Two Jack Main and be happy.
Two Jack Lakeside isn’t built upon the stereotypical round loop blueprint Parks Canada is so fond of. It’s more amorphous, though generally speaking, there are three loops. There’s a central area with a circular loop around the primary amenities and the walk-in tent sites to one side. There’s a larger, oblong loop to the north with back-in sites and the Otentik spots. And to the south, there’s a baker’s dozen pull-through sites lining a single road with a turnaround at the end.
The entire campground is located within the same lodgepole pine forest in which Two Jack Main resides. It has the Two Jack Lake shoreline providing additional cachet but do remember this is a mountain lake so not exactly the best swimming. There are a few spots where direct access to the water can be made, ideal for a rubber dinghy or paddle board. I wouldn’t describe anything as a beach, here, but I’m sure little kids would enjoy the vegetation-lacking, muddy spots enjoyable.
With the less-engineered nature of the campground and loops, the layout and privacy of campsites varies a fair bit. Some, as noted, are spectacular. Others, not so much.
I was particularly disappointed with the outermost campsites which all back onto the main Lake Minnewanka road. You could literally see right into those campsites from said road. No thanks! I’d rather camp elsewhere than in what is essentially the ditch of a busy road. And that road does get busy. It may calm way the hell down at night, but during the daylight it would be annoying to say the least.
As it caters to tents and small camping vehicles, it’s no surprise that Two Jack Lake has zero campsite services. Neither does Two Jack Main for that matter. This is genuine camping at its most rustic with one delightful exception. Showers.
Front and centre at Two Jack Lakeside is a modern bathroom and shower complex. Those showers were off limits due to Covid protocols during our 2020 stay but they are nonetheless a primo perk for a smallish campground like this. All those tenters are likely to be hiking, cycling, and paddling all day long and a refreshing shower is just what’s needed after a fulfilling day in the wilderness.
The bathrooms are fully functioning and clean with flush toilets, urinals, and stainless-steel sinks. Outside is a wooden cleanup station for dishes and a suite of food storage bins. Another such suite of bins is located next to the picnic shelter in the walk-in tenting area.
There are additional washrooms throughout the campground with outdoor wash stations as well. None have showers but neither are they just pit toilets. What the campground lacks for onsite services it makes up for with comfortable, modern waste disposal.
Several such picnic shelters exist in the various “loops” at Two Jack Lakeside. Again, they were all boarded up due to Covid so I only got minimal peaks at them through gaps in plywood. Though not new, they’re nice enough looking and have a mountain park ambiance to them with timber framing, wooden benches and tables, and iron wood stoves. I imagine they’re quite popular with friendly campers during normal, non-pandemic years.
All sites come with the expected firepit and stationary concrete/wood picnic table. The layout of each site is rather varied and non-descript. There is a pea gravel base and some of the tent sites have wood-edged platforms where tents are expected to be put. Beyond that, though, they’re just open, dirt spots.
Fires are likely to be popular for cooking at Two Jack Lakeside, so the $8.80 daily wood permit is a good deal. There are two wood bins, one in each of the non-walk-in loops, from which to gather your firewood. It’s mostly pine and spruce and burns well based on our experience at Two Jack Main.
Another bonus, unique to Two Jack Lakeside, is a group firepit area. But this is not your average group firepit. Rather than just having a larger than normal steel ring, there’s a stone masonry fireplace and façade in the woods along a trail from the walk-in sites to the northern loop. We stumbled upon it purely by accident and found it charming. I can envision some lively evenings with friends and strangers alike in front of this lovely fireplace.
The Otentik sites are a nice touch and a couple of them have excellent locations looking across Two Jack Lake. It’s a bit odd that they have 10 of them here but none at Two Jack Main. If you’re into glamping or don’t have your own camping gear, these canvas cabins are a nice way to experience some pampered outdoorsy time.
If campers at Two Jake Main must trek to Two Jack Lakeside to enjoy a shower it seems only fair that Two Jack Lakeside campers must trek to Two Jack Main to empty sewage. With so few spots suitable for real RVs, the lack of dump station is hardly a surprise. And the trip between the two campgrounds is very short. We biked it in just a couple minutes.
There is a registration booth with park staff at the entrance to Two Jack Lakeside. But that’s all it is. No store or anything. Treats and necessities can be gotten at Banff only a short drive away.
It is at this kiosk, however, that’ll you find not only weather forecasts jotted down on a whiteboard but bear warnings. In fact, my son and I had a pseudo-bear encounter when we biked over to Two Jack Lakeside for a peak.
Our first route of exploration was down the southern strip of pull-through campsites. As we approached the end turn around, a camper to our right was frantically packing away some items in their car and warned us that there is a bear down there and not to proceed. Sure enough, a second or two later a couple of people come scampering up the road scared out of their wits.
We never did see the bear itself, but I have no reason to doubt it was there. Awhile later, as we were biking back to Two Jack Main, a bear control van passed us on the road and turned into Two Jack Lakeside. Ah, the fun of mountain camping!
A web of trails amongst the walk-in campsites spans outwards along the lakeshore to both the north and south. It makes for a nice walk and a means to access other parts of the campground. Whether this local network ties into any broader Lake Minnewanka trail network remains unclear and I suspect unlikely. But it’s at least noted on maps which is more than I can say for the Two Jack Main trail.
Playgrounds and open sporting spaces are non-existent. You’re presumably here for the mountains and lakes and townsite, so fun within the campground is relegated to campfires and chit chat. And there is no shortage of things to do outside of Two Jack Lakeside regardless of whether your preference is hiking, watersports, picnicking, or tourist shopping.
If you’d like more details on what’s available at Lake Minnewanka and in the surrounding area, I guide you to my Two Jack Main review (click here) in which I elaborate on these attractions. All are close by and can be accessed by foot (with some effort), cycle, vehicle, or bus service which circles from Banff to Lake Minnewanka and back and stops at the entrance to both Two Jack Lake campgrounds.
As I stated near the beginning of this review, my first impressions of Two Jack Lakeside were mixed. For all the hoopla it receives in some corners of the camping world, I was rather unimpressed. But then, it wasn’t meant to impress me.
If you’re an avid tent camper with a proclivity for socializing with strangers, the walk-in tent area is undoubtedly a little bit of heaven. Some of the Otentik locations and a select few non-walk-in sites are gems too. The remainder are conventional at best. Those that back onto the road are absolute non-starters for me.
Now that I’ve seen Two Jack Lakeside, I won’t be rushing to make a reservation anytime soon. Should I decide to go tent camping in Banff, I’d consider it. But for now, I’ll be looking elsewhere and with our little RV our primary means of camping, even if I were to return to this part of Banff, I’ll be content with Two Jack Main.
My rating for Two Jack Lakesdie is a middling 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Many will scoff at that rating though I think it’s generous. And they’d be right, assuming they’re one of the tent campers this campground is so obviously built for. For the rest of us, be happy we had the original Star Wars to begin with and quit griping about Jar Jar. He’s not for us.