Where and how to camp in Alberta without a reservation
Forecast looks beautiful. Campsites are booked solid. You didn't make a reservation months ago. Now what?!
Cataract Creek, June 12, 2021
In recent years, scoring a good campsite in Alberta during a July or August weekend has become a difficult task. You need to book several months before you go and if you do remember to book, it’s often a frustrating process that involves a lot of online queue waiting, website refreshing and cursing.
If you want to go camping this summer, don’t have bookings, are flexible on location and timing, and don’t mind the adventure of finding a site (or, total worst case, turning back home if you can’t find one), we’re here to inform you, there are some options!
Annalise had a lovely weekend at Cataract Creek in mid-June, a trip she decided to go on the day before after looking at the forecast and knowing she needed to spend the entire weekend outside. How did she camp at a beautiful site in Alberta without a reservation booked months ahead of time? Cataract Creek is one of many “first come-first served” campsites in Alberta’s provincial recreation areas and parks. There are also a handful of first come-first served campgrounds in our National Parks. Like the name suggests, these sites don’t require reservations. Rather, you arrive, find a vacant spot, set up camp, and register (typically at a self-registration booth).
When Annalise and her husband arrived at Cataract Creek around dinner time on Saturday, June 12, there were still dozens of sites left. Do PLEASE keep in mind, mid-June is still early season camping in Alberta. As the summer goes on, your best bet at finding spots in any first come-first served sites (and especially at Cataract Creek!) is to arrive early in the day, visit mid-week or be willing to drive to locations a few hours from major centres. Especially before long weekends, it’s not uncommon for people to drive to a site on a Tuesday or Wednesday, set up a tent, drive back home, go to work, and return for the long weekend. (So showing up at 6 p.m. on the Saturday of a long weekend in July or August is not a great idea.)
Cataract Creek Campground is located in a lodgepole pine forest
Cataract Creek is a 90-minute drive from Calgary, and sits about 50 minutes southwest of Longview. The campground is located in a stunning lodgepole pine forest and has 102 unserviced sites. It’s one of 159 first come-first served campgrounds across Alberta, most located in Provincial Recreation Areas (PRAs).
In Alberta, PRAs are typically small, designated areas for camping, often found near Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ), which are also commonly referred to as Crown land or public land. The postage-stamp-sized Cataract Creek PRA is surrounded by the massive Cataract Creek PLUZ, which sits just north of the even larger Livingstone PLUZ, which is extremely popular for random camping (more on that in a minute).
It’s worth noting that many of these PRAs and their first-come first-served campgrounds were slated to be removed from the parks system last year, under changes introduced by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party. The government later backtracked on that plan after a major outcry from Albertans concerned about the loss of protected natural areas.
Annalise, who for years has frequented Crown land in British Columbia, spent a lot of time exploring both PRAs and PLUZs in Alberta last summer, amid the pandemic and travel restrictions. She wrote a cover story for the (now on newsstands) July/August issue of Alberta Views magazine about these PRAs, parks and Crown land in Alberta, and the changes that were slated to be made.
(The entire summer issue of Alberta Views is full of stories about the great outdoors. We recommend you pick up a copy as these articles aren’t yet online. Plus, reading articles in print is just so much better, especially when relaxing in a hammock at your campsite!)
Back to Cataract Creek, which makes an appearance in the magazine article and features nearby trails for exploring. Right near Cataract Creek is the trailhead for Mount Burke, a 16-kilometre out and back hike that’s rated as difficult and features some amazing views and a fire lookout at the top. Hike Bike Travel has a great write-up of this hike.
After spending the night at Cataract Creek in mid-June, Annalise opted to venture to Raspberry Ridge Lookout, a 10-kilometre round-trip trek with 650 metres of elevation gain.
The trailhead is about a three-minute drive from the Cataract Creek campground and it’s a popular place to hike — between the small parking lot and road, there were about 60 cars parked when Annalise arrived around 11 a.m. on a beautiful Saturday morning. The trail features wildflowers and, like Mount Burke, there’s a fire lookout at the summit.
En route to Raspberry Ridge Lookout
As mentioned, Cataract Creek is just one of several campgrounds in Alberta, where you can show up without a reservation. Another option if you didn’t book a campground months ago is Crown land camping (also known as random camping, public land camping or PLUZ camping). We wouldn’t recommend camping on public land unless you have camping experience and a vehicle that can handle rough roads. As Annalise details in her Alberta Views feature, Crown land camping is a real experience. The sounds, smells and sites are often quite different than the law and order that exists in designated campgrounds.
Cataract Creek is about a 15-minute drive from the Livingstone PLUZ, and had the designated campground been full, Annalise would have spent the night camping here. Annalise’s backup plan (if a site is full) when she heads to first-come first-served Campsites is typically staying at a nearby PLUZ, where you can pretty much camp for free, wherever you like, as long as it’s 30 metres from nearby water. We’ll do a more thorough post about Crown land camping in Alberta later this summer.
Unlike a designated campground, with specific spots to pitch your tent or park your trailer, Crown land is a free-for-all.
Cataract Creek is just one example of the many sites across Alberta available to those who didn’t snag reservations months in advance. Do some research; the internet is full of write-ups and details of many of the other sites as well as information about camping on public land. As the weather warms, we hope you get a chance to sleep under the stars this summer, as it truly is the best. We’ll leave you with some outdoor reading for your future adventures!
Pieces we’ve been enjoying lately:
How to Plan a Day Hike in Outside magazine
Camping wasn’t a realistic pastime in Hong Kong, but I learned to love the outdoors at summer camp in B.C. by Joanna Chiu in the Toronto Star
The newest ad from Travel Alberta. A lovely reminder of just how lucky we are to live here.
Sadly, camping on public land (PLUZ) is no longer free in Alberta: https://www.alberta.ca/public-lands-camping-pass.aspx