It’s hard to imagine a better place to camp. I’m surrounded by the stunning Alberta Rockies and my tent sits just a few metres away from a mountain lake. It’s barely sunrise, but there is already a half dozen fisherman vying for cutthroat and rainbow trout.
My plan is different. As I enjoy my morning coffee, I’m pouring over the local trail map with hopes of squeezing in two different hikes to explore the seemingly endless wilderness that spreads in every direction throughout Alberta’s two newest provincial parks.
Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park were established in February, 2017. They’re located along Alberta’s western border, in the south part of the province between Waterton Lakes National Park and the Crowsnest Pass. The most popular access point is from Beaver Mines, a hamlet located along highway 507 near the Crowsnest Pass and the picturesque town of Pincher Creek. Long popular as an off-road destination – think of such off-highway vehicles as ATVs and big-wheeled jeeps – these two parks were formed in an effort to better conserve the wildlife corridors and habitat that are an essential part of this ecosystem, known as the crown of the continent.
The new designation means change is inevitable, but the hope is that the new parks status will better protect the area while developing new ways for visitors to explore and appreciate this wilderness region. Beginning this year, off-highway vehicle use is limited to designated trails, and their use will slowly be phased out in coming years. All hiking, mountain biking and horse trails are being assessed this summer and a comprehensive trail development plan will follow. The current Castle Summer Trail Guide is already packed with enough adventure ideas to keep visitors busy all season long, so it will be exciting to watch it develop in coming years, pending the final outcome of the Castle management planning process.
Earlier this summer, I headed south to explore the area for myself and walked away impressed. Here are five things I discovered during my visit:
1. More stunning Alberta Rockies scenery
Discovering Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park were such vast wilderness areas was truly surprising. For nearly a decade, I’ve called Alberta home and explored its better-known mountain destinations in Kananaskis Country and its national parks.
Upon arriving in Castle Provincial Park, I immediately recognized that I’d overlooked an incredible location that is chock full of stunning mountain scenery and adventure opportunities that easily rival those other Alberta destinations.
2. Uncrowded campgrounds
Without a reservation or planning, I arrived at Castle Provincial Park in the evening and landed a stunning lakeside campsite for two nights at Beaver Mines Lake campground.
With four front country campgrounds – Lynx Creek, Castle Falls, Castle River Bridge and Beaver Mines Lake – this isn’t a rare occurrence, but I cannot help but think it’ll change as these new parks gain popularity. For backcountry users, the opportunities are endless. In Castle Wildland Provincial Park, wilderness camping is permitted, as long as the campsite is located at least 1 kilometre from existing facilities.
3. An eclectic group of park users
I’m not sure I’ve ever met a more eclectic group of park users than I did during my weekend in Castle Provincial Park. I met die-hard fly fishermen taking advantage of world-class cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing; a through-hiker at the beginning of a 500-kilometre journey, following the Great Divide trail from Waterton to Jasper National Parks; young families enjoying their lakeside campsite; and ATV drivers ripping up and down the designated trails. One thing I never found? A crowd.
4. Ridgelines and summits
Although recently established as provincial parks, the Castle region has had dedicated trail users that have helped maintain an incredible collection of backcountry hiking trails. The Castle Summer Map Guide features the best-known trails, but the list will grow over the next few years as park administrators develop and implement a trail plan.
During our visit, I hiked Table Mountain. It’s a relatively short hike, but easily compares to Ha Ling Peak in Canmore or Bear’s Hump in Waterton as an easy-to-reach summit with incredible views. We hit the trail at 4:30 a.m. and arrived at the summit to watch sunrise above the prairies that stretch off towards the eastern horizon. Gazing west, I had clear views of the mountains that stretched beyond Crowsnest Pass.
On my next visit, I already know I’ll be aiming for Avion and Barnaby Ridges.
5. Dark skies and bright stars
The Milky Way was on display during my visit to Castle Provincial Park and I took advantage by staying up late and watching the night sky come alive. Truly dark skies are rare because of the iridescent light pollution caused by city lights, but these parks are a prime night-sky destination because of their remote location.
Waterton Lakes National Park, which borders Castle Provincial Park to the south, was recently designated as a dark sky preserve. With fewer visitors and more remote locations, it’s no wonder this region might have the province’s clearest night skies.