Camping is the way to stay cheaply in the Canadian Rockies. Each of the five national parks has excellent campgrounds, which have a combined total of 6,000 sites plus large areas set aside for overflow camping. Many of the campgrounds consist of nothing more than picnic tables, drinking water, pit toilets, and firewood ($8 per site per night), but at least one campground in each park has hot showers and full hookups. Each park also has an area set aside for winter camping.
A percentage of sites in the most popular campgrounds can be reserved through the Parks Canada Campground Reservation Service (450/505-8302 or 877/737-3783, www.pccamping.ca) for a nonrefundable $11 reservation fee. If you’re traveling in the height of summer and require electrical hookups, this booking system is highly recommended. The remaining campsites in the national parks operate on a first-come, first-served basis and often fill by midday in July and August.
Each of the road-accessible provincial parks covered in this book provides camping facilities, usually only with drinking water, picnic tables, and pit toilets. The exceptions are Peter Lougheed and Bow Valley Provincial Parks in Kananaskis Country, where hookups and showers are provided. Campground operations in Kananaskis Country are contracted to private operators but ultimately come under the auspices of the Alberta government (www.albertaparks.ca). This department is also in charge of other campgrounds on public lands, including those in provincial recreation areas along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. BC Parks (www.bcparks.ca) manages similar facilities along the other side of the divide; camp fees range $14–28 per night.
Commercial campgrounds operate in Canmore, Radium Hot Springs, at the entrance to Waterton Lakes National Park, in Golden, in Mount Robson Provincial Park, and in Grande Cache. They provide full hookups and have showers but generally lack the natural surroundings found in national and provincial parks. In Kananaskis Country, the privately operated Mount Kidd RV Park boasts a tennis court, recreation room, spa, and sauna.
Backcountry camping in all national parks is $10 per person per night, or purchase an annual pass ($70), valid for unlimited backcountry travel and camping for 12 months from its purchase date. Before heading out, you must register at the respective park information center (regardless of whether you have an annual pass) and pick up a Backcountry Permit (for those without an annual pass, the cost is the nightly camping fee multiplied by the number of nights you’ll be in the backcountry). Many popular backcountry campgrounds have quotas, with reservations taken up to three months in advance. The reservation fee is $12 per party per trip. Most campgrounds in the backcountry have pit toilets, and some have bear bins for secure food storage. Fires are discouraged, so bring a stove.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition