Our family recently returned from an 4300 mile van camping trip to Canada. We drove from the Bay Area in California to Glacier National Park in Montana and entered the border near Waterton Lakes National Park. Waterton Lakes is so beautiful, that we could have spent an entire week there.
The Canadian Rockies rise sharply off the prairie and the view is stunning to look at. We almost did not go to Waterton Lakes as it's not a well known park. Maybe we should keep it that way.
Van Camping Trip To Canada
The village of Waterton is a little gem. The Townsite campground seems to take up most of the city. It's more like this amazing campground in the wilderness with a tiny village attached to it. The lake shore and surrounding mountains made us feel like we were staying at a 5 star resort. In reality, it costs us less than $15 a night because slept inside our van half the time.
Van camping is different from car camping as we take items such as a 12 volt DC refrigerator freezer, comfortable air mattresses, gourmet cooking gear, and platform beds for sleeping inside the van!
When we are organized, we can pull into any legal parking spot in Canada or the national forest and be in bed in a few short minutes.
While our goal was to spend most of the trip in Canada, we could not stop ourselves from enjoying the journey. It took us more than a week to get to the Canadian border. It's more fun to travel at a snails pace and enjoy the journey.
3 Week Van Camping Journey
Our first stop was Christian Encounter Ministries family camp in Grass Valley, California. This was our 5th year attending the camp that reaches out to struggling teenagers. CEM operates year round and opens the camp up once a year to anyone filling to show up. A $50 donation per family is suggested.
We enjoyed 4 days and 3 nights at this awesome camp. The boys enjoyed tubing on a super cold canal, archery, fishing, singing, and worshipping the Lord at this camp.
Our next stop was Ashland Oregon to say hello to our wonderful friends Marc and Savannah, and their 4 kids. This was a surprise visit as I texted him when we were within a few hours of Ashland. We arrived at their home around 10 PM and slept in our van.
The following morning, we helped Marc clean up some tree trimmings. We ate an enormous brunch of waffles, eggs, and scones.
The kids swam in the nearby creek. We left Ashland at 4 in the afternoon. So much for hurrying.
We drove all the way to Cottage Grove, Oregon and spent the night camping at Walmart. As strange as this may sound, I started enjoying staying at Walmart because we can get some important shopping accomplished and have a nice safe place to sleep. Limo tint and curtains keep us private.
We were off to an early start and drove through the Willamette Valley searching for signs advertising farm fresh eggs and raw milk. We spotted a sign in front of small farm advertising farm fresh eggs and raw milk outside of Brownsville. We had space in our cooler for 2 gallons. The name of the farm is Blessings. They sold us solid glass containers to store the milk. The milk was rich with the cream floating to the top. It tasted so good mixed with our home made granola.
We really enjoy the Williamette Valley in Oregon as the weather is mild with little rain in the summer. Wild blackberries grow everywhere! We were a little too early this year to pick any. There is an abundance of small family farms dotting the landscape.
After a quick trip in the Willamette Valley, we drove over the Cascades and through Sisters, Oregon. We usually stop for coffee Sisters Coffee Roasting Company in this upscale village. We decided to press on for the Deschuttes River State Park just outside of The Dalles, Oregon to camp for the evening.
This campground is a jewel for an over night stay. We camped within a few feet of the river on a nice grassy lawn. There are hot showers, flushing toilets, and hiking trails. For only $10, this is the way to roll!
The following day we drove through Oregon, Washington, and finally made our way to Montana where we camped on a small national forest dirt track next to I90. We set up folding camping tables and ate an a gourmet dinner and rested for the night before heading out to Glacier National Park We ate an early morning breakfast next to beautiful Flathead Lake in Montana.
I kept smelling radiator fluid and could not find the leak. I called around and found a radiator shop that offered to diagnose the problem for me but would not be able to repair as it was the 4th of July weekend. The owner immediately looked at the top of my radiator and found a crack in the top. He said that he could repair it for $65 labor fee plus parts. We were in and out of the shop in less than an hour.
I called a few private campground and reserved a campsite at Glacier Campground in West Glacier Montana. They had free wi-fi, washing machines, and hot showers.
We spent watched the 4th of July fireworks in from our campground in St. Mary, Montana. It was a cold and rainy night. After a week of 100 degree heat, the cold and rain was a relief.
Crossing The Canadian Border In A Van
The forecast was for cold and rain so we decided to cross the Canadian border and camp at Waterton Lakes National Park. The border crossing had a short line with a long wait. We saw peopling bringing flats of eggs, produce, and other food back to the US borders. Several cars were parked and searched. When it came time for us to show our passports we breezed through in less than 30 seconds. We had a lot of food and were not sure what we could take and what we should leave behind. We left our fate into the hands of the Canadian border patrol.
Waterton Lakes is laid back park that offers as much as the US Glacier National Park without the crowds. I think most people by pass this parking thinking they saw everything on the US side. I nearly bypassed this park in my haste to make it to Jasper and Banff National Parks.
We spent 2 nights camping in the Townsite Campground that included clean washrooms, cooking shelters, and hot showers for $27.50 Canadian (about $20 US) per night. Watertown Lakes and the Rocky mountains provided breath taking views all around us. Looking back, I could have stayed in this park for an entire week without getting bored.
After leaving Waterton Lakes, I pushed on through the Canadian Rockies for the big name parks of Banff, Jasper, and Kootenay. This was a big mistake because there is so much beauty outside of the national parks and the crowds are practically non existent.
I have to say that the small town of Jasper is nearly as quaint as it was when I visited there in 1985. Bears no longer roam the streets. You can walk the downtown shopping area in less than an hour.
Banff on the other hand reminds me of Aspen, Colorado. It's plush and expensive. People from all over the world roam the streets like ants.
Since my family is not into long hikes in the back country, we could not fully enjoy our trip to the Canadian Rockies. In short, it's not worth the drive unless you get out and hike the back country. The roads and campgrounds are crowded. I was warned about this and yet my stubbornness prevailed. When I traveled through Banff and Jasper 30 years ago on a bicycle, it was still crowded. I beat the system by doing hiking into the back country.
Camping At Glacier National Park Canada
This is where the fun really began for us as the crowds tapered off, the rain almost stopped, and we started to relax. The park is situated in a real rain forest. Everything is green and lush. The mountains are topped with snow and glaciers.
I read about Illecillewaet campground in an email from world acclaimed travel author Kathy Copeland. She suggested that we make this a stop over for hiking adventures. We camped a few feet away from the roaring river. Huckleberries were ripe and ready to eat. I wanted to do more hiking, but due to recent grizzly bear sitings, the park required people to hike in groups of 2 or more.
Nine hiking trails radiate out from the campground, heading towards the toe of the glacier, leading up to icefield viewpoints, or accessing the classic climbing routes of the Sir Donald Range. Illecillewaet has 60 campsites with 5 sites accommodating very large Class A motorhomes. The campground has flush toilet washroom buildings, a log kitchen shelter & food lockers for cyclists.
Visit The Lesser Known Kootenays
The "Kootenays" is an amazing remote region that is hard to get to because the mountains are steep and valleys are narrow. Unlike the more popular regions like Banff that have freeways passing through them, this area has narrow 2 lane highways with few cars. We entered the region via a free ferry on Arrowhead Lake.
The ferry was relaxing and the views were amazing. It took about 10 minutes to cross to the other side.
St. Leon Hot Springs, British Columbia
We met a gentleman while waiting in line to take the ferry across upper Arrow Lake and he told us about the local hot springs. On nearly every cross country camping trip, we usually hear about secret hot springs that only the locals know about. This was the best hot springs that we have ever visited. The locals did not share a name for it. With a little research online, I found a lot of information about St. Leon Hotsprings. It's almost impossible to find without a local guiding you to the exact turn off.
To find this awesome hot springs, drive approximately 10 km south of Galena Bay where the ferry drops you off from Shelter Bay. The turn off is on your left and is not marked. We were told to cross a bridge over a stream or a river and take the second gravel road on the left. If you miss it you will see a rest stop on your left. Turn around and go back.
It's a bumpy logging road that any sedan or low clearance vehicle can handle. Drive about 1.5 up the steep road. When you get to the fork in the road, continue left where the road gets narrow and bumpy. The path to walk down to the hot springs is no more 5 km from the pavement. You will see where cars pull off and park. The path is barely visible. If you are here during the summer, be patient as someone will eventually show up to soak.
If you cannot find the hot springs, go into the village of Nakusp and ask for the guy that works on vintage motorcycles at Columbia Car & Cycle . He is the"caretaker"of the hot springs. He walks down to the springs everyday and soaks his injured leg. He is soft spoken and offers a lot of valuable information.
Free Camping at Horseshoe Lake
We enjoyed a nice over night stay at Horse Shoe Lake in British Columbia. The lake was very low due to the drought. However, the scenery was amazing.