Have you ever heard of David Thompson?
If not, you’re not alone. We didn’t know who he was either until we visited Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. It turns out that David Thompson was the greatest land geographer of his time, travelling more than 90,000 kilometres across North America while mapping 4.9 million square kilometres of the continent along the way. This was just one of the many things we learned about during our visit to this former Hudson Bay Trading Post.
Rocky Mountain House is a National Historic Site located near the town of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. It’s approximately 77 kilometres from Red Deer and almost equally in-between Edmonton and Calgary, making it a 2-hour road trip from either city. It’s situated right along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, and is just off the famous Cowboy Trail, otherwise known as Highway 22. In other words, it’s a great place for a classic Alberta road trip.
What is Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site?
Two centuries ago, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, four forts once stood on the land at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Clearwater Rivers. The rivers were very important as they were used like highways by the First Nations, the Métis, and European traders. In 1799, the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company established fur trading posts along the river. This increased trade with the indigenous peoples around the Rocky Mountains and continued all the way until 1875, becoming the centre of commerce in the west for 76 years. It also served as a launching point for the famous geographer, David Thompson, who was in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Through both time and fire, the forts disappeared but a wealth of artifacts and records remained. Today, it’s a national historic site and a campground. While you won’t find an active fur trade economy these days, you will find a lovely place to spend a day or two, learning about Canadian history and enjoying both the daily programs and natural surroundings.
It all starts at the visitor centre. Here you’ll be able to visit their small museum or try out their new virtual-reality experience. This is a great place to get some insight and to talk to park staff before embarking on your own self-guided walking tour around the site. Once you arrive at the fork in the road, you’ll be able to listen to an audio guide and then walk the two trails that lead you to various sites and exhibits. There’s the Chimney Trail that goes to the left and the David Thompson Trail that goes to the right. We started with the Chimney Trail, which is the smaller trail of the two. This took us over to the original chimney’s, which are the only remaining artifact left from the original fort. Right next to those, you’ll find the blacksmith building where actors are on-hand to not only explain what they’re doing but to actually show you how it was done. You may even get a nail if you’re lucky. In front of the blacksmith building is a replica of a York boat, which are the boats that were used to transport goods from this site all the way to Montreal. That is a long ways away. I can’t imagine the amount of effort and time that went into these shipments.
Once you complete the Chimney Trail, you’ll start the David Thompson Trail, which takes you to the Métis camp. Here you’ll be greeted by a group of actors who will give you a taste of the Métis life from the 1800s. You’ll be able to see what it would have looked like on the inside of the tent, feel some furs, try some bannock, and possibly even witness some dancing. After performing a jig with the ladies, we made our way further down the trail, stopping at the “follow the herd” exhibition. Here we learned about the indigenous people’s of the area and how they would have set up camp during a bison hunt. We spent over an hour here listening to the stories and explanations of the various artifacts, such as handmade tools and equipment. I especially loved the bison horn that was used to hold hot coals, taking them from one destination to another to avoid having to start a fire from scratch. Ingenious!
Lastly, we went to the “kid fort”, which is a small replica of an original fort. This is a great place to get an idea of what the fort would have looked like on the inside, but it’s also home to a puppet show! We had originally assumed that this was going to be for kids, but after a Parks Canada staff member told us it was quite informative, we decided to check it out. It’s actually really well done and can be enjoyed by any age group. The set up is great and it’s an entertaining way to learn about David Thompson, whose story is incredibly interesting.
In addition to all the daily activities, Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site also offers a variety of paid classes throughout the busy months. Some of the options offered include learning how to make moccasins, learning how to make bannock, and even gathering around a campfire for some drum and song. We actually took part in their dreamcatcher class, creating a dreamcatcher from scratch. This took about two hours but now we have a beautiful souvenir from the site and perhaps, better dreams for the rest of our lives. Maybe.
After more than a century since the fur trading industry here ceased to exist, Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is now a wonderful site to visit, explore, and learn from. However, it’s also a great place to go camping!
Rocky Mountain House Camping
Perhaps one of the most unique options at this historic site is the opportunity to go camping. Not only can you bring your own tent, but this Parks Canada site also offers tipi’s, Trapper’s Tents, and cabins. This makes it a lot easier for people to enjoy the “camping experience”, and also offers insight into what life was like back in the day. We decided to stay in a trapper’s cabin, which is perhaps the most authentic of the three experiences. The canvas tents are quite spacious and typically come with two beds. Each bed has a fairly comfortable mattress, but you will need to bring your own sleeping bag, blankets and/or pillows. However, inside each room, you’ll also find a trunk, which has a variety of things to enhance your experience at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site campground. Inside, you’ll find a period cooking kit and utensils, a blow tube and flint/steel fire-starting kit, bannock mix, trapper’s tea, spices, oil, soap, and a hatchet. My favourite part of the kit is the bannock mix, trapper’s tea, and the fire-starting kit. This just helps make it more of an authentic trapper’s experience.
We tried our hand at doing all three, with the trapper’s tea being our only success. Unfortunately, I think our fire was too hot for the bannock mix, so it became burnt in less than 10 minutes. We tried our hand at starting the fire with the flint and steel but literally got it to spark only once. However, it was fun to try. The trapper’s tea, however, is easy. You just take a pinch or two of the leaves and twigs, drop it into one of the provided tea bags, and steep in hot water. Pretty hard to mess that one up. There’s no caffeine though, so you may want black tea or coffee on the side. It’s quite tasty though!
Aside from the kit, the campground is well equipped. It’s not very wild, so if you’re new to camping or simply prefer a more “comfortable” camp set up, this is a great place. Each campground is quite close together and the fire pits are communal, which is the only thing I wasn’t a fan of. It is a nice way of meeting the neighbors, but sometimes you just want to relax with your family. The historical site is a 10-minute walk away and there are real bathrooms and a shower just 5-minutes away at the campground registration office.
Despite being just a 10-minute drive from the town of Rocky Mountain House, we often heard coyotes howling at night, which really adds to the wilderness experience. There’s one main 3-km trail in the area, which leads down the river, up to the Bison viewing area, and into parts of the historical site.
All in all, we had a great time at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site campground. My parents joined us and made a family-time of it all. For them, it was nice having the Trapper’s tent and mattressed instead of a normal tent, and it was also nice to have proper bathrooms not too far away. But the best part of all is that you’re camping in an area that is an important part of Canadian history. You can literally walk about 5-minutes from the campsite and see the actual archeological spot where the forts would have been. While it may not be as wild as some other camping spots not too far away in the Canadian Rockies, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that includes an immersive educational experience.
For families especially, this campground and historical site is a real gem.
For more things to do in Alberta, check out:
- Best Things To Do in Banff
- Best Things To Do in Canmore
- Hiking Johnston Canyon
- Things To Do in Calgary
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