Waterton Lakes National Park is one of the lesser known parks of the Canadian Rockies. It’s located 3 hours south of Calgary in the province of Alberta and sits on the border with the United States. It is far less crowded than the hotspots of Canmore, Banff and Jasper, where it can be over run with tourists and weekend locals.
Waterton shares its border with Glacier National Park in Montana to the south. The two parks make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind in the world. Although entry to one park does not entitle entry to the other. Waterton National Lakes Park was established in 1895 and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. It also holds the title of a Biosphere Reserve. We would recommend taking the time to visit Glacier National Park as well. The American park is quite different. It has steep mountains and cliff view drives.
Waterton is a secret gem of tranquility. It’s the perfect place to experience a variety of outdoor activities, and enjoy nature and wildlife in an uncrowded and peaceful atmosphere. The park has majestic mountains, narrow gorges, peaceful prairies and beautiful lakes. Along with the abundance of outdoor activities and scenic drives, what more could you want? Oh wait, if that’s not enough there is an 18 hole golf course, public tennis courts, horseback riding, boat tours on Upper Waterton Lake and canoe and row boat rentals on Cameron Lake.
In addition to the variety of wildlife such as elk, deer, grizzlies and cougars, Waterton has a unique geology and over 800 species of wildflowers, some of which are quite rare. Each year in late June a Waterton Wildflower Festival is held. People come to photograph and hike amongst the array of colors that are displayed in the alpine meadows.
The town of Waterton itself is a charming little village that so far has not been spoiled for tourism. However it is not lacking of amenities. There are several hotels, restaurants, a gas station and gift shops. Camping supplies and groceries are available as well. The go-to store in town if you are looking for something is Pat’s. Not only is it the gas station, it has anything and everything from fishing tackle and permits to camping supplies and souvenirs.
One of the fun activities we did in the town was renting a two seater bicycle known as a Surrey bike. It has a front seating area that can accommodate two small children as well. You can rent these multi-person bikes and regular bikes at Pat’s Rentals at the store of the same name. To make it even more enjoyable, peddle yourself over to the Ye Old Lick & Nibble or the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor for a cone. At any given time of the day and into early evening you’ll see families touring around the village on these bikes.
You don’t have to try very hard, or go far to see wildlife. The deer are right in the village. They can often be spotted on the grassy areas near the hotels and main streets. They seem to take very little notice of people walking right past them on the sidewalks.
Waterton Lakes National Park Is Open All Year Round
The park is open year round with the peak season during July and August. Booking accommodation ahead of time for these months is recommended. From fall to early spring most of the park facilities are closed and the services in the town are limited. Winter activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular. The winters are long but relatively mild. Frequent warming is caused by Chinook winds. It is one of Alberta’s warmest areas in winter, but temperatures can drop as low as -40.C.
There are a few different campgrounds operated by Parks Canada within the park and other private ones outside of the park within close vicinity of it.
Even If You’re Not Camping, The Town Site Campground Is A Nice Place To Relax
The campground located in the town area of Waterton sits beside Upper Waterton Lake. It’s a great spot to come and relax, especially in the evening sun. Camping here is very convenient, it’s located within walking distance of the town and it’s restaurants and shops.
There are over 200 kilometers of trails in the park from simple short walks to full day hikes. There are some free Parks Canada Interpretive Hikes, check with the visitor center for details and times.
One of the most popular and scenic hikes is the Bear’s Hump. It is a short but steep hike. Most people in fair condition can make it up in about 45 minutes, just take your time and stop for breaks along the way. The incredible view you get from the top is well worth it. The trail has lots of switch backs and some rough steps along the path. Hiking boots or shoes with good ankle support are recommended, although we saw people going up in sandals. You can start the hike right behind the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Center.
The name comes from the top part of the mountain that looks like a grizzly bear’s hump. From this summit you are rewarded with panoramic views of the Waterton valley, the village of Waterton, the Prince of Wales Hotel and Glacier National Park in Montana.
The Akamina Parkway is a scenic 16 kilometer drive that ends at Cameron Lake. It takes you through the Cameron Valley on a mountainous and winding road. There are several trailheads from this road with parking areas at each. At the lake there is a 1.6 kilometer trail that takes you along the shore to a small peninsula with a viewpoint. Another 4.3 kilometer trail goes through an alpine meadow to Lineham falls. You can rent canoes, rowboats, kayaks and paddle boats at Cameron Lake.
A small herd of bison can be viewed at the Bison paddock. Millions of these huge animals once roamed freely through the prairies, now they are on the endangered list. A viewing road is located at the paddock, you are asked to remain in your vehicle. The paddock is located just north of the town at the Pincher Creek entrance to the park.
Prince Of Wales Hotel
The Prince Of Wales Hotel sits perched atop a bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake. It was built in 1927. Although you can sense it must have been quite the place in it’s time, it appeared that it’s days of grandeur have passed. It needs a major overall, we felt it had an old musty smell to it. For the high prices it charges, I don’t think it would be worth staying there. However, it’s a fantastic place to come to for the view around the property. Apparently the proper English tea is a real treat. You would certainly have a spectacular view while you dined.
Red Rock Canyon Road
The Red Rock Canyon road is a 15 kilometer drive that crosses through rolling prairies and alpine mountain meadows. There are plenty of views of jagged mountains and valleys along the way. Bear spottings are common along this route. At the right time of year the meadows are dotted with colourful wildflowers.
At the end of the road is the Red Rock canyon day use area. Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep are frequent guests of the parking lot area here. A nicely maintained trail takes you down one side of the canyon and across a bridge to come down the other side. It is an easy walk that takes about half an hour. The canyons unique layers of bedrock are quite interesting. The stream has cut through the layers of sediment to reveal red and green argillite.
From the day use area a path leads to Blackiston Falls. The trail has minimal elevation gain and is about two kilometers in length. From the parking lot the trail is downstream.
Two Reasons That Make It Well Worth Going To Glacier National Park
Chief Mountain Highway Drive
The Chief Mountain Highway drive is 77 kilometres long and leads to St Mary in Glacier National Park. The road crosses the border just 30 kilometres from Waterton, so have your passport ready. On the drive you will see Chief Mountain that stands majestically along the skyline.
Road To The Sun
The Road To The Sun drive is one of the most amazing drives we have done. It is a cliff hanger and a nail bitter, but the views and scenery along the way are worth it. Check regulations if you are towing a trailer, there are length restrictions in place for safety reasons, and rightly so.