Waterton Lakes National Park Nature Guide
Major upheavals under the earth’s surface approximately 85 million years ago forced huge plates of rock upward and began folding them over each other. One major sheet known as the Lewis Overthrust forms the backbone of Waterton’s topography as we see it today. It slid up and over much younger bedrock along a 300-kilometer (186-mile) length extending north to Bow Valley.
About 45 million years ago, this powerful uplift ceased and the forces of erosion took over. About 1.9 million years ago, glaciers from the sheet of ice that once covered most of Alberta crept through the mountains. As these thick sheets of ice advanced and retreated with climatic changes, they gouged out valleys such as the classically U-shaped Waterton Valley. The three Waterton Lakes are depressions left at the base of the steep-sided mountains after the ice had completely retreated 11,000 years ago. The deepest is 150 meters (500 feet). Cameron Lake, at the end of the Akamina Parkway, was formed when a moraine—the pile of rock that accumulates at the foot of a retreating glacier—dammed Cameron Creek. From the lake, Cameron Creek flows through a glaciated valley before dropping into the much deeper Waterton Valley at Cameron Falls, behind the town of Waterton. The town itself sits on an alluvial fan composed of silt and gravel picked up by mountain streams and deposited in Upper Waterton Lake.
Botanists have recorded 1,200 species of plants growing within the park’s several different vegetation zones. In the park’s northeastern corner, near the park gate, a region of prairies is covered in semiarid vegetation such as fescue grass. As Highway 5 enters the park it passes Maskinonge Lake, a wetlands area of marshy ponds where aquatic plants flourish. Parkland habitat dominated by aspen is found along the north side of Blakiston Valley and near Belly River Campground, while montane forest covers most mountain valleys and lower slopes. This montane zone is dominated by a high canopy of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir shading a forest floor covered with wildflowers and berries. An easily accessible section of this habitat is along the lower half of Bertha Lake Trail; an interpretive brochure is available at the Waterton Visitor Centre.
Above the montane forest is the subalpine zone, which rises as far as the timberline. These distinct forests of larch, fir, Engelmann spruce, and whitebark pine can be seen along the Carthew Lakes Trail. On the west-facing slopes of Cameron Lake are mature groves of subalpine trees up to 400 years old; this oldest growth in the park has managed to escape fire over the centuries. Blanketing the open mountain slopes in this zone is bear grass, which grows up to one meter (three feet) in height and is topped by a bright blossom often likened to a lighted torch. Above the tree line is the alpine zone, where harsh winds and short summer seasons make trees a rarity. Only lichens and alpine wildflowers flourish at these high altitudes. Crypt Lake is a good place for viewing this zone.
Wildlife viewing in the park requires patience and a little know-how, but the rewards are ample, as good as anywhere in the Canadian Rockies. Elk inhabit the park year-round. A large herd gathers by Entrance Road in late fall, wintering on the lowlands. By early fall, many mule deer are wandering around town. Bighorn sheep are often seen on the north side of Blakiston Valley or on the slopes above the Waterton Visitor Centre; occasionally they end up in town. White-tailed deer are best viewed along Red Rock Canyon Parkway. The park has a small population of moose, occasionally seen in low-lying wetlands. Mountain goats rarely leave the high peaks of the backcountry, but from Goat, Crypt, or Bertha Lake you might catch a glimpse of one high above you.
The most common predators in the park are the coyotes, which spend their summer days chasing ground squirrels around the prairie and parkland areas. For its size, Waterton has a healthy population of cougars, but these shy, solitary animals are rarely seen. About 50 black bears live in the park. They spend most of the summer in the heavily forested montane regions. During August and September, scan the slopes of Blakiston Valley, where the bears can often be seen feasting on saskatoon berries before going into winter hibernation. Much larger than black bears are grizzlies, which roam the entire backcountry but are rarely encountered. Larger even still are bison. Although these prairie dwellers never lived in the mountains, they would have grazed around the eastern outskirts of what is now the park. A small herd is contained in the Bison Paddock, just before the park gate.
Golden-mantled ground squirrels live on the Bear’s Hump and around Cameron Falls. Columbian ground squirrels are just about everywhere. Chipmunks scamper about on Bertha Lake Trail. The best time for viewing beavers is at dawn and dusk along the Belly River. Muskrats can be seen on the edges of Maskinonge Lake eating bulrushes. Mink also live at the lake but are seen only by those with patience.
Two major flyways pass the park, and September to November many thousands of waterfowl stop on Maskinonge and Lower Waterton Lakes. On a power-line pole beside the entrance to the park is an active osprey nest—ask staff to point it out for you. Waterton Heritage Centre has a great little free checklist for birders listing the 250 species recorded within park boundaries.