Waterton Lakes National Park Travel Guide
Everybody traveling to this small, rugged 526-square-kilometer (203-square-mile) park does so by choice; tucked away in the extreme southwestern corner of Alberta, the park is not on a major highway or on the way to anywhere else. It’s bounded to the north and east by the rolling prairies covering southern Alberta; to the south by the U.S. border and Glacier National Park in Montana; and to the west by the Continental Divide, which forms the Alberta to British Columbia border. The natural mountain splendor, a chain of deep glacial lakes, large and diverse populations of wildlife, an unbelievable variety of day hikes, and a changing face each season make this park a gem that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to the Canadian Rockies. The route to Waterton is almost as scenic as the park itself. From whichever direction you arrive, the transition from prairie to mountains is abrupt, almost devoid of the foothills that characterize other areas along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. Between the park gate and the small township of Waterton, two roads penetrate the mountains to the west. One ends at a large glaciated lake, the other at a spectacular canyon. The town is a smaller version of those in Banff and Jasper. Like those towns, Waterton holds a grand hotel built by the railway, a golf course, and a wide range of services, but the atmosphere here is very different.
Planning Your Time
Chances are, if you’re planning on visiting Waterton Lakes, you’re not the same type of traveler who thinks a trip to Banff entails staying at Best Western and eating at McDonald’s–instead you’re looking to experience the natural wonders of the Canadian Rockies without the crowds and commercialism.
The vast majority of visitors arrive in July and August. As with the other parks of the Canadian Rockies, June and September are fine times to visit, but as crowds are smaller here, avoiding high summer isn’t as much of an issue. Many businesses, including accommodations, close between October and April, although basic services are still available. Cross-country skiing enthusiasts will love winter in the park, but don’t expect much else in the way of recreation.
Simply because of the out-of-the-way location, you’ll want to spend at least one day in the park, but it’s preferable to stay two or more. With two days and one night scheduled, plan on joining the boat cruise to Goat Haunt on one day and spending the second day exploring the two main roads, including the Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake. This still allows time to walk some shorter trails. If you’re an enthusiastic hiker, add a third day to your itinerary and hike either the trail to Crypt Lake or head across the provincial border on foot to Akamina to Kishinena Provincial Park.
If your tour of the Canadian Rockies originates south of the border and you’re traveling by road, I highly recommend leaving Waterton Lakes until the end of your trip—the slower pace and solitude will create a pleasant ending for your travels.
Waterton Heritage Centre: This is a good place to learn about Waterton’s natural history.
Akamina Parkway: You’ll want to take all the scenic drives detailed for this park, but this one gets the nod as a highlight. Why? Because when you reach the end of the road, you can rent a canoe and paddle out onto magnificent Cameron Lake.
Crypt Lake Trail: This Waterton hike is undoubtedly the most spectacular trail in the park.
Crandell Lake Trail: If the Crypt Lake Trail is a little beyond you, or if you have a family in tow, plan on hiking up the easy incline to this lake instead.
Cruising to Goat Haunt, Montana: Taking a boat tour along Upper Waterton Lake and across the border to Montana has been the most popular activity in the park for over 50 year—and for around $30 you can do it, too..
SIGHTS AND RECREATION