Waterton Lakes Hiking

You can soak up the park’s beauty along the scenic drives, but you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t do any hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park. While the park does have its fair share of uphill slogs, don’t be too daunted by the surrounding mountains–there are also some pleasant walks that everyone can enjoy, including the trail along Cameron Lake.

Although the park is relatively small, its trail system is extensive; 224 kilometers (140 miles) of well-maintained trails lead to alpine lakes and lofty summits affording spectacular views. One of the most appealing aspects of hiking in Waterton is that with higher trailheads than other parks in the Canadian Rockies, the tree line is reached quickly. Most of the lakes can be reached in a few hours. Once you’ve finished hiking the trails in Waterton, you can cross the international border and start on the 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) of trails in Glacier National Park.

The eight hikes detailed comprise only a small cross section of Waterton’s extensive trail system. The popular Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, sold in local stores, includes a chapter detailing all hikes. Government topographic maps (one map covers the entire park) are available at the heritage center, but the best map for hikers is the Gem Trek version, also widely available. If you are planning to stay overnight in the backcountry, you must obtain a permit ($10 per person per night) from Waterton Visitor Centre or the park administration office.

Bear’s Hump Hiking Trail

Length: 1.2 kilometers/0.7 mile (40 minutes) one-way
Elevation gain: 225 meters/740 feet
Rating: moderate
Trailhead: Waterton Visitor Centre

This is one of the most popular short hikes in the park, and although steep, it affords panoramic views of the Waterton Valley. From the back of the visitors center parking lot, the trail switchbacks up the northern flanks of the Bear’s Hump, finishing at a rocky ledge high above town. From this vantage point the sweeping view extends north and east across the prairies and south along Upper Waterton Lake to Glacier National Park.

Bertha Lake Hiking Trail

Length: 5.8 kilometers/3.6 miles (2 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 460 meters/1,510 feet
Rating: moderate
Trailhead: south side of the town site along Evergreen Avenue

Bertha Lake is a popular destination with day hikers and campers alike. For the first 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile), moderate elevation gain is made to a lookout point and the junction of the Waterton Lakeshore Trail. Then the trail branches right and levels off for just over one kilometer (0.6 mile) to Lower Bertha Falls. While many casual hikers turn around at this point, you should plan on continuing to the final destination. It’s uphill all the way, as the trail crosses an old avalanche slope before switchbacking up through a subalpine forest to its maximum elevation on a ridge above the hanging valley in which Bertha Lake lies. Filtered views of Upper Bertha Falls provide an excuse for a break along the way. From the trail’s high point, it’s a short walk down to the lakeshore, from where you can continue along either shoreline or just relax under the trees with a picnic lunch. The lake itself is beautiful, both for its dark turquoise coloring and backdrop of mountain peaks.

Waterton Lakeshore Trail

Length: 14 kilometers/8.7 miles (4 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: minimal
Rating: moderate
Trailhead: south side of the town site along Evergreen Avenue

This trail follows the heavily forested western shores of Upper Waterton Lake across the international boundary to Goat Haunt, Montana, linking up with more than 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) of trails in Glacier National Park. Many hikers take the Waterton Cruise Company’s MV International (403/859-2362, June to Sept. only, $18) one way and hike the other. Starting from town, the first 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile) climb steadily to a lookout point high above the lake, then the hike branches left off the Bertha Lake Trail, descending to Bertha Bay. The boat dock at Boundary Bay, six kilometers (3.7 miles) from town, is a good place for lunch. Hikers heading south and planning to camp in Glacier National Park must register at the Waterton Visitor Centre.

Crypt Lake Hiking Trail

Length: 8.7 kilometers/5.4 miles (3 to 4 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 680 meters/2,230 feet
Rating: moderate/difficult
Trailhead: Crypt Landing; access is by boat. The Crypt Lake Shuttle (403/859-2362, June to Sept., $20 round-trip) leaves the marina at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. daily for Crypt Landing; return trips depart at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

This is one of the most spectacular day hikes in Canada. Access to the trailhead on the eastern side of Upper Waterton Lake is by boat. The trail switchbacks for 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) past a series of waterfalls and continues steeply up to a small green lake before reaching a campground. The final ascent to Crypt Lake from the campground causes the most problems, especially for those who suffer from claustrophobia or acrophobia. A ladder on the cliff face leads into a natural tunnel that you must crawl through on your hands and knees. The next part of the trail is along a narrow precipice with a cable for support. The lake at the end of the trail, nestled in a hanging valley, is no disappointment. Its dark green waters are rarely free of floating ice, and the steep walls of the cirque rise more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) above the lake on three sides. The international boundary is at the southern end of the lake. A good way to avoid the crowds on this trail is to camp at the dock and set out before the first boat arrives in the morning.

Crandell Lake Hiking Trail

Length: 2.4 kilometers/1.5 miles (40 minutes) one-way
Elevation gain: 120 meters/395 feet
Rating: easy
Trailhead: Crandell Campground, Red Rock Canyon Parkway

This easy hike to a subalpine lake is popular with campers staying at Crandell Campground. Alternatively, the trailhead can be reached by noncampers along the Canyon Church Camp access road. The lake can also be accessed from a trailhead seven kilometers (4.3 miles) west of town along the Akamina Parkway. This trail is shorter (0.8 km/0.5 mile) and follows a wagon road that was cut through the valley to Oil City.

Goat Lake Hiking Trail

Length: 6.7 kilometers/4.2 miles (2 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 500 meters/1,640 feet
Rating: moderate
Trailhead: end of Red Rock Canyon Parkway, 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) from Waterton town site

The first hour of walking from the trailhead at Red Rock Canyon follows the Snowshoe Trail along Bauerman Creek before branching to the right and climbing switchbacks through a mixed forest. The steep gradient evens out as the trail enters the Goat Lake cirque. After the uphill slog, the lake is a welcome sight, its emerald green waters reflecting the towering headwalls that surround it. Look for the lake’s namesake on the open scree slopes west of the lake.

Carthew-Alderson Hiking Trail

Length: 20 kilometers/12.4 miles (6 to 7 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 650 meters/2,130 feet
Rating: moderate/difficult
Trailhead: end of Akamina Parkway, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Waterton town site

This hike linking the end of the Akamina Parkway to Waterton town site can be completed in one long day or done with an overnight stop at Alderson Lake, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from the trailhead. The trail leads through most of the climatic zones of the park and offers some of the best scenery to be had on any one hike. Transportation to the trailhead can be arranged through Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters (Mount View Rd., 403/859-2378, $15 one-way), which operates a hiker shuttle service to this and other trailheads in the park. From the Cameron Lake parking lot, the trail climbs four kilometers (2.5 miles) to Summit Lake, a worthy destination in itself. The trail then forks to the left and climbs steeply to Carthew Ridge. After rising above the tree line and crossing a scree slope, the trail reaches its highest elevation of 2,310 meters (7,580 feet) at Carthew Summit. The views from here are spectacular, even more so if you scramble up to one of Mount Carthew’s lower peaks. To the north is a hint of prairie, to the southeast the magnificent bowl-shaped cirque around Cameron Lake. To the south, the Carthew Lakes lie directly below, while glaciated peaks in Montana line the horizon. From this summit, the trail descends steeply to the Carthew Lakes, reenters the subalpine forest, and emerges at Alderson Lake, which is nestled under the headwalls of Mount Alderson. The trail then descends through the Carthew Creek Valley and finishes at Cameron Falls in the town site.

Vimy Peak Hiking Trail

Length: 12 kilometers/7.5 miles (5 hours) one-way
Elevation gain: 825 meters/2,700 feet
Rating: moderate
Trailhead: Chief Mountain International Highway, 0.5 kilometer (0.3 mile) from the Highway 5 junction

Vimy Peak overlooks the town site from across Upper Waterton Lake. It was once part of a ridge that extended across the Waterton Valley and was worn down by the relentless forces of glacial action. The initial six-kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch is along the eastern bank of Lower Waterton Lake through forest and grassland. The trail then continues along the lake to Bosporus Landing opposite the town or climbs steeply to Vimy Peak (2,379 meters/7,805 feet). The Vimy Peak Trail actually ends at a basin short of the summit, which is still a painfully steep 40-minute scramble away.