Waterton Lakes National Park Nature Guide
The Waterton Lakes National Park Nature Guide describes the geology, plants, and animals of Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
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-kilometre (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 metres (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.
Waterton Lakes National Park Trees, Plants, and Flowers
Botanists have recorded over 1,000 species of plants growing within Waterton Lakes National Park’s several different vegetation zones. In Waterton Lakes National Park’s northeastern corner, near the gate, a region of prairies is covered in semiarid vegetation such as fescue grass. As Highway 5 enters Waterton Lakes National 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 Lakes 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 Waterton Lakes National 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 metre (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.
Waterton Lakes National Park Wildlife
One of the biggest attractions of Waterton Lakes National Park is the abundance of wildlife, especially large mammals such as elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and bears, which are all widespread and easily viewed throughout Waterton Lakes National Park.
For the best wildlife viewing destinations visit this page: Waterton Lakes National Park Wildlife Viewing.
Mule Deer and White-Tailed Deer
Mule deer and white-tailed deer are similar in size and appearance. Their colour varies with the season but is generally light brown in summer, turning dirty gray in winter. While both species are considerably smaller than elk, the mule deer is a little stockier than the white-tailed deer. The mule deer has a white rump, a white tail with a dark tip, and large mulelike ears. It inhabits open forests along valley floors. Waterton townsite has a healthy population of mule deer. The white-tailed deer’s tail is dark on top, but when the animal runs, it holds its tail erect, revealing an all-white underside. Whitetails frequent thickets along the rivers and lakes of the foothills. They are most common on the British Columbia side of the Continental Divide.
The elk, or wapiti, is the most widespread and common of the larger mammals living in the Canadian Rockies, and they are often seen around the east end of Waterton Lakes National Park. It has a tan body with a dark-brown neck, dark-brown legs, and a white rump. This second-largest member of the deer family weighs 250-450 kilograms (550-1,000 pounds) and stands 1.5 metres (five feet) at the shoulder. Beginning each spring, bulls grow an impressive set of antlers, covered in what is known as velvet. The velvet contains nutrients that stimulate antler growth. By fall, the antlers have reached their full size and the velvet is shed. Rutting season takes place between August and October; listen for the shrill bugles of the bulls serenading the females. During the rut, randy males will challenge anything with their antlers and can be dangerous. The bulls shed their antlers each spring, but don’t relax too much because, also in spring, females protecting their young can be equally dangerous.
The giant of the deer family is the moose, an awkward-looking mammal that appears to have been designed by a cartoonist. It has the largest antlers of any animal in the world, stands up to 1.8 metres (six feet) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Its body is dark brown, and it has a prominent nose, long spindly legs, small eyes, big ears, and an odd flap of skin called a bell dangling beneath its chin. Apart from all that, it’s good-looking. Each spring, the bull begins to grow palm-shaped antlers that by August will be fully grown. Moose are solitary animals preferring marshy areas and weedy lakes, but they are known to wander to higher elevations searching out open spaces in summer. They forage in and around ponds on willows, aspens, birches, grasses, and all aquatic vegetation. They are not particularly common in the Canadian Rockies, numbering around 400. Although they may appear docile, moose will attack humans if they feel threatened.
The two species of bears present in Waterton Lakes National Park—BLACK BEARS and GRIZZLIES—can be differentiated by size and shape. Grizzlies are larger than black bears and have flatter, dish-shaped faces and a distinctive hump of muscle behind their neck. Colour is not a reliable way to tell them apart. Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or cinnamon, causing them to be confused with the brown-coloured grizzly.
If you spot a bear feeding beside the road, chances are it’s a black bear. These mammals are widespread throughout all forested areas of Waterton Lakes National Park, but are also common in the grassy meadows toward Waterton Lakes National Park entrance. Their weight varies considerably, but males average 150 kilograms (330 pounds) and females 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Their diet is omnivorous, consisting primarily of grasses and berries but supplemented by small mammals. They are not true hibernators, but in winter they can sleep for up to a month at a time before changing position. During this time, their heartbeat drops to 10 beats per minute, their body temperature drops, and they lose up to 30 percent of their body weight. Females reach reproductive maturity after five years; cubs, usually two, are born in late winter, while the mother is still asleep.
Grizzlies, the second largest of eight recognized species of bears worldwide (only polar bears are larger), have disappeared from most of North America but are widespread throughout the Canadian Rockies and Waterton Lakes National Park, numbering around 70 in the region. Grizzlies are only occasionally seen by casual observers; most sightings occur in alpine and subalpine zones, although sightings at lower elevations are not unusual, especially when snow falls early or late. The bears’ colour ranges from light brown to almost black, with dark tan being the most common. On average, males weigh 200-350 kilograms (440-770 pounds). The bears eat small and medium-sized mammals, and berries in fall. Like black bears, they sleep through most of the winter. When they emerge in early spring, the bears scavenge carcasses of animals that succumbed to the winter, until the new spring vegetation becomes sufficiently plentiful. Females first give birth at four years old, and then every three years, with cubs remaining with their mother for 2-3 years.
For more information, go to How Many Bears are in Waterton Lakes National Park?
The coyote is often mistaken for a wolf when in fact it is much smaller, weighing up to only 15 kilograms (33 pounds). It has a pointed nose and a long, bushy tail. Its colouring is a mottled mix of brown and gray, with lighter-coloured legs and belly. The coyote is a skillful and crafty hunter, preying mainly on rodents. Coyotes have the remarkable ability to hear the movement of small mammals under the snow, allowing them to hunt these animals without actually seeing them. They are often seen patrolling the edges of highways and crossing open meadows in low-lying valleys.
Wolves are occasionally present in Waterton Lakes National Park but are rarely sighted by casual observers. They were extirpated from the region over 100 years ago, but they have slowly returned, usually after wandering north from Glacier National Park.
Wolves that inhabit the Canadian Rockies are larger than coyotes and larger than the wolves of eastern Canada. They weigh up to 60 kilograms (132 pounds), stand up to one metre (3.2 feet) high at the shoulder, and resemble large huskies or German shepherds. Their colour ranges from snow white to brown or black; those in the Canadian Rockies are, most often, shades of gray. They usually form packs of up to eight members, traveling, hunting, and resting together, and adhering to a hierarchical social order. As individuals, they are complex and intriguing, capable of expressing happiness, humor, and loneliness.
Rarely encountered by casual hikers, cougars are mostly sighted in winter, even in Waterton townsite. These majestic creatures (known in other parts of North America as mountain lions, pumas, or catamounts) measure up to 1.5 metres (five feet) long. The average male weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) and the female 40-55 kilograms (90-120 pounds). Cougars are versatile hunters whose acute vision takes in a peripheral span in excess of 200 degrees. They typically kill a large mammal such as an elk or deer every 12-14 days, eating part of it and caching the rest. Their diet also includes chipmunks, ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, and occasionally porcupines. Their athletic prowess puts Olympians to shame. They can spring forward more than 8 metres (26 feet) from a standstill, leap 4 metres (13 feet) into the air, and safely jump from a height of 20 metres (65 feet).
The cougar is a solitary animal with distinct territorial boundaries. This limits its population density, which in turn means that its overall numbers are low. They are most common in the foothills along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
The elusive lynx is identifiable by its pointy black ear tufts and oversized tabby cat appearance. The animal has broad, padded paws that distribute its weight, allowing it to float on the surface of the snow. It weighs up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) but appears much larger because of its coat of long, thick fur. The lynx, uncommon but widespread throughout the region, is a solitary creature that prefers the cover of subalpine forests, feeding mostly at night on snowshoe hares and other small mammals. Although present, lynx are rarely seen in Waterton Lakes National Park.
The remarkable rock-climbing ability of these nimble-footed creatures allows them to live on rocky ledges or near-vertical slopes, safe from predators. The goats stand one metre (3.2 feet) at the shoulder and weigh 65-130 kilograms (140-290 pounds). Both sexes possess a peculiar beard, or rather, goatee. Both sexes have horns. It is possible to determine the sex by the shape of the horns; those of the female grow straight up before curling slightly backward, whereas those of the male curl back in a single arch. The goats shed their thick coats each summer, making them look ragged, but by fall they’ve regrown a fine, new white woolen coat.
Bighorn sheep are some of the most distinctive mammals of Waterton Lakes National Park. Easily recognized by their impressive horns, they have often been seen grazing on grassy mountain slopes or at salt licks beside the road. The colour of their coat varies with the season; in summer, it’s a brownish-gray with a cream-coloured belly and rump, turning lighter in winter. Fully grown males can weigh up to 120 kilograms (270 pounds), while females generally weigh around 80 kilograms (180 pounds). Both sexes possess horns, rather than antlers like members of the deer family. Unlike antlers, horns are not shed each year and can grow to astounding sizes. The horns of rams are larger than those of ewes and curve up to 360 degrees. The spiraled horns of an older ram can measure longer than one metre (3.2 feet) and weigh as much as 15 kilograms (33 pounds). During the fall mating season, a hierarchy is established among the rams for the right to breed ewes. As the males face off against each other to establish dominance, their horns act as both a weapon and a buffer against the head-butting of other rams. The skull structure of the bighorn, rams in particular, has become adapted to these head-butting clashes, keeping the animals from being knocked unconscious.
Bighorn sheep are particularly tolerant of humans and often approach parked vehicles; although they are not especially dangerous, as with all mammals, you should not approach or feed them.
Before the arrival of Europeans, millions of bison roamed the North American plains, with some entering the valleys of the Canadian Rockies to escape harsh winters. Several factors contributed to their decline, including the combined presence of explorers, settlers, and indigenous peoples. By the late 1800s they were wiped out, and since then a few attempts at reintroduction have taken place, including in the remote Panther River Valley of Banff National Park in 2017. The Bison Paddock on the northern edge of Waterton Lakes National Park is the best place to see these magnificent creatures.
One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver, which is common around Maskinonge Lake. Growing to a length of 50 centimetres (20 inches) and tipping the scales at around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudderlike tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kph (6 mph). The exploration of western Canada can be directly attributed to the beaver, whose pelt was in high demand in fashion-conscious Europe in the early 1800s. The beaver was never entirely wiped out from the mountains, and today the animals can be found in almost any forested valley with flowing water. Beavers build their dam walls and lodges of twigs, branches, sticks of felled trees, and mud. They eat the bark and smaller twigs of deciduous plants and store branches underwater, near the lodge, as a winter food supply.
Several species of squirrels are common in the Canadian Rockies. The golden-mantled ground squirrel, found in rocky outcrops of subalpine and alpine regions, has black stripes along its sides and looks like an oversized chipmunk. The most common is the Columbian ground squirrel, which lives in burrows, often in open grassland. It is recognizable by its reddish legs, face, and underside, and flecked, grayish back. The bushy-tailed red squirrel, the bold chatterbox of the forest, leaves telltale shelled cones at the base of conifers.
High in the mountains, above the tree line, hoary marmots are often seen sunning themselves on boulders in rocky areas or meadows. They are stocky creatures, weighing 4-9 kilograms (9-19 pounds). When danger approaches, these large rodents emit a shrill whistle to warn their colony. Marmots are active only for a few months each summer, spending up to nine months a year in hibernation.
This small, squat animal is easily recognized by its thick coat of quills. It eats roots and leaves but is also known as being destructive around wooden buildings and vehicle tires. Porcupines are common and widespread throughout all forested areas, but they’re hard to spy because they feed most often at night. Porcupines are relatively rare in Waterton Lakes National Park.
Widespread throughout western Canada, muskrats make their mountain home in the waterways and wetlands around Maskinonge Lake. They are agile swimmers, able to stay submerged for up to 12 minutes. They grow to a length of 35 centimetres (18 inches), but the best form of identification is the tail, which is black, flat, and scaly. Closely related to muskrats are voles, which are often mistaken for mice. They inhabit grassed areas of most valley floors.
A member of the insectivore family, the furry shrew has a sharp-pointed snout and is closely related to the mole. It must eat almost constantly because it is susceptible to starvation within only a few hours of its last meal. Another variety present throughout the region, the pygmy shrew is the world’s smallest mammal; it weighs just four grams (0.1 ounce).
Pikas, like rabbits, are lagomorphs, which are distinguished from rodents by a double set of incisors in the upper jaw. The small, grayish pika is a neighbor to the marmot, living among the rubble and boulders of scree slopes above timberline.
The weasel family, comprising 70 species worldwide, is large and diverse, but in general, all members have long, slim bodies and short legs, and all are carnivorous and voracious eaters, consuming up to one-third of their body weight each day. Many species can be found in the Canadian Rockies, including the WOLVERINE, largest of the weasels worldwide, weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Known to indigenous peoples as carcajou (evil one), the wolverine is extremely powerful, cunning, and cautious. This solitary creature inhabits forests of the subalpine and lower alpine regions, feeding on any available meat, from small rodents to the carcasses of larger mammals. Rarely sighted by humans in Waterton Lakes National Park, the wolverine is a true symbol of the wilderness.
The FISHER has the same habitat as the wolverine but is much smaller, reaching just five kilograms (11 pounds) in weight and growing up to 60 centimetres (24 inches) in length. This nocturnal hunter preys on small birds and rodents, but reports of fishers bringing down small deer have been made. Smaller still is the MARTEN, which lives most of its life in the trees of the subalpine forest, preying on birds, squirrels, mice, and voles. Weighing just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) is the MINK, once highly prized for its fur. At home in or out of water, it feeds on muskrats, mice, voles, and fish. Mink numbers in the Canadian Rockies are low.
As well as being home to the largest member of the weasel family, the region also holds the smallest—the LEAST WEASEL (the world’s smallest carnivore), which grows to a length of just 20 centimetres (8 inches) and weighs a maximum of 60 grams (2 ounces). Chiefly nocturnal, it feeds mostly on mice and lives throughout open wooded areas, but it is not particularly common.
Birdwatching is popular in Waterton Lakes National Park, thanks to the approximately 250 resident bird species and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through each fall. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a good book detailing species, and patience. Dense forests hide many species, making them seem less common than they actually are. The Maskinonge Lake wetlands, near the park gate, is a major birdwatching area.
A wide variety of raptors are present in the Canadian Rockies—some call the mountains home year-round, while others pass through during annual spring and fall migrations.
GOLDEN EAGLES migrate across the Canadian Rockies, heading north in spring to Alaska and crossing back over in fall en route to Midwest wintering grounds. Golden eagles—more than 10,000 of them annually—soar high above the mountains on thermal drafts. BALD EAGLES also soar over the Canadian Rockies during annual migrations; mature birds can be distinguished from below by their white head and tail (immature birds resemble the dark-brown-coloured golden eagle). OSPREYS spend summers in the region, nesting high up in large dead trees, on telephone poles, or on rocky outcrops, but always overlooking water; look for their nests along Entrance Road. They feed on fish, hovering up to 50 metres (160 feet) above water, watching for movement, then diving into the water, thrusting their legs forward and collecting prey in their talons.
Distinct from all previously listed species is a group of raptors that hunt at night. Best known as owls, these birds are rarely seen because of their nocturnal habits but are widespread throughout forested areas of the mountains. Most common is the GREAT-HORNED OWL, identified by its prominent “horns,” which are actually tufts of feathers.
Birdwatchers will be enthralled by the diversity of eastern and western bird species in Waterton Lakes National Park. In wetlands near the park gate are CANADA GEESE, MALLARD DUCKS, MERGANSERS, and BARRON GOLDENEYES.
Widespread elsewhere are MAGPIES, SPARROWS, STARLINGS, GROUSE, RAVENS, and CROWS. BLACKBIRDS, FINCHES, THRUSHES, HUMMINGBIRDS, WOODPECKERS, FLYCATCHERS, and 28 species of WARBLERS are common in forested areas. PTARMIGAN are common in open meadows above the tree line. A popular campground visitor, the cheeky GRAY JAY is similar in appearance to the curious CLARK’S NUTCRACKER.