Waterton Lakes National Park is a little hidden gem in the southwest corner of Alberta. It’s one of the lesser known parks in the Canadian Rockies, but nearby B.C. residents and local Albertans have been enjoying its beauty for years. It’s located 3 hours south of Calgary and approximately 4 hours drive from Banff. It’s one of Canada’s smallest national parks, but it’s packed with beauty. It’s a unique area of the Rocky Mountains where they rise abruptly out of the prairies. It has a rich and diverse environment with several distinct eco-systems. The park is particularly known for it’s wildflowers in the spring.
For such a small area Waterton has an abundance of wildlife including white tail and mule deer, elk, grizzly and black bears, cougars, wolves, moose, elk, bison, big horn sheep, mountain goats and small mammals like Columbian ground squirrels, pika and a variety of birds.
Waterton does get busy in the summer months, but the amount of people pales in comparison to places like Banff National Park. You can enjoy scenic drives, hiking trails and a variety of activities in an atmosphere that’s much less crowded. There’s even an 18 hole golf course.
The village of Waterton has a few hotels, lodges, restaurants, cafes and gift shops. It has a quaint feel and hasn’t been spoiled for tourism. You won’t find any chain stores or fast food, just a few independently owned small shops.
The go-to store in town is called Pat’s. It’s the gas station, the pedal bike rental outlet, sells fishing tackle and permits, camping supplies, souvenirs and just about anything else you can think of. Pat’s has basic grocery items to get by. The costs tend to be higher due to the expenses of operating within the park. If you’re looking to stock up on food to consume during your stay you might consider shopping in nearby Pincher Creek.
The perfect way to explore the town is with a two seater bicycle known as a Surrey bike. They accommodate two adults and have a front seating area that can hold two small children. Rentals are available at Pat’s gas station, along with mountain bikes and mopeds.
At any given time during warmer weather you’ll see families touring around the village on the Surrey bikes. It adds to the towns charm and laid back atmosphere. For a summer time treat pedal your way to Ye Old Lick and Nibble or the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor. Or grab a gourmet hotdog at Wieners Of Waterton.
You don’t need to go too far from town to see wildlife. The deer are practically town residents. They graze on the grassy areas near the hotels and main streets with little care when people walk past them.
Waterfalls Right In Town
Cameron Waterfalls are a small but picturesque set of falls that are within a few minute walk from most of the Waterton town site. Benches are provided for relaxing while you watch the water cascade down the rock cliff side and there’s a wheelchair and stroller friendly walkway that follows along the creek. They are a great attraction any time of year, they are just as pretty in the winter when they freeze. To reach the falls travel along Cameron Falls Drive to Evergreen Avenue where you will see the small parking area.
Waterton Is Known As The Wildflower Capital Of Canada
The park is well known for its unique geology and over 800 species of wildflowers, including 175 listed as rare in Alberta and 20 that are only found in Waterton. Each year in late June the Waterton Wildflower Festival is held. People come to enjoy viewing and photographing the beautiful array of colours. The wildflowers start to appear in May as snow begins to melt, with the peak viewing time around the third week of June. They can continue to be seen in the summer months. The best hikes to see wildflowers are to Lineham Falls, Blakiston Falls and Bertha Falls. Drives along Red Rock Canyon Road ,Chief Mountain Road and the Bellvue Prairie offer good viewing as well.
There are three vehicle accessible campsites within the park with various operating times from mid-May to early October (check each individual one for exact dates). The demand is heaviest from mid-June through September, with July and August being the busiest.
- The Town Site Campground is the only one that takes reservations and has serviced sites. Book in advance to get a spot in the summer months.
- Crandell Mountain Campground is located on the Red Rock Parkway 12 km’s from town. The sites are un-serviced. In the summer it’s usually full by early afternoon.
- Belly River Campground has 24 primitive/un-serviced sites located 26 km’s from the town site along the Chief Mountain Highway.
- There are also several wilderness campsites in the park that can be booked through the Parks Canada website.
There are other private campgrounds near the park, the closest are listed below.
- Waterton Springs Campground, 3 km’s before the park gates on Hwy 6
- Crooked Creek Campground, 5.6 km’s east of the park gates on Hwy 5.
There’s several other campgrounds further out near Twin Butte, Cardston and Pincher Creek and in neighbouring Glacier National Park in Montana. A map and information for the sites can be found here: Waterton Alberta Campgrounds And RV Parks
Hotel And Lodging Accommodation In Waterton
There’s one resort property, a couple of Inns, Lodges, Hotels and Motels in Waterton all in or close to the town site. Booking ahead for July and August is recommended. More information can be found here: Waterton Accommodation Options
You can also do a search for other accommodation located outside of the park between Waterton and nearby Twin Butte and Pincher Creek. There are bed & breakfasts, lodges and hotels.
Even if you are not camping the town site campground is a nice spot to come and relax. It sits on the shore of Upper Waterton Lake. Camping here is very convenient, it’s located within walking distance of the town restaurants and shops.
The Historic Prince Of Wales Hotel
The views from the setting of the Prince of Wales Hotel are stunning. It sits perched on top of a cliff side overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.
The hotel was built in 1927, it’s worth checking out for its fascinating and ornate architecture. You get the sense it was a place of great grandeur during its time, but it appears a major refurbishing is long due.
Proper English tea is served in the dining room where you can take in the spectacular view from the massive windows looking out to the lake and surrounding mountains. The hotel is open seasonally from mid-June to mid-September.
Waterton Lakes National Park In The Winter Months
The park is open year round, but from early October to May most of the park facilities shut down and the services are very limited in town. The park remains very quiet until the Victoria Day holiday long weekend in May. There are only two accommodation options and one restaurant that remain open year round, the Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort and it’s restaurant Vimy’s Lounge & Grill and the Crandall Mountain Lodge. The grocery store, gas station and liquor store and most of the shops and Visitor Center are shut down. You can find these types of conveniences in nearby Pincher Creek. The Red Rock Parkway and the Chief Mountain Highway are closed to vehicles during winter months.
Despite the lack of amenities there are people who enjoy visiting the park in winter to cross country ski and snowshoe. It’s appreciated by those that enjoy a place that offers solitude. The winters can be relatively mild, because it’s one of Alberta’s areas that has frequent warmings caused by the Chinook winds. However, cold snaps can also bring on brief periods with temperatures as low as -40C.
Popular Hiking Trails In Waterton Lakes National Park
Even though it’s a small park Waterton has an extensive system of over 200 kilometres of hiking trails leading to alpine lakes and summits that offer spectacular views. There’s a variety of options ranging from shorter walks and trails to more challenging day hikes. The Waterton Visitor center is a good place to stop in when you get to the park to check on trail conditions, closures and areas where wildflowers are in bloom if its the right season. Through the center they offer free Parks Canada Interpretive Hikes, if you’re interested check to see if any are being held during your visit.
Trails start opening for the season in early June depending on the weather, although some snow will still be remaining at higher elevations. You can hike most years into October.
The Bear Hump – one of the parks most popular hikes, the Bear Hump Trail name comes from its mountain top that resembles the hump on a grizzly bears back. It’s only 1.4 km’s to the top but it’s a moderately steep climb of 240 meters over many short switchbacks. Most people in fair physical condition can make it to the summit in under 45 minutes, fast hikers will be up much quicker. Go at a pace that’s comfortable for you, stopping for frequent breaks if needed along the way. The stunning panoramic views of Upper and Middle Waterton Lake, the town and the setting of the Prince of Wales Hotel are well worth the effort. The trailhead is right behind the Visitor Center. Avoid summer crowds and the mid-day sun that heats the trail by going early. If it’s a wet day use caution, the wooden beams along the trail will be slippery.
Easy Strolls And Walks
There’s lots of options for easy strolls that allow you to see some of the beautiful views around Waterton.
- Town Site Loop Trail
- Prince of Wales Loop
- Red Rock Canyon and Blackiston Falls
Many of these hikes are easy enough to be considered family friendly.
- Waterton Lakeshore – long but continue on for as much of it as you like
- Lower Bertha Falls
- Forum Lake
- Lineham Creek Falls
- Lower Rowe Lake
Moderate To Difficult Day Hikes
Waterton has some amazing full day hikes, with some of them being dubbed in the top hikes in Canada. If you are fit and up to these longer more challenging hikes they are worth while.
- Crypt Lake Trail
- Lineham Ridge
- Akamina Ridge
- Carthew – Alderson Trail – Tip: Many locals recommend not doing the second half of the hike from Alderson to the Waterton town site. Too much effort for limited views through the thick forest and extremely hard on the knees as you descend downhill. Instead of taking the shuttle to Cameron Lake and doing the full hike back to town, drive yourself there and hike to Carthew Lakes and then return back the same way to the trailhead.
Waterton Springs Interpretative Trail – is not actually in the park, but just outside of it accessed from the Waterton Springs Campground at the east end of the property. Follow the road past the main campground building to the base of a small hill and look for the trailhead kiosk. It’s an easy one kilometer loop with wildflowers blooming in June and July. Great views of the mountains where they join the prairies. Brochures for the trail can be picked up at the Weston Family Conservation Center, adjacent to the campground office, open from late May to October. On the east side of Hwy 6, immediately north of Waterton Lakes National Park, 3.3km’s north of the Waterton Lakes National Park entrance gate.
Some useful links for hiking information in Waterton:
Waterton Lakes National Park Cycling Trails
The Kootenai Brown Trail is a scenic multi-use pathway that was added to Waterton National Park is 2010. It’s a 7km paved bike trail that stretches from the park gate to the visitor center. There’s a few steep hills along the route. It offers beautiful views of the Waterton Lakes and surrounding mountains.
There’s several other cycling trails in Waterton, more information can be found here: Cycling Trail Information For Waterton Lakes National Park
Scenic Drives In Waterton National Park
The Akamina Parkway And Cameron Lake
The Akamina Parkway is a scenic 16 km drive ending at Cameron Lake. It runs through the Cameron Valley on a winding and mountainous road. Several hiking trailheads are accessed from the road, each with a parking area.
At Cameron Lake a 1.6 km trail (one way) goes along the shore to a small peninsula with a viewpoint. Allow one hour return. Another 4.3 km trail goes through an Alpine meadow to Lineham falls. 8.4 km’s, 200 meter elevation gain, allow 3 to 5 hours. Canoes, rowboats, kayaks and peddle boats can be rented at Cameron Lake. You can often see wildlife while canoeing on the lake. Bears have been spotted feeding at the south end. It’s a great place for a swim on a hot summer day.
Red Rock Canyon Road
The Red Rock Canyon road is a scenic 15 kilometer drive crossing through prairie and alpine mountain meadows that are dotted with colourful wildflowers in late summer. Sightings of bear along the route are common.
The Red Rock Canyon day use area sits at the end of the road. Bighorn sheep frequent the parking lot area. A well maintained trail runs along the side of the canyon and across a bridge to the other side. It’s an easy stroll that takes half an hour. The layers and colours of the bedrock in the canyon are interesting to look at.
From the day use area another trail heads downstream to Blackiston Falls. It’s an easy 2 km trail with minimal elevation.
The Bison Paddock
Just north of the park at the Pincher Creek entrance is a large meadow area that has been set aside as a Buffalo paddock. Although the current bison are not natural to this area there was a time when millions of these huge animals freely roamed the prairies. There’s a Texas gate access to a gravel viewing road that loops around. Remain in your vehicle at all times. There seems to be mixed reviews with some people saying they couldn’t see any buffalo in the paddock. Those who have not seen a buffalo before and did get a glimpse were quite fascinated.
Waterton Shares A Border With Glacier National Park In The U.S.A.
Waterton Lakes National Park shares a border with Glacier National Park in Montana in the U.S.A. (not to be confused with Glacier National Park in Canada where the Trans Canada Hwy cuts through Rogers pass in between Revelstoke and Golden B.C.)
There’s not a direct route to drive between the parks. From Waterton the Chief Mountain Highway #6 runs to the Montana Border. From there head south to St. Mary where you can enter Glacier National Park. The two areas make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Many people take the time to visit both parks, but take note they have separate entry fees. We highly recommend visiting Glacier National Park, it’s much larger in size and quite different offering steep mountains and a stunning cliff view drive called the “Going to the Sun Road.”
If you are planning to head into the U.S.A., the Chief Mountain border crossing opens in mid-May, check for the current hours. The Going To The Sun Road usually opens around mid-June, but can be delayed if there is heavier than usual snowfall. To cross the border Canadian citizens should have a passport or enhanced drivers license. Citizens of other countries may require a visa, check the rules for your specific country of residence.
Take A Boat Cruise To The U.S.A.
The Waterton Shoreline Cruise company operates out of the Waterton Marina. They offer a scenic boat tour along Upper Waterton Lake on the historical M.V. International. It’s just over 2 hours which includes a 1/2 hour stop at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station in Glacier National Park, located in Montana, U.S.A.
For those wanting to stay beyond the half hour to hike you can return on a later sailing, but you will need to clear customs and have the proper documents required to enter the United States. The boat tours start in early May and run through early October (weather and condition dependent).
The weather in Waterton is the same as any other Rocky Mountain climate, it can be highly variable and change quickly. July and August are generally warm, there’s some hot spells with temperatures as high as 35C., but there can be cooler days as well. The warm days tend to carrying into the fall months of September and October.
Wind is a predominant aspect of the park. It’s almost a constant with a least a gentle breeze on most spring and summer days, strong gusts can occur in fall and winter. Winters are considered some of the warmest in Alberta. Frequent Chinook winds cause warming spells where the temperature rises dramatically over a short period of time, bringing it freezing or below to 10C. or higher. The effect can last anywhere from a day to several days. May and June tend to be the months with the highest precipitation.
Tips For Visiting Waterton Lake National Park
-Driving from Banff or Calgary take highway 22 known as the Cowboy Trail then highway 3 and 6. It’s much more scenic than Highway 2. It follows along the foothills (the perimeter of the Rockies) and ranch land passing by small towns such as Black Diamond and Longview. You can make stops at the Bar U Ranch Historical Site.
-July and August are the most popular times to visit the park, even though there’s not as many people as other Rocky Mountain National Parks it does get busy during these months. Accommodation is limited so book early.
-Spring and fall are excellent off seasons to enjoy the surroundings with fewer crowds. In the fall the larch and aspen trees show beautiful shades of yellow and gold. It can be an excellent time to view wildlife such as bear, elk and deer. In the spring the wildflower viewing is fantastic in the prairie and mountain meadows.
-There is a healthy population of grizzly and black bear in Waterton Lakes National Park. Use caution and practice bear safety when hiking. If you are not familiar with what to do to keep safe from bear and other wildlife stop in at the Visitor Center on arrival. Always enjoy wildlife from a distance, respect their need for space. Keep 30 meters away from large animals, three times that distance for bears.