About Waterton Lakes National Park
Tucked away into the quiet southwest corner of Canada’s province of Alberta, Waterton Lakes National Park is a true gem. Bordered by Montana’s Glacier National park to the south and British Columbia to the west Waterton Lakes is a nature & outdoor lover’s paradise.
Waterton Lakes National Park is Canada’s 4th National Park and despite being the smallest in the Canadian Rockies it’s incredibly diverse being the meeting point of the prairies and the rocky mountains. Waterton Park is also part of the UNESCO Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and one of only a handful of cross border parks in the world. Complimented perfectly by the larger Glacier National Park to the south Waterton Lakes National Park Holds its own as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, explorers and photographers.
The intimate experiences to be had in Waterton Lakes National Park are world class without the hustle and bustle of the other “local” parks (Banff National Park, Jasper, Yoho etc.). A vast wilderness of rolling grasslands, towering peaks and alpine lakes await your visit to Waterton Lakes National Park. As a photographer the park is of particular draw. Photogenic sight lines down Upper Waterton Lake and the surrounding mountains are fantastic snapshot material to say the least!
What to do in Waterton
Go Hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park
Bring your hiking gear! One of my favorite ways to pass the time in Waterton Lakes National Park is to enjoy any one of the many scenic hikes around the lake or through the mountains. Waterton is a hiker’s paradise offering everything from cozy forest trails to impressive mountaintop viewpoints all with relatively easy trailhead access! Some of my favorite hikes in Waterton Park are:
Bears Hump Hike
One of the shortest hikes in the park rewards you with a view to die for! The bears hump is a rock prominence sitting almost directly uphill from the (now destroyed – 2017 fire) park visitors center. Often lovingly referred to as the stairmaster from hell this strenuous short but sweet (3KM, 300M Elevation) hike will have you wheezing with excitement when you reach the top to take in the amazing view! For a twist on the usual bring your headlight and start up the trail in the dark before dawn while trying not to fall on your face to enjoy an EPIC sunrise from the top before heading back into town for some much deserved coffee (or beer, you’re on vacation after all)!
Red Rock Canyon Hike
Unique to the area Red Rock Canyon holds a geological oddity for Alberta. The stunning red colored rock seam this canyon has carved its way through over the milenia is eerily reminiscent of the southwestern USA. The short loop trail (1KM) will give you a birds eye view into the canyon from high up on the rock walls, through forest and grasslands. keep your eyes open for stunning wildflower blooms and even roaming buffalo. In the summer months when water levels are low a hike up the floor of the canyon provides a spectacular experience. Head upstream under both the bridges, ready to get wet and experience western Canada’s only red rock slot canyon! Watch out for the deep pool’s or you’ll be soaked head to toe, ask me how I know!
Crypt Lake Hike
Rated as one of National Geographic Magazine’s top 20 hikes this one is not for the faint of heart. This 17Km (return) hike, while not overtly dangerous, tosses steep sections, sheer drop offs and even a claustrophobic tunnel between you and your goal. You’ll need to be okay with some slight exposure and keep your wits about you while making this hike.
Start with a tranquil sail down waterton lake onboard one of the parks water taxi’s to the trailhead. From the trailhead you’ll enjoy stunning cliffside views, mountain waterfalls, quiet forest meanderings & and alpine meadows until you end up at a beautiful (but shrinkage inducingly cold) alpine lake. Swimming amongst the icebergs is an experience for your bucket list so don’t forget to pack a towel along with your lunch! Keep your eyes open for mountain goats skirting along the rocky ledges above you as if showing off and judging your form… (assholes)
Wall Lake Hike
Wall lake is quite the spectacle. Aptly named, this high alpine gem seemingly dead ends into the massive headwalls of the Akamina Ridge. You’ll put a crick in your neck trying to find the top of this massive piece of stone! The trail along the lake offers amazing picnic spots and even some good trout fishing (from what I’m told).
Though the lake is technically in Akamina Provincial Park in British Columbia the trailhead is located in Waterton Lakes park so I’m including it here! After a challenging first kilometer the trail flattens out and becomes a scenic 6KM tour across the continental divide. Be prepared to share, the wall lake trail is multi use and popular with mountain biking crowd!
You don’t have to trek far to enjoy this little piece of paradise! One of Waterton’s most visited and photographed attractions, cameron falls is right in the middle of town! Simply park near the municipal campground and cross the street to the falls. If you like to work for your reward a little more than that, the falls are also the end point for a 19KM one way hike from Cameron Lake back to the Waterton townsite. Fun fact, occasionally after a heavy rain Cameron Falls runs Pink; no there wasn’t an industrial sized spill of pepto bismol, the rushing water is known to churn up red rock sediment turning the falls a vibrant color!
The Best Restaurants in Waterton
Despite being a small town when you exclude the tourist population (105 residents in the 2016 census) the Waterton townsite sports a wide array of culinary choices. Everything from gourmet hotdogs (who knew) at Wieners of Waterton & trendy waffles at the aptly named Waffleton to high class fine dining at the Prince of Wales Hotel or Lakeside Chophouse there’s something for everyone.
Waffleton – $– This aptly named Waffle House serves a mean americano and delicious sweet or savory treats. Breakfast oR simply taming a craving Waffleton has you covered! It’s not all Caffeine and scratch made belgium waffles though, stop in after your hike for a soft serve ice cream or frozen yogurt topped however you please to cool off.
Weiners of Waterton – $ – I laughed when I first found the place, I’m laughing again now as I type Weiners of Waterton (I swear I’m a grown ass man). Just a few units down from Waffleton this gourmet hot dog joint scratch bakes their buns every morning and grills to order. On a cool day the permanent fire pit outside the joint is great to warm up as you down your dog. It’s simply got to be tasted to be believed.
Thirsty Bear Social House – $$ – Full of Canadiana this high end pub/sports bar concept is THE place in waterton to grab a tall frosty glass of local Canadian craft beer. And the menu isn’t too shabby either. Their short rib sandwich had me wishing I had another afternoon to spend in the park just so I could come back and sample something else!
Lakeside Chophouse – $$$ – The best patio in Waterton is located here at the Lakeside Chophouse, part of the Bayshore Inn. Located alongside the lakefront park enjoying a view across Waterton lake onto the majestic rockies. This is a great spot to take in a summer evening with friends after enjoying Chef Brian’s west coast inspired menu.
Prince of Wales Restaurant – $$$ – Arguably the finest dining in Waterton Lakes park the Prince of Wales’ Royal Stuart Dining Room serves up elegant cuisine with a view to kill for. With every table in the dining room overlooking the lake and impressive swiss chalet inspired architecture the atmosphere here doesn’t leave too much to be desired. Try the braised bison stew, my mouth’s watering just thinking about it! If dinner here is out of your price range consider stopping by for the much less expensive and equally enjoyable afternoon tea!
Waterton Park is a photographer’s dream. With epic compositions waiting around every corner you’ll need a few days in order to capture the park. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the wide expansive landscape images if you bring your focus back the park presents more than a few intimate landscapes that are different from everyone else’s images of Waterton.
I happened to be in the park during a new moon (luck, not planning) and got to shoot some seldom seen images of the Milky Way over Upper Waterton lake. These are the images that make people stop and stare. Something new, something different. In today’s world of smartphone cameras and social media you have to stand out to be recognized. Look for new opportunities to create unique imagery!
Waterton’s photographic hotspots include:
- The Prince of Wales Hotel
- Waterton Lake
- Red Rock Canyon
- Cameron Falls
- Wall Lake
- Cameron Lake
- The Bears Hump
- Crypt Lake
Where to Stay in Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Park Camping
Waterton Townsite Campground
Close and convenient the Waterton Townsite campground is a great spot for families or campers who’ll make use of the towns shops and restaurants frequently. This large campground located along Cameron creek and the edge of the lake is well set up for anything from tent dwellers to huge RV’s. 135 serviced sites make for a great home base in Waterton. Flush toilets, hot showers, electricity, fire pits and all the fixin’s make this site more livable than many of the other’s. High winds are common along this part of the lake, make sure you stake your tent!
Crandell Mountain Campground
Set along the Red Rock Parkway in the scenic Blakiston Valley this first-come-first-served wilderness campground has a laid back vibe in a gorgeous forest setting. 129 unserviced sites and five traditional Tipi’s are available in the campground. keep your eyes peeled for elk, mule deer, bears and even buffalo near the campground!
Belly River Campground
Belly River is a small campsite near the entrance to the park. With only 24 treed, unserviced, first-come-first-served sites it maintains a more intimate feel than that of the larger sites listed above. Be aware of the wind while setting up your campsite and plan to have some protection.
Backcountry camping can be a great way to experience the untamed wilderness of Waterton Lakes National park. The park offers 9 wilderness area campgrounds in its backcountry, most near beautiful alpine lakes. A backcountry user permit is required for overnight stays in the backcountry area of the park. These can be obtained from the Waterton Lakes Visitor Center. For more information on backcountry camping in waterton lakes check out this Parks Canada page.
Waterton Park Hotels & Other Places to Stay in Waterton
The Historic Prince of Wales Hotel
Built during the American prohibition by America’s Great Northern Railway, a company which also was instrumental in founding Montana’s Glacier National Park. Great Northern’s trains provided the only access to Glacier National Park before the highways were built and their hotels offered the finest accommodations. The idea behind the Prince of Wales hotel on the Canadian end of upper Waterton lake was to cash in on booze fueled side trips up the lake by their American clientele to a liquor liberal Canada.
Today the hotel continues to operate as a Canadian national historic site. It’s the only of Canada’s network of grand railway properties built by a non-canadian railroad. From $249 CDN per night this isn’t the most budget friendly option in the park, the view however, is priceless. Even if you don’t stay at the prince of wales hotel you should make time to explore the grounds and take in a meal or perhaps afternoon high tea (a truly British tradition).
Waterton Lakes Lodge
One of the few properties in Waterton park that stays open year round and the only one with a pool (who knew). Waterton Lakes Lodge is a newer property right in the townsite. Offering everything from standard rooms to kitchenettes and full suites the Waterton Lakes Lodge has all the amenities you might require.
With no AirBNB rentals within the townsite of waterton or the park itself your closest option is 5 minutes outside the park. A beautiful 5 bedroom ranch house with panoramic views from every room starting at only $489/night (eek) If the Waterton Lakes Park Hotels are full your next best option may be the campsites! However, if you’re going to use AirBNB i’d love it you used my Referral Link!
Waterton Lakes National Park Weather
The melt begins in April. The park typically won’t be snow free (especially at the upper elevations and mountain hikes) until July. Frequent strong winds assault the park at all times of year (There’s a reason for all of those wind turbines near the entrance to the park); with gusts of over 150Km/h recorded down the main valley.
Prepare for temperature swings both due to the wind and shading by the mountains in the park. Waterton’s summers can be described as brief and cool; Averaging 15-20C with some hot spells up to 35C when the winds die down and the heat moves in from the surrounding prairies.
The winter season in Waterton begins in earnest early november and typically stretches into late april. During winter the majority of the facilities in the park are closed, however; heated washrooms and running water are available to park users at the firehall and cameron falls in the core townsite area.
Expect everything from warm mild weather to extreme bone chilling cold during winter excursions to the park. Winters are long and relatively mild, with frequent warm spells (high 10*C/50*F), often caused by chinooks. The park is one of Alberta’s warmest places in the winter, despite temperatures that can drop as low as -40*C in January and February. The townsite sees nearly 600cm of snow per season with much more in the mountains!
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to enjoy Waterton Lakes National Park in the winter. The season for good conditions generally extends from December to March. Be aware of avalanche dangers in the park and go prepared!
Best Times to Visit
Waterton Wildflower Festival – Mid June
The Waterton Wildflower Festival celebrates the wildflower capital of Canada each spring. Guided walks, hikes, workshops and presentations await. Come celebrate the first day of summer in a World Heritage Site (and dont forget your camera!)
Waterton Wildlife Weekend – End Of September
Waterton Lakes National Park is where multiple ecosystems converge and where the mountains meet the prairies in a stunning visual collision. This unique geology leads to amazing wildlife diversity. Come celebrate and spot the local fauna. Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Elk, Mule Deer, Bear and Buffalo are typically spotted in the park this time of year!
Waterton Winterfest – Mid March
Current information unavailable.
Video’s of Waterton Park
The uniqueness of Waterton is obvious to anyone who’s had a chance to experience it. Waterton is an absolute must for anyone planning a trip to the canadian rocky mountains. A world heritage site & an international peace park (where the border is guarded only by a beer drinking beaver and a bald eagle) Waterton is a stunning example of what can be achieved when governments work together to protect our special places! Now grab your camera bag, pack your wheeled backpack and go see it yourself!