Waterton Lakes National Park is known for its hiking trails. // © 2010 Travel Alberta
There’s nothing like the sight of a beargrass patch to make a fella yearn to be on the trail in Waterton Lakes National Park once more. This expansive park in Southern Alberta is where rolling prairies collide with the Rocky Mountains. The result is a striking landscape that has yet to catch the world’s attention. It has been noted by locals that Waterton, located 160 miles south of Calgary, is the least-traveled of Alberta’s Rocky Mountain parks and, quite possibly, the most spectacular.
The park makes up the Canadian side of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, so designated in 1932 and recognized in 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bighorn sheep, elk and mountain goats can be found on its open hillsides, where beargrass grows in broad swaths or in the thick forest of the park. The unique mountain-meets-prairie environment creates an unusual combination of
habitats and species, and nearly 55 percent of Alberta’s wildflower species can be found in Waterton.
Of the many hiking trails to be found within the park, the Crypt Lake trail is, perhaps, the most scenic — and challenging — full-day adventure. Hikers first take a boat taxi across Waterton Lake before starting on the trail.
Along the way, they will pass by four waterfalls, including Crypt Falls, some 500 feet high. Near the top, there is a natural tunnel that requires hikers to crawl on their hands and knees for 100 feet. Once back in the open, a cable that is firmly attached to a rock wall allows for a cliff traverse. Afterward, hikers are rewarded with a spectacular view of Crypt Lake and the surrounding mountains.
Crypt Lake is just one of 21 hiking trails that can last from one to nine hours. Tamarack Trail, however, offers an experience lasting two to three days in length.
Then there’s Bear’s Hump, located on the edge of town, an hour-long adventure of moderate difficulty that offers a memorable view of the Waterton townsite and the peaks of Glacier National Park.
For visitors looking for soft adventure, there are a number of strolls around lakes or nearby waterfalls, lasting 30 minutes to several hours.
Scuba divers find Waterton Lake to be a charming diversion, especially in early spring. The Emerald Bay portion of Upper Waterton Lake and Cameron Bay are usually the dive spots of choice. Emerald Bay offers a special attraction: a sunken paddle wheeler — the Gertrude, which was built in the early 1900s — resting at a depth of about 65 feet.
Waterton is popular with cyclists, too. Earlier this year, it completed an eight-mile paved bike route from the townsite to the park entrance and officially opened it to cyclists in October. The route is named Kootenai Trail, after John George “Kootenai” Brown, Waterton’s first park superintendent, and it is located close to the gravesite of Brown and his two wives.
Standing in the shadow of Vimy Peak, across the lake from the townsite, visitors will find the Alpine Stables, where they can take a guided pony ride or a day-long horseback journey to Crandell Lake or the Twin Lakes Loop. Riders can enjoy a leisurely hour ride along Waterton Lakes Golf Course, considered to be one of the most scenic courses in Canada. The 18-hole course is open to the public from dawn to dusk seven days a week from May through October.
After an active day of hiking, biking or boating, visitors will find any number of accommodations in the townsite, including the Prince of Wales Hotel that has stood, since 1927, on a promontory overlooking Waterton. Both the Waterton Lakes Lodge and the Waterton Glacier Suites are open the year-round and offer cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals in winter.
Actually, if there comes a time when Waterton’s many outdoor activities become too daunting, visitors should stop by the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlor, eat a cone on one of its outside chairs and observe the nearby surroundings. Something is sure to happen. A Mountie dressed in Red Serge uniform could walk by and offer a handshake or, for those who are lucky enough, they may watch a young deer trying to gain entrance to the Waterton Heritage Centre museum and bookstore located just across the street.