Waterton Lakes National Park is located in southwest Alberta where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains. The park shares its borders with Glacier National Park in Montana to the south. In 1932 the first international peace park was created, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, to commemorate the peace, goodwill, and cooperation between the USA and Canada. The park’s unique position at the meeting of the grasslands and the mountains creates a birder’s paradise and provides the opportunity to view a large variety of wildlife including bears, bison, and bighorn sheep. The park and townsite have a rich history from its establishment during an oil boom to the golden age of railway resort tourism, surviving evidence of these times past can be seen at the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel which still stands today on a bluff overlooking spectacular views of the mountains, lakes, prairies, and townsite.
Best Time to Visit Waterton Lakes
The spring season lasts from April through June. These months have the most clouds and rainfall, and average temperatures range from -5-15°C (23-59°F). The spring is the best time to see wildflowers colour the prairies, migratory birds arriving, and newborn wildlife. The snowmelt and spring rains have filled the canyons making waterfalls their most impressive at this time.
Summers are the park’s peak season and last from July through August. Summers in the park are short and cool with some hot spells. Average temperatures range between 5-19°C (41-66°F). Visitors are encouraged to consider coming on a weekday to avoid a rush or to visit popular locations early in the mornings or in the evenings.
Fall lasts from September through October. Temperatures average between lows of -1°C and highs of 13°C (30-55°F). Fall is one of the best times for birding and wildlife viewing as well as enjoying the vibrant colours of the larch and aspen groves.
Visitors in the winter should come prepared for highly variable mountain weather. The winters in Waterton Lakes are long, mild, and snowy. Winter begins in November and lasts into the beginning of March with average temperatures ranging between -13/ -1°C (8.6-30°F). The warm chinook winds frequently blow into the park, making it one of the warmest places in Alberta in the winter with highs of 10°C (50°F) during these events. January and February are typically the coldest months and even though weather is typically mild, winter lows have been recorded at -40°C (-40°F). Waterton Lakes is windy! High winds, 30 km/h (20 mph), are common as well as gusts that can reach 120 km/h (75 mph) or higher in the winter.
It’s always a good idea to start any National Parks trip with a stop at a visitor centre where you can speak to park rangers, purchase a daily or annual pass, or pick up gifts, maps, books, brochures, and backcountry permits. Learn about weather information, avalanche reports, and road conditions.
Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre- 209 Fountain Ave, Waterton Park, AB.
Construction is underway on a new park visitor centre scheduled to open in the spring of 2021. The new centre will have interpretive exhibits and educational programs where visitors can learn about local indigenous culture, history, and their connection to the land.
Getting To / Around Waterton Lakes
From Calgary International Airport (YYC) drive south 282 km (175 miles) for 3 hours via AB-2 S, AB-3 W to AB-785 in Pincher Creek No. 9, then take AB-6 S to the park.
From Banff AB drive southeast 327 km (203 miles) for 4 hours via Trans-Canada Hwy/AB-1 E, AB-22, AB-6 S in Pincher Creek No. 9, then take AB-6 S to the park.
Glacier National Park MT
From St. Mary drive north via US-89 N through the USA/Canada border crossing, through Cardston, and west via AB-5 W. The drive is 42 km (68 miles) and takes 1 hour and 20 minutes. Alternatively, take the Chief Mountain International Highway seasonally from May 15 to September 30.
A private company offers a hikers shuttle from Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters in the village in the summer season. They offer regular shuttles to all the trailheads such as Cameron Lake, Red Rock Canyon, and to Chief Mountain Customs where hikers can connect to a Glacier-based shuttle to explore various trailheads in Glacier National Park.
Things to Do and Main Attractions
There are many different scenic drives to choose from in Waterton Lakes. The Entrance Parkway starts at the park entrance and overlooks the Waterton Valley as you travel from the prairie, follow along the Waterton Lakes Chain, past the Prince of Wales Hotel National Historic Site, to arrive at the townsite of Waterton Lakes. Drive the speed limit because this road is a likely place to spot wildlife.
The Chief Mountain Highway connects Waterton Lakes with Glacier National Park in the USA. This scenic route begins in the prairies and climbs to incredible views of the Waterton and Blakiston valleys at the Chief Mountain lookout. Drive the Red Rock Parkway to see where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains as well as views of Mt. Blakiston, the park’s tallest mountain. Along the route, there are pull-offs and viewpoints marked with interpretive signs and at the end of the road, you can hike the Red Rock Canyon loop trail to stretch your legs.
There are trail options in the park for all abilities. For an easy stroll try walking the paved interpretive trail around Linnet Lake, the Prince of Wales trail, or the Blakiston Falls trail. For a moderate day hike, try the Lineham trail which offers views of the highest peak in the park and a 250 m (820 ft) high waterfall. A difficult day hike to try is Crypt, which requires a boat shuttle to and from the trailhead and includes steep climbs and narrow cliffs that will reward you with incredible views of mountains and waterfalls. For a hike to the top of a mountain try the Carthew-Alderson trail which will take you on a series of switch bakes to reach Summit Lake and finally the Summit where views of the Carthew Lakes, the Waterton Valley, and prairies are waiting for you.
The Park also has a multi-day trek, the Tamarack trail, which takes you through meadows, past mountain lakes, and along ridges while you follow the continental divide for 32-36 km (20-23 miles). The best time to hike in the park is from July to mid-September. Many higher elevation trails will be impassable due to snow and avalanche risk the rest of the year, park staff recommend lower elevation trails at these times.
For an added challenge on your adventures, try to find the Park’s Canada red chairs! The park has placed five sets of large red chairs at various viewpoints throughout the park. Some will be easy to find and others will involve more of a challenge, but the scenic locations will be worth the effort!
There are traditional climbing routes on the cliffs of the Bears Hump and climbers can use the Bears Hump trail for their descent. There are many popular scrambling peaks in the park including Galwey, Crandell, and Mt. Blakiston- the park’s highest peak at about 2909.9 m (9547 ft).
Waterton Lakes has many paved roads that are great for cyclists. The Chief Mountain Highway has wide shoulders, large hills, and rewarding viewpoints. The Kootenai Brown trail is an off-road paved route for both cyclists and pedestrians that runs from the park gate to the Waterton townsite
Canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding are popular activities on Waterton’s mountain lakes. Good swimming beaches include Upper Waterton Lake, Emerald Bay, and the Marquis Hole picnic site along the Waterton River. Fishing is permitted within the park with a daily or annual national park fishing permit.
There are many trails in the park ideal for snowshoeing in the winter. Try going to Cameron Lake, Red Rock Parkway, Crandell Lake, or Wishbone Trail. Snowshoes are available for rent in the community. Parks Canada will be grooming many potential cross-country ski trails. Refer to the visitor centre for up to date information. Winter camping is possible at Pass Creek Day Use Area from November 1st to April 1st.
Waterton Lakes supports a large amount of wildlife due to its location where the prairies meet the mountains, creating many different habitats. You can find the plains bison, mule deer, and Columbian ground squirrel on the grasslands. Visitors may come across bighorn sheep or pikas in higher elevations. There are many elk, whitetail deer, and moose, foxes, coyotes, and black bears. The park also supports large carnivores such as grizzly bears, cougars, lynx, bobcats, and wolves that visitors are less likely to come across.
The Park is a great place for birdwatching because of the large variety of habitats within the park, from the prairies, wetlands, lakes, montane forests, and sup alpine, that can support many different species. Common birds to spot in the park include the American dipper, Common goldeneye, Gray jay, Steller’s jay, and the Mountain chickadee. Visitors can also see birds in the winter months including ravens, eagles, woodpeckers, or pygmy owls.
Where to Stay in Waterton Lakes
The Great Northern Railway established this iconic Canadian hotel in 1927. They built the hotel on a bluff overlooking views of the park’s prairies, lakes, town, and mountains. The hotel has a refined dining Room, Windsor Lounge, and afternoon tea.
A sunny, open, and grassy campground located at the south end of Waterton townsite. The campground is within walking distance of the town’s amenities, Upper Waterton Lake, and Cameron Falls. I recommend you make reservations.
Located 26 km (16 miles) from Waterton townsite near the Chief Mountain border crossing. This primitive and unserviced campground operates on a first-come, first-serve basis. This is a more secluded campground that sits along the Belly River in an aspen forest. Group camping is available with a reservation for groups of 25-100 people.
There are ten backcountry campgrounds in the park. All campgrounds except for one are equipped with outhouses, tent pads, food storage poles, and picnic tables. These campsites are only accessible by the park’s hiking trails and two can be accessed by personal watercraft.
The cabin was built as a Warden’s cabin in 1929 and is now the oldest backcountry cabin still surviving in the park. The cabin is about 2km (1.2 miles) away from Little Prairie Day Use Area at Cameron Lake. Visitors can make the trip by cross-country skis or snowshoes in the winter months (December 1- April 1).
Things to Remember While Visiting Waterton Lakes
- Follow ‘Leave No Trace’ principles.
- Follow the speed limit and drive cautiously through the park to decrease wildlife collisions.
- From November to April, most facilities in the Waterton townsite are closed.
- There is no dependable cell coverage in Waterton Lakes National Park.
- There is no public wifi available in the park. Free wifi can be found in the Townsite Campground.
- Pets are allowed on trails in the park. They must be on a leash at all times for their safety and the safety of park wildlife.
- Be prepared for a variety of weather conditions. Raingear and layered clothing are essential.
- Respect wildlife from a distance: don’t feed or approach them or let them approach you.
- Human food has a serious impact on wildlife. Don’t feed wildlife, keep camps free of all traces of food, store food in an animal-proof food locker or food storage pole, and dispose of all garbage properly. Follow the ‘BARE’ campsite program.
Check out some of Canada’s other awe-inspiring parks.