After a devastating forest fire temporarily closed it in September 2017, the small but mighty Waterton Lakes National Park is back and ready to wow you.
The park, located where the Rocky Mountains meet Alberta’s prairies, is a stunning slice of Canada that’s sure to meet all your travel needs in one conveniently small package. While big sisters Jasper and Banff need a week (or more) to be fully explored and appreciated, Waterton can be tackled in just a few days.
It’s also a lot less crowded than Alberta’s other national parks. Despite being just two and a half hours south from Calgary, Waterton only welcomed around 540,000 visitors in 2016 compared to the four million people that visit Banff annually. So if you’re planning on visiting the area, take the scenic route along highways 40 and 22, and give yourself plenty of time to stop and enjoy the sights. Also, be sure to make your reservations in advanced before the campsites fill up. Here’s just a taste of what this secluded spot has to offer.
While a number of waterfalls dot the park, Cameron Falls is right in town and can be easily accessed by almost anyone thanks to its paved pathway. This trail lets you get close to the falls and the 1.5-billion-year-old rocks they tumble over. Just resist the temptation to jump the barriers to get even closer.
If you visit Waterton in the winter, you may find these falls frozen over and ready for an Instagram-worthy photo.
Wieners, waffles and more
The town of Waterton is tiny – barely 100 full-time residents call it home – but it has everything you need, including delicious dining options.
Travelling with kids? You’ll want to stop by local favourite Wieners of Waterton, which serves locally-made, gourmet hot dogs (including a vegetarian option). There’s also housemade Belgian waffles at Waffleton, where you can also grab a post-hike ice cream or frozen yogurt.
Want something a little fancier? Try The Lakeside Chophouse, where you can dine on Western Canadian classics such as AAA Alberta beef or Saskatoon berry pie while overlooking Waterton Lake.
The Prince of Wales Hotel
Waterton offers a range of accommodations, from camp sites in the warmer months to cozy mountain lodges. But its best-known hotel is the iconic Prince of Wales. Built in 1927, this National Historic Site of Canada offers postcard-perfect views and a refined but relaxed atmosphere (and yes, it offers free WiFi). It’s also renowned for its afternoon tea, which often features live classical music.
Get extreme on Lake Waterton
The park gets its name from Lake Waterton, a gorgeous, blue-green body of water that’s also the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. While you can swim in its usually chilly water, many prefer to kayak, canoe or paddleboard (rentals are available). You can even check out a sunken paddle wheeler boat from the 1900’s if you like scuba diving.
Waterton is also known for its winds, so it’s no surprise that the lake is one of the top windsurfing destinations in Alberta.
Or take it easy on a boat cruise
From May until October, hop on the historic M.V. International for a two-hour-long boat tour of Lake Waterton. Featuring commentary from a local tour guide, this trip is an entertaining history lesson that offers tons of photo opportunities.
The ship also docks for half an hour at Goat Haunt, Montana, where passengers can explore the visitor centre and those with valid passports can also check out Goat Haunt’s many hiking options.
See the wildlife
Over 60 kinds of mammals live in the park, and some, such as Bighorn sheep and deer, can often be spotted right inside the town. If you want to see bears, mountains goats or Waterton’s most elusive resident, the mountain lion, you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled while hiking or driving. While you have the best shot at seeing wildlife during the late summer and fall, furry friends can be spotted year-round. Just make sure to watch from a safe distance.
Before the wildfire, visitors were also able drive over to the bison paddock, where they would find a small herd of these massive mammals. Although they’ve been relocated, park officials are eventually planning on bringing them back after fixing the damage the fire caused to the grasslands.
Fun in the snow
In this corner of Alberta, winter can last well into April. So if you’re headed to Waterton for March Break, pack your big coat. And be prepared to get some exercise since the park is packed with winter activities, from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to ice climbing.
So if you’re planning on visiting the area, find out what trails and other features are open (some parts of the park are still closed due to fire damage).