Taking time to smell the flowers is more fun at the annual Waterton Wildflower Festival three hours south of Calgary, Alberta in Waterton Lakes National Park (WLNP). But looking for wildflowers in Canada’s smallest Rocky Mountain national park isn’t for sissies. You need to watch for bugs, bears and big foot (the human kind, not the legendary yeti).
Waterton’s compact size and rapid elevation change provides forty-five vegetation communities and is home to over 1000 species of vascular plants, 20 species found nowhere else in Alberta and at least two species found nowhere else in the world.
If like me, you can’t tell a moonwort from a fleabane, not to worry. The festival offers nine days of tours, talks and concerts to bring out your inner horticulturalist.
I signed up for a tour with volunteer leader, Patricia Wagenaar, hoping to see the rare mountain lady’s slipper. Our group of nine flower-lovers stopped at several pullouts, admiring the various flowers Patricia pointed out, some fairly common, some rare. “That’s a striped coralroot,” Patricia said, “A very nice specimen.” I crouched down for a close-up photo and then moved back to let someone else admire the floral beauty.
“Where is it?” asked the lady I’d let pass. “It’s right…. there,” I said pointing to a large hiking boot that was now standing where the flower had been a minute earlier.
The person attached to the boot was horrified to learn she had squashed the coralroot while admiring yet another blossom. Fortunately, when she picked up her foot, the flower looked no worse than someone who’s been first in line at a Boxing Day sale.
None of our meanders had taken us more than 30 metres from the parking lot. I was starting to think wildflower spotting was more ditch walking than hiking when Patricia promised to take us to a special viewpoint.
Eschewing any hiking trail, she took a sharp right off the road and led us straight into the bush. There was the occasional meadow with the promised views, but when the thorns were catching at my clothes, the lumpy meadows and downed trees creating infinite possibilities for tumbles, I realized plant lovers could kick some serious hiking butt.
We were rewarded for our off-road hiking with lady’s slippers and wildflowers of all colors and sizes, and enough flies for a horror movie, but no moonworts. WLNP is considered a moonwort hot spot. “They are a very tiny fern,” Patricia explained, “You would need to take a different hike to see them.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to search for moonworts on this trip, but I’ll return next year to discover more of Waterton’s floral wonders.
If you decide to go to the Waterton Wildflower Festival
Once the snow melts in May, wildflowers start to bloom. The third week of June is peak viewing time but wildflowers can be seen during summer months as well. Waterton receives most of their 400,000 visitors in the summer months. Reserve a hotel room in advance or you may find yourself staying outside the park. If you would like a private tour, contact interpreter Ian Perry at Good Friend Guides.
Where to stay in Waterton Lakes National Park
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The Townsite Campground is a good choice if you’re keen to camp. You can reserve online or call Parks Canada at 1-877-737-3783.
For a B&B experience check out Northland Lodge, an excellent choice. The Prince of Wales Hotel enjoys a fabulous setting even if the rooms are reportedly a little tired. At the very least, have a drink in their lounge with a view down the lake.