Drive about an hour northeast of Calgary or two and a half hours south of…
Waterton Lakes National Park, A UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Alberta, is an absolute gem of a place to visit in summer and fall. It’s the smallest of the Rocky Mountain National Parks – with drop-dead gorgeous mountain scenery that’s easily accessible. That means you can cover a lot of ground in the national park if you’re short on time. If you’re not, explore at a more leisurely pace, trying a variety of activities described below. Or do something epic like knock off as many of the hikes in the park as time allows.
Waterton is unlike any other park in Canada. It shares a border with Glacier Lake National Park in Montana and the two combined are called the “Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park – the first such park in the world.”
Three years ago a massive fire ripped through a large swath of Waterton. While the Visitor Centre was lost to the fire – along with 47,000 acres of land, the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel was not, nor was any of the townsite. Much of the landscape was changed – but the regrowth and the wildflowers are compelling in their own fabulous way.
In 2020 the recovery efforts are very much in evidence. The new Visitor Centre being built in town, is a work in progress and is expected to open in 2021. Hikes that have been closed for the last few years have reopened and the scenic Red Rock Parkway is once again accessible to cars. By 2021, all roads and hikes should be open.
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Things to Do in Waterton – Drive the Red Rock Parkway & explore Red Rock Canyon
The Red Rock Parkway is open again for the summer of 2020. Wowsers! This is one beautiful 15 km one way drive or bike ride. The road travels up the Blakiston Valley to end at Red Rock Canyon. It is the premiere spot for experiencing “Waterton’s classic prairie meeting mountain landscape.”
Along the Red Rock Parkway there are numerous pull-outs and even trailheads and interpretive signs. Once you’re at the end of the road you might find parking challenging, especially on a weekend afternoon. Exercise a little patience or go earlier.
As for Red Rock Canyon – get out of the car and enjoy the easy 0.7 km loop trail on foot. On a hot day you might want to take one of the trails down to the sparkling stream and cool off the toes. I know I did after my hike to Goat Lake.
There are several trailheads from the Red Rock Parkway if you’re into hiking including:
- Crandell Lake (short and easy)
- Bellevue Prairie Trail (short, easy hike)
- Blakiston Falls (short, easy and pretty falls)
- Blakiston Valley (20 km moderate hike)
- Goat Lake (difficult 14 km hike) and Avion Ridge (add another 3.2 km plus some elevation gain from Goat Lake)
- Snowshoe (16.8 km easy day hike)
- Twin Lakes (difficult 24.2 km hike)
- Tamarack Trail access (difficult multi-day hike)
Take a hike in Waterton Lakes National Park
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park. I have already done the Crypt Lake hike – considered one of the top hikes in Canada. If you don’t mind some exposure and a tunnel, this is a great choice. It starts with a boat ride.
While not open in 2020, the Lineham Ridge hike is one for the books in 2021. The Carthew Alderson hike can be done as an out and back hike from Cameron Falls in 2020, but it’s much more enjoyable to do it as a one way hike with a shuttle from The Tamarack. That should also be available in 2021.
In 2020 the fabulous Bear’s Hump hike re-opened. You only need about an hour to knock off the 2.8 km round-trip hike with 250 m of elevation gain. The views are so compelling from the top that you might want to spend another hour just hanging out. In normal years The Tamarack in Waterton offers a guided experience with breakfast on top.
Another excellent choice is the more difficult 14 km return hike to Goat Lake from Red Rock Canyon. The first 4.5 km via the Snowshoe Trail are mostly flat and easy. This part of the trails seems to be popular with the mountain biking crowd as well.
Once you turn off the Snowshoe Trail you start climbing. Fortunately there are switchbacks that make the grade more palatable. There are some pretty waterfalls along the route. At the top there is the option to camp (closed when I did it because of bears) or continue hiking to Aviom Ridge – visible from the campground. It’s another 3.2 km return with considerable elevation gain. See how you feel when you get to the lake before committing.
Pick up an e-bike at Pat’s of Waterton and head out for a couple of easy, fun hours of biking. On a previous trip I biked most of the Red Rock Parkway from the Waterton townsite. It’s a fabulous, soul-stirring ride especially with the wildflower display BUT the road is narrow and now that it’s open to cars, you really must exercise caution.
There are more choices. Do the out and back ride on the Kootenai Brown Trail that basically parallels the road into Waterton. It’s nice to do it at a pace that allows you to jump on and off your bike, when there’s a photo you want to catch. And trust me, with the wildflowers around, there will be plenty of stopping.
Another fantastic option is to do the bike ride up the Chief Mountain Highway. That’s what we did and what a fun ride it turned out to be. Start on the Kootenai Brown trail and take it past the park gates. Follow the signs for the US border crossing. Climb – easily if you have an e-bike – enjoying the views of Chief Mountain. We stopped about 5 minutes short of the border. The return was so much fun with some in the group clocking speeds of 65 km/hour.
Over the hour or so we were on the Chief Mountain Highway we saw only a handful of cars so it’s an extremely safe ride to do. If you’re going to do it alone, be sure to carry bear spray and a lot of water with you.
Experience the Night Sky
If you want to learn something about the night sky – and you’re okay with staying up till 1:30 AM then I highly recommend signing up for a tour with Dark Sky Guides – run by four brothers based in Waterton, all with a passion for the stars.
Waterton Lakes National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and is part of the world’s first trans national international dark sky park.
On our tour we had Keith as a guide – a delightful man who is a born storyteller. He’ll pick you up in a van at your hotel (or you can follow him in your own car while COVID is with us) and take you to the Blakiston Falls trailhead at the end of the Red Rock Parkway.
Don one of the headlamps provided and set off on an easy one kilometre walk to the falls. The walk itself is interesting, even in the dark. We stopped to admire giant fireweed, as tall as a six foot person – thanks to the nutrients from the 2017 wildfires. I don’t think I would have appreciated how unusual that was without a guide.
Once at the falls, I sat back and craned my neck looking for shooting stars (I spotted four of them) while listening to Keith deliver Native stories about some of the constellations. What I really appreciated on this tour was the green laser Keith produced from his pack. It allowed him to pinpoint the stars so you knew exactly which ones he was referring to. That was a first for me.
Bring your own tripod if you want to shoot the night sky. I know a couple in our group got some great shots.
Paddle or SUP on Linnet Lake
Kayaking and SUP is something I still haven’t had time to do in Waterton but on a hot summer day, it’s one of the most appealing activities. Pictured below is Linnet Lake where the paddling is usually mellow.
The same cannot be said for Upper Waterton Lake. Kayaking and SUP can get tough here on a windy day, especially with waves, but if you’re up for it and have the experience, there’s a lot of exploring to do. Take a half day to several days and paddle the lake, staying in backcountry campsites along the west shore of the lake. Reserve campsites ahead with Parks Canada.
Catch a sunset
In the summer I highly recommend wandering down past Cameron Falls to the beach on Upper Waterton Lake. It’s a peaceful place offering the option to walk the rocky beach, skip stones or meditate while watching the sun go down.
Where to eat in Waterton Lakes National Park
COVID has affected some of the restaurant choices in Waterton in 2020. Unfortunately Red Rock Trattoria, considered the best restaurant in town, is not open because of COVID.
But there are still some great choices.
For a wiener – even for all you non-wiener eating folks, wander over to Wieners of Waterton for a gourmet hotdog – with or without all the fixins’. Not a meat eater? Don’t worry. They’ve got falafels on a bun that will fill you up for any adventure you might do. There are lots of picnic tables so you can eat it all outdoors.
The Lakeside Chophouse with an outdoor patio overlooking the lake is another excellent choice. Even better is the fact that it’s got a few of the dishes on the menu that were big hits at the Red Rock Trattoria. (The restaurants are owned by the same family.) Portion sizes are LARGE, so if you’re having an appetizer you might want to split the main with someone.
If you’re a fan of Mexican food be sure to visit The Taco Bar, owned by a third generation local. All the slow-cooked meats, salsas and sauces are made from scratch and everything is made fresh to order. There is no Tex-Mex here. I had the burrito and it was very filling. – almost enough for two.
If you’re heading out for a day in the hills, pick up lunch supplies at Pearl’s Café. I enjoyed a delicious brie, apple and chicken sandwich.
Where to stay in Waterton
There is everything from camping to B&B’s to hotel stays across a range of price points.
I stayed in the Northland Lodge near Cameron Falls. Even though the rooms are basic I loved the fact I could walk out onto a deck from my room with a view and lots of seating. The staff is particularly friendly here.
The Prince of Wales Hotel enjoys the most incredible views – along with a high tea though I have never stayed here.
Getting to Waterton
Waterton is easy to access from Calgary. Drive either the Cowboy Highway or Highway 2 South to reach Highway 3. Make your way to Pincher Creek – either east or west depending which highway you take south. From there, it’s a further 44 kilometres south to reach the park entrance via Highway 6. It usually takes me three hours from Calgary.
A big thank you to the Waterton Chamber of Commerce for hosting my visit.
Further reading on nearby things to do
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