Until recently, whenever anyone asked where my favourite spot was in Canada I would immediately reply that I’d left my heart in Tofino on Vancouver Island.
But, after a recent trip to Alberta, I fear that the laid-back surf town on the West Coast might have just lost its crown. There are just some places in the world that simply get under your skin and Waterton Lakes National Park already has me itching to return.
Bordering Montana’s Glacier National Park in the USA, where the Alberta prairies collide with the Rocky Mountains, Waterton Lakes National Park is a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s also the world’s first International Peace Park.
It’s surprising then, that so few people have heard of it. While other towns in this corner of Alberta such as Banff and Jasper are packed with tourists year-round, Waterton still feels relatively undiscovered.
The park is home to some excellent hiking trails, plenty of wildlife and jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. This, in a country where cinematic landscapes and breathtaking views are, quite frankly, a dime a dozen, is pretty impressive.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Calgary Tourism and Waterton Tourism for the purpose of this review. This post may contain affiliate and commercial links. For more information see our disclosure policy.
Waterton is located in southern Alberta, roughly 280km from Calgary. It was established in 1895, making it the fourth Canadian National Park to be established.
The town of Waterton, that sits within the national park itself, was settled in 1904 by the Western Coal and Oil Company from Vancouver who were hoping to strike it rich. It wasn’t long until their dreams of becoming oil barons died, however, and tourism slowly took over aided by the opening in 1927 of the enormous, Hitchcockian hotel, the Prince of Wales.
The town of Waterton is completely charming characterised by a handful of streets and family-run businesses. It’s the people that really are one of the most wonderful things about the place; the town lives and breathes thanks to a handful of passionate locals.
This is the place to come in Canada if you’re looking for something a little more homegrown, somewhere that has yet to succumb to over-tourism.
If you’re planning to visit Waterton Lakes National Park then here is all you need to know.
Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton comes alive during the summer months. This is when the population swells to the hundreds – which feels like a lot to the 40 or so local residents that live in the town year-round.
In 2017, the Kenow Wildfire tore through the park claiming over 19,000 hectares of land and very nearly destroyed the town. Although evidence of the fire remains in the blackened Aspen trees, the park is having a rebirth and nowhere is this more evident than in the brilliant wildflowers carpeting the park floor in technicolor yellows, purples and pinks.
Hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton is known for its hikes and your first point of call if you’re looking for some trails (family-friendly or otherwise) should be Tamarack. This family-run outdoors store has been here since the 1920s and is now run by the two Baker sisters. Check Parks Canada for details on which ones are open.
Red Rock Parkway: When we visited, the road leading up to Red Rock was closed to vehicles while they continue to deal with the aftermath of the fire. When it’s open, however, it’s a great destination for hiking families as you can drive up to the car park then hike from there (remember to bring a picnic).
If the road is still closed when you visit then you can hire bikes (which will be quite hard work owing to the hilly trail) or eBikes (which make cycling much easier). These can be hired from Pat’s and Blakiston & Company. Pat’s was one of the first buildings in the park, opening in 1927. When we were there, eBikes were only available to rent by the hour, which could make for quite an expensive outing for families.
Bertha Falls Hike: One of the most popular hiking trails in the park is the walk from Waterton town to Bertha Lake, a 10km hike that takes you to a beautiful alpine lake. It’s a short hike but the climb is steep.
If that sounds like too much hard work with kids then you can hike to Bertha Falls instead, or even Bertha Point for sweeping views over Waterton Lake. This 3km round trip walk is very pretty and an easy one to do with young children. Wildflowers blank the forest floor with evocative names such as Fireweed, Paintbrush, Spiria and Clematis. Many of these were used by the Black Foot people for medicine or pigments.
Interestingly, the 2017 fire uncovered nearly 500 new archaeological sites belonging to the Black Foot who call the area the “lake within the walls”.
Crypt Lake Trail: One of the most famous walks in the area, and one to experience with older and more experienced hiking kids, is the Crypt Lake Trail Hike.
Named by National Geographic as one of the most thrilling hikes in the world, the trailhead for this day-long hike can only be accessed by boat after which you must climb 700m, navigate your way along a 20m tunnel through the mountain, balance along a narrow ledge and scurry up a metal ladder. The view from the top, however, is other-worldly as you come face to face with stunning alpine lake. The hike is 17km (10.8miles) round trip and takes approximately seven hours.
Hiking Tips: There are plenty of bears living in Waterton Lakes National Park and if you’re lucky you’ll spot one (from a distance!). When heading off on a hike you should always carry bear spray with you and don’t hike alone.
Wildlife spotting in Waterton Lakes National Park
We were lucky during our three days in Waterton to spot three black bears; one a little too close for comfort meandering along the side of the road as we cycled to Red Rock.
Other wildlife that you can see in Waterton Lakes National Park include Grizzly Bears, some of whom travel from as far away as Washington State, higher election marmots, ground squirrels, chipmunks and deer. Mountain Lions and wolverines also call the park home but sightings are very rare.
At 500ft deep, Waterton Lake is the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. It straddles Canada and the US and the best way to get a feel for its size – and to have a quick day trip to Montana – is on a trip with the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co, a family-run business that has been offering cruises on the lake since the mid-1950s.
They run a number of boats but if you get the chance then you should board their flagship Historic M.V. International. This historic ship was built on Waterton Lake in 1927. The Robinson brothers take it in turn to navigate and narrate the cruises, sharing local knowledge, legends and laugh-out-loud tales as you cruise along the lake from Canada and across the border into the USA.
Other activities that you can enjoy on the lake include windsurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. Be aware that the water is chilly, which might make you more determined to stay standing on your SUP!
Afternoon Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel
Sitting incongruously on a hill overlooking Waterton Lake is the 1920s Prince of Wales Hotel.The hotel was originally designed and built for the Great Northern Railway company who hoped to entice American tourists over the border in the era of US prohibition.
It opened to great fanfare with hot and cold running water, electricity and steam heated rooms, all of which were unheard of at the time. A waiter told us a lovely story of a local woman who remembered seeing the hotel “lit up like magic” when she was a child; she recently spent her 94th-birthday at the hotel.
The Prince of Wales is only open from the end of May to the middle of September and some guests book up to a year in advance to stay at the iconic hotel. A number of famous faces have passed through its doors including Laura Bush, and Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson back when they were an item.
The hotel doesn’t appear to have changed much from the day it first opened its doors (and you might argue that it could do with some updating) but it’s well worth a visit for afternoon tea with the best view in town. Served on first come first serve basis in the main lobby, the tea includes both sweet and savoury sandwiches and scones, as well as selection of cakes.
Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park
I’m not a great camper but if you do like to sleep under canvas then Waterton has a number of campgrounds that, from what I hear, are very good. Check the Parks Canada website for details.
Cycling in Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton is hilly so unless you’re in training for the next Tour de France an eBike might be your best idea. You can hire one from Pat’s or Blakiston & Company. For a quick tour around town with the kids there are four-wheeler rides to hire.
Dark Sky Gazing
By day the Robinson brothers work for their family company Waterton Shoreline Cruises but at night they take visitors to discover the night sky.
Working with Parks Canada, an application was submitted to both the International Dark Sky Association and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. In 2017, Waterton was recognised as a Provisional International Dark Sky Park. What this really means is that Waterton is one of the best places in the world to observe, enjoy and lose yourself in the night sky.
Dark Sky Guides run guided tours introducing stargazers to the park and the stars above, and although I didn’t get a chance to experience this when I was in Waterton, I really would love to go back and take one of the tours.
On our final day we took a guided trail ride on horseback with Alpine Stables.
This riding stable is another family-run business that’s been around since 1969. It’s run by Dean and Lorna Barrus along with their daughter Deb Watson. The stables are open during the summer months when cousins, siblings and other Barrus family members man the stables and guide trail rides.
We enjoyed an hour-long trail ride led by Shelby through long grass and wildflowers before crossing the road and making our way through the marshy edge of the lake. It was just a taster but a wonderful introduction to exploring the landscape on horseback, even if, like me, you are a complete novice! Children can also ride and the stables do a lot of work with school and camp groups.
If you’re an experienced rider then consider the half-day trail to Lion’s Head or the full-day ride to the top of Vimy Peak that sits at 2,385m (just under 7,000ft). This trail involves riding the horses up to the tree line and tying them up here while you scramble up the remaining track for views over Crypt Lake. Apparently, once you reach the top you’ll spot a tube with a book hidden in it that you can sign as proof that you made it.
Where to eat in Waterton
The smaller the town the better the eating options. I’m pretty sure that’s not an official saying but it certainly rings true in Waterton. This tiny town is filled with excellent restaurants ranging from homestyle cooking to fine dining. The following are some of my favourite places to eat in Waterton.
Weiners of Waterton: Originally started by the Low brothers 10 years ago, this upscale hot dog shop is now run by the younger of the two, Max, along with his wife Christie and their young son Augustus. Max is one of a handful of young, local owners who are determined to make Waterton a year-round destination. He also produces amazing hot dogs!
The smoked beef sausages are made by a local butcher and then grilled in the shop and served with a range of unique toppings. They really are excellent and the shop was constantly busy when we visited. Make sure to try the Kombucha while you’re there, made by another local business, Steep Peak.
Waffles of Waterton: Also owned by Max, this shop sits next door to Weiners and serves buttermilk and Liege waffles with a variety of toppings including savoury options such as mozzarella with tomato and basilica.
Pearl’s Cafe: I had an excellent breakfast at Pearl’s. The menu features waffles, pancakes and eggs in all shapes and sizes. They also serve pizza and sandwiches.
Trappers Mountain Grill: Enjoy hearty, home cooking at Trappers. I chose wrongly for my breakfast opting for a yoghurt and granola creation when really should I have gone for an omelette or eggs. Portions are big and very tasty.
The Lakeside Chophouse: The only lakeside restaurant in town, this is an excellent restaurant with an extensive menu. Deers can often be seen wandering on the lawn in front and drinking from the water fountain. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Red Rock Trattoria: One of the few restaurants in town to be open year-round, this is Waterton’s fine dining restaurant that serves delicious Italian cuisine.
Thirsty Bear Bar and Kitchen: Waterton’s bar is a lively place for a drink or two, especially when they have live music playing. They also serve food.
Other restaurants that come recommended are Vimy’s and Zum’s.
We stayed at the Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort, a series of two-storey buildings in the heart of town. Rooms are a little dated but clean and there’s a swimming pool on site. They were also building a playground opposite the hotel while we were there, which will be great for young kids.
The Prince of Wales is the most high-end hotel in Waterton but the rooms there are also in need of an update.
If you’re looking to rent a home or apartment then take a look at these from VRBO.
When to visit Waterton
Waterton is open year-round but the main tourist season runs from May to September. This is the best time for wildlife, wildflowers, hiking lake activities and beautiful summer temperatures. The annual wildflower festival is held in June.
At the moment, the winter season is quiet and there hasn’t been a cohesive push to market it as a snowy destination owing the lack of ski mountains. That said, there are a handful of locals who believe that there’s great potential to make Waterton a year-round destination so watch this space!
Travel to Waterton Lakes National Park
The closest airports are at Calgary (282km) and Lethbridge (123km).