Although Waterton National Park has partially reopened in 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the information in our posts may not be accurate given the current conditions. We strongly encourage folks to check the park and lodging web pages for the latest park information. In particular, interpretive activities, dining, and boating may be affected. Be sure to follow the principles of #RecreateResponsibly if you choose to visit this year.
After our trip to Banff and Glacier National Park, we made one final stop at Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Waterton and Glacier span the Canadian-American border and form an international peace park (it’s actually possible to hike from one to the other and check yourself in through customs via an app!). Waterton Lakes National Park is also home to one of National Geographic’s most thrilling hikes, the 11 mile trail to Crypt Lake, which includes walking through a 60 foot tunnel in a mountain and climbing along a cable traverse. Waterton is most definitely a worthy destination in its own right, but it’s also a great overnight trip from Glacier National Park or a weekend trip from Calgary.
Waterton has the conveniences of a small town site with several options for lodging, dining, and leisure activities like bike and boat rentals right in the heart of a national park. The dramatic landscape of the park has cliff-side hikes, short but beautiful mountains, and large lakes. And despite its proximity to the throngs of tourists in Glacier, the majority of people in Waterton were summer cottagers from Alberta, so the vibe was pretty chill.
- 4PM: After a morning of hiking in Banff or Glacier, drive to Waterton Lakes and settle in to your hotel (4 hours of driving from Banff, 2.5 hours from Calgary, or 1.5 hours from Glacier/St. Mary)
- 5PM: Buy a boat ticket for the first boat the next morning to Crypt Lake, and take in the views from Marina Point in the International Peace Park.
- 7PM: After dinner, check out some sights in town, including the Prince of Wales Hotel, Cameron Falls, and the Bear’s Hump Trail.
- 8AM: Spend the next day hiking to Crypt Lake, taking the 8:30AM boat out and the 4PM boat back.
- If you want to extend your trip, check out the Bison Paddock, bike or drive into the Red Rock Canyon or conquer Vimy Peak another day.
Note that in July 2020, the Canadian-American border remains closed to recreational travel because of COVID-19, and the eastern entrances to Glacier National Park are all closed.
Waterton National Park is less than three hours from Calgary Airport and just over an hour from the eastern side of Glacier National Park. If you plan to cross the land border (we’d recommend crossing on the Chief Mountain Highway, which is incredibly scenic), bring your passport and plan for a 10-15 stop in each direction at customs.
You’ll either need a day pass for Waterton Lakes (the same one can be used in Banff and the other Rocky Mountain Parks), or consider investing in a Parks Canada Discovery Pass if you plan to visit multiple Canadian parks in a given year. Your admission to Glacier or America the Beautiful Pass won’t work in Canada.
Waterton is still prime grizzly bear country, so bring bear spray and know how to use it. Make sure your spray is approved by USEPA, or else you may not be able to cross the border with it.
Where to Stay
If you plan to take the boat to Crypt Lake, we’d recommend staying in town instead of taking a day trip to avoid having to get up at the crack of dawn. We were originally planning to stay at the historic Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton, but we changed the dates for our trip and stayed at the Waterton Glacier Suites instead. In the end, we were really happy to stay in town instead of at the historic hotel! When you’re considering where to stay, here are some tips:
- It’s much more convenient to stay in town if you want a quick bite, walk, or cup of coffee. The Prince of Wales Hotel is located on its own mini-peninsula, about 1.5 km outside of town.
- The restaurants in the Prince of Wales Hotel are very fancy: they are great if you are craving fine dining or high tea, although they don’t have many attractive options for vegetarians.
- There’s only one waterfront property in town, so if you want a direct view from your room, the Prince of Wales is the best bet.
- Some older hotels don’t have air conditioning, and it can get quite hot in the summer.
Regardless of where you choose to stay, hotels in Waterton tend not to fill up very early, so you can adjust your stay pretty much to the last minute – be sure to check the cancellation policy for your specific hotel.
Places to Eat
Despite Waterton’s small size, we found some pretty cool spots to eat in town, including:
- Wieners of Waterton, where we had an amazing and satisfying falafel-based hot dog and sweet potato fries for dinner.
- Windflower Corner Coffee, where we grabbed an early coffee before heading out to Crypt Lake.
- Waffleton, where we grabbed a sweet and crunchy Liege waffle with nutella and bananas for breakfast.
- Beavertails, where you can indulge in the iconic Canadian fried dough treat or a cool cup of ice cream after your hike.
One of the first things we took care of when we get to town in the afternoon was to grab a ticket for the boat to the Crypt Lake Trailhead. There are three departures to Crypt Lake in high season, at 8:30AM, 9:00AM, and 10:00AM. We think it’s best to get a ticket on the first boat of the morning to avoid crowding on the narrowest parts of the trail, but the downside is that the earliest boat back is typically at 4:00PM. In retrospect, avoiding the crowds in one direction was very much worth it. There is a bathroom at the far side of the lake, and the longer timetable gave us a chance to hang out at Crypt Lake and by the shore.
The ticket booth is at the dock next to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (Marina Point), right on the water. The park was a great place to get views out over the water and to dunk our feet in the lake, and to sit in the iconic Parks Canada Red Chairs to take in a view of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
The Prince of Wales Hotel was actually our next stop. The hotel was built in 1927 as a luxurious Great Northern Railroad Property. It sits on a bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake. To get there, you have to take a long walk or drive about a kilometer outside of town to the hotel parking lot. The lake is beautifully lit in the late afternoon and evening, which is one of the reasons that the hotel is a popular destination for fancy high tea and dinner. If you don’t want to dine in the fancy dining room, the lawn outside the hotel is an iconic spot to take in the view.
Our final stop in town was at Cameron Falls, a very accessible waterfall on the edge of town that occasionally turns pink because of sedimentary rock flour. On our trip, the falls were much more transparent :).
Waterton suffered a devastating wildfire in 2017, but three years later, nature is in the process of renewal and Parks Canada has made substantial progress in rebuilding. Of special note, the trail to Bear’s Hump, perhaps the most popular trail in Waterton, has now reopened. This 1.4 mile moderate hike takes you steeply up to a panoramic viewpoint above the Waterton Town Site, with awesome views of the lakes and peaks. Sadly, the trail to Bear’s Hump was still closed when we visited last summer, but we look forward to visiting on a future trip!
In 2020, the boat to Crypt Lake is not running. You can complete the hike to Crypt Lake by departing from the extending it to over 20 miles round trip, starting from the Wishbone Trail outside the park.
Crypt Lake is a beautiful, diverse, and unique hiking experience (including a ladder, cave, and cable traverse); the 11 mile round-trip hike takes between 5 and 6 hours to complete.
After grabbing an early breakfast and using the restroom at our hotel, we headed out to the dock to wait for our boat to the Crypt Lake Trailhead. Even though our cruise was not scheduled to depart until 8:30AM, we found out it actually pays to be early to the dock, as they will dispatch a boat when there is a critical mass of people to take across. Our boat crew was super helpful and gave us lots of tips about the hike. The crossing itself is very pretty; we sat on the right side of the boat to get views of town and the better lit side of the lake.
We were dropped at the boat dock across Upper Waterton Lake, where there is a bathroom at the start of the trail. We tried to get off to a quick start and stick to the main trail with no deviations on the way up, so we encountered very little traffic on the trail, which was especially comforting in the sections with sheer drop-offs. The terrain during the first 3 miles or so through a pretty forest, and then changed completely to rock and gravel with sweeping views and very little shade.
Along the way to Crypt Lake, we passed by several waterfalls. Twin Falls, around the 2 mile mark, is a double cascade that is somewhat obscured by trees and didn’t feel like it was worth the diversion off the main trail. Burnt Rock Falls, just past the 3 mile mark, appears to burst out of the forest and spill down to the bottom of the valley.
Crypt Falls, the final waterfall that comes into view, falls gracefully between the peaks of Vimy and Mount Boswell; this is actually drainage from Crypt Lake into the valley below.
Around the 4.5 mile mark comes the most adventurous part of the trail, consisting of a small steel ladder, a walk through a cave, and a short cable traverse along a sheer cliff. This little section was certainly worthy of National Geographic’s “thrill” designation, but we saw plenty of families and people of different abilities navigate this obstacle course just fine. The ladder’s rungs were a little bit further apart than expected, so may be a little hard for people with smaller legs. The 60-foot cave was by far the most interesting part: emerging from the darkness to see the sprawling valley below us was quite a treat. The cable traverse was not as frightening on the way up, mainly since there was no traffic, but having to pause, wait in a crack, and navigate on the way back down proved to be a bit more nerve-wracking. For reference, the cable traverse was steeper than the one on the Highline Trail but nowhere near as difficult as the ascent to Half Dome in Yosemite.
The view on the other side of this little adventure was totally worth it – it was possibly our favorite view of the hike! The whole valley opens up from this ridge line, bringing the connections between the different waterfalls and tarns into view. The path once again enters the forest at this point, less than a half mile from Crypt Lake!
One we got to the plateau atop Crypt Falls, we got a little confused about how to proceed. The most obvious paths seem to lead to the right, but these quickly dead-end at the creek formed by the runoff from Crypt Lake. Finally, we found the path: the key is to look for a set of columnar boulders off to the left below the higher ridgeline. The trail winds its way up from here for just a few hundred feet.
After about 2 hours of walking at a pretty brisk pace, we were finally at the shores of Crypt Lake! The mountain lake is surrounded by towering walls in a cirque; it’s turquoise water was dramatic even as storm clouds loomed overhead. You can actually walk all the way around the lake into the US, but we stuck to the northern side and made a quick exit when we heard some thunder.
The clouds cleared out on the hike back down, and we were treated to more views of the valley and waterfalls. Since we had extra time, we extended our hike to 12.2 miles by visiting Hell Roaring Falls. The trail was pretty rocky and uneven; we’d actually recommend skipping this extension and focusing on the main trail instead. Nevertheless, once we returned to the main trail, we had fabulous views of the blue waters of Waterton Lake lit by the afternoon sun.
After a long and pretty hot hike, we were excited to dip our feet in the water and wait for our ferry ride back. Luckily, the ferry operators saw a crowd of people waiting and dispatched a boat early, so we made it back into town about a half hour early. The boat ride back was ever prettier in the afternoon sun than it was in the morning.
That concludes our post about Waterton Lakes! With more areas reopening after the Kenow Fire, what are some of your favorite experiences and recommendations in the park? We’d love to hear from you!