Story by Karen Evenden
WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK, ALBERTA — A rare welcome treat in life is to re-visit somewhere that you loved the first time you went there, only to discover that it’s even more amazing than you remembered.
Driving into Waterton Lakes National Park recently, my jaw dropped as a new stunning view greeted me around every corner.
Waterton National Park, located in southwest Alberta, borders Glacier National Park in Montana and together they were designated as the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932, a symbol of peace and goodwill between Canada and the United States. This was my third visit to the park; the last trip was almost two years prior.
The drive from Pincher Creek, the closest Alberta town, is breathtaking. Endless stretches of lush, deep green lowlands are complemented by rich, dark forests and the occasional brightly painted farm building. “Why were so many buildings painted red?” one of my car companions wondered. The question remained unanswered as taking in the sight of the mountain ranges that border the prairies took precedence. We were looking at the southern end of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, quite possibly the most unique of all of the Rocky Mountain terrain.
The silence in the vehicle signified a unified agreement: The six-hour drive from Edmonton to Waterton Lakes National Park was unquestionably worth the effort before we had even arrived into the town. Waterton the municipality is small with a year-round population of only 100 people, but is significantly large in character and charm. It’s a place that is reminiscent of a beach town and it’s almost a surprise to remember that we are in the mountains, next to a lake and not the ocean.
The big draw is nearby Waterton Lakes National Park, which attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually, primarily in the summer. Yet despite this being a long weekend, the line-up at the ice cream store and the large number of cyclists in town is the only inconvenience that the crowds bring.
The reason for this is there are so many things to see and do in the area. Visitors have a number of activities to choose from, including, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, boat cruising, cycling and golfing.
During this trip, I decided to hike one of Canada’s most popular routes, Crypt Lake. This was my third time hiking this trail and I was equally enthralled by the diversity of the scenery and the challenging terrain. The trail starts with a water taxi ride across the lake, and then continues with a 17.2-kilometre round-trip hike that includes a 700-metre (2,300 foot) elevation gain. What makes this trail even more memorable is the slightly daunting climb through a cave and the walk along a narrow cliff top ledge; not to worry there is a cable to grab hold of to ensure that no one falls. The reward for this heart-racing trail is a crystal-clear aquamarine lake, perfect for a well-deserved lunch stop.
Amazing Alberta Scenery at Waterton
Blessed with exceptional weather, my second day called for a change of pace and I headed out along the Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake. Visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and pedal boats at this glacier-formed lake and in two hours or less can paddle across borders as the boundaries of Alberta, British Columbia and Montana in the United States converge.
For those less inclined to be on the water, a stroll around the lake is just as enjoyable an experience. Waterton has a unique weather pattern and is the second windiest, warmest place in Alberta with one of the highest Chinook frequencies in the province. These wind conditions are the reason that Waterton boasts more than 1,000 native plants and there are many colourful wildflowers dotted along the lake side. At the end of the trail a beautiful spot named Grizzly Gardens is an area so abundant with wildflowers, berries and plants that bears are regular guests and tourists are advised to walk no farther.
During an evening stroll around the Waterton Townsite I was treated to the sight of a number of deer that nonchalantly stroll around the town. The shores of Waterton Lake were dotted with families enjoying the warm summer evening and the few restaurants in town were thriving.
Again I was reminded of the relaxed atmosphere of a small beach town. No one here is in a hurry. The bustle of the big city is long forgotten.
Before departing the next day, my visit was completed by “hiking the hump” — or the Bear’s Hump, as the trail is officially known. The short but relatively steep trail gains elevation quickly and compensates the hiker with awe-inspiring panoramic views of the valley below.
Sitting at the top of the Bear’s Hump looking down at the lakes and town, it occurred to me that I was lucky enough to have a bird’s-eye view of the union of two national parks, one in Canada and one in the United States. It also occurred to me that I was already looking forward to my next return trip.
MORE ABOUT WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Park fees: Entrance is $7.80 for adults in peak season ($5.80 from November 1 to April 30); Individual camping rates can be as high as $55 per night (for a “TeePee Experience”) or as low as $15.70 for a “Primitive” stay on Belly River; Group camping rates are as low as $4.90 per person per night. Consult the Waterton Lakes website for more details.