In a quiet woodland clearing, two young bucks, their budding antlers covered in velvet, raise their heads to calmly look at us — a small group of trail riders. For a moment, we are all still, looking back, and then our horses take us peacefully on our way, through the lush, wildflower-dotted forest.
The intimate connection with the deer was a highlight of a trail ride with longtime family-owned Alpine Stables, which provides tranquil excursions across their chosen prairie route and into the woods. Later, the trail twisted through an aspen forest that burned in the devastating 2017 Kenow Wildfire. The forest is regenerating, with young aspens growing vigorously amidst the skeleton-white trunks of still-standing trees. Then we ride up to a viewpoint overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.
“I’d like people to see the park from off the road, to see its beauties and the flowers, and get a better look at nature,” says Alpine Stables co-owner Deb Watson. “I think Waterton is one of the most beautiful places in the world. … I think the horse experience is really unique. We offer that opportunity for people who’ve never been on a horse to experience it.”
Alpine Stables offers a variety of trail rides, from hour-long journeys ranging up to half- and full-day rides.
How to Explore the Unique Waterton Landscape
Waterton Lakes National Park, tucked away in southwestern Alberta where the prairies meet the mountains, is one of the most distinctive mountain parks on Earth and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area includes the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, Waterton Biosphere Reserve, and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, with its unguarded border with Glacier National Park in Montana.
A sure way to experience some of the park’s charismatic wildlife — at a distance, staying inside your vehicle — is to turn off of Highway 6 just inside the park boundary onto Bison Paddock Loop Road, which is open from spring through fall. In early summer, there are wildflowers everywhere. The panoramic views are stunning.
A great way to get an overview of the park is on a cruise with Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. on Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies, at 148 metres (486 feet) at its farthest spot. The Canada-U.S. Border Cruise on the Miss Waterton provides visitors with an overview of the park’s fauna, flora, geology, history, and just about anything you might want to know about the destination.
Family-owned Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. also offers boat shuttles for the hike to Crypt Lake, one of the world’s top hikes according to National Geographic.
Adventure with Expert Guides
Waterton offers a range of hiking trails that you can explore on your own, or with a guide. For a more in-depth experience, enlist Tamarack Outdoors — a full-service outfitter providing gear as well as hiking guides and shuttles — offers hikes, interpretive walks, a hike-and-paint program with painter Danika Stone, and flatwater kayak tours on Upper Waterton Lake. Family-owned and operated Tamarack has been in business in Waterton since 1922 — six generations.
On a wildflower hike, led by Tamarack lead guide Carey Tetzlaff, a small group headed to the Bertha Lake trail, cameras at the ready. The trail climbs gradually through open forest overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, and we took our time, because the wildflowers were brilliant and blooming profusely. Among them, we saw Mariposa Lilies, Lady’s Slippers, Thimble Berry, Alpine harebells, wild roses — Alberta’s official flower — paintbrush, and many others. Tetzlaff pointed out the plants that bears like to snack on, such as buffaloberries and hedysarum; a good thing for hikers to watch out for, so they’ll know when they’re in habitat where bears might like to hang out. Tetzlaff explained plenty about the different plants and the montane woodland we travelled through. He also used an app to identify birdsongs.
After reaching a high point offering wonderful views of the lake, we took the trail less travelled. Instead of continuing up to Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake — worthy hiking objectives, and very popular — we followed the fork that led down to Bertha Bay. We stopped along the shoreline for a break and snack, and contemplated the deep blue water, the mountains, and the quiet of the day.
Tetzlaff suggested that visitors consider coming to Waterton during the week, when it is less busy. Tamarack’s guided wildflower hikes are offered on request, he noted, and emphasized one piece of guidance he hoped hikers would take: “Be respectful on the trail. If you have dogs, manage them well.”
For Tetzlaff and all those who know and love Waterton, the place is still a hidden gem.
“I feel like Waterton is on the cusp of big changes,” he says. “I really hope it can keep the charm and character that comes with all of the family-run businesses here.”
MORE ABOUT WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Where to Stay: Waterton Village in summer offers a variety of excellent accommodation options. For wonderful views of Upper Waterton Lake and the surrounding mountains, the Bayshore Inn & Spa — centrally located, on Waterton Avenue and mere steps from the lake — can’t be beat. My stay was cozy, comfortable, and quiet.
A stop into the Bayshore Inn’s Serenity Spa helps enhance those holiday feelings of relaxation and revitalization. Serenity Spa offers a variety of services, from massages to manicures, pedicures and facials. It’s a pampered way to wind down after a day out on the trails – or just take a pause from the hustle and bustle of life.
Where to Dine: Dinner at the Bayshore Inn’s Lakeside Chophouse & Wine Bar, overlooking the white-capped waters of Upper Waterton Lake, is pleasant and relaxing. There is a lakeside patio, and if you’re sitting indoors, large windows that bring the outdoors inside, allow equally great views of the lake. Service is prompt and friendly. The Lakeside Chophouse serves a contemporary West Coast menu. A Buddha bowl — topped with wild-caught shrimp — is refreshing and delicious, as is the popular Pomegranate Fresh, a lively combination of pomegranate juice, lime, orange, and soda.
The Lakeside Chophouse & Wine Bar also serves a varied breakfast menu.
Another breakfast and lunch option is located within the Tamarack Outdoors store, where you’ll find Switchback Espresso Bar + Hiker’s Pantry, a full-service espresso bar offering delicious hot drinks, as well as smoothies, to jump start your day. (The matcha I tried was fabulous.) Switchback also offers yummy made-to-order hikers’ lunches, which you can select the night before or on the same day you’re heading out on the trails.
Trappers Mountain Grill, located across the street from the Lakeside Chophouse on Waterton Avenue, is another winning choice. Trappers smokes meats and trout on-site and proudly prepares authentic Italian pizza, with ingredients sourced from Italy, in a wood-fired oven. For me, a steak sandwich hits the spot, followed by housemade Saskatoonberry pie for dessert — delectable.
Trappers owner-operator Steve West, whose family has been part of Waterton’s business community for more than half a century, feels fortunate to call the Alberta gem his home.
“What makes Waterton unique for me and my family, are all the different people that come from around the globe, not only to visit Waterton and the flora and fauna, but to come in and become friends with us in our restaurant,” West says.
Getting There: By car, head south from Calgary on Highway 2 to Fort Macleod, take Highway 3 west to Pincher Creek, then turn south on Highway 6 to reach the park gates (274 kilometres, or 170 miles, about three hours). Alternatively, Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) is a more scenic option, running alongside rolling foothills with views of the eastern slopes of the Rockies, then head east to Pincher Creek on Highway 3 and turn south on Highway 6 to reach the park gates (277 km, or 172 miles, just over three hours).