EDIT: The 2017 Kenow forest fire caused widespread damage in Waterton. At this time there are still large closures in the park. Check here for a map of closures.
We’d love to keep Waterton as more of a hidden gem, but it’s clear that in this year of free park passes (2017), the cat is very definitely out of the bag. While Waterton hasn’t gone nearly as viral as some of the other National Parks in Alberta (/cough/ Banff), it’s every bit as beautiful, wild, peaceful, scenic, & fun and very definitely worth a visit.
Aside from having some of the best hikes in the Rocky Mountains, Waterton is also a great spot for camping and other activities. If you’re already willing to drive to Jasper, then Waterton National Park is a closer and (in my opinion) better option for those of you who live in Calgary.
When it comes to getting to know Waterton, it does take some figuring out. There are definitely good times to go and bad times to go; good and bad places to eat etc., that could easily make or break your trip.
Fortunately we’ve spent a fair amount of time there over the past few years and feel like we’ve got a pretty good handle on the best things to do (although the list will definitely grow as we keep going back!).
So here are our 7 reasons you need to visit Waterton right now:
(1) Crypt Lake Hike
– once you do it you’ll understand why this was voted one of the best hikes in Canada, and was voted as one of the world’s most thrilling hikes by National Geographic.
It has pretty much everything for thrill seekers including narrow ledges with chains to hold onto, a crawl through a tight cave, ladders to climb, waterfalls and lakes. This hike requires proper and advance planning because the only way to get to the trailhead is by boat.
Buy your tickets at the boathouse well before your ride and make sure you know the return schedules or you’ll be left stranded. Also make sure you bring bear spray as Waterton is full of bears.
Please see this website for more information on the Crypt Lake shuttle boat:
(2) Canoe on Cameron Lake –
this option is brand new for 2017 as the Cameron Lake Canoe Club has officially opened its doors on June 23. If the boats in this photo look brand new, it’s because they are!
You get the option of the classic canoe, kayak or even paddle boat if you’re feeling romantic. The lake itself is super scenic, but extremely windy, so make sure you stick to the right along the shoreline or you’ll be swept away and have to furiously paddle back like we did. Check out the rates and hours here.
One more thing we found really awesome (and gross!) was this amazing diagram that shows you what bear poop looks like. Sounds rough, but it’s a great way to educate people about the potential signs of a bear in the area.
(3) Visit Red Rock Canyon
If you’re lucky and happen to go after it rains, the water actually turns pink. It’s the only “pink waterfall” of its kind in the world and a once in a lifetime experience.
Sadly it wasn’t raining when we went, but it’s still crazy how red that rock is!
(4) Try the best ‘one-way’ trail in Alberta: Carthew-Alderson
The worst part about hikes is having to come back down the same way you came, right?
Maybe that’s just me and maybe that’s why this hike is so appealing. You get shuttled to the trailhead from town and walk straight back to where you parked! The variety in scenery aside, this hike has been called one of the most beautiful hikes in Waterton, as you pass several amazing lakes and get views from way up high.
This is one of those hikes that are way easier once the bus is up and running. If you attempt this hike before early-ish July, you’ll have to bring a second car to get back to the start.
(5) Rent a bike or, even better, a Surrey (seats 3!) from Pat’s
If you’ve been to Waterton you’ve definitely seen people all over town trying to race these things. We’ve been there and done it and it’s so much fun to rip around if you rent a couple.
It’s something that’s pretty unique to Waterton and you might as well join in the fun! ( I think I’ve seen a couple in Banff too but it’s waaay too busy to really get the most out of it there)
(6) Head up the Bear’s Hump hike for Golden Hour
This 1km hike takes you to a glorious view of the Waterton town site and the valley below. It’s one of the best places to catch a sunset because it’s quick and easy and the views are extremely rewarding. The hike is short enough to run down before it gets dark and it faces West across the lake. Enjoy a romantic picnic at the top like we did and watch as the golden light falls across the peaks. Remember to bring plenty of bug spray and your head lamps if this is something you plan on doing! (Also watch out for ticks if you go in May/June… we found a few on our backpacks and even one swimming around when we went to the hot tub later. So gross.)
(7) Check out the wildlife
The road to Red Rock Canyon is home to plenty of wildlife, especially bears. We saw 3 grizzlies in the space of about 30 seconds last week. There’s also a bison paddock located just on the edge of the park if you’re interested in that as well. Remember to stay in your car if you see wildlife and never approach them. Check out our wildlife guide for a list of some of the awesome animals to look out for!
Other Great Hikes in Waterton
Akamina Ridge Hike
A long 20km hike with incredible views of the surrounding mountains. It does get pretty windy though! We actually never reached the ridge because a huge storm started rolling in and we had to pull the plug.
Bertha Lake & Bertha Peak
We definitely recommend taking the 5-6km ish hike to Bertha Lake in the summer. It’s a stunning lake surrounded by towering mountains, and it’s not a bad place for a swim (there’s also a campground there). We tried scrambling Bertha Peak while we were there and found it to be one of the less obvious trails we’ve done. It’s a pretty full on scramble (which includes bushwhacking) that probably shouldn’t be the first peak you pick if you’re looking for the best hikes out there . Having said that, the views from the top are pretty epic!
I have to say I love the ice cream at the Big Scoop Ice Cream Parlour in Waterton. We go there every time and I’ve never been disappointed. They also do Fro-yo and slushies for those boiling hot summer days.
We’ve eaten at the Lakeside Chophouse and have always found it to be a pretty decent meal with a fair amount of variety, although it’s probably one of the pricier options available.
Vimy’s grill has a great breakfast menu, which was actually quite good as a hiking snack. I had a bunch of hash browns at Lake Bertha and I couldn’t have been happier. It’s part of Waterton Lakes and Lodge Resort; a quaint and basic hotel that has everything you could need on a quick weekend away. Also has a great pool and hot tub for soaking in after a long hike.
Wieners of Waterton: You won’t visit waterton without wondering about this place. Our honest opinion? We don’t think the hot dogs should be something to go out of your way for, but it’s simple campfire food that always seems to draw a crowd. It’s quick and easy after a hike when you’re starving and the fried pickles are actually pretty good to be fair!
Where to stay
Any time we’ve visited we’ve always either camped at the Waterton Townsite Campground or we’ve stayed at the Waterton Lakes and Lodge Resort. We’ve been pretty happy with both and both are at the cheaper end of what’s available. There are also tons of B’n’Bs out there as well so there’s plenty of choice if you book early.
When to go?
One important thing to know is that Waterton definitely has a high season and a low season. While you can still do Winter activities like snowshoeing and hiking in winter, almost all of the businesses and restaurants close down once the snow arrives. It’s not an easy place to stay in Winter unless you’re prepared to camp and bring your own supplies.
We stayed in theWaterton Lakes and Lodge Resort in mid April once, just before the official summer opening, and while the restaurant in the hotel was open and pretty decent, it was literally the only option. No stores were open and no other restaurants. Closest grocery store was apparently 50km away in Pincher Creek.
Also, until the official start of the season, none of the buses run to the hikes. That means you’ll need a support car to actually do some of them if you come too early.
Official summer opening is sometime towards the end of April/early May and depends on weather/snow. To be safe and to be able to do all hikes/activities we would definitely recommend going in late June or early July at the earliest. Similarly, early October at the latest.
Having said that, if you do go during peak times, expect to find the limited accommodation competitive (especially on the weekend). We went camping there last week (late June), and arrived at 11am on a Saturday. We literally got the last tent spot and the town was packed.
You didn’t mention lupine flowering season…. which is an entire other reason to go to Waterton in early July.
Also the park office had loaner gps handhelds and treasure maps for geocaching which is pretty fun. Accommodations that are pretty cool are teepees the park rents out at the Crandell Mountain campground.
Wow some fantastic things to add! Thanks so much for your tips! I wonder how good the flowers were this year after the fires 🙁
Just a correction; it is called Red Rock Canyon. Not Red Rocky. As a local who has lived near my whole life I thought it was worth the correction as all of the signs will say Red Rock.
Ahaha woops, that’s a bad typo. Thanks so much for catching it!