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#Canada150 – Waterton Lakes National Park

by Adam Doolittle
Waterton Lakes National Park Alberta Canada 150

2017 is a pretty special year in Canada as we celebrate our nation’s 150th birthday. As a way of celebrating, Parks Canada is giving free entry to all of their parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas. This is a pretty big deal and a great way to get Canadians and adventure seekers from around the world to explore the natural beauty of the 40+ national parks throughout Canada.

Each month, throughout 2017, we will be highlighting a national park to give you an insight into that park. You’ll learn about the history of the park, where to stay, & what to do once you’re there. Last month, we highlighted the beautiful Pacific Rim National Park Reserve along the west coast of Vancouver Island. This month we take you to south-west Alberta to Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton Lakes National Park

When you think of national parks located in Alberta, the first two that likely come to mind are Banff and Jasper. Those two parks see high amounts of tourists each year, but not to be overlooked is Waterton Lakes National Park to the south. The landscapes of Waterton Lakes offer up stunning views where the flat prairies meet the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The marriage of these two vastly different settings make Waterton Lakes the perfect place to enjoy some outdoor adventure & camping.

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Sunrise in Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada / Nick Alexander

Location: Waterton, Alberta

Size:  505 sq. KM

Opened: 1895 

Brief History

­-Waterton Lakes National Park was Canada’s fourth national park.

-The park is named after Waterton Lake which was named after Charles Waterton, a British environmentalist & conservationist.

-The world-famous Prince of Wales hotel first opened in Waterton in 1927 and quickly became the park’s most renowned landmark.

-The park shares borders with Glacier National Park in the U.S. & with Akamina – Kishinena Provincial Park in BC. In 1932, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was created as the world’s first international peace park.

How to Get There

By Road

There are multiple ways to get to Waterton Lakes National Park whether you’re coming from the north, south, east, or west. A lot of visitors will make their way to Waterton Lakes from Calgary, Banff, Lethbridge as well as Glacier National Park and British Columbia. Below are the driving times from the major points of interests along with links to directions provided by Google Maps.

Calgary: 258km/2.5 hours – Map/Directions

Banff:  360km/3.75 hours – Map/Directions

Lethbridge: 120km/1.30 hours – Map/Directions

Fernie, BC: 172km/2 hours – Map/Directions

Glacier National Park (St.Mary): 75km/1 hour – Map/Directions

If crossing the Canada/U.S. border there are two border crossings:

Carway/Peigan (Open Year Round): 65km from crossing to Waterton Lakes National Park

Chief Mountain (Open May 15 to September 30): This is the most direct route to Waterton Lakes National Park if travelling from St. Mary in Montana.

By Air

There are no airports located closely to Waterton Lakes National Park which means you’ll have to make the drive from one of the three closest (under 200km) airports –  Calgary (YYC), Lethbridge (YQL), & Glacier Park International Airport (FC) in Kalispell, Montana.

Where to Stay

If you’re a camper, you’ll be happy in knowing that Waterton Lakes National Park has 3 campgrounds within the park – the Townsite Campground, Crandell Mountain Campground, and Belly River Campground.

Townsite Campground (April 14 to October 9)

The Townsite Campground is located at the south end of Waterton. For RV’s, the Townsite Campground includes 90 full-hook up sites & 45 electricity only sites & 49 unserviced sites. There are also 47 tenting sites. It’s worth noting that there are no fires permitted within the Townsite Campground.

A unique experience that is offered at the Townsite Campground is Equipped Camping. Basically, if you don’t have your own camp gear or you’re not sure if camping is for you and want to give it a try – this is for you. Parks Canada has two Equipped Campsites at Waterton Lakes National Park which come with a 6-person tent, propane stove, pots & pans, etc. You still must bring sleeping bags and pillows but it’s definitely a great option for those without camping gear.

Crandell Mountain Campground (May 18 to September 4)

Unlike the Townsite Campground, Crandell Mountain is set more in the wilderness for those who like to be closer to nature. Also, unlike the Townsite Campground, you don’t need any reservations for the Crandell Mountain Campground. Instead, it’s on a first come, first served basis which is a nice service offered by Parks Canada. There are 129 unserviced sites at the campground but there are food storage areas, recycling bins, a dump station, flush toilets, piped cold water, & kitchen shelters available. Fires are also permitted within the campground at assigned fireplaces. For RVs planning to camp at Crandell Mountain, it’s suggested that your RV be shorter than 30-feet.

Crandell Mountain also has one of the most unique camping experiences available in Canada – Tipi Camping. Within the campground, Parks Canada has set up two tipis for an amazing camping experience at the cost of $55 a night. This exclusive camping experience is available from July 1 to August 25. You must bring all your own sleeping and cooking equipment. Seriously, though, how awesome would it be to spend a couple of nights sleeping under the stars in your own tipi?

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The tipis at Crandell Mountain Campground in Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada

Belly River Campground (May 12 – September 25)

If you really want to get out into the wild while visiting Waterton Lakes National Park, the Belly River Campground is for you. Situated in the aspen forest, it’s backcountry-style camping that is on a first come, first served basis. Fires are permitted and there are areas for food storage but you must bring your own drinking/cooking water.

Pass Creek (Winter Camping)

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to enjoy winter camping in Waterton Lakes National Park, there is sheltered winter camping available at the Pass Creek picnic site. There are no reservations necessary and the camping is entirely free for those looking for a winter camping experience.

Other Options

If the Parks Canada campgrounds are booked up or you don’t want to risk not getting one of the first come, first served campgrounds, Waterton Springs Campground is open from May thru September.

One of the most iconic hotels in all of Canada resides in the surroundings of Waterton Lakes National Park – the stunning Prince of Wales of Hotel. Overlooking the pristine Waterton Lake and the perfectly carved mountains, the Prince of Wales Hotel is a fantastic option if you’re looking to enjoy Waterton Lakes National Park in style. There are also some other lodging accommodations available to you at more affordable rates.

What to Do at Waterton Lakes National Park

While Waterton Lakes National Park tends to be busier in the summer, it still is very much a park you can enjoy at any time of the year. The park also offers up a tonne of things to do that range from casual hikes to thrilling adventure. Let’s take a look at the different types of fun you have at Waterton Lakes National Park.

Go for a Drive

Like Banff & Jasper National Park to the north, Waterton Lakes National Park has wonderful scenery and wildlife that you can frequently see at any time on one of the many scenic parkways. From the prairie grasslands to the picturesque lakes and mountains to the vast amount of wildlife, you will be amazed at what you see just by driving around Waterton Lakes National Park.

There are 5 scenic drives that you can enjoy when visiting the park including the Chief Mountain Highway, Red Rock Parkway, Entrance Parkway, Akamina Parkway & Bison Paddock Loop Road.

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Driving the Red Rock Parkway in Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada / Jordan Fraser

Hiking

If you want to get out of your car and stretch your legs there are more than a few great opportunities to do so by hiking around Waterton Lakes National Park. The park is home to 30+ trails spread over 200+km. Whether you like quick & easy hikes or a more challenging hike, you’ll have plenty of options in the park. Check out the 10 Great Hikes in Waterton Lakes National Park from Hiking with Barry.

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Hiking Horseshoe Basin in Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada / Nick Alexander

During the winter months, you can still enjoy the trails. All you need is a good pair of snowshoes to help guide yourself through the fresh powder of the park.

Rock Climbing

Ready to scale some rock? Waterton Lakes National Park has some good options for you if you’re ready to start climbing the Rockies. For a list of routes and route details check out rockclimbing.com. If you like the thrill of ice climbing, you can also do that within the park. Summitpost.org has more information on routes and details if you’re looking to do ice climbing.

Cycling

Depending on your bike, you can see the beautiful scenery of Waterton Lakes National Park in a couple of ways. If you have a road bike, cycling the parks beautiful parkways is a great option. The shoulders are mostly narrow, however, which may be hazardous for less experienced riders.

Mountain biking is another fantastic option to have some fun on the various trails. There are 5 total trails within the park to enjoy. The trails are mostly easy and short with the longest trail being 8.2km.

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Mountain biking near the Blakiston Fan in Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada / Cam Koerselman

Cross Country Skiing

During the winter months, trade in your hiking boots for a pair of skis and poles to have fun exploring the snowy side of Waterton Lakes National Park. There are a variety of 6 designated and undesignated trails within the park ranging from 1.6 km to 10.4 km.

Birdwatching

From golden eagles to trumpeter swans, Waterton Lakes National Park is a fantastic place to spot birds. In total, over 250 types of birds have been spotted in the park. During the fall, many waterfowl will travel through the park on their way south.

Canoeing/Kayaking/Paddle Boarding

The various forms of paddling are a popular way to explore Waterton Lakes National Park during the warmer months of the year. If you’re lucky enough, you will get to see wildlife from the comfort of the water. If you don’t have your own equipment, you can rent it from Parks Canada.

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Kayaking the pristine waters of Waterton Lakes National Park.

© Parks Canada

Watching Wildlife

Waterton Lakes National Park is a very wild place with a plethora of mammals to spot roaming throughout the park. It’s very common to see big horned sheep, mule deer & elk while simply travelling through the various parkways in the park or even in the town of Waterton. Predatory animals such as black & grizzly bears, cougars, foxes, wolves & coyotes also frequent the park.

The park is also home to a bison paddock where a small herd of bison enjoy their natural surroundings. You can drive the Bison Paddock Loop Road in hopes of seeing these beautiful animals.

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Bison in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Photo credit: Lee Edwin Coursey via Foter.com / CC BY

Scuba Diving

If you wish to get wet and go for an adventure you can dive deep into Emerald Bay. At the bottom of the bay (20m) divers will find a paddle wheeler named Gertrude. For the best views of Gertrude, it’s best if you dive in the spring or fall.

Geocaching

Over the past decade, adventure seekers looking for a bounty have taken to Geocaching where you hunt for a treasure with the help of your GPS. Located throughout Waterton Lakes National Park are multiple geocaches. You can get the coordinates for the parks geocaches from geocaching.com.

Horseback Riding

Wander the trails and landscape of Waterton Lakes National Park in a fun and traditional way – on a horse. Horseback riding is very popular in Alberta, so why not hop on a horse and enjoy a trail ride? Alpine Stables offers guided horseback riding in the park. You can also bring your own horse but you are urged to contact Parks Canada for guidelines.

National Historic Sites

Located within Waterton Lakes National Park are two National Historic Sites – the First Oil Well in Western Canada & the Prince of Wales Hotel.

The First Oil Well in Western Canada is the site where Allan Patrick filed a mineral claim near Oil Creek. By 1897, oil was flowing from the site making it the first in Western Canada. Nowadays, oil drilling in the Waterton area is mostly non-existent.

The Prince of Wales Hotel is hard to miss when visiting Waterton Lakes National Park. Named for Prince Edward, the hotel sits on top a hill where it can be seen from miles away. The hotel was constructed in 1926-1927 by the American rail company Great Northern and allowed more travellers to visit the area.

waterton lakes national park prince of whales hotel

The Prince of Whales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Photo credit: Gord McKenna via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND


We hope this guide to the Waterton Lakes National Park has provided you with a sense of desire to travel to and enjoy this wonderful park. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date with all our other #Canada150 national park features throughout 2017. If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends and family. You can Pin these retro-style posters, too!

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What would you love to see/do while visiting Waterton Lakes National Park?

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12 comments

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Gina March 5, 2017 - 9:51 pm

So you definitely had me at free. Canada is such a huge country and has so much stunning nature. I would love to explore these parks without the fees and I like how camping is available. I would love to bring my dog to experience nature. Waterton Lakes was most stunning for me and I would love to stay at the Prince of Whales Hotel.

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The Travel Ninjas March 6, 2017 - 6:18 pm

This is such a gorgeous place. Waterton Lakes National Park has a fairy tale level of beauty. And that hotel is just amazing. This park is now on our bucket list. Thanks for the intro.

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Kassie March 6, 2017 - 7:20 pm

Wow this whole park looks dreamy! I had never heard of this park before and now I want to go! That hotel is definitely my pick (camping and me don’t mix well despite my best efforts!) and it looks beautiful but the Tipi is a close second. There seems to be so much to do and see at Waterton Lakes National Park. I’ll have to add it to my Canada bucket list 🙂

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Jenn and Ed Coleman March 6, 2017 - 8:28 pm

One of my favorite places ever is the Glacier / Waterton Peace Park. I moved to Glacier because the glaciers are receding and might not be here much longer. It was the last ski-mountain I lived at before new knees and I couldn’t have picked better. The milky blue of the water, the wildflowers, and the animals galore enticed me out hiking every chance I got which was always at least once a week.

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Grace March 6, 2017 - 11:36 pm

I have been following your blog for quite a while now and I am always amazed how beautifully you present each and every of your journeys. This one is no exception. Being a photographer myself I find it particularly alluring to see the world through your lens- you are doing a great job and your photos are stunning!

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Sara Essop March 7, 2017 - 2:45 am

Happy 150th Birthday, Canada. I love visiting national parks, even more so when they’re free. If only Canada was nearer to me…

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Sonia March 7, 2017 - 6:40 pm

Wow … the place looks like a postcard! I would love to camp and watch the stars twinkle at night. And then, take a picnic lunch and explore on a cycle during the day. I had never heard of this park… but you have now made me want to go there!

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Sridhar @interludejourney March 7, 2017 - 10:27 pm

Interesting write-up about this place. I would love to go there someday! The view is astonishing. I think I know where I’m going on my next vacation… Hello Canada!

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FS Page March 9, 2017 - 8:52 am

How wonderful. You have described the waterton in such detail and your photographs are just fabulous. I loved each and every one of them. Its a great initiative by Canadian govt. and i hope you are planning to tap this opportunity to cover various such locations of canada for your audience.

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Clare March 13, 2017 - 3:21 pm

I have done quite a few of the US national parks but not many in Canada. This looks like a great park to visit and with so much to do too. I hope I can get to Canada soon to explore more national parks here.

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Adam Doolittle March 15, 2017 - 2:28 pm

We hope you can make it to Canada and explore our many great parks, Clare!

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Work Visa Canada March 13, 2017 - 10:25 pm

Beautiful photograph of Waterton Lakes National Park, but my most favorite was your photo of The Prince of Wales Hotel. Definitely, Canada is worth visiting.

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