Waterton Lakes National Park sits on the Canadian – United States Border. This incredible location is connected to Glacier National Park to the south.
In 2017, the Kenow Wildfire burned over 47,000 acres of land in Waterton Lakes National Park. While the lightning strike that started this fire dealt a big blow to much of the park, the natural recovery of the park has been progressing shockingly fast. This quick regeneration is truly awesome to see, especially considering that amount of devastation that took place.
It’s true that over 80% of the hiking trails, or views seen from the park’s hiking trails were impacted from the effects of the fire (though the town and the iconic Prince of Wales hotel were unharmed). However, what you’ll find when you visit is that the park is by all means still worth going to, and, draws a high amount of parkgoers each year. In fact, the attendance continues to grow, with over 500,000 people visiting the park in recent years.
While the damage from the fire tugs at the heartstrings when you first see it, visiting the park is still highly recommended, and there is a ton to see and do during your visit. We visited in the early part of the 2018 summer season and were more than glad that we did. We could still smell the charred bark while we were exploring, but loved the views and seeing a park in a very different condition than seen in photos previously posted on the internet!
Here are a few of the things that we recommend during your visit to Waterton Lakes National Park!
Note: due to the extensive damage of the fire, our blog is going to mainly focus in on the areas that are open or expected to be open in the near future. Make sure to check the Waterton Lakes National Park website for a list of what’s open in Waterton Lakes.
Waterton Lakes National Park map, courtesy of the National Park Service
WATERTON TOWNSITE AREA
Located in the heart of Waterton Lakes National Park, the town of Waterton is home to just over 100 people. You would never know it in the summertime, however, as nearly every visitor makes their way through the town during their stay.
Complete with a school, fire station and post office, the town is just as you would expect any other town. However, it probably has more eateries per capita than most other towns! There are many restaurants, coffee shops and stores that are really convenient. This means that even if you don’t arrive in Waterton Lakes with everything you need, that you’ll likely be able to find it here.
Not only is the town very functional, it’s also beautiful and great for walking. Be sure to at least spend an hour or strolling through town.
As a side note, the Waterton townsite was not damaged at all during the Kenow fire.
WATERTON LAKES AREA
Outside of the town of Waterton, this area is centered on the northern shore of Upper Waterton Lake. This part of the park is definitely a place that you need to stop during your trip.
While visiting the area nearby the Waterton Lakes, our recommendations include:
- Kayaking and boating. The Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes are perfect for recreation. Kayaking is especially wonderful, as it allows you to get to pretty much anywhere on the lakes. Be advised that the lake can get a bit rough, so you should be experienced if you plan on kayaking any significant distance or during windy weather. Scuba diving is also popular, and there is even a sunken vessel that can be explored! Gear for watersports (kayaks, paddleboards and canoes) can be rented at Blakiston & Company in Waterton.
- Relaxing on the beach. The shore of Upper Waterton Lake in particular is perfect for relaxing and sunbathing. The beach is a bit rocky, but it is large with plenty of room for families to spend an afternoon. Clean restrooms are located near the beach. You also may want to bring a snorkel mask with you, as the water is extremely clear.
There are great hiking trails in the area, but you should be aware that these hikes are the most popular in the park due to the vicinity to the town of Waterton. Here are a few that we recommend:
- The Upper Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake Trail is a moderate to difficult 6.1-mile round trip hike. Climbing a total elevation of nearly 2,000 feet, this trail passes the beautiful Lower Bertha Falls before arriving at Bertha Lake. The hike is busy for the first 1.6-miles up to the Lower Bertha Falls, where many hikers turn around.
- The Lakeshore Trail is a 16-mile round-trip hike that travels along the western shore of Upper Waterton Lake. This trail connects Waterton Lake National Park with Glacier National Park. It’s common to hike only part of this trail, or to hike it one-way before returning to Canada via boat (see below).
- The Townsite Loop Trail travels along Upper Waterton Lake without any significant elevation gain. This easy, paved trail is a 2-mile loop that travels around the town as well. While you won’t be walking through nature on this trail, it is a great stroll after a meal. The views to the south and east are fantastic.
- The Bertha Peak Trail is a hard 8.6-mile trail that climbs nearly 4,000 feet to one of the best views in the park. This trail is grueling, but includes Lower and Upper Bertha Falls, Bertha Lake and Bertha Peak.
- The Prince of Wales Loop is an easy 1.1-mile loop around the grounds of the Prince of Wales Hotel. This trail does have a bit of an elevation gain (approximately 100 feet), but the views from this added elevation are fantastic and worth the little bit of work.
- Boat Touring. In addition to hiking in the area, the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company offers boat trips down the Upper Waterton Lake. The two-hour cruises travel down to Goat Haunt, which is in the northern section of Glacier National Park. If you are planning on staying longer than the 30-minute stop, you are required to officially pass through customs, which is done via a phone app. Details on the border crossing can be found here. Tickets for the cruise can be purchased in advance, and reservations are available for groups over 20.
AKAMINA PARKWAY AREA
Note: The Akamina Parkway was closed during the 2018 season due to fire damage sustained in 2017. However, restoration efforts are continuing and the park is working to open up access as soon as possible. Be sure to check to see if it is open here: what’s open in Waterton Lakes.
When exploring this area, our recommendations include:
- Drive the Akamina Parkway. The Akamina Parkway is a 9.4-mile drive through a canyon that ends with Cameron Lake. This road is known for its amazing scenery and wildlife sightings, which can include bighorn sheep, black bear, deer and moose. Be advised that the bighorn sheep will often huddle in crowds on the road to lick the salt that collects on the shoulder. There are numerous overlooks, which include the Discovery Well National Historic Site, Oil City and finally Cameron Lake.
Cameron Lake photo, courtesy of Greg Willis
The hiking along the Akamina Parkway is incredible, but many of the hikes require at least some uphill effot. If you remember to take it slow and steady, you have time and plenty of water and food, this won’t be a problem. Some of the recommended hikes include:
- The Crandell Lake Trail is one of the easier hikes in this area. At 1.8-miles round trip and with just under 500 feet of total elevation gain, the hike travels to Lake Crandell. This is a quick and easy trail. While not one of the most scenic hikes in the park, this is good for families or those who are looking for a good stroll through nature.
- The Lineham Falls Trail is a moderate, 5.7-mile round trip hike that climbs nearly 2,000 feet. At the end of the hike is Lineham Falls, which you’ll be able to view from a distance as the official trail ends about a mile from the base of the falls. The trail is exposed for much of the hike, so make sure you bring protection from the sun.
- The Cameron Lake Trail is an easy, 2.2-mile round trip hike along the shores of Cameron Lake. There is little elevation gain (though a few obstacles along the route) along this crowded but pretty path.
- There are also a number of options that take you on longer treks in the park, but be sure to consult this excellent guide on backcountry hiking to be sure that you are prepared.
HOW TO GET TO WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
Most visitors to Waterton Lakes National Park come while visiting the other parks in the Canadian Rockies, and therefore the most common airport to fly into is Calgary International Airport, which is about 3 hours away by car. For visitors coming from the United States, Kalispell Montana is a great option and is just under four hours away.
Make sure you purchase a day pass or Discovery Pass (annual pass to Canada’s national parks) when entering Waterton Lakes National Park.
WHERE TO STAY IN OR NEAR WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Waterton Lakes National Park Lodging: There are quite a few options for lodging inside Waterton Lakes National Park, including the Town of Waterton as well as the luxurious Prince of Wales hotel. There aren’t many options outside the park that are nearby, but Pincher Creek, AB to the north has several mainstream lodging options that are worth considering.
Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park: After the Kenow Fire there are only two camping options available. The Townsite Campground offers camping on the southern side of town. This area can be very busy, so make sure you book reservations ahead of your stay. The Belly River Campground is located along Alberta Highway 6, this campground is more remote than the Townsite Campground but much quieter. There are no services at the Belly River Campground.
RELATED INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Waterton Lakes National Park is beautiful and if you are able to combine it with a trip Glacier National Park in the United States, that makes a great combination! Ahead of your visit make sure you review our blog on 10 Reasons to Love Glacier National Park.
- About three hours to the north begins a chain of four National Parks that are also worth visiting too. Check out our blogs on Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park.
- We love to turn photos into posters. If you send us one, we’ll take care of you and create a one-of-a-kind travel memory. Check out our listing on creating a custom, vintage travel poster. We hope to work with you!
OTHER INFORMATION ON WATERTON LAKES AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
- For details on hiking in Goat Haunt and other backcountry hikes, Dave & Annie (from “The Clever Hiker”) wrote an extremely thorough blog on backpacking in Glacier National Park.