Waterton Lakes National Park is the Canadian portion of Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site which extends into the US as Glacier National Park. The park is in the southwestern corner of Alberta, and protects the southernmost portion of the Canadian Rockies. As a destination, Waterton is best known for hiking and sight-seeing.
Waterton Lakes National Park covers an area of 505 km2 (195 sq mi), about the size of the Island of Montreal.
Waterton is open all year, but the main tourist season is during July and August. The only commercial facilities available within the park are located at the Waterton Park townsite. The park ranges in elevation from 1,290 metres (4,232 ft) at the townsite to 2,910 m (9,547 ft) at Mount Blakiston. It offers many scenic trails, including Crypt Lake trail. In 2012/2013, Waterton Lakes National Park had over 400,000 visitors.
Contact the park office ☏ firstname.lastname@example.org., toll-free: ☏ or email
The park is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, designated as World Heritage Site in 1995 for its distinctive climate, physiographic setting, mountain-prairie interface, and tri-ocean hydrographical divide. Together the parks are areas of significant scenic values with abundant and diverse flora and fauna.
In 1979, Waterton and bordering Glacier National Park in the US were designated as World Biosphere reserves, preserving mountains, prairie, lakes and freshwater wetlands ecosystems. Habitats represented in the parks' range include: prairie grasslands, aspen grove forests, alpine tundra/high meadows, lower subalpine forests, deciduous and coniferous forests.
Flora and fauna
There is a good chance of seeing black and grizzly bears in the park, also if you are lucky badger. Birds in the area include osprey, bald eagle and a number of waders.
Animals that inhabit this national park include wolverines, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, mule deer, mountain goats, elk, moose, foxes, wolves, coyotes, beavers, river otters, cougars, lynxes, bobcats, snowshoe hares, pikas, hoary marmots, grizzly bears and black bears.
The climate is typical of the northern hemisphere, located at just above the 49th parallel. The summers reach temperatures up to 30ºC (86ºF) but it is usually mild around 23-25ºC (73-77ºF) for most of the summer. There are a few heat waves that last a couple of days, but for the most part summers are very comfortable for people from warmer climates. Winters are a bit more severe due to the mountain elevations which bring heavy snowfalls to the mountain peaks and to the townsite. Temperatures can dip to -30ºC (-22ºF) but the prevailing western air currents bring warm air from the Pacific Ocean in the winter time. These are called chinooks by the locals and can raise the temperature from -30ºC to +2ºC in a couple of hours. If you do not mind a bit of wind the climate is good here. The park is sheltered by trees so the winds are not so bad in the camping areas and in the townsite.
Waterton Lakes is at the end of Highway 5, about an hour and a half from Lethbridge and 3 hours from Calgary. If driving from Calgary, take Highway 2 south out of town to Cardston and then follow Highway 5 west to the park. There is no bus service into the park.
Fees and permits (2022)
There is no fee to enter the park if you are just driving through along Highway 6. However, if you want to do any activities, visit the townsite or stay overnight, a daily fee will apply. The fee is paid at the gatehouse on Highway 5, on the road to Waterton townsite, just after its junction with Highway 6.
If staying for a week or more, the annual park pass is a good value, though it can only be used in Waterton. An annual Discovery Pass can also be purchased for a higher fee and be used in Waterton and at the nearby Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, and many other national parks and historic sites.
- Daily fees: Adult $10.50, senior $9.00, children and youth under 18 free, family/group $21
- Annual pass: Adult $52.25, senior $44.50, children and youth under 18 free, family/group $194.50
- Fishing permit: daily $10.25, annual $35.75
Parks Canada Passes
The Discovery Pass provides unlimited admission for a full year at over 80 Parks Canada places that charge a daily entrance fee. It provides faster entry and is valid for 12 months from date of purchase. Prices for 2022 (taxes included):
- Family/group (up to 7 people in a vehicle): $145.25
- Children and youth (0-17): free
- Adult (18-64): $72.25
- Senior (65+): $61.75
The Cultural Access Pass: people who have received their Canadian citizenship in the past year can qualify for free entry to some sites.
The townsite is small and can be easily travelled on foot. However, if you want to see some of the lakes, hikes and other features of the park, a car or bike will be necessary. There is a shuttle bus service.
- 1 Visitor Centre, 404 Cameron Falls Drive, ☏ . Year-round: daily 8AM-6PM. It provides park information, Indigenous interpretive experiences park passes, maps, brochures, permits, backcountry reservations, weather information, trail, avalanche and road reports, and information on interpretive exhibits and events. Parking on site includes RV parking and electric vehicle charging spaces.
- 2 Waterton Lake. Long lake that stretches across the Canadian/US border, set below spectacular mountain scene. There is a pleasant stroll along the shoreline in the town.
- Buffalo Paddock, Highway 6 (entrance to paddock is off Hwy 6, just inside the park's north boundary). The Buffalo Paddock is a fenced-off area of prairie grassland that is home to the park's buffalo herd. The single road loops through the enclosure and offers a good opportunity to see these animals in their natural environment.
- Red Rock Canyon, Red Rock Parkway (follow Red Rock Parkway until it ends). A pretty spot, which, true to its name, features a canyon and river bed with a striking shade of red. There is a short trail (15-30 minutes) that follows both sides of the canyon. A 1-km trail leads to a waterfall, and a few longer (5-9 hour) trails start here.
- Bear's Hump (from car park across from the Prince of Wales Hotel on the edge of town). A short but very steep walk up to a ridge above the town provides a spectacular view of the whole valley. The trail is gravelled and has stone steps in places, but would be hazardous for anyone with mobility issues, or who does not have good cardiorespiratory health. There is, however, a disabled parking spot next to the trailhead. It is usually very windy at the top, so dress accordingly.
- 3 Cameron Lake. Beautiful glacial lake, with opportunity for canoe rentals in summer.
- Bertha Falls and Lake. From the south end of town, the falls are a 5.2-km (return) hike on a good trail with great views of Waterton Lake along the way. The hike to Bertha Lake is 10.4 km (return).
- Waterton Shoreline Cruise, Waterton Marina (near Waterton Ave and Mountview Rd), ☏ . Two cruises per day (one morning, one afternoon) May to early Oct. Additional cruises available June to mid-Sept. A 1 hr 15 min scenic cruise on Upper Waterton Lake that provides fantastic views of the lake and mountains on a sunny day and good opportunities to see eagles, moose, deer and other wildlife. The boat itself is interesting as it was built in the 1920s, in conjunction with the Prince of Wales Hotel, to wine and dine the rich visitors to the park of the time. Adult $60, child 0-12 $30.
- Fantastic Four of Waterton Glacier: the Peace Park Challenge. 4 days. An international challenge for hikers, featuring 2 of Waterton's most beloved trails, Crypt Lake (9 km) and Carthew-Alderson (16 km), in addition to 2 of Glacier National Park's favourites Siyeh Pass (16.5 km) and the Garden Wall (18.5 km). You must bring your passport. (60 km total) free.
- The Triple Crown of Waterton (.). 3 days. A challenge for hikers, three local favourite trails: Crypt Lake (9 km), Carthew-Alderson (16 km) and Akamina Pass (20 km). (45 km total) free.
- 1 Summit Lake. Hike of about one hour uphill from Cameron Lake car park to a small lake in a mountain pass. In some years, the path is clear by June, and in others it can be under snow in July.
There are souvenir shops, a small supermarket, a liquor store and a fuel station in Waterton town. Expect to pay a premium for goods, so best to stock up with supplies before entering the park.
- Caribou Clothing, 114 Waterton Ave, ☏ . May to early Oct: 10AM-10PM. Sells a variety of sheepskin and leather clothing. The mitts, hats and slippers are their own brand, manufactured locally in Alberta.
There are several restaurants in the town-site, they tend to be a little pricey and of medium quality as they have a captive customer base.
- 1 Pearl's Café, 305 Windflower Ave, ☏ . 7AM–3PM. Spacious coffee shop with a good selection of breakfast and lunch wraps and baked goods. Awards a t-shirt to hikers on completion of the Triple Crown of Waterton (three hikes) or Fantastic Four of Waterton Glacier (four hikes). A public computer is free to use with purchase of food or drink and two hours of wi-fi is available for clients (ask at the counter for the access code). $3 and under for bagels and baked goods, $7-10 for wraps and salads.
- 2 Trappers Mountain Grill, 106A Waterton Ave, ☏ . Family-run restaurant with a lumberjack/rustic décor. It has a number of dishes with local ingredients like bison and Saskatoon berries. Good quality food but a little expensive. $15-30 for mains.
- 3 Zums Eatery, 116B Waterton Ave, ☏ . Family diner-style restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Interesting décor of vehicle licence plates, good service, food is of medium quality. (You'll wonder why the world-famous chicken you've never heard of is famous anywhere.) $7-15 for breakfast, $15-30 for dinner.
- 4 Vimy's Lounge & Grill (at the Waterton Lakes Lodge), 101 Clematis Ave, ☏ . Casual fine dining with Rocky Mountain cuisine. Excellent burgers (beef, chicken, salmon, vegetarian) $19-28. Unique wine selections. Two patios with mountain views. Dining room menu available from 5-10PM. Big screen TVs playing sports and cushy leather lounge chairs to view from. Good quality food but not cheap.
- Thirsty Bear Saloon, Bayshore Inn, ☏ . Casual bar with a dance floor, DJ and pool tables.
- Waterton Bagel & Coffee Co., 309 Windflower (in the old movie theater), ☏ . open at 7AM. A real town favourite, noted by several prominent guide books as having the best coffee in Waterton. Featuring small batch roasted Cuppers Coffee, with a dizzying variety of hot and cold drinks. Offers delicious bagels prepared with imagination, and local baked goods. From $2.
- Vimy's Lounge and Grill (in the Waterton Lakes Lodge) (see #Eat). A relaxing lounge to enjoy a drink next to a fireplace. Big screen TVs that have sports. 2 patios with great mountain views.Casual fine dining also available.
- Bayshore Inn, 111 Waterton Ave, toll-free: . A mix of rooms and suites on the lakefront with TV, internet and an on-site spa. Open May through early October. From $200 in high season.
- Crandell Mountain Lodge, 102 Mountview Rd, ☏ , toll-free: . One- and two-bed rooms with a country-style look and feel. Kitchen and Deluxe rooms cost a bit more but come with gas fireplaces. $145 and up in high season, $99 and up in low season.
- 1 Prince of Wales Hotel, Highway 5 (entrance is across the road from the Visitor Center), toll-free: . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 11AM. An old railway hotel built in 1927 to attract tourists to the region. It's not your best value for money since the beds are small (doubles or twins in standard rooms), the hotel's age shows in a few spots and the rooms don't come with many extra amenities (no TV, no minibar, not all rooms have full bathtubs). It does have heaps of character and history though, and the views -- the hotel is built on a hill overlooking the lake and town -- are outstanding. $260-300 (room in high season), $800 for a suite.
- Waterton Lakes Lodge, 101 Clematis Ave, ☏ , toll-free: . Mix of chalet-style accommodation and suites of good quality. Different sizes of rooms available. $195 and up during peak season, $120 and up during low season.
- Aspen Village Inn, 11 Windflower Ave, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com. Open May-October 7AM-10PM. Big variety of accommodation. Choose from kitchenettes, suites and cottage style rooms. Rooms are available with fireplaces and jetted tubs. From $145 in peak season.
- 2 Bear Mountain Motel. Classic 1960s motel. Basic rooms with comfortable beds. Good wifi connection for guests. Grill available in car park. Probably best value in town if you are not looking for luxury.
There are three drive-in campgrounds available in the park. Some sites have fire pits, a fire permit is an additional $8.80 (2018).
- Townsite Campground, at the end of Windflower Rd (the gatehouse is just past the corner of Windflower Rd and Vimy Ave). A fairly open, grassy campground with serviced and unserviced sites. Showers and flush toilets available. Reservations are recommended if staying over a weekend or if you want a serviced site. Open mid-April to mid-Oct. $38.20/$27.40/$22.50 (serviced/unserviced/walk-in unserviced).
- Crandell Mountain, Red Rock Parkway (on the south side of the road, about 6-7 km from the intersection with Hwy 5). Unserviced sites set in the forest with flush toilets but no showers. Sites are available on a first come, first served basis. Open mid-May to Labour Day. $21.50.
- Belly River, Highway 6. Unserviced sites with dry toilets. Sites are available on a first come, first served basis. Open mid-May to mid-Sept. $15.70.
Backcountry camping is available in a number of spots. The fee is $9.80/night (2018). If staying for a week or more, a season pass is a good value at $68.70. A reservation costs $11.70.
There aren't any Internet cafés per se in Waterton, but a couple of the restaurants and coffee shops provide access.
Beware of the very strong winds at times in the main town site area.
Hikers should be aware that although it is possible to cross the geographical border (49th parallel) into the USA there are further on ranger control points that you cannot pass unless you have a US passport. Non-US citizens must use the main road crossing, where identification checks can be made.
This is bear and cougar country, when hiking make plenty of noise and take the usual precautions for bears.
There are a number of small towns and parks nearby that make good day trips or next stops to move on to.
- Waterton Lakes is joined with Glacier National Park across the border in Montana. It can be accessed by heading south on Highway 6 (The Chief Mountain Highway). The border crossing on the highway is only open between May and October.
- The Remington-Alberta Carriage Centre in Cardston is half an hour east on Highway 5. It has many interesting stories on the horse and carriage era and how the collection was built.
- Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site outside of Fort Macleod is a 1½-hour drive north-east.
- Bar U Ranch near Longview.
- Crowsnest Pass is an hour north-west on Highway 6 and has several attractions on its coal-mining past and the Frank Slide. It is also the gateway to British Columbia.
- If you're looking for more mountains and alpine lakes, Banff National Park is 4-5 hours north. A scenic way to get there is the Cowboy Trail (Highways 6 and 22) which traverses the foothills while keeping the mountains in sight.
|Routes through Waterton Lakes National Park|
|END ←||W E||→ Cardston → Lethbridge|
|END ← Pincher Creek ←||N S||→ → becomes → Glacier National Park → Babb|