A Guide to Waterton Lakes National Park for First-Timers

Waterton Lakes National Parks always seems to catch people by surprise. While you know it’s going to be beautiful before you visit, it’s one of those places that makes you catch your breath as you drive into the region. It’s hard to describe just how stunning this mountain town and surrounding national park really are until you see it for yourself.

If this is your first time visiting Waterton Lakes National Park, it likely won’t be your last.

Not only is there so much to see and do within the park, but the scenery is ever-changing. Even when the skies are moody and dark with rain, it just adds to the whole vibe.

The locals are incredibly welcoming and the small town has a very community-focused feeling. If you’re like me on my recent visit, you’ll be planning a return trip before you’ve even left.

Here’s everything you need to know for your first visit to Waterton Lakes National Park.

Brief History of Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park is located on Treaty 7 territory and is on the traditional territory of the Káínai, Piikáni, Siksiká, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations.

To learn more about on the Indigenous and spiritual history of the region dating back thousands of years, a visit to the Paahtómahksikimi Cultural Centre is a great stop to make when arriving in town. There are activities, performances and demonstrations as well as access to maps, exhibits and free information on the park. It’s also a great location to escape a rainy morning or afternoon.

Waterton Lakes National Park was the fourth established national park in Canada in 1932. Located on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies bordering the United States, this park is unique because it was designated as the first International Peace Park with Glacier National Park in the U.S. It is a symbol of the connection and allyship between the two countries. The park is also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its diverse plant and animal species as well as prairie, forest, alpine and glacial geography.

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When to Visit Waterton Lakes National Park                     

While most people visit in the warm summer months of June to mid-September, Waterton Lakes National Park is accessible all year round. During winter, many restaurants are closed for the season but it’s a great time to cozy up in the lodges between cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing.

May and September are quieter months which is ideal if you’re an avid wildlife watcher or photographer.

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Hiking & Biking in Waterton Lakes National Park

The park is a mecca for those who enjoy hiking and biking with dozens of trails to access and explore.

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1. Bears Hump

I wanted to take in all the views when I first arrived. I headed out on the 1.4-kilometre hike up Bear’s Hump. This is one of the most rewarding hikes vs. elevation vs. distance. The hike takes between 1-2 hours depending on how long you sit at the top overlooking the townsite and mountain range. The views overlooking the park can stretch all the way to Montana on a clear day. I recommend picking up a couple of pastries from town or packing a lunch to enjoy while you take in the views.

2. Blackiston Falls

Blackiston Falls is a relatively flat 1-kilometre hike through a regenerating forest to three walkways perched over top of the waterfall. Early in the season, there’s a high volume of water coming down the falls which is quite dramatic from the close vantage point of the viewing platforms.

3. Crypt Lake Trail

Crypt Lake is lauded as one of the top day hikes in the world but makes hikers work for the views. With an elevation change of 900 metres over 10 kilometres, the trail offers an adrenaline-inducing jaunt along a steep cliffside, a scramble through a narrow tunnel and requires climbing up an exposed ladder. But the views of the turquoise lake at the end of the trail are worth the effort.

The trail is accessible by boat from the townsite. Most hikers plan to take the earliest boat of the day so the trail can be quite busy for the first few kilometres.

4. Bertha Lakes Trail

Hikers can choose the 5.2-kilometre return hike to Bertha Falls or continue on to the 10.4-kilometre return hike to Bertha Lake. While the trail to the falls is relatively flat and easy, the elevation increases 400 metres over 21 switchbacks up to the turquoise alpine lake.

5. Bike the Chief Mountain Highway

If you’re an avid road biker, the Chief Mountain Highway is a dream to ride. But if you want a more leisurely experience, rent an e-bike from Pat’s Waterton. The store is the go-to place for fuel, snacks and gear rentals but also for helpful tips and advice about your time in the park. (The store has such a community vibe and you’ll often find locals hanging around here too).

I cruised 65km roundtrip on my e-bike rental and went all the way to the border crossing. (This will push the limits of the bike’s battery so ride with care). Because the border is currently closed for the season, the highway has limited traffic which makes this an ideal time to bike along it.

Top Site-Seeing Activities and Experiences in Waterton Lakes National Park

1. Have High Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel

When visiting Waterton Lakes National Park you can’t miss seeing the Prince of Wales Hotel. Perched on a windswept bluff just outside of the townsite, it’s a marvel of architecture and design. Get dressed up and indulge in afternoon high tea in the drawing-room. There is also an interpretive hotel tour that shares a few colourful stories from the hotel’s nearly-100 year history and a ride in one of the oldest operating elevator lifts in North America.

2. Drive the Red Rock Canyon Parkway

It’s worth getting up early to drive (or bike) down Red Rock Canyon Parkway. Not only are you more likely to spot wildlife, but there’s a better chance you’ll find space available for roadside parking for all the photo ops you’ll want to stop for. I was particularly delighted with the wildflowers blooming along the way – late spring is such a great time of year to visit the park.

At the end of the 9-kilometre one-way highway is the canyon the parkway is named after. The red and green rock here gets its colour from oxidized and non-oxidized iron in the rock. The easy hiking trail around the canyon is less than 2 kilometres and is family-friendly.

3. Visit Cameron Falls in Town

Waterton Lakes National Park is so stunning it’s no surprise it has a waterfall located right in town. Cameron Falls is one of the most popular landmarks and is a great location to capture a few photos. There are paths on either side of the falls to get a different view from up top of the dramatic waterfall

4. Go for a Cruise on Lake Waterton

A must-do activity when in the park is a scenic boat ride with Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. on Waterton Lakes. The cruise departs several times throughout the day and crosses the international border with the United States. If you plan on getting off in the United States to explore Montana, you’ll have to disembark with your passport (and vice versa if coming back to Alberta, Canada).  

5. Drive the Akamina Parkway

The winding road of the 16-kilometre Akamina Parkway leads to several hiking trails, the site of one of the first oil wells in Western Canada and up to Cameron Lake (which is great for paddle boarding once the ice is off in late spring). Keep an eye out for bears or other wildlife along the narrow roadway.

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Where to Dine in Waterton

Waterton has a unique variety of dining options from gourmet hot dogs and high tea to world-class Italian cuisine and freshly made sandwiches perfect for the trail.

If you’re a foodie and heading to Waterton in late May, make sure to check out the Taste of Waterton Food Festival. This is the ideal way to plan a weekend getaway in the park while sampling a little something from all the local businesses.

Wieners of Waterton

A locally-sourced gourmet hot dog with sweet potato fries from Wieners of Waterton is a must for a quick lunch break between activities. The toppings range from homemade mustard and sauerkraut to their dessert dip and curry ketchup fry sauces.

The Thirsty Bear

The Thirsty Bear is the upbeat local watering hole in town. You’ll find live music and events with excellent pub fare perfect for catching up with friends over a pint.

Red Rock Trattoria

Italian cuisine with Italian wines is the best way to wind down a night while watching the final rays of light play across the mountains. Plus, pasta is the perfect fuel to keep you going the next day on any of the hikes you might be planning.

The Taco Bar

For a quick lunch option, stop by The Taco Bar for homemade Mexican-inspired fresh tacos made from scratch.

Pearl’s Café

If you’re an early riser, Pearl’s is the spot to stop to pick up a cup of joe made from freshly roasted beans or a Waterton Smog – a chocolate tea with hazelnut flavouring. The baked goods and a bagged lunch are perfect to pack with you for a day on the trail.

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Where to Stay in Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes Lodge

I spent three cozy nights at Waterton Lakes Lodge’s four-season resort. It felt like a true mountain getaway. My room had a king-size bed, fireplace and a freestanding soaker tub with direct views of the mountains. It’s within close walking distance of all amenities in downtown Waterton but also has an on-site restaurant.

Parks Canada Campground

Whether tenting, RV’ing or van-living, there’s a campsite perfect for your preference.  The main campground in the national park is located on the south end of the Waterton townsite. Reservations can be made online as well as on arrival.

For the adventurous, there are 10 backcountry campgrounds to stay overnight. If it’s early in the season, call ahead and check the snowpack before hiking in.

Prince of Wales Hotel

For those seeking luxury or a special night away, the intricately gabled Prince of Wales Hotel is worth the indulgence. Perched atop a windswept bluff overlooking Waterton Lake, this hotel is all about elegance and design. A night here is truly something special and a reason to celebrate.

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