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Waterton Lakes National Park: A Review

Waterton Lakes National Park a Review

This article is going to be a bit of a departure from my normal writing topics for one big reason. It has nothing to do with money. Instead, it is just a review of a beautiful national park in Alberta. Specifically, Waterton Lakes National Park.

Where is Waterton Lakes National Park?

Waterton is a beautiful national park located in the very south of Alberta, directly on the US border. Its sister park and other half of the world’s only “International Peace Park”, Glacier National Park is directly south of it in the US. It is also one of the least known of Alberta’s five national parks. Likely due to its distance from every major city or town, and lack of services.

Waterton Lakes National Park Location Alberta
Source

Rating

For the national park itself, including the townsite, I am going to give Waterton a 4/5. For the camping surrounding it a 2/5, the townsite a 4/5, and for the hiking a 3/5.

Waterton Infographic

Camping

There’s no good way to put it, but camping in the Waterton area kind of … sucks. There are only a handful of spots to camp and they fill up FAST! Especially in 2021 when everyone who would normally travel abroad is now camping (we call them COVID Campers). So if you want any chance of getting a campground close to Waterton (or even in Waterton as I’ll explain shortly), you’ll need to book 6+ months ahead. For our trip, which we took at the end of July, we booked in January and there were only 3 spots remaining at the time of our booking.

Townsite Campground

The townsite campground is by far the most popular campground in the area. It is within the Waterton townsite itself, it’s fairly large, and it’s managed by Parks Canada. However, because of this, it is also almost impossible to get into. We didn’t end up staying here, but if you don’t mind being within a town itself I would definitely recommend trying to find a spot. Everything within Waterton is a short walk away from this campground, and the views are unbeatable! To get in you’ll likely have to book around the end of December, beginning of January and have a small trailer or tent, as the large spots are gone almost instantly.

Waterton Townsite Campground

Other Serviced Campgrounds

Here is where the 2-star rating comes in for the camping around Waterton. Because there isn’t any. we were able to find one campground remotely close to the park, called Crooked Creek Campground. While it had decently large spaces there were pretty much no trees, the campground itself was tiny, and they had very weird rules. For example, the shower and bathroom were only open from 9-9. The gate itself was only open until 10, and their office was literally a check-in desk and an ice machine.

So if you didn’t want to stay at this campground, you were out of luck. You were looking at a half-hour plus drive time just to get into Waterton. It seems like they are slowly trying to build up the camping in the area, but for now, it is extremely lacking.

Unserviced / Backcountry Camping

If you are backcountry camping then you will absolutely love Waterton. They have an absolute ton of designated back-country locations, each with its own unique features. Some are close to the lake itself, some are on a beach, and one, in particular, is actually right along the Canada-US border, which is super cool! Of course, being backcountry none of these camping locations are trailer friendly, so you will need to use a tent to camp there. Most are within the park itself and many are even within walking distance of the townsite.

Because it is crown land, starting 2021 you will need to pay to camp there, but overall very impressed with the number of back-country campsites!

Townsite

The townsite within Waterton is definitely the hub of the park and where almost everything is located. Unlike other more popular national parks in the province like Banff or Jasper, it is very centralized in the townsite itself.

Shops and Venues

Within the townsite, there are a fair number of shops of venues. However, most of these places are either restaurants or souvenir shops (or both). If you’re looking for anything else your options are relatively limited. They do have a grocery store, but only one. They do have a liquor store, but only one. There are a couple of other shops and categories that they have a very limited selection on, but for the most part, they have everything you will need for a vacation.

Unlike other national park towns, the prices are actually affordable. While we were there we had to buy a few commodities like milk and cheese, and while they were more expensive than in a more developed city it was maybe 10% more expensive than if we bought at home.

Activities

Activities are definitely what both sets Waterton apart, as well as causes them to lose a few points. To begin, Waterton does have most of the activities you would expect of a beach town. they have paddleboards, electric and non-electric bikes, etc. What they don’t have kind of surprised me. They don’t offer the rental of canoes or kayaks. They claim it is due to the high winds experienced on the lake, but even on the windiest of days while we were there the chop on the lake was far from dangerous.

With the lack of available water sports available though you also receive the benefit of a couple of really cool, unique attractions. This includes the ability to rent a “Surrey”, a kind of 4-wheeled pedal car (picture below). As well as a unique boat tour that (in non-COVID times) actually takes you across the lake into the US where you get to see and spend time at a ranger station and enjoy the other half of the international peace park (Glacier National Park in Montana). This boat tour was still fun while we went, but you just go up to the border, do a donut, and then come back, without going across the lake.

surrey bike
A surrey bike which can be rented in Waterton and used within the Townsite limits

Hiking

Within Waterton, there are several different “classes” of hikes. It is better at some than others, but overall I would describe the hiking as average to below-average. Especially considering the possibilities of hiking elsewhere in the province.

Kid-Friendly

Kid-friendly hiking is hiking where it is either completely paved for the duration of the hike or wide enough that people can pass on the trail. They are also typically shorter (2 km or less) since longer walks are harder for children. Within here is stroller-friendly, where it is also flat enough to push a stroller. But for the sake of this article, I have grouped these together. For one simple reason.

There is only one.

Even after talking with tour guides, doing our research, etc. there is only one kid-friendly hike in all of Waterton Lake National Park. It is called the Blakiston Falls Trail. The hike starts off in Red Rock Canyon (really cool, and you should see it), which is located directly touching the parking lot for the hike. It is then just over a kilometre up a relatively slow incline to a set of waterfalls. And that’s it. You take a look at the waterfalls and head back.

So if you’re looking for kid-friendly hikes, Waterton is not the place for you.

Blakiston Falls - Waterton Lakes National Park

Mountains

When seeing the beautiful province of Alberta one thing almost everyone who hikes wants to do is a hike in the mountains. And it’s understandable why. The Candian Rockies are absolutely beautiful when hiking through them! And Waterton is a great place for this if you aren’t interested in taller peaks. While there are mountains around Waterton, they are smaller and more rolling than elsewhere in the province. Almost all of the trails are also back-country, or not well defined.

So if you’re just starting to explore your hiking destinations, or if you’ve never hiked/summited a mountain before, it may be worth it to consider Waterton. For mountains, it is very beginner-friendly. With not too many steep climbs, and almost all of the paths are going to be well forested with relatively firm ground material.

If you’re a more advanced hiker or want to summit larger mountains then I would recommend going deeper into the Rockies as Waterton is not ideal for those looking for tall peaks or more advanced climbing.

Popular/Iconic

If you are a beginner hiker there are a couple of really cool hikes that can be done within Waterton. The first, and easily most iconic are the Lower Bertha Falls and Upper Bertha Falls. The trailhead for this hike is just south of the Townsite campground and is a relatively easy climb. It is fairly long (about 5km for the lower falls and 12 km for the upper), but for a day trip, it is a beautiful choice. Be warned that the trail is kind of narrow and has sharp drop-offs at points. So don’t be afraid of heights, and don’t bring your kids.

Another iconic hike that I haven’t had the opportunity to do is the Boundary Bay Trail. This trail is about 13 km and takes you to a beautiful bay right on the Canada-US border. So if you want a hike that has both scenery and the cool factor of going to an international border, this is a hike you should consider. It is a relatively slow incline, but like other trails in Waterton, it is quite narrow, and not kid-friendly.

Waterton Lake View Through Smoke
Waterton Lake as seen during wildfire season, is flanked by mountains

Overall

Overall I would give the experience of Waterton a 4/5. Most of this comes from the townsite itself. When we went for a week we found that spent most of our time within the townsite, and never really felt bored as there was always something to do. If you are the type to go camping only for the hikes, I would consider elsewhere. But if you’re the type who camps to see new places and have unique experiences then Waterton is definitely worth planning a visit to. The views are breathtaking, it is a ton of fun, and it is relatively affordable.

Just make sure you book early. With only 2 campsites at all close to the townsite, they fill up fast. If have any questions, or any experiences of your own let me know in the comments!

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