Discovering Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Our next destination after Crowsnest Pass was Waterton Lakes National Park. Although I generally title my posts “exploring…”, Waterton was more significantly a discovery – our discovery of a park we knew very little about, but is now, for both Cathy and I, our favourite national park. For a park to take that title away from Jasper in Cathy’s mind says a lot about Waterton. This post has 49 photos that I hope will give you an idea of why, and the next post will be about a boat tour in the park.

We left Coleman just after noon on Day 30 of our trip – Friday, May 25th – and decided to stop for a restaurant lunch somewhere along the way. That didn’t happen until we stopped at Pincher Creek for groceries, at the Co-op in the Ranchland Mall. Inside the mall is the Bent Fork Eatery, and the cozy country decor invited us in. We started by having a long chat with one of the owners, Susan Casey-Turner, who was having lunch herself. The Bent Fork has only been open for a few months, and hearing Susan’s story was a really interesting way to start our lunch. After ordering our food, we also got into a long chat with Susan’s husband, Kevin Turner, and heard more of the stories that can be read in the Pincher Creek Echo. Regardless of how friendly the owners and staff are, though, it’s the food that makes or breaks a restaurant, and ours was exceptional (I had a burger, and a large piece of home-made cheesecake for dessert). We got lucky and missed the lunch rush which has lineups out the door, but even if we hit one of those lineups next time, we’ll be stopping again.

The Bent Fork Eatery, Pincher Creek, Alberta
We arrived at the Townsite Campground in Waterton at about 3:30 pm. We had reserved campsite #A5, one of the 90 fully-serviced sites, for 3 nights, but had no plans for the park except to take the famous boat tour. The weather when we arrived was perfect, with the temperature at about 24°C/75°F even though we were at an elevation of 1,290 meters (4,232 feet), and I was quite stunned by the beauty of our surroundings.

Townsite Campground in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Our first discovery was Columbian ground squirrels (Urocitellus columbianus). They prefer areas with short grass, so the campground is perfect, and at least a dozen had burrows within 100 feet of us.

Columbian ground squirrel in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Both Bella and Tucker went crazy over the squirrels, totally forgetting pretty much all of their training when we were within sight of a ground squirrel. They were always on leash, and the ground squirrels seemed to be very confident that they were safe.

My shelty/husky cross Bella in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
We had a calm evening, doing little but sitting at our campsite marvelling at the peaks, with a few dog-walks around the campground and down to Upper Waterton Lake. Overnight, rain arrived, and Saturday became our second rain day of the trip. We didn’t mind the excuse to slow down, and the clouds were high enough that our amazing views weren’t diminished greatly.

Rainy day at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
I soon found a dog-walking route that I really enjoyed. Walking up Cameron Creek, which was only about 100 meters/yards from our campsite, and then back down the other side thanks to two bridges, was a good length and there were few ground squirrel burrows along the route.

Cameron Creek, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The dog-walking loop took us past spectacular Cameron Falls, one of the most-photographed sites in Waterton. At full Spring flow like this, spray pours out of the canyon and across the foot bridge, which has drain holes to shed the water.

Cameron Falls, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Cameron Falls, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Much of Waterton Lakes National Park is closed due to the Kenow Wildfire, which burned 38,000 hectares, including 19,303 hectares in the park, last September. I was shocked by how close the fire had come to homes and other buildings in the Waterton townsite, and incredulous that firefighters were able to save the townsite.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The rain eased off Saturday afternoon, so we took a drive out to the bison paddock. The Bison Paddock Loop Road is closed due to the fire, but a short road alongside it is open. The bison paddock is accessed from outside the park gates, and I had forgotten my Parks Canada annual pass. I walked up to the gate and talked to the ranger about it, then decided to return to the campground to get it.

Bison Paddock at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Waterton Lakes is the only national park in Canada that protects rough fescue, a grass that is a highly nutritious food for plains bison, but virtually all of it burned, and we saw no bison. I’ve just found a report that Parks Canada relocated the bison herd before the fire reached the area, and there’s no timetable set for their return.

Bison Paddock at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Seeing the bison paddock gave us an even better idea of the scale of the fire, not only in the forests as I expected, but on the vast grasslands as well. In total, 38% of the park was burned.

Bison Paddock at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
We next made a short stop at the Maskinonge Lake day-use area, which was largely burned but is still open.

Maskinonge Lake day-use area, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Highway 6 leading from Waterton to Glacier National Park in Montana looked like it would offer great scenery, so that was our next route. The interpretive panels at the viewpoint in the next photo describe the primary significance of Waterton Lakes National Park, “where the mountains meet the prairies” – the change is incredibly sudden, and you can see that very clearly from the viewpoint.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta - where the mountains meet the prairies
The “Welcome to Alberta” sign just north of the border crossing.

Welcome to Alberta sign on Highway 6
We turned around right at the Chief Mountain border crossing, which just officially opened to travellers for the season 11 days before. It sits at an elevation of about 1,615 meters (5,300 feet) and often doesn’t open until June 1st, but heavy visitation is expected this year, up from the normal annual average of 130,000 people. The crossing was established when the Chief Mountain International Highway was completed in 1936, and is one of only two on the US-Canada border that are closed during the winter (Poker Creek – Little Gold Creek at the Yukon/Alaska border on the Top of the World Highway is the other).

Chief Mountain border crossing
After dinner at the campground, we walked down to the lake again. It’s apparently always windy at Waterton, and it was quite chilly, with more rain blowing in from the south.

Upper Waterton Lake - Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The view up Cameron Creek from the lower bridge near the lake.

Cameron Creek, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
There are a lot of posters and notes around the campground warning about aggressive deer, as well as a couple of these signs. Dog owners are warned to keep well away from deer, which may attack without provocation.

Deer warning sign at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
An interesting “storm light” took me back down to the lakeshore at about 7:00 pm to get a few photos.

Upper Waterton Lake - Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
At 8:10, I noticed the nearly-full moon rising. Although it was well above the eastern ridge (which is the southern ridge of Vimy Peak), I could visualize a photo, and took off walking as fast as I could across the campground to get the moon and some of the crags in position for a series of photos. Cathy is quite used to this sort of strange behaviour 🙂

Moon rising over Vimy Peak at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The view to the south from our campsite at 06:20 on Sunday morning. While having the campground only half full helped make it so wonderful, the sites are large enough that I think it would be reasonable even at capacity, which it is from late June until early September.

Townsite Campground at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The public washrooms in the Townsite Campground are notably nice – fairly new and spotlessly clean.

The public washrooms in the Townsite Campground, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Edith Peak that towered above us to the west had some interesting features that now stand out starkly above the burnt forest.

Edith Peak, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
On Saturday, I bought tickets for the 10:00 boat tour on Sunday. I took the next photo as we were walking to the boat, but I’ll tell you about the boat tour in the next post.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Back from the boat tour, we took Bella and Tucker back down to the lake for a while.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Just before 2:00, I left Cathy and Bella (and Molly) at the campground, and Tucker and I headed out in the Tracker to get some hiking done (it was too warm for Bella). They looked pretty comfortable as I left 🙂

Townsite Campground, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Cathy and I had stopped to read an interpretive panel about Kootenai Brown, and my first stop was that pullout, as I wanted to walk down to the graves of Brown and his two wives. This is the view back to the south (towards the townsite) from the pullout/trailhead.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The trail to the graves is only about 300 meters/yards long. We met a Parks Canada biologist doing plant succession studies in the fire zone.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
This entire area was burned.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The gravesite seems to have somehow escaped the fire. Brown’s headstone says “George Brown. Born 1839. Died 1916.” Brass plaques have been placed for his wives: “Olivia Lyonnais Brown, 1849 – 1884” and “Isabella Brown, 1856 (ca.) – 1935”.

Grave of George 'Kootenai

Grave of George 'Kootenai
The two main scenic drives within Waterton Lakes National Park, Red Rock Parkway and Akamina Parkway, are both closed due to the fire, but Red Rock is open for walking and biking for a ways (I wasn’t clear on how far), so it was going to be our main hike.

Red Rock Parkway, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
We started off on the trail beside the road…

Red Rock Parkway trail, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
…but then moved over to the road, since there were no vehicles on it.

Red Rock Parkway, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The views along this road certainly certainly firmed up the desire to return to Waterton when everything is open.

Red Rock Parkway, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Only 30 minutes from the car, our hike came to an end. The bear on the road showed no sign that he intended to leave, and 6 cyclists were trying to figure out how to get past him to return to their vehicles.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Tucker and I were back at the campground just after 4:00. As I was barbecuing steaks behind the RV out of the wind, six Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) joined us for dinner, grazing through our campsite for about half an hour. Twice during our stay, we had bighorn sheep graze by us.

Mule deer in the Townsite Campground at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The final thing we wanted to do on Sunday was see the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, the iconic lodge which sits high above the townsite with a panoramic view.

Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The interior of the hotel is gorgeous – a classic park lodge with huge timbers. According to the many reviews which give it mediocre or poor ratings, it also has few modern amenities, but a little research and/or the right attitude wouldn’t put people in a postion to be disappointed like that.

Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
When I looked out at the view, a photographer and several assistants were using the ever-present wind for some sort of fashion shoot.

Fashion photography at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
The views are stunning – over the townsite…

View from the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
…and a panorama of Vimy Peak and the other mountains along Upper Waterton Lake.

View
On Monday morning, we discussed at length whether to add another day to our stay at this incredible place. Bella and Tucker clearly weren’t finished with squirrel-watching 🙂 The final decision, though, was to continue on, mostly because we’re determined to return when everything is open, although we may never get weather like this again.

Townsite Campground, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Before leaving, Cathy drove over to the main shopping street while I walked around the townsite.

Waterton townsite, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
This former Texaco gas station was one of my favourite buildings in town. The business now sells and rents a wide variety of things, as well as gas. The gas, surprisingly, was very reasonable, at $1.329 – I had expected about 20 cents more, given the location.

Former Texaco gas station in the Waterton townsite, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
One final photo before we headed north, of the RCMP detachment.

RCMP detachment in the Waterton townsite, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

We didn’t have a firm plan as we drove towards Cochrane,where we had reservation starting on Wednesday – we’d stop for the free night wherever it felt right.




Comments

Discovering Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta — 7 Comments

  1. I had a grad student buddy about 20 years ago that cajoled me at length about how Waterton was the queen of all the parks, over Jasper, over Glacier over Yellowstone, over Grand Tetons (three that I had been too) – even over Yosemite NP…which I had grown up quite near too.
    He had gone on his honeymoon there and returned with his family ever 2-3 years. Over and over…

    I hope to find out myself one day if he was right or if it was just a matter of taste in western parks (all of which are magnificent in their own ways). And your’s and Cathy’s leaning in that direction…

    Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Our family has camped at Waterton since 1994 rarely missing a year. It is a place we enjoy hiking, canoeing (Cameron Lake), golfing, and biking. The campground is always well looked after but hard to get into during the peak season when there are no reservations.

  3. Just fantastic.

    Waterton has long been on my to-do list but everytime I am in Alberta, it seems like I always run out of time to get down there. It’s just too beautiful of an area to not, but I have long felt it takes a backseat to the other national parks in Alberta. Then again anyone I know who has been loved the small time charm and lack of business, so that might not be a bad thing!

    It was interesting that you tried to check out the Bison Paddock (even if it was closed outside of the side road). I have known about it for years and has to be a must do there, but it was fun to see it from your perspective. Plus the views you captured are mind blowing. The picture with the pond specifically looks like it could be on a calendar. It was too bad you couldn’t get any shots of Bison, but hopefully on your next trip you will be much luckier!

  4. You got to see stuff we didn’t get to see because of our schedule. If we ever go back I’m gonna allocate more time.

  5. …..When our son managed the Co-op there I was able visit this wonderful area a couple of times. I loved everything about Waterton including just getting to it. Since then I have been back several times with different tour groups. I enjoyed your remarks very much.

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