Have you ever been completely blown away by a destination? That was my experience on a recent trip to Waterton Lakes National Park. Even the scenery sneaks up on you here, as the Alberta prairies abruptly crash into the Rocky Mountains, leaving you with jaw-dropping views in every direction.

Waterton Lakes National Park is often overshadowed by Alberta’s bigger national parks, Banff and Jasper. In fact, many people (including Canadians) have never even heard of it, even though it’s only a 3-hour drive south from Calgary. But this year of travel-local is changing that, as many nearby Canadians, like me, are making a first-time visit. From what I discovered, hands-down, Waterton Lakes National Park should be on your family go-to list.

The Perfect Place to Get Out On the Water

As you may have guessed, Waterton Lakes National Park has lots of water. The Waterton Lakes Chain consists of over 100 kilometres of rivers and 80 lakes. The three major lakes are easily accessible for water sports–the townsite is located on the large Upper Lake (which stretches across the US border into Glacier National Park), and the Park road runs along the Middle and Lower Lakes. Emerald Bay is beautiful and calm, and Linnet Lake is another sheltered choice.

Kate on the SUP in Emerald Bay – credit Kate Robertson

You can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards at Pat’s Waterton, the “old gas station” (they preserved the old-style pumps when they renovated), now known as the “go-to” place for rentals, souvenirs and confectionary items (tip: that fresh popcorn scent you can smell wafting through town, buy it here).

The Waterton Lakes are cold, due to being snowpack-fed, which is good motivation not to fall in if you’re on a SUP. If you or your kids are beginners, probably best to rent a kayak.

Wildlife Sightings in Waterton Lakes National Park

Deer strolling across the main street in Waterton – credit Kate Robertson

Because the prairie grasslands suddenly meet the Rockies here, there’s an overlap of biomes, which makes Waterton Lakes a hotbed of animal diversity. Wildlife sightings are the norm, rather than the off-chance, including large mammals like bears and moose. Deer and bighorn sheep often roam right through the townsite. The lake chain is also an essential stopover for over 250 species of migrating birds, including swans and rosy-finches.

Hiking in the Rocky Mountains

View over Waterton townsite and down Upper Lake, into Montana’s Glacier National Park – credit Kate Robertson

With 255 kilometres of trails in Waterton Lakes National Park, there’s a hike for every ability. I really liked the heart-pumping Bear’s Hump Trail, a short (straight) up and down hike which is well worth it for the views of the townsite and all the way down Upper Lake to the Montana peaks. Due to the 2017 fire that ravaged this side of the valley, Bear’s Hump trail was closed for repair until earlier this year,  but also due to the fire which burnt a lot of the bigger trees, there’s a view from every hairpin switchback, including a stellar view of the iconic Prince of Wales hotel.

Coming out the other side of the tunnel on the Crypt Lake trail hike – credit Kate Robertson

I also recommend the Crypt Lake Trail (although if you have young children, you might not make it to the lake at the top), a longer day hike, which is unique on a lot of different levels. To get to the trailhead, you need to take a boat ride with the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. ($28.00 covers the trip there and back). The trail immediately heads up-mountain, through lush mountain forest, before hitting sub-alpine terrain where you have some stunning views of waterfalls and down the canyon towards the lake. Before you get to the lake at the top, you need to crouch-walk your way through a natural tunnel, up a ladder and along a narrow ridge, as you hang on to a guidewire (it sounds scarier than it is). Just a short distance on from this obstacle course, you will arrive at Crypt Lake.

Cycling the Trails

A bike stop to view the wildflowers on the Kutenai Brown multi-use trail – credit Kate Robertson

There are some fantastic paved, multi-use cycling trails (Pat’s Waterton has bike rentals, including e-bikes) in the Park. My favourite was the Kutenai Brown, a paved 6.9-kilometre multi-use trail that borders the lakes and passes through grasslands filled with wildflowers. Waterton is known as the wildflower capital of Canada (they have a Wildflower Festival in June). There are more than 1,000 vascular plant species in the Park, including half of all the wildflower species found in Alberta, with 175 listed as rare. Twenty are found only in Waterton.

Horseback Trail Riding

Riding the ridge across from Alpine Stables – credit Kate Robertson

Located within the Park gates, Alpine Stables has access to over 200 kilometres of trails. They have been operating since 1969, although they were closed for a couple of years after the 2017 wildfire, as they rebuilt their stable. With a stock of 50 mountain horses, there’s one for any ability, so even if your child has never been riding, this is the perfect learning experience (for ages five and up).

My guide was a wealth of information, and as we rode along the ridge across the highway, with the strong wind blowing through my horse’s mane, she pointed out local landmarks and flora.

Learn About the Night Skies

Waterton has been recognized as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, and when you see how little light pollution there is, you will soon see why. You will want to book a night hike with a local guide from Dark Sky Guides who will point out the astrological highlights. If you’ve never hiked in the dark, I can vouch for the fact that it’s a blast (don’t worry–you’ll be provided with headlamps to help you navigate!).

Waterton night skies – credit Kris Robinson-Dark Sky Guides

Summer is the best time to see the Milky Way, but there are different constellations visible throughout the year, so as long as it’s not cloudy, it’s a certainty you’ll see something interesting. Dark Sky Guides is also in the process of opening a planetarium just outside the Park gates, which should be open within the next few months.

Clearly, Waterton Lakes has a ton of fun activities for the whole family. With the outdoors being one of the safest places to be during these COVID-19 days, could this be your next “travel-local” getaway?

When you go:

The motel where I stayed – credit Kate Robertson

For a small town, there are a lot of accommodation options here, from the historic Prince of Wales to the basic-but-cute retro motel, Bear Mountain Motel, where I stayed.

The same goes for dining choices.  I can vouch for the house-made tacos at The Taco Bar (get there as early as possible, though, if you want their famous guacamole—it sells out fast). And the Lakeside Chophouse has a fun patio overlooking the lake, good food and yummy caesars—the ones with a garnish that eats like a meal.

The hearty caesar at Lakeside Chophouse – credit Kate Robertson

For more Waterton Lakes National Park tourist info, go to My Waterton.

Waterton Lakes National Park hosted the author. They did not review this story.