Anywhere else, the flat-out gorgeous scenery of Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park would surely be a crowning glory.
Billed as the spot where Canada’s rolling prairies meet its magnificent mountains, Waterton is a wonderland of craggy cliffs, sapphire-blue lakes, and roaring waterfalls.
But the Southern Alberta national park has some tough competition.
Not only does America’s “Crown of the Continent” -- Glacier National Park -- lie just an hour or so south across the border in Montana, but Alberta’s Banff National Park, with its signature turquoise-blue lakes and lofty peaks, is a 3.5-hour drive to the northwest.
The stiff competition is the only reason I can fathom for Waterton Lakes National Park’s status as Canada’s best-kept secret.
The park’s reputation as a somewhat lesser-known treasure seems accurate from my experience. In fact, I became aware of Waterton Lakes National Park only because I was researching attractions near Glacier National Park.
But as soon as I spotted the photos of Waterton Lakes and its signature hotel, the Prince of Wales, I couldn’t imagine a trip to the region without a quick jaunt across the border to Glacier’s sister park.
I learned that Waterton has been linked to Glacier since the 1930s through the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. The world’s first International Peace Park, the landmark is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The parks certainly complement one another -- offering somewhat similar scenery, but two distinct experiences.
While I loved the glaciers, wildflowers, and lakes of Glacier National Park, my short detour to Waterton Lakes was a highlight of my epic national park road trip.
Waterton Lakes National Park is easily accessible from Glacier National Park along U.S. Routes 89 and 17. The drive from Saint Mary in East Glacier takes just over an hour. Remember that you will have to cross the U.S.-Canada border, so you’ll need your passport. The nearest major airport is in Calgary, Alberta, about 3 hours north of Waterton Lakes.
Pro Tip: For great wildflower viewing, plan your trip for late spring or early summer, when visitors can expect to see 20 to 30 species, including Waterton’s signature beargrass. The annual Waterton Wildflower Festival takes place in June.
What To Do In Waterton Lakes National Park
For me, part of the charm of Waterton Lakes is its hidden-gem quality. Although Glacier was teeming with hikers and sightseers when I visited in the middle of the summer, I found Waterton to be more laid-back, with less traffic and fewer crowds.
And the scenery is arguably comparable, from the glass-like surface of Waterton Lake to the network of trails with views that never quit.
Here are just a few memorable things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park.
Snap A Photo Of The Prince Of Wales Hotel
To be honest, it was a photo of the Prince of Wales Hotel -- with its stately gables and peaked roof standing alone on a grassy bluff -- that first captured my imagination. The lakes looked amazing, too, but Waterton Lakes National Park had me at the Prince of Wales.
Any trip to Waterton should include a stop at the hotel -- if not for a stay, then for a drink in the charming lounge, afternoon tea in the high-ceilinged lobby, or dinner in the lakeside dining room.
When I arrived, a harpist was playing softly from a corner, and people were chatting and mingling in the lobby, looking out onto the blue, blue waters of Waterton Lake. It was an unforgettable scene.
Between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., a traditional afternoon tea is served in the lobby, featuring a selection of teas, sandwich squares, and pastries. It’s a great way to relax and refresh after a day of sightseeing or hiking.
If you do stay the night, be sure to take in one of the evening talks by the knowledgeable kilt-clad bellmen, who offer tidbits about the history of the hotel (including the requisite ghost story), which was built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway.
Take An International Cruise
For views of two countries on a single boat ride, check out the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co.’s 2-hour cruise through the lake country of Alberta and Montana.
From the deck of the classic M.V. International, cruisers take in towering snowclad mountains, ragged cliffs, and thundering waterfalls, along with bald eagles, bears, moose, and mountain goats.
A highlight of the trip is the crossing of the international border into Goat Haunt, the northern gateway to Glacier National Park in Montana. Cruisers are allowed to disembark for a brief tour of the visitor center in the remote section of Glacier. Because Goat Haunt is a U.S. Port of Entry, hikers who plan to stay beyond the half-hour stop must pre-clear U.S. Customs before boarding the tour boat.
Pick A Hike
With 120 miles of trails to choose from, Waterton Lakes offers hikes ranging from easy to difficult.
For an easy jaunt that will earn you great vantage points for viewing the iconic hotel, try the Prince of Wales Trail, a 1.2-mile route that loops around the hill below the hotel and offers views of the Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes. The elevation gain is minimal, and the loop takes about 45 minutes to complete.
Another easy walk is the 2-mile Townsite Loop, a paved path around the community of Waterton, which follows the shore of the Upper Waterton Lake and Emerald Bay. The mostly flat route takes about an hour to complete.
For a moderate hike with some of the best views around, check out the Bear’s Hump Trail. The 1.8-mile round-trip trail climbs steeply for more than 700 feet and emerges onto a summit that offers sweeping views of the lake and the Prince of Wales. (Note that Bear’s Hump has been closed in recent years because of damage from the 2017 Kenow Wildfire, but repairs are said to be underway.)
Fit and adventurous hikers might want to try the ultimate Waterton adventure -- the 10.7-mile Crypt Trail, which starts with a 15-minute boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake and involves a trek past spectacular mountain views and waterfalls. The trail requires steep climbs and traversing a narrow tunnel, includes more than 2,200 feet in elevation gain, and takes about 6 hours to complete.
Take A Scenic Drive Or Bike Ride
While almost anywhere you drive in Waterton is likely to be scenic, the national park’s website recommends the Entrance Parkway, which runs from the park gate to the Townsite and passes by the Prince of Wales, and the Akamina Parkway, a winding 10-mile route that starts in the Waterton Townsite and ends at scenic Cameron Lake.
You could also opt to bike the Red Rock Parkway, a 9-mile route that passes by numerous scenic overlooks and through rolling grasslands. Bikes, surreys, electric bikes, and kayaks are available for rent at Pat’s Waterton.
The surreys and bikes also offer a great way to explore the charming town of Waterton, with its many shops, bars, and restaurants.
Eating And Drinking In Waterton Lakes National Park
Fireside Lounge & Wine Bar
For a glass of wine with a lake view, check out the rustic Fireside Lounge & Wine Bar, a cozy and intimate spot located at the Bayshore Inn. Also located at the Inn is the Lakeside Chophouse, where signature menu items include Alberta beef and wild game, such as a bison rib eye and a prime rib burger.
Trappers Mountain Grill
Featuring authentic barbecue and house-smoked meats and trout, Trappers Mountain Grill is a Waterton mainstay. Along with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant offers an adjoining gift shop for unique souvenirs.
Where To Stay In Waterton Lakes National Park
Prince of Wales Hotel
If Waterton’s most photographed feature is calling your name, definitely budget for a night or two at the historic and picturesque Prince of Wales Hotel. For me, it was worth the splurge because of the singular ambience.
It is important to note, however, that the vintage building comes with a few challenges, such as a single, cramped elevator that requires a bellman for operation, and guest rooms that are a bit on the small side.
Waterton Glacier Suites
Located in the midst of the Waterton Townsite, Waterton Glacier Suites features suites with balconies, fireplaces, and spa bathtubs. Its peaceful setting is surrounded by the mountains of Waterton Lakes National Park and is a 10-minute walk from the scenic Cameron Falls.
For a classic bed and breakfast experience in a historic setting, try the Northland Lodge, a vintage site that the Prince of Wales Hotel owner developed as his personal residence in 1928. The building was sold and converted into the Northland Lodge in 1948. Today, it offers a number of unique guest rooms, along with a breakfast featuring homemade muffins and Saskatoon berry jam.