I don’t have many hikes on my bucket list, but Waterton’s Crypt Lake hike has always been one of them. I didn’t understand why this hike always seemed to make those “top hikes in Canada” lists, but I did know every time I took the Waterton Shoreline Cruise, I’d be envious of those hikers getting off at Crypt landing. Here’s an in-depth look at one of the most spectacular National Park hikes, plus everything you need to know before attempting it yourself.
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Crypt Lake hike
The Crypt Lake hike is a 17 km (11 miles) round trip, gaining 2300 ft (700 m) in elevation. It takes approximately six hours round trip, but budget a bit longer if you’re not a regular hiker. Rated moderate to difficult, you’ll see a lot of fair-weather hikers tackling the trail. It’s do-able if you’re not a regular hiker, but it is challenging. The hike is situated in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Interestingly, Waterton is the world’s first International Peace Park, twinned with Glacier National Park in the United States.
I think there’s a few reasons why the Crypt Lake trail is so famous. First, the trailhead is only accessible by boat from Upper Waterton Lake. How often do you see that? Then, as you gain altitude, you’ll traverse through 3 out of the 4 eco-regions in this area. And it’s an incredibly picturesque route, passing by several waterfalls as you make your way into the alpine.
Finally, the trail isn’t your usual uphill grind. Once you cross through an old campground, the hike really starts to get interesting, with crossing a creek on natural stepping stones, traversing across a scree slope, burrowing through a natural tunnel and clinging onto a cable as you gingerly step along a ledge. But we’ll get to all that shortly.
How to get to the Crypt Lake hike trailhead
There’s only one way to the trailhead and that’s by boat. If you’ve got your own, great. Most of us take the 10 minute boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake with the Shoreline Cruise company over to Crypt Landing. The boat ride is fun in itself and you’ll learn a lot about the area from tour guides.
Crypt Lake trail
The Crypt Lake trail begins with switchbacks through an old growth forest of fir and spruce, untouched by the 2017 Kenow wildfire. This first section feels very interior B.C., with thimble berries and ferns flanking the route.
Early on in the hike, you’ll come across a sign offering a detour to Hell Roaring Canyon. Doing so will add an extra 45 minutes to your trek. If you’ve got the energy, explore this diversion on your way down. For now, simply appreciate the sound of cascading water from Hell Roaring Falls.
At Burnt Rock Falls, the terrain morphs into the sub-alpine and you’ll be switchbacking your way up through some pretty rocky terrain. We took a snack break around here and watched a marmot scale up the escarpment, all the while calling out to his buds.
Crypt Lake trail really gets interesting once you hit a campground that’s no longer in use. You’ll cross a creek gingerly making your way across on natural stepping stones. Then there’s a scree slope to traverse across. Next up is a ladder leading you into a natural tunnel. You might have to take your backpack off in order to scurry through, but I’m 5’5” and had no trouble.
Then it’s onto a narrow cliff, where you may wish to make use of the cable some dear soul has affixed to the rock face. Mountain goats like to hang out around here.
Crypt Falls, a stunning, 600 ft single shoot wedged between Vimy Ridge and Mount Boswell is your reward after all that exciting work.
Then it’s an approximate 15-20 minute stroll into Crypt Lake on relatively flat ground. You’ll want to spend a bit of time resting, picnicking or even fishing lakeside. The opposite end of the lake is on the U.S. side of the border. When we went at the end of July, there were still some hefty snow patches covering the lake trail, but it is possible to clamber over them – for those who’re keen to say they made it to the United States without a passport.
After your rest, it’s a downhill shot back to the dock. Heading back, I thought we’d go much faster, but there’s enough scree (and people) on the trail that we only shaved half an hour off our ascent time.
Fishing at Crypt Lake
I’m no fisherwoman, but I can confirm my hiking buddy Devin Paxman caught not one, not two, but eight trout during our half hour sojourn at Crypt Lake. If you’ve got a fishing license (easily procured at Pat’s), bring your rod, tackle and a ziplock bag to take home your allotment of two fish – so long as they’re not cutthroat or bull trout.
Good to know
There are only two outhouses on this hike. One is right at the trailhead and the other is in the old campground – about 20-30 minutes from Crypt Lake. Neither had toilet paper or hand sanitizer when I visited.
You may want to snag tickets the night before to ensure you get on a 9 am or thereabouts departure.
Once you’re done your hike, sit on the dock to ensure you get the next boat out. It’s first come first served, so if you’re frolicking along the water’s edge and there’s a lot of people on the dock, you may not get not on – especially with boats running at 50% capacity during COVID. Nobody gets left behind though.
This is bear country. There have been plenty of bear ‘incidents” here over the years. But don’t freak out, there’s been bear incidents everywhere. We’re in their home, so be bear aware and for goodness sakes, take those bloody bells off your backpack – unless you fancy sounding like one of their favourite snacks (a marmot).
Feel free to bring your dog, so long as it’s leashed.
Consider that you may be so hot and sweaty after your hike that you may surprise yourself by plunging into Upper Waterton Lake afterwards. (Fun fact: there’s actually three Waterton Lakes.) You don’t think you’ll dive in, but then you see everyone else doing it, so be prepared.
What to pack
- Water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, first-aid kit, rain gear, layers, hat, whistle, bear spray, kleenex, a plastic bag for your garbage, you know all this…
- A buff or ear mask. Waterton is known as a windy place and it gets more intense the higher the altitude.
- Because you may not get on the return boat you wanted, pack some extra food so you don’t bonk.
- Definitely pack a swimsuit or don’t wear see through underwear. I was grateful I was wearing grey knickers and a sports bra beneath my hiking duds. As soon as we hit the docks, I peeled those sweaty garments off and dove into the lake. OK, gingerly shrieked my way in is more like it, but you get the point.
- If you think you’ll want to swim and don’t mind the weight, pack flip flops or water shoes. The rocks can be slippery, making it difficult to get out. I don’t think a towel would be worth packing though. Drying off in the breeze (there always is one) felt sublime.
Many thanks to Kris Robinson and Devin Paxman for showing me the way along this splendid hike!
Save these tips
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Have you ever been hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park? What’s your favourite hike in the region?
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