Is there a special place you retreat to with your family or spouse? For us it’s Waterton Lakes National Park, a place we don’t get to as often as we like, but make sure to explore at least once a year. Fall is probably my favourite time to visit because there’s just so many things to do in Waterton at this time of year without the crowds.
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At the end of summer and even up until Canadian Thanksgiving, the weather in Waterton is idyllic. Many hiking trails remain open (including Crypt Lake, Bertha and Lakeshore), and the town is completely up and running. Yet no one seems to know it. Waterton in September and October feels quiet – despite having amazing off-season rates ($140 for a Saturday night, anyone?).
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Things to do in Waterton
There’s a lot of fun, active things to do in Waterton that don’t involve lacing up hiking boots. Back when The Huz (pre Huz) and I were dating, we’d bomb down to Waterton in my little red car. No AC. The Cure playing on cassette tape.
It was our secret mountain escape that was affordable and of course, being a mountain resort town, it was just so pretty with some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies.
Fast forward a few decades and Waterton has become a special spot not just for us, but for our family. When you visit in autumn, all the shops and restaurants are still open, but it feels like you have the entire National Park to yourself. From exploring the townsite on e-bikes to cruising into the U.S. to tucking into afternoon tea, here’s a look at my favourite things to do in Waterton Lakes.
The tourist crowds leave Waterton en mass after the September long weekend. Maybe that’s why we saw so many critters poking their heads out. When the crowds are away, the wildlife come out to play!
On the drive down, we spotted a mama deer with two fawns (with adorable Bambi spots) and an owl in the grass. Then there were more deer munching on someone’s front lawn right in the townsite.
That was a good warm up for big game spotting: a mama bear and cub on the golf course (they were on the tee box when we were on the green. Yeah, we finished our puts pretty quickly). If you’re really into animals, the Waterton Wildlife Weekend typically takes on a mid-September weekend.
Waterton bike rentals
We always stop at Pat’s, a gas station-cum-mercantile-cum-rental shop. Usually we’re here for the popcorn, but when you’re in Waterton, you want to get some bike rentals to explore the town, and Pat’s is known for their family friendly 4-wheeled surrey bikes.
Now Pat’s has electric bike (E-bike) rentals, and we were keen to test them out. Note: you need to be at least 16-years-old to rent an E-bike, but they have ones with a wooden seat kids can ride on the back of.
Being on an E-bike definitely took some getting used to. They’re heavier and have fat tires like those winter bikes. Once I got the hang of it though, I was totally loving it. No more no grunting up steep hills. We effortlessly got up to the Prince of Wales Hotel and then carried onto Red Rock Canyon.
What’s great about Red Rock right now is that the road is only open to hikers and bikers. We had an entire paved road to ourself and could’ve ridden six abreast. We ended up doing a 50 km loop in under two-hours. Talk about exhilarating!
I probably only cycled about 10 km on my own power, but we covered so much more ground – sans sweat! On the way back to town, I mastered the throttle and my eBike turned into a scooter. So. Much. Fun.
You can bring your own bikes to Red Rock (ideally road bikes because, well, it’s a road), and kids would love this route, too. You can rent regular bikes at Pat’s if you don’t want to bring yours.
Horseback Riding in Waterton
Just before you hit the town, you’ll spot Alpine Stables on the left. This is the place to be if you want to go horseback riding in Waterton. They’ve been a part of the Park for over 50 years and several generations of the same family continue to work there.
Trail rides can be done by anyone five years and older – no experience necessary. There’s a variety of horseback riding tours you can do, from one hour to full day. Helmets are provided and the horses were both well-trained and super gentle.
Because our day was so jam packed, we went with the one hour tour, which was perfect. Not too long that your knees, butt and legs are going to ache, and not too short that you don’t get to take in all of the best views. Our tour took us up on the ridge by the Warden compound.
We were treated to magnificent views of the Prince of Wales Hotel before heading back towards the lake. The trail went right up to the lake, alongside it and through Camp Columbus (where Eve goes for a super lovely, affordable summer camp), before winding back to the stables through a grassy meadow.
You can’t go to a Park called Waterton Lakes and not actually go on the Waterton Lakes cruise, now can you? Actually, until this trip, I’d never been on one of their famous boat tours. We’re usually in town for something specific like hiking or more likely, camp drop off, so I was excited.
Since these cruise trips go to end of Waterton Lake, which is on the U.S. side, I always thought I needed my passport. You don’t.
Because Waterton Lakes National Park joined with Montana’s Glacier National Park in 1932 to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (the first of its kind in the world), they have all these special agreements in place. In this day and age, it felt so nice and neighbourly.
Our Waterton Cruise was a little over two hours long aboard a 90-year-old wooden ship built specifically for this lake. It’s a peaceful way to see the Waterton’s famous mountains – Bertha and Vimy – from a different perspective. After about an hour, you reach the end of the lake and get off at Goat Haunt, which is in the United States in Glacier National Park.
A Park Ranger gives some info for those who are into it, and there’s time to stroll along the American shore. Spoiler alert: it’s not so different than the Canadian shoreline.
Waterton Park Golf
Confession: I’m not much of a golfer, but I’ll do pretty much anything once a decade. Naturally, Waterton Lakes National Park is famed for their 18-hole golf course.
The views as you can see below, are incredible, and remain stunning throughout the entire course. What’s more, Waterton Lakes Golf Course is accessible and very forgiving to inexperienced golfers such as myself.
What stood out for me wasn’t that we watched a mama bear and her club scamper off the 15th hole. It’s that this is a Stanley Thompson designed course – the same dude who designed the courses at both Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
So the course has a famous design, you’re in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by epic views and it’s only $50 to play ($75 with a cart). Compare that to the green fees in Canmore, Banff or any other course in National Park and you tell me this isn’t amazing value.
Try to time it so you can have a meal at the clubhouse (including breakfast). They make their own burgers and grill them on the massive outdoor patio. Both the turkey and beef are roasted in-house and they’re not shy on portion sizes.
There’s a good selection of Waterton restaurants, but as The Huz used to live here he’s fussy about where we dine. For nostalgia, breakfast has to be done at Pearl’s. This cafe serves up fancy French toast, eggs benny and hearty breakfast sandwiches. I’m going through biscuit phase and adored the sausage and egger inside a buttermilk biscuit.
Windflower Cafe is a choice spot for barista-style coffees, breakfast sandwiches and baked goods. Waffleton has both buttermilk waffles and the heavier Liege, Belgian-style waffles made with pearls of sugar that caramelize. It’s hard to find these, so make the stop.
For lunch, I’m a fan of both the tacos and slow carb bowl at the Taco Bar. I pimp out my slow carb bowl with chicken, black beans, spinach and house-made salsa and I’m completely satisfied for hours. The clubhouse at the golf course (as mentioned above) is another hidden gem.
For an upscale restaurant meal, dine at Lakeside Chophouse inside the Bayshore Inn. You can’t beat these views – an entire wall of windows looks out into Waterton Lake. They serve up more sophisticated eats such as a tuna stack or tomato and bison carpaccio.
For mains there are AAA AB steaks aged 28 days, lingcod and a decadent spaghetti and meatballs smothered in a truffle cream sauce (that was my fave).
In Waterton, there’s only two hotels open throughout the year and Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort is one of them. Our room was mere steps away from the taco joint. The hotel is also across the street from Waterton Park, a really lovely playground with loads of equipment and four tennis courts. Head here after the September long weekend for amazing winter rates.
Another bonus of staying at Waterton Lakes Lodge is it houses the only indoor pool and hot tub in town. Our pet friendly room had a little patio where we could sit and have a glass of wine while looking up at the mountains. Vimy’s Lounge is their eatery and they have a daily pasta special, plus some healthy options for meals.
One hotel that I have never stayed out, but deserve a shout out for it’s historic presence and atmosphere is the Prince of Wales Hotel. Even if you don’t stay overnight, you might want to pop in for their traditional afternoon tea.
We were so busy exploring and with our activities that we spent we spent very little time in our room. Each night I’d fall into bed exhausted, asleep before I found out who won Chopped Grill Masters. I suppose being outdoors all day, inhaling the mountain air, working those brain neutrons with new experiences will do that to you. Still, I returned to Calgary well rested and feeling like I’d accomplished a lot.
Like me, you may not have gotten around to doing all the great things you wanted to this summer. Luckily, we still have a few weeks left to nail those bucket list items. If you’re looking for a quiet and affordable mountain getaway, take this as your cue to head to Waterton.
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Have you ever been to Waterton? What are your favourite activities to do there?