Of all the places you could explore in Alberta, Waterton Lakes National Park still is one of the most underrated. Sure, it gets plenty of visitors during summer weekends, but you’ll often find vacancies on weekdays. If you’re wondering what to do in Waterton, where to eat and stay, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s a game plan for a perfect two day escape to Waterton Lakes National Park.
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What to do in Waterton
Before you figure out what to in Waterton, you’ve got to get your bearings. Do this at Pat’s Waterton. It’s the gas station on main street, but it’s so much more than that. Here, you can score kayak, SUP and bike rentals – both mountain, e-bike and those cool looking surrey bikes that seat four. They’ve got souvenirs, firewood, fishing tackle and licenses, too.
Just like at the Parks Canada Visitor’s Center, you can talk to friendly staff (like my new BFF Layton) about what you want to do. I was tempted to try out their paddle boards, but in the end went for an e-Bike.
After hitting Pat’s you may want to hit the water, since this National Park is named after three lakes and all. Waterton is an International Peace Park – twinned with Glacier National Park. When the US/Canada border is open, you can take a boat tour with Shoreline Cruises to the end of Upper Waterton Lake, get off the boat and wander around Montana’s Glacier National Park. You still can (and should) take this Waterton Lake boat cruise, they just can’t let you off if the border is closed.
Biking in Waterton
There’s a lovely paved trail along the upper and middle Waterton Lakes that begs to be explored by bike. The road to newly re-opened Red Rock Canyon is also a superb bike ride, but you’ll want to do that one when there aren’t many cars (early morning, perhaps?). There’s no shoulder on the Red Rock Parkway, so if you’re not an experienced road biker, it feels a little tight.
Because I was visiting on a busier day, Layton from Pat’s recommended I take the old Chief Mountain Highway up to Two Flag Lookout. It turned out to be a brilliant suggestion. From the townsite, you follow the paved trail that hugs the Upper, Middle and Lower Waterton Lakes.
Because of the 2017 wildfire, wildflowers don’t have to compete with centuries old undergrowth. I’ve never seen so many wildflowers and their heady scent floated on the warm breeze during my entire ride.
The e-Bike turned out to be a brilliant rental as Two Flag Lookout is up, up, up a hill – about a five minute drive from the US border crossing. When the going got tough, I simply kicked ‘er into gear and spent my time soaking up the views of Mount Vimy instead of cursing the sad state of my quads.
Bears Hump Waterton
Bears Hump just might be the most popular hike in Waterton. It reopened this summer after Parks Canada did some significant trail repairs after the Kenow wildfire. It’s only a 2.8 km round trip, but you gain 250 m in elevation. I reckon it’s the steepest, shortest hike with the biggest rewards in all of the Canadian Rockies.
If you’re reasonably fit, it takes less than half an hour to climb. Once you get to the hump, you’ll be glad you expended the effort. It’s unlikely you’ll find better views of Upper Waterton Lake from anywhere else. Better yet, Waterton townsite is spread out like a tiny toy village beneath your gaze.
Do the Crypt Lake hike
Of all the hiking trails in Waterton, the Crypt Lake hike should be on your radar. This jaunt is a perennial addition to those “best hikes in Canada” lists. There’s a few reasons for that.
- It’s incredibly diverse – both in terms of geography and hiking skills put to the test.
- It’s extremely picturesque.
- To access the hike, you need to take the Shoreline Cruise over to the trailhead.
The Crypt Lake hike is about a 17 km round trip with an elevation gain of 700 m or 2300 ft. This is one of those – the journey is just as good as the destination, as the lake itself is kind of meh. Crypt Lake is nice and all, but this hike isn’t famous because the lake is such a looker. It’s famous because of it’s winning personality along the way.
Take a dark sky tour
Waterton became an International Dark Sky Park in 2017. If you’re one of those night sky ninjas, you probably already know it’s the world’s first transnational international dark sky park spanning two countries. I learned this through Dark Sky Guides a fabulous group of activity guides who run dark sky excursions out by Blakiston Falls. It’s so good, it even won Travel Alberta’s new experience of the year.
Reader, I spend pretty much every summer weekend in the Rockies near Banff (read: also not a lot of light pollution), but I have NEVER seen skies like these. It was like I was under an arched planetarium dome except these skies were real, and I legit saw the streaky marks of the Milky Way.
It was utterly relaxing. I thought I’d be majorly grumpy the next day because the tour goes past midnight, but I wasn’t! I was truly happy I went.
Places to eat in Waterton
Waterton has quite a few fun places to eat. For a quick brunch bite, I’m partial to Waffelton and just a few doors down is Weiners of Waterton. Naturally they specialize in pimped out hot dogs, but their falafel and on-tap kombucha was a lovely surprise.
The one restaurant I return to each and every time I’m in town is The Taco Bar. It’s seriously good and you can find my new BFF Layton working there in the summer months. When I’m on one of my ridiculous cleanses, I get the taco bowl – chock full of beans, greens and protein. It’s completely satisfying while being hella healthy at the same time. Recently I went with the big burrito (with extra sour cream) on a cheese tortilla at Layton’s recommendation. Swoon!
For traditional restaurant action, Pearl’s Cafe is always a good choice and they made me a perfect picnic lunch (chicken salad with brie and apples) to take hiking. For dinner, Lakeside Chophouse is the kind of place where you can get a cauliflower steak or a reserved Alberta Angus steak aged for 32 days. My favourite dish on their menu, however, is the gnocchi – plump pillows of doughy goodness enveloped in a creamy pesto sauce – so decadent you’ll want to share.
Trappers Mountain Grill is another go-to. I found their prices and portions for breakfast to be utterly reasonable. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did. Even my friend commented on how much she enjoyed her breakfast, too.
Where to stay in Waterton
For the past few year’s I’ve stayed at either Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort or the Bayshore Inn. Some of the rooms at the Bayshore Inn have been renovated, so definitely try and snag one of those. This hotel hugs Upper Waterton Lake, so you couldn’t ask for a better location.
The Prince of Wales Hotel is usually inundated with tour groups, but not this summer! If ever there was a time to rest your head in this historic property, now would be it. Even if you’re day tripping, step inside to check it out and consider staying for afternoon tea if you’re peckish.
Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort sports the only pool in town. It has pleasant guest rooms and used to be across the street from a lovely playground, but now that space is being developed for the new Parks Canada Visitor’s Centre. Everything in Waterton is so close by though, it’s no trouble to walk the five minutes to any restaurant, pub, path or park.
And that’s the charm of Waterton Lakes National Park. You’ve got everything you could possibly want in a mountain resort town right at your fingertips. While the secret’s out, it hasn’t spread that far. I’d be surposed if you didn’t find vacancy on summer weekdays and early fall weekends.
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Have you ever been to Waterton? What’s your favourite thing to do in Waterton Lakes National Park?