Photo: Hotel on cliff in Waterton Lakes National Park
The Prince of Wales Hotel overlooks Waterton Lake.

Photograph by Lowell Georgia, National Geographic

Location: Alberta

Date Established: 1895

Size: 124,788 acres

The deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies (444 feet) and the first oil well in western Canada (1902) are both found in Waterton, a small park named in honor of English naturalist Charles Waterton. Set in a region renowned for its winds, Waterton has special significance as the Canadian portion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Park Facts

Border Park Waterton sits in the extreme southwestern corner of Alberta, sharing boundaries with British Columbia and Montana in the United States. It’s “where the mountains meet the prairies,” as locals like to say. Indeed, lush native grassland rolls right up to the colorful peaks, which have been carved from sedimentary rock well over a billion years old.

Picture Perfect With its outstanding scenery, sunny weather, easygoing wildlife, and picturesque wind-raked trees, Waterton is a photographer’s paradise. The park’s isolation, far from any urban center and off the beaten track, keeps the crowds small.

Hikes and Bikes All three of the Waterton Lakes lie along the entry road. Other paved routes provide quick access to park highlights. One of the hiking trails is world famous, while mountain bikers will find several trails open to them, too.

How to Get There

The closest international airport is located at Calgary, 158 miles away. From Calgary, take Hwy. 2 to Fort Macleod (102 miles), then turn west along Hwy. 3 for 60 miles to Pincher Creek, where Hwy. 6 runs southward for 31 very scenic miles to the park gate. Hwy. 5 continues another 5.3 miles to the “townsite” of Waterton Park, as Parks Canada describes the in-park community, summer population about 2,500. From east or west, take Hwy. 3 to Pincher Creek.

From the United States, you can enter the park directly. Take Mont. 17 north to the Chief Mountain border crossing and continue into Alberta on Hwy. 6. Be sure to inquire in advance of your visit for the Canadian post’s hours of operation and seasonal closures.

When to Go

Waterton is open year-round, but windy weather discourages visitors in winter. Few services are available in the park between October and May, when some roads are subject to closure and the townsite population drops to fewer than 40.

Spring arrives in early May. The park is busiest in July and August, when daytime temperatures reach over 70ºF and may hit the mid-90sºF.

Low-elevation wildflowers are at their best in June, while the high country above tree line is most colorful in mid-July. Waterton’s many aspen groves paint the valley floors and lower slopes brilliantly yellow in September.

How to Visit

You’ll want a full day to tour the park’s three byways, so get an early start. Morning light on the mountain front is a spectacle best appreciated from the Waterton Valley viewpoint along the Chief Mountain Highway (Hwy. 6) in the eastern part of the park.

Return to the townsite for brunch and enjoy a breezy stroll along the shore of Upper Waterton Lake. The M.V. International and other passenger vessels cruise the lake. Since the waves may get bigger as the day goes by, morning is a good time to take the two-hour-plus cruise boat ride down the lake and back.

Then head up scenic Red Rock Parkway to Red Rock Canyon. The canyon is aptly named, very photogenic, and great fun for the kids.

End your day by taking the Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake to see stately peaks resplendent in the afternoon sun. The lake offers a smashing view to craggy peaks at the far end, just across the international boundary, plus rare botanical delights along the shoreline.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada

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