Discover Waterton Lakes National Park, jewel of the Rockies
This stunning park isn't as famous as Banff and Jasper, but it has every reason to be.
Waterton Lakes National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the Rocky Mountains – although such a claim is difficult to make in such a stunning part of the world. Waterton, which refers both to the park and the little village that exists at its center, is located in the southwest corner of Alberta, Canada, bordering Montana. It is where the prairie meets the mountains, quite literally; there are no foothills, which is what makes this landscape so unusual.
Waterton is a special place for many reasons. It is the Canadian side of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, created in 1932 to commemorate feelings of peace and goodwill between Canada and the United States. Its practical objective is to transcend political boundaries in order to better manage shared ecosystems.
The idea for an International Peace Park came from two men, an American park ranger named Henry “Death on the Trail” Reynolds and a Canadian park official named John “Kootenai” Brown, who met at the beginning of the 20th century and believed that this part of the world should never be divided. From the Parks Canada website:
“Brown and Reynolds recognized both parks share the same geology, climate, wildlife and ecology, and should be managed as one protected area. Reynolds had a memorable quote on the matter when he said: ‘The geology recognizes no boundaries, and as the lake lay… no manmade boundary could cleave the waters apart’.”
The International Peace Park has since been designated a United Nations World Heritage site.
I was fortunate to visit Waterton this past summer, while camping in the Canadian Rockies with my family. We were struck by the jaw-dropping beauty, the abundance of wildlife, and, of course, the chilly wind that nearly blew our tent away. Apparently Waterton is the windiest place in North America, with average daily wind speeds of 30 kilometers per hour (18.6 mph) and frequent gusts that reach 100 kph (62 mph), so be sure to dress warmly if you ever visit.
One of the highlights was the boat ride we took to the end of Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. The two-hour trip crossed the U.S. border, where you can see a hand-cut swath of forest climb the mountains on either side of the lake, in order to demarcate the national boundary.
© K Martinko -- The International, moored at the dock, waiting for tourists to re-embark at Goat Haunt, MT
We disembarked at Goat Haunt, Montana, home to a single ranger station that, other than our boat, can only be accessed by hiking through Glacier National Park. Canadians were allowed to explore the beach, but had to show passports in order to pass the most rustic-looking Homeland Security checkpoint I’ve ever seen – literally, a picnic table set up in the middle of nowhere.
© K Martinko -- Homeland Security set up at Goat Haunt, MT... literally, a picnic table in the middle of nowhere
© K Martinko -- Boarding 'The International,' with Waterton's iconic Prince of Wales hotel in the background
The hiking in Waterton is famous, but because my husband and I were travelling with young children, we were limited by what we could do. The best climb was the short Bear’s Hump Trail (2.8 km/1.7 mi) that goes straight up from the Visitor’s Centre to a spectacular lookout over the village of Waterton. Someday I hope to return to do a longer, multi-day hike through the mountains.
© K Martinko - A view of the Waterton townsite from the top of the Bear's Hump Trail
Red Rock Canyon is another beautiful place, particularly great for kids. This canyon of bright red, pink, and green mineral-tinged rock is located at the end of a narrow, winding road through a valley that’s teeming with wildlife. We spotted a foraging black bear and coyote, and heard reports of several grizzlies in the area, though sadly we didn’t see any.
© K Martinko -- A view of Red Rock Canyon from the bridge that crosses it
© K Martinko - Another view of Red Rock Canyon
Waterton even boasts a bison paddock, a very large fenced area of prairie where a herd of bison roams. There is a narrow paved road that winds through the paddock, allowing drivers to observe these magnificent animals up close.
We went through in the evening, as dusk was starting to fall. Much to our initial delight, and eventual frustration, we found ourselves in a bison ‘jam’. The entire herd was parked comfortably in the middle of the road, totally uninterested in moving. The line of cars grew and time ticked on; the road was too narrow to turn around, so we waited at least 45 minutes before enough bison moved to the side. They are massive, majestic creatures – not something anybody felt like honking a horn at; and in that breathtaking setting, it would hardly feel appropriate.
© K Martinko - Stuck in a bison jam in the Waterton Park paddock
I often think of Waterton and dream of my return. Like so many mountainous regions, it’s the kind of place that permanently lodges in one’s heart, bringing to mind a quote by John Muir: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” May you be able to visit it someday, too.