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Canada’s Wonderful Waterton Lakes National Park
By Charlie Shugart Jr.
In the Canadian Rockies, Alberta’s Banff and Jasper national parks get most of the glory and almost all the visitors. And that’s fair because they are world-class destinations, plus they’re known throughout the world. But there’s another national park to the south, resting against the United States border and Glacier National Park. It is Waterton Lakes.
Waterton Lakes National Park hugs the borders of Montana and the Province of British Columbia. It’s just on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, and combines elements of high mountains with sheer vertical walls, plus the western edge of the Great Plains. This is the narrowest section of the entire Rocky Mountain Range, so Pacific Ocean weather sweeps across and through the mountains with considerable gusto. The most distinguishing characteristic of this combination is fierce wind much of the time. Also, the cold mountain air is heavier than the warmer air of the prairies, so it rushes down the canyons, across the upper lake and out into the plains. That’s a fact, but don’t let it keep you from visiting this special place.
The area became a national park in 1895. In 1932 Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was formed as a tribute to the peaceful and friendly relationship between Canadians and Americans. In 1995 thepark was declared a World Heritage Site.
There is only one village—Waterton Park Townsite—but it offers restaurants, motels, camping, and boat tours from the lakeside dock. Taking the sight seeing boat down the length of Upper Waterton Lake is a must-do activity.You pay your money, hop aboard, and are soon off, heading south and into Glacier National Park on the U.S. side. Upper Waterton Lake is one geographic entity—a glacier-carved valley surrounded by spectacularly beautiful mountains and filled with crystal-clear water. Politically, however, it’s partly in the U.S. and partly in Canada. The boat sets a moderate pace. It’s a charming old vessel, and has been providing faithful service since 1927. Good thing it chugs slowly; with such gorgeous scenic offerings, it would be a terrible mistake to simply zoom to the end of the lake.
The last time I was in Waterton Lakes, the morning wind wasn’t bad at all. By afternoon, though, when the autumn sun heated the prairies sufficiently, I expected it to pick up. But a little wind isn’t always a bad thing. For example, it saves time because you don’t have to comb your hair. I mean, why bother? As usual for my visits, I took the boat excursion. Pulling into the dock at the Montana end of the lake, I again noticed the meager development; there was the dock, a small ranger station, a few picnic tables,and a comfy outhouse. That was about it. No town, no road, no store (if you go, bring a picnic lunch). This is a staging area for hikes into the Glacier National Park wilderness, and a place for day-trippers to stroll around, have lunch, and take the boat back to Waterton Village when they’re ready to leave. I spent several hours hiking along nearby trails, marveling at the lush greenery and towering mountains. Then I caught the same boat back after it had made another couple of round trips.
Back In Town
Waterton Town is small and very pleasant. A tourist town, it never the less preserves much of the character that caused residents to move there. The best feature is that it is alongside the upper lake. Exploring the boat harbor is always fun, and walking along the lake’s edge affords terrific views of the water and surrounding mountains leading into Montana. The lake is flat, of course, but you can easily identify the classic “U-shape” valley that was the result of tens of thousands of years of glacial carving. Numerous glaciers during the most recent Ice Age (which lasted 100,000 years and ended about 10,000 years ago) joined together to make up the mighty glacier that did much of the valley’s shaping.
Most visitors stay in town, but for an impressive journey into the past, an overnight stop at the Prince of Wales Hotel can’t be beat. Constructed in 1927 the hotel is quite photogenic, offers a sense of history,and has the best location imaginable—looking straight down the lake and into Glacier National Park. Of course, that’s also the direction from which the windblows. Truth be told, the grand old lady isn’t modern at all, and is somewhat expensive, but what the heck—an overnight stay can be figured into the budget just because of the uniqueness of the place. Or, you can overnight elsewhere and visit the hotel for a couple of hours.
Nearby Sites and Sights
Among other excellent activities is nearby Cameron Falls. It’s in town and right next to the road. The waterfall isn’t big, but it is different than any I’ve ever seen. That section of the edge of the mountain is made up of ancient sedimentary rock (1.5 billion years old) that is tilted. Some of the water comes straight down the falls; the rest runs along the angles of the tilted rock layers. It’s certainly worth a good look and some photography.
One of the most popular drives within Waterton is up Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake. It’s only 9.5 miles one-way, but the views are impressive. Stop at all the pullouts that appeal to you; lovely mountain scenery always looks better when you’re standing by the car and not driving it. It’s also safer to take photographs while standing instead of while driving(heh, heh). Cameron Lake is one of those happy discoveries where you drive to apristine sub-alpine lake. No long hikes are necessary. Just park your vehicle and walk to the edge of the water.
RVersnote: this is a narrow and occasionally steep mountain road, so it’s probably best to take it in your “toad” after you’ve set up camp and disconnected.
On one of my autumn visits there were so few other visitors that a buck deer had calmly wandered about 100 feet into the (obviously) shallow part of the lake. He was just standing there, seemingly enjoying the view. He heard my approach, turned his head to look at me for a few seconds, then turned back, took a drink, and slowly walked to the shore. Deer can swim, although he obviously had no intention of doing that. Why he’d walked so far into the lake,I couldn’t guess. Maybe he just wanted to cool his feet. “Ahhh, that’s better. My hooves have been killing me.”
Red Rock Parkway is another excellent driving excursion, and combines elements of prairies and the mountains. It’s about nine miles one-way, with narrow sections and many curves. The hills that connect the mountains and prairies are left-over rocky material from the glaciers; they’re called eskers and drumlins.
A feature along this road is a place called “Buffalo Jump.” Early Native Americans drove bison herds to the edge of the cliffs, where some of the animals would fall to their deaths. Evidence indicates the jump was in use as long ago as 10,000 years. The people relied heavily on bison; they used the meat for food, furs for clothing and shelter, and bones for tools.
Red Rock Canyon itself is a narrow canyon comprised of red rock(surprise!), with a sparkling mountain stream flowing through it. There’s a half-mile loop trail around the canyon, with opportunities to see where the stream has cut down through rock layers over the eons of the river’s existence. Around the parking area, you might see Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep foraging for a meal. No doubt some people feed the wildlife, but please don’t become one of those people. It’s a selfish act and is ultimately harmful to the animals. Park information throughout North America explains why it is bad for wildlife, so I won’t bother to repeat it here. If you’re lucky enough to see and photograph the big horns, be happy with that.
Camping in the Park
Although Waterton has few roads, all are worth exploring, soit’s strongly recommended that RVers find a place to camp and then disconnect for their explorations.
Located next to Upper Waterton Lake, the Townsite Campground offers few (if any?) hookups. There’s a dump site, and that’s about it. Ah, but the location is perfect. So you dry camp for a couple of days, so what? The views of the lake and surrounding mountains make it worth the small sacrifice. And, there are 238 sites available. Seven miles from Waterton Townsite is Crandell Campground, on Blackiston Creek. It’s another public campground (129sites) with only “primitive” facilities.
Waterton Lakes National Park is among the Rocky Mountain’s absolute gems. Many visit Banff, Jasper and Glacier national parks, but skip Waterton. That’s a mistake. If your travels take you to Glacier National Parkin Montana, why not whip across the border and see Canada’s contribution to the International Peace Park?
And, gee, as long as you’re so close, Banff and Jasper are just a short day’s drive up the highway. Win, win, win, win. You can’t do any better than that.