You might describe Waterton Lakes National Park as the little Canadian park that could. Waterton survived wildfires in 2017 and 2018 and has remained a fantastic travel destination. It’s the smallest of the Canadian Rockies national parks, but it is home to an incredible amount of wildlife, fantastic scenery and some amazing hiking trails. Here is our list of the top things to do in Waterton.
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Take in the View – Prince of Wales Hotel
As you are coming into Waterton, take the exit to the Prince of Wales Hotel, drive up the hill and park in the parking lot. Walk around the outside of the hotel and stand on the bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake. You won’t be alone. Every tour bus stops here. It’s one of the prettiest views in the Canadian Rockies and one of those must-see stops in Waterton. Note: It can be incredibly windy on the bluff and it’s a good idea to wear a jacket – even in summer.
Afternoon Tea – Deliciously Fun Things to Do in Waterton
While you’re at the Prince of Wales, make a reservation for afternoon tea. It includes a lovely selection of teas and pastries and a view from the hotel’s grand lobby that can’t be beat. There’s typically live chamber music as well. If you’ve always wanted to enjoy high tea, this should be high on your list of things to do in Waterton.
Crypt Lake Hike – One of the World’s Most Thrilling Trails
The iconic Waterton Crypt Lake hike was untouched by either of the recent fires. This trail was ranked one of the “World’s 20 Most Thrilling Trails” (National Geographic, 2014 and 2017). It involves a 15-minute boat ride to the trailhead and an intense 9-km one-way hike. You’ll pass 4 waterfalls, climb a steel ladder, pass through an 18-metre tunnel and maneuver around a cliff while hanging onto a steel cable. The reward – a fantastic view of beautiful Crypt Lake. This day hike is one of the most amazing things to do in Waterton. Note: You should bring bear spray when you’re hiking in Waterton. Hiking poles are also valuable on steep hikes like Crypt Lake. The ones below are similar to the ones I use. They are inexpensive, lightweight and durable.
Bear’s Hump Hike – The Classic View Hike in Waterton
The panoramic view from the top of Bear’s Hump makes it one of the most popular hikes in the park. It’s a steep 2.8 km (1.8 mi) climb to the top, but it’s worth the effort. Bear’s hump was closed for most of 2019, so the trail could be repaired following the 2018 fire. It should be open again when the park opens in 2020. It takes about an hour to do this hike – one of my favorite things to do in Waterton.
Related: Looking for more beautiful destinations in the Canadian Rockies? Check out our post about Grassi Lakes.
Travel the Road to Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon is another one of the must-see sites in Waterton. The Red Rock Parkway that leads to the canyon is a fun road to drive, but it’s even more fun to cycle. You can rent a bicycle from Pat’s Waterton in the townsite. They even have e-bikes if you want a little peddling assistance. When you reach the colorful canyon, you can swim in the creek and hike on the trails around it. It will take a couple of hours to cycle to Red Rock Canyon and back and there are some steep hills to climb.
Snap a Picture at Cameron Falls
Cameron Falls is a must-see site in the village of Waterton. It’s one of the most accessible waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies and you can drive right to it. You can feel the mist on your face as you stand on the bridge and there’s a short paved trail that has great views overlooking the falls. There are a lot of pictures on the Internet of this waterfall with flowing pink water. In hundreds of visits, it’s a phenomenon that I have never personally witnessed. Even if the water isn’t pink, this waterfall is beautiful and it’s one of those things you just have to do in Waterton.
Rent a Surrey Bike and Explore the Village
For decades, Pat’s Waterton has been renting old fashioned surrey bikes. The bikes can hold three people and they are a fun way to explore the sites in and around town. For some visitors, renting a surrey bike is one of the traditional things to do in Waterton.
Find all Five Red Chairs
There are five sets of red chairs in some of the most scenic spots in Waterton Lakes National Park. Click the link above to see a handy map with all the red chair locations or just explore the park and see how many you can find on your own. When you find them, take a photo and #sharethechair on Facebook and Twitter.
The Akamina Parkway is closed to all motor vehicle traffic in 2020 as construction crews work on repairs and improvements following the wildfires. Check with staff at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre to see if bicycles can still access the road. If so, there are a couple of places in town that rent e-bikes that could make the steep ascent much easier. Watch for wildlife along the way. Prior to the fires, the parkway was one of the best places to spot wildlife.
Related: Castle Provincial Park is very close to Waterton. Read our post Table Mountain – A Most Instagrammable Hike.
Visiting Cameron Lake is a traditional highlight of a trip to Waterton. With the Akamina Parkway closed, it’s almost impossible to visit the lake in 2020. If Cameron Lake is on your must-do list of things to do in Waterton, you can get there by hiking Carthew-Alderson trail. The hike is 15-km one-way and there is a campsite at the midway point. You’ll pass through a lot of burned terrain, but it will be a chance to see how the area is recovering. Fire is a natural phenomenon in a forest ecosystem. You may also be able to reach the lake via Akamina Parkway if they are allowing cyclists to travel along the road.
Taking a cruise with Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. across Upper Waterton Lake to the international border at Goat Haunt, Montana is one of the most unique things to do in Waterton. This boat tour lets you cross the US border without a passport. The cruise gives wonderful views of the lake and interesting commentary. It’s important to note that the boat is not stopping at Goat Haunt this season due to under-staffing at the United States border crossing. If you want to hike the trails inside Glacier National Park, you will have to hike to Goat Haunt, tent overnight and hike the trails the next day. Be sure to register online when you are crossing the US border.
Waterton Lakes National Park and its sister park, Glacier National Park in the United States are now recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as a provisional International Dark Sky Park. Parks Canada has created a list of the top stargazing sites in the park. Dark Sky Guides offers guided stargazing tours – one of the newest things to do in Waterton.
In September 2017, the Kenow wildfire destroyed the barns and facilities at Alpine Stables, a family-run business that has been part of Waterton for 50 years. Fortunately none of the horses or people were injured. The Watson family is rebuilding, but they are still offering daily guided interpretive trail rides – one of the truly adventurous things to do in Waterton. Visit their website to book your riding adventure.
Waterton Wildflower Festival & Wildlife Weekend
Waterton is home to a vast array of wildflowers and wildlife and both are celebrated annually. The Waterton Wildlife Festival happens every spring and Waterton Wildlife Weekend takes place in the fall. Both events include fun activities and classes. The park is home to more than 1,000 vascular plant species including half of all wildflower species found in Alberta. Of those, 175 species are listed as rare in Alberta and 20 are only found in Waterton. June is wildflower prime time and that’s why the festival is always held then. September is a great time for viewing wildlife – especially bears and that’s part of the reason the wildlife weekend is held then. Note: The Wildflower festival may be cancelled in 2020 due to Covid 19.
Waterton-Glacier Red Bus Tours
In 1932, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana came together to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It was the world’s first international peace park. It demonstrates that nature knows no boundaries and that the USA and Canada have strong ties as nations. For many years, visitors to Waterton and to Glacier have enjoyed Waterton-Glacier Red Bus Tours. This fleet of Red Buses is considered to be the oldest intact fleet of passenger carrying vehicles in the world. These 17-passenger convertible touring sedans make day trips from Waterton to Glacier and back. It’s a chance to experience the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road that crosses the continental divide. Note: These tours may be affected by border closures due to Covid-19 in 2020.
Where to Eat in Waterton
One of my favorite restaurants opened in 2018 in the Waterton Glacier Suites hotel. Red Rock Trattoria is in a small space, but the Italian food was fantastic when we visited. It’s currently ranked the number one restaurant on TripAdvisor. To satisfy your gourmet hot dog craving, visit Weiners of Waterton – it’s not your average hot dog place. For a great steak with a wonderful view, try the Lakeside Chophouse. And for a taste of British culture, you can’t beat the experience of high tea in the grand lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel, but I may have mentioned that already.
Where to Stay in Waterton
Some of the campgrounds inside the park were damaged by the wildfires, but the Townsite Campground is open this season. It has lake views, flush toilets, showers, unserviced and serviced sites and free Wi-Fi. There are also several great hotels. The Prince of Wales Hotel is the Grand Dame hotel, perched on a hill with the best view in the park. In the townsite, Waterton Glacier Suites is a personal favourite, because it has fireplaces, mini-fridges, microwaves and rooms that can accommodate families.
For more information on what’s open this season, visit the Parks Canada website.
More Adventures in the Canadian Rockies: Read our post about the Heart Mountain Hike near Canmore. You can summit up to three peaks in a single day on this amazing hike.