“The best care killing scenery on the continent” is what naturalist John Muir wrote about Glacier National Park in the US and the adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A visit to Waterton Lakes NP is an easy day trip from the US side and provides a different perspective on the mountain scenery and lakes that straddle the border between the two countries.
The two parks make up the first ever designated International Peace Park, and are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a designated biosphere. With a home base on the east side of Glacier National Park, a day trip to Waterton Lakaes is only about a one hour drive across the border in Canada, but you will need a passport to get into Canada and then back into the US.
Compared to Glacier NP, Wateron Lakes NP is much smaller and so it is much easier to see the major sites in one day. Drive the scenic Chief Mountain Highway and you’ll understand why they say that this is “where the prairie meets the mountains”. As you drive the highway, you’ll see the plains stretch to the horizon in the east, and then abruptly meet up with the high peaks of the Rockies where you are driving. At the border the route becomes Alberta Hwy 6 which continues to Waterton Lakes Park; follow signs into Waterton village. Once in the park, there are a number of options to explore.
Red Rock Parkway
At the end of Red Rock Parkway are two easy sights to visit: Red Rock Canyon and the trail to the overlook for Blakiston Falls. Red Rock Canyon, as the name suggests, has walls of rock that are surprisingly red, especially when the rocks are wet. The canyon is not particularly deep, and you can walk a half mile loop trail that takes you on either side of the canyon.
Going in the opposite direction of Red Rock Canyon is the Blakiston Falls trail. The 1.5 mile round trip trail is fairly level and ends at a well developed overlook for the thundering Blakiston water falls. With the mountains overhead the view is spectacular.
It’s the journey, not just the destination – and that is very true of the Red Rocks Parkway which has stunning views of the Rocky Mountains in Waterton park.
This road starts in Waterton Village and climbs up to Cameron Lake – a pretty little lake where you can rent canoes or paddle boats and explore the jaw dropping scenery. At almost a mile above sea level, this lake that was carved out by glaciers, is as pristine and crystal clear as you can get. Paddling on it for an hour is a peaceful and relaxing way to take in the views, and if you get to the other end, you’ll be in the US again. The mountain overlooking the lake is Mount Custor and is actually part of Glacier National Park.
Waterton Village’s most famous sight is without a doubt the Prince of Wales Hotel. This often photographed icon of the park holds court on a bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.
You do not have to stay at the stately Prince of Wales to enjoy its ambiance. Have a meal in the dining room with its amazing views over the lake, or, better yet, have afternoon tea with all the trimmings. And if there was any doubt that you are no loner in the American West, visit the hotel gift shop where you can buy souvenirs with emblems of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
The village of Waterton just down hill from the Prince of Wales hotel also has other options for accommodations and food. It’s a cute stop to get a snack or drink and peruse the shops. And if you are looking for more outdoor fun, there is also a golf course and stables.
On the edge of town you’ll find an overlook for Cameron Falls. A display here also describes how the town of Waterton grew as a result of an oil boom in 1905. Eventually, the well ran dry, and tourism and conservation took over, to our benefit.
Boat Cruise to Goat Haunt
One of the most interesting and scenic things to do in Waterton is to take the boat cruise down Upper Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt which is in Glacier NP, Montana. The cruise take 2 1/4 hours and includes a half hour stop at Goat Haunt. The boat cruise comes with an informative and entertaining commentary. One very interesting sight is the view of the border between the two countries in this wilderness. There is a “dead” zone that marks the line for the border where all trees and tall vegetation is cut down (and you thought those lines existed only on a map).
For those that have a passion for getting their US National Park Passports stamped, Goat Haunt has a ranger station where you can get your NP passport stamped – one of the more unique stamps you’ll have in your book. This should not be confused with a US passport, which is what you will need if you want to stay longer than the 1/2 hour layover to hike in the area.
If you have the time, take the hike that starts behind the Goat Haunt ranger station and goes to Kootenai Lakes, where you are supposed to have a good chance of seeing moose (though we did not). The hike is a level 2.5 miles one way. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the Citadel Peaks and Porcupine Ridge towering above you. Just make sure you get back to the dock in time for the last cruise of the day back to Waterton village.
Waterton can be enjoyed as a day trip from Glacier National Park, but next time, I will stay a few days to take advantage of the many hiking trails and the uncrowded scenery. Though driving back into the US at the end of the day, the lighting highlighted different views, just as majestic as those on the way up.
I really enjoyed my day in Waterton – I think you will too.
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