A tumbling slice of the Rockies just three hours’ drive south of Calgary, Waterton Lakes National Park is a perfect slice of Canadiana. Gifted with pristine natural beauty and classic summertime pursuits, all was almost lost in the 2017 Kenow wildfire, which burned down 193 square kilometres of the park. Now, just as the forests are regenerating, an impressive new visitor centre recently opened its doors and the town of Waterton – population 50 during winter and 2,000 during summer, along with about 500,000 visitors each year – is once again a must–visit destination for outdoor sports and more. Here are five ways to enjoy a weekend.
From mountain biking to stargazing, here’s how to make the most of an outdoorsy trip to Canada’s lesser–known Rockies destination.
Have Tea on The Hill
The Prince of Wales Hotel is the iconic landmark (circa 1927) that has brought millions of visitors to the park for its picture–perfect good looks and panoramic views. Snag a window–side table for Afternoon Tea in the Royal Stewart Dining Room and enjoy your cuppa along with finger sandwiches, tartlets, and scones with clotted cream while you take in views over Waterton Lake and the Rockies. With any luck, one of the hotel’s interpreters may wander by and tell you the story of a ghost named Sarah who haunts one of the rooms (though they won’t tell you which one.)
Take a Hike
After the Kenow wildfire, Parks Canada made significant repairs to the path of the town’s most popular hike, the steep but short (just 2.8 km round trip) Bear’s Hump, which overlooks Upper Waterton Lake, the Canadian Rockies and the town below. Tamarack, a 100–year–old family–run business, is an adventure outfitter that also offers guiding services for hikers, not to mention terrific lattes for those early morning hikes (they’re the only café in town selling locally roasted beans). Other doable day hikes are Crypt Lake Trail or nearby Red Rock Canyon Parkway, with its short trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding through Waterton’s perfect mix of mountains and prairies, before coming upon the iconic red rocks.
Spot the Stars
In 2017, Waterton was designated an International Dark Sky Park and part of the world’s first trans–boundary International Dark Sky Park. Take in the stars on your own (you will likely cross wild deer and other stargazers on the trails) or arrange an expert–led tour with Dark Sky Guides for help recognizing important stars and constellations. Pro tip: Check the lunar calendar and plan your visit to enjoy incredible views of a full moon rising behind the mountains.
Bike Chief Mountain
One of the original park buildings (built in 1927), Pat’s Waterton, is a community hub for penny candy, gas, groceries, fishing tackle and licences, and a fleet of kayaks, road bikes, e–bikes and Surrey bikes – like self–propelled tuk–tuks for families. Most people come to town to bike Chief Mountain, and on e–bikes that means a two–hour round trip to the top and back, through fields of wildflowers leading to steep climbs, though we did spot many extremely fit mountain bikers making the journey. The area encompassing Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park on the Montana border, joined forces in 1932 to become the world’s first international peace park. After your ride, there are cooling cream soda slushies to be had back at Pat’s.
Stay at The Bayshore Inn
It doesn’t get more lakefront than this cozy inn. Spacious, no–frills rooms are a stone’s throw from the shoreline, where you will spot paddleboarders, kayakers, canoeists and weekenders picnicking under the trees. You can walk anywhere in town from the hotel in about five minutes, and the adjoining Serenity Spa offers top–notch massages, facials, manicures and pedicures. After an especially active day, the inn’s Lakeside Chophouse is the spot for Alberta bison pastrami Reubens, burgers, aged Alberta Angus steaks, and red wines to match.