Note to Alex & Joan: Hearing even more recommendations from the locals, we had every intention of hiking the Crypt Lake Trail that you so highly praised. Unfortunately, on our last hike in Glacier, Melinda pulled a muscle (as it turned out) and was “laid up” for the next several days. Our time in Waterton was spent following a slightly less energetic agenda.
Oh the prairie lights are burnin’ bright,
The Chinook wind is a-moving’ in.
Tomorrow night I’ll be Alberta bound.
Though I’ve done the best I could,
My old luck ain’t been so good and
Tomorrow night I’ll be Alberta bound.
Alberta bound, Alberta bound,
It’s good to be Alberta bound.
And so begins the second leg of our summer travels. A new theme song marks our trip. We are indeed Alberta Bound.
Leaving Glacier, we saw the mountains fading away in our rearview mirrors. For a time we crossed a rolling landscape of prairie grasses, mountains now faint on the western horizon. We were headed into Canada where we would see the other half of the Waterton—Glacier International Peace Park. Actually connected to each other, the Canadian/U.S. border splits the park in two. Driving north for awhile, soon we turned west. The mountains once again were our destination.
Encompassing roughly 203 square miles, Waterton Lakes became Canada’s fourth national park in 1895. Aside from being adjacent to Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes is very isolated. The town and its park are not on a major highway or on the way to anywhere else. To the north and east it’s bounded by prairies that cover southern Alberta; to the west is the Continental Divide and a formidable mountain barrier; Glacier is directly south. Nevertheless, the mountain splendor, a chain of deep glacial lakes, a large and diverse population of wildlife and a tempting variety of day hikes make Waterton Lakes a gem of a national park.
Before even reaching the town of Waterton you’ll see the imposing Prince of Wales Hotel. You can’t miss it, sitting on a promontory with a backdrop of high peaks and overlooking the Upper Waterton Lake. It is arguably the most famous attraction in Waterton. It is also one of the most photographed hotels in the world.
The Prince of Wales was an extension to the chain of hotels and chalets built and operated by the Great Northern Railway in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Louis Hill, President of the Great Northern Railroad, picked the site for the hotel in 1912. It took until 1926 to get the land leased from the Canadian Government and construction began in 1926.
When Mr. Hill decided to build the hotel, he planned for a building somewhat like the Many Glacier Hotel in Montana. The original plan called for a long three-storied, low roofed building with a central lobby and approximately 300 rooms. As the building progressed, Mr. Hill changed his mind several times so that some parts of the building had to be rebuilt four times. He wanted the building to resemble French or Swiss chalets. The Prince of Wales is famous for its striking architectural designs, including the high gabled roofs and dormers, carved beams, and ornamented balconies, all of which give the hotel a romantic alpine chalet feel.
Hill’s final vision stands today, a proud hotel overlooking the township of Waterton; complete with 86 rooms in seven-stories and crowned with a 30-foot bell tower. Not exactly as large as he had planned, but perhaps with a bit more character.
It’s all about the setting here at Waterton Lakes. Taking center stage is the string of three lakes that are encountered as you pass the entrance gate to the park. Mountain-ringed and sapphire blue, Upper Waterton Lake is the main attraction. With a maximum depth of 487 feet, it is the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies.
The town of Waterton couldn’t have asked for a better setting. Built on a tongue of land that juts out into Upper Lake, the views you get from anyplace in town encompass water and mountains. To add to its attraction, the town is ringed with lakefront public areas. The scenery isn’t closed off—everyone reaps the benefits of this idyllic location. Nevertheless, there is a downside to all these attributes—winters are long and harsh, and even in the warmer seasons, the winds that whip off the lake are blustery and wild. Kite flying can be a reliable daily activity.
Moreover, Waterton isn’t greedy with its natural features. Having a prime location within walking distance of the head of the lake is the Townsite Campground. From any given campsite you’ll have views of towering mountains as well as an easy walk to a lakeside view. It’s no wonder that sites are booked well in advance and you’ll be fortunate to bag a site on a moment’s notice. Just spending your time at your camp and basking in the surrounding beauty can be everything you hope a summer vacation could bring.
Ah, but we did venture out, taking in the views—up close and personal. Early morning and late afternoon—changing light on the peaks and the water never ceased to amaze and overpower us.
Many campers were drawn to the shoreline of the lake. Splashing in the cold clear waters, or just taking in the view—it offered something for everyone, young or old.
Late afternoon light saturated the colors, giving Waterton a tropical feel. Lakeside strolls were a popular evening activity.
But we did pull ourselves away and venture from town—the surrounding area also holds plenty of natural beauty. Scenic roads lead to destinations of outstandingly picturesque spots.
Akamina Parkway is a scenic 9-1/2 mile drive with numerous pullouts to take in the views. Following the course of Cameron Creek, the valley changes from a narrow gorge near town to a wide U-shaped glacial valley as you arrive at Cameron Lake. A subalpine jewel with lush avalanche slopes sweeping steeply from the surrounding peaks, it was reminiscent of Avalanche Lake in Glacier.
Life is full of little quirks, and what makes it most interesting is you never know when one will come along. During our stay here at Waterton we had a one of those kismet moments with a spontaneous visit from a couple of Airstream travelers we had first met two winters ago at an Alumnaflamingo Rally in Sarasota Florida. Little did we realize at the time of our first meeting that the Winds of Fate would bring us together in future travels. John Newburn and Harrah Lord live in Maine when they aren’t on the road. Unbeknownst to our respective travel plans, last fall as Chris and I were touring Italy, we happened into the post office of the small hilltop village of Montepulciano. There Chris ran smack into John, one as startled as the other. With laughs and hugs, we had a mini-reunion of sorts.
John and Harrah made plans to take off on a 6-month tour of our country beginning this past March. Their itinerary makes a huge circle of sorts from the Southeast to the Southwest, up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver and over through the Canadian Rockies. Can you see where this is headed? As it ended up (and was probably pre-ordained), our paths once again crossed here in the small village of Waterton. You just can’t plan something better than that.
We had a wonderful interlude enjoying their company, taking in the best parts of this quaint town. An afternoon of perfect weather, an evening eating al fresco at a local cafe. Next morning, they were headed back into the States, to spend a few days at Glacier Park. They still have many more miles to cover, many more spectacular sights in store. You should give their blog Silverstreamers a look—it is full of travel information as well as being cleverly written.
Red Rock Parkway, beginning on the outskirts of town, best epitomizes the setting that is Waterton. It illustrates the park’s theme of “where the mountains meet the prairie.” With the early morning sun behind us, we set out to make a day of it. This was a drive I’d like to have to ourselves . . . with the time to make many photo stops.
It wasn’t long before we were totally surrounded by awesome peaks. Talk about scenic vistas—it’s enough to leave a person breathless! It’s no wonder this place was made a national park.
But I must admit its destination didn’t exactly fit the bill for us. Sure enough, Red Rock Canyon had its share of picturesque-ness—provided you could see it through the crowds of people. Oh yes, this was a destination all right . . . you might call it a public watering hole. Locals must come from far and wide to cool their feet, wade the waters, and generally have a hootin’ good time. Not my kind of place, for sure.
So we walked downstream a bit, until I managed to frame a shot sans people (albeit not even close to the canyon’s best view). Admittedly, the vibrant red of the rock (a bedrock having a high concentration of iron) makes great contrast with the rich greens of the pines and underbrush. Regrettably, you’d need to arrive much earlier to do a photo study of this canyon.
Along the pathway as I was scouting, we found the trail to the canyon’s other attribute. Blakiston Falls tumbles down from the high country, its water eventually flowing through the canyon. Not one to miss out on a nearby waterfall, but would it too be spoiled by the hordes? I had to find out.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t. Falling down through a steep, inaccessible canyon, it’s location was its saving grace. No close-up angles here—no way to clamber down to its plunge pool either. Only a long lens and a steady tripod would get the best out of this waterfall.
Further upstream the river was flowing, sending cascades down to meet up with the main event. Another good spot was located—again without people frolicking in its waters. What opportunity was missed in the canyon, was more than made up for in its falling waters.
Our time here at Waterton was closing down; tomorrow was our moving on day. But both of us still had something yet to accomplish—Chris would get his chance tonight. I would be waiting for tomorrow’s early light.
Mount Crandell soars above the Townsite Campground—a behemoth that can’t be ignored. Attached to its south-facing flank is a prominent outcropping that has been given the name Bear’s Hump. Hiking the switchbacking trail to the top of the Hump is a popular attraction. It was too tempting for Chris to ignore.
With camera in one hand and GPS in the other, he began his ascent in early evening, with hopes to catch good light on the far-off views. I stayed below—still pampering a pulled muscle—but caught him waving from his perch. Surely you can see him there in the photo there?
A three-quarter mile trail with an 800-foot elevation gain is nothing to sneeze about. He admitted to some huffing and puffing, but made it up and back in short order.
Not one to sit back and let him have all the fun, I had a destination deserving of a photo study. Have I overdone the waterfall photos . . . some might say I’ve gone a bit overboard.
But Cameron Falls was a mere short walk from our campsite you see and just like Chris heard the Bear’s Hump calling his name, this waterfall knew had to call out to me. I headed out while Chris made his climb.
Cameron Falls really was something special. Slightly more angular than your normal falls, it cascades over 1-1/2 billion year old pre-Cambrian rock. No wonder this stunning natural wonder is another Waterton popular draw.
We came back together as evening was closing in. As another full day under our belts, we shared our stories and personal experiences by campfire before calling it a night.
Moving On Day had me rising in the dark of the predawn morning—never an easy accomplishment for a night person like me to do. I had one last goal in mind and was counting on getting good skies. Determination has a way of getting me up and out of a warm bed.
Driving through the deserted streets of Waterton, I was on the road headed back to the park’s entrance a few short miles out of town. My heart beating faster, the skies were lighting up. Dawn broke through as I approached my destination.
At 7,805 feet, Vimy Peak stands tall over Waterton Lake. It is a very distinguishing landmark at just about any time of day. It began to call to me—and I soon realized I had to catch it in the early light of day. It wasn’t easy to find the perfect angle . . . but when I did I knew I had answered its call.
Now I was ready to leave Waterton free and easy . . . ready to move on to new and promising places.
From the shores of one majestic setting,
Melinda and Chris