Waterton Lakes National Park just might be Alberta’s best-kept secret.
Home to shimmering lakes, ridge walks with jaw-dropping views and frequent wildlife spotting, this gem tucked in the very southern part of the province is also one of its most scenic regions and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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While there are trails to suit all skill levels (like the challenging Crypt Lake jaunt which requires ducking through a tunnel and clinging to chains on a narrow ledge), the beauty of this area is how accessible the nature trails are.
There are plenty of easy hikes in Waterton, including some that start right in town featuring gushing waterfalls and serene lakefront hideaways.
From wandering through red rock canyons to traversing panoramic viewpoints, here are some of the most picturesque routes and best hikes in Waterton, Alberta.
A famous hike in Waterton is Bear’s Hump, a short-but-steep trek that could easily be counted as one of Alberta’s top trails.
The trailhead is close to the iconic Prince of Wales hotel, where a well-marked, gravel pathway heads up a bluff on the side of Mount Crandell–known to the Blackfoot as Bear Mountain.
The incline makes this a slow and steady climb, with some views of the Waterton Valley along the way.
It only takes about half an hour to make it to the ‘hump’ which has incredible panoramic views of the townsite, glistening lakes, prairie ranchland and the peaks of Glacier National Park in neighbouring Montana.
Distance: 2.4 km/1.5 mile round trip
Elevation gain: 225 m
Time: 60-90 minutes roundtrip
Townsite trail to marina, Cameron Falls
The charming town of Waterton serves as the base for adventures in the surrounding national park, and some of the top attractions are right on its doorstep.
A paved trail winds along the waterfront, following the shore of Upper Waterton Lake, Emerald Bay, the marina and the International Peace Park Pavilion.
There are interpretive signs in the park, explaining the origins of the cooperation and allyship between the USA and Canada and the unguarded border nearby.
A highlight is Cameron Falls, a gushing waterfall on the southwest edge of town. There’s a huge viewing platform below, as well as a short trail up on the right to see it from a different vantage point.
Sometimes it’s possible to see American Dippers swimming below, and the falls also have a unique claim to fame: they’ve been known to turn pink!
The natural phenomenon happens after heavy rainfalls, which stirs up sediment that has a rose-coloured hue when the light hits it just right.
Distance: 3.2 km loop
Elevation gain: None
Time: 1 hour
Red Rock Canyon Parkway, Blakiston Falls and Blakiston Valley
This stunningly-scenic drive leaves visitors gasping at every bend in the road, whether it’s from the sight of yet another towering peak looming ahead, bighorn sheep grazing on the grassy slopes or vibrant wildflowers dotting the hillside.
The Red Rock Canyon Parkway drive
This 15 kilometre stretch towards Red Rock Canyon only takes 20 minutes to drive–of course, that’s without stops which are inevitable to soak in the views from roadside pullouts overlooking waterfalls, creek beds and mountain vistas.
Admire the peaks of Bellevue, Galwey, Crandell and Blakiston mountains, wander down to Lost Horse Creek and Ruby Creek, and enjoy a picnic in one of the many day use areas.
Archaeologists have found evidence of Indigenous campsites throughout the park which date back some 8,000 years, and the Blakiston Valley was a major travel route which tribes used to reach bison on the plains and to trade.
The valley is home to wildlife including grizzly bears, cougars and gray wolves, so this stretch of highway is only open to motor vehicles from mid-May to the end of October to ensure the animals are undisturbed during the winter months.
There’s also a bison paddock just past the entrance to the parkway, where it’s possible to see bison roaming the vast plains.
Red Rock Canyon Trail
The road ends at the Red Rock Canyon Trail, which is one of the best Waterton family hikes.
A short, flat asphalt pathway loops around a section of the canyon, which is layered with green, white and red rock (called Argillite) due to oxidized and non-oxidized iron in the rock.
The trailhead for a few other notable Waterton hikes starts here, like Goat Lake, Snowshoe Trail and Blakiston Falls.
Distance: 0.7 km loop
Time: 20 minutes
This quick, easy hike in Waterton is a stellar option that leads to a spectacular waterfall.
The landscape here was dramatically changed by the devastating Kenow wildfire in 2017, which consumed more than 190 square kilometres inside the park.
While the forest is regenerating, the charred trees serve as a reminder of the blaze that impacted about 80 per cent of Waterton hiking trails.
A well-marked path leads through Lodgepole Pines to Blakiston Falls, where a feat of engineering is on display with two viewing platforms that jut dramatically over the edge.
This is one of the best things to do in Waterton in spring, when snow runoff causes a high volume of water to plunge over the cliff side.
Distance: 2 kilometres round trip
Time: 20-40 minutes round trip
Upper Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake Trail
This trailhead is a popular hike in Waterton thanks to its easy access from town to a diversity of landscapes.
Once a treed-in trail, the Kenow fire opened up the views along this pathway which begins just past Cameron Falls, and kicks off with a gorgeous vantage point looking back at the townsite, Vimy Peak, Mount Boswell and down the lake toward Glacier National Park.
As hikers head into the valley, a signpost marks the junction for a few different trails:
The route to Bertha Falls or down to Bertha Bay are among the best Waterton hikes that can be tackled without too much difficulty, with an elevation of 175 metres up to the cascading falls.
In the summer months, visitors like to cool off in the small pools below the bridge.
Distance: 5.2 kilometres return
Time: 90 minutes- 2 hours
Elevation: 175 metres
To up the ante, continue up a series of switchbacks to Bertha Lake, which is surrounded by beautiful vistas of the surrounding peaks like Mount Richards, Mount Alderson and Bertha Peak (note that in spring it may not be accessible due to snow).
Bertha Bay is a great pick for families, where a trail leads down to the serene, sheltered bay which has colourful rocks, backcountry campsites and is a popular pit stop for kayakers and paddlers.
There’s also a lakefront pathway here that continues right into Montana (documentation is required).
Waterton Shoreline Cruise
To see some of the best views in Waterton without any effort, book a seat on the M.V. International which is the oldest passenger ship still operating in Canada.
This 90 minute tour is one of the top things to do in Waterton National Park, as the boat cruises along the lake and across the US border (no passport required!).
Enjoy stunning views of icons like the jagged peaks of Citadel Mountain in Glacier National Park, see the treeline that runs through the forest marking the 49th parallel, and keep an eye out for wildlife along the shoreline.
Price: $61/adult, $30/child
Daily from May to October
There are also other cruise options like disembarking to hike Vimy Peak or Crypt Lake ($32/per person, operating daily from June to October weather permitting).
To explore two countries in a single day, book a ride on the two-hour Interpretive Sightseeing Cruise (Goat Haunt Landing) which runs from June to September.
This longer tour includes a half hour stop at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station on the USA side of the lake, and again passports aren’t required.
A final option is to bring a passport, pre-clear customs ahead of time then do a day hike from Goat Haunt. The boat returns later in the day to pick up those hikers and backpackers–two separate one-way tickets are required.
Akamina Parkway and Cameron Lake
One spot that gives the Red Rock Canyon a run for its money is the nearby Akamina Parkway, which has equally jaw-dropping views along the 15 minute drive from town up to Cameron Lake.
Here, you’ll find picnic areas, subalpine lakes, wildlife, deep valleys and soaring peaks. A family-friendly walk here is to Akamina Lake, which only takes about half an hour along a flat pathway.
The trailhead starts from the Cameron Lake parking lot, a stunning spot nestled in a glacial basin and has similarities to famous Lake Louise in Banff National Park–thankfully with way less crowds. During the summer months canoes, paddleboards and kayaks are available to rent.
The Cameron Lakeshore trail runs along the western shoreline, and is great for all ability levels.
Distance: 3.4 kilometres return
Time: 1 hour
Another option is Crandell Lake (also accessed from the Red Rock Parkway) which takes about an hour total from this side, with an elevation gain of only 75 metres.
Prince of Wales
This historic hotel is the most iconic landmark in Waterton, thanks to its grand facade and stately perch high on a high overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.
The lodge was commissioned by a railway baron, and construction was completed in 1927 and opened to great fanfare. Today, there are nearly 100 guest rooms spread out over seven floors, and the hotel is famous for its afternoon tea,
You don’t have to be a guest here to enjoy the grounds, as a trailhead winds around Linnet Lake, Emerald Bay and the hotel itself. Check out the elegant property, then back head outside for birds-eye views of Upper and Middle Waterton lakes.
Distance: 2 kilometre loop
Time: 45 minutes
FAQ about hiking in Waterton
While these Waterton National park hikes are easy to do self-guided, some visitors opt for guided tours to learn more about the unique ecosystem and history of the area.
Family-owned Tamarack Outdoors originally started as a mail service a century ago, and over the years it transformed into a small mall, gas station and now operates as one of the top adventure outfitters in southern Alberta.
Customized tours are available for all group sizes, and Tamarack also offers shuttle services for overnight backpacking trips and to link hikers to trails in Glacier National Park and the Chief Mountain trailhead on the American side of the border.
When to go: The best time of year for hiking in Waterton is mid-May to mid-September, when the weather warms up and restaurants and hotels are open for the season.
What to bring: Temperatures can fluctuate wildly in spring and fall, and out here it’s important to be prepared for the elements.
A light, packable jacket like this one from lululemon helps keep away the cold, and is lightweight enough to stuff into a backpack once it warms up. On hotter days, pack plenty of water, mosquito repellent, a hat and sunscreen.
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Safety on the trails: This is bear country, so being aware of your surroundings is absolutely critical. Hike in a group whenever possible, stick to the trail, and don’t head out without bear spray.
Connectivity can sometimes be spotty, so be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you’re expected back. The new iPhone 14 has helpful features like Emergency SOS that uses satellite to contact emergency services if no cellular or Wi-Fi service is available, while Apple watches have fall detection.
Getting to Waterton
Waterton National Park is one of the top vacation spots in southern Alberta, with activities like cruising and canoeing on the lake, e-biking, stargazing (it’s designated as an International Dark Sky Park!), horseback riding and golfing.
It takes about three hours to drive from Calgary to Waterton down Highway 2, and is the perfect spot to include on a southern Alberta road trip that visits spots like Lundbreck Falls, Frank Slide and the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO site.
The drive to St Mary, Montana (one of the entrances into spectacular Glacier National Park) only takes about an hour. Chief Mountain–the nearest border crossing– reopened on May 15, 2023 after a lengthy, years-long closure.
RELATED: East Glacier getaway: The perfect base for exploring Glacier National Park
Visitors should note that there are a number of entrance and service fees in place, for activities like camping, fishing, backcountry use and daily admission.
A Parks Canada Discovery Pass is usually the most economical option; click here for a full list of prices.
While it makes for a long travel day, it’s also possible to visit Waterton as a day trip from Calgary by driving or booking one of these tours:
Where to stay in Waterton
Waterton National Park is a popular getaway from Calgary, so campsites and hotel rooms are at a premium during weekends in summer. Book well in advance to secure a spot, or visit mid-week for lower room rates and fewer crowds.
Some of the best places to stay in Waterton are:
Bayshore Inn & Spa: Guests who secure a room facing the waterfront are in for a treat, as this hotel has one of Waterton’s best locations in the heart of downtown with views of Vimy Peak.
Its Lakeside Chophouse and Thirsty Bear Kitchen + Bar are consistently rated among the top eateries in Waterton, and there’s also a spa, cafe and gift shop on-site. The Bayshore is also just steps away from the marina, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and lakefront walk. Click here to book
The Prince of Wales Hotel: Rooms at this iconic property have a historic feel to them, and the afternoon tea is a favourite activity for guests. Click here to book
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