A hidden crown jewel – Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada
It’s always music to our ears when “Randy” (our Rand McNally GPS) announces we’re crossing a state border, but it’s even more exciting when we cross an international border. So it was as we entered Alberta at the Chief Mountain crossing, just north of Glacier NP.
After answering questions such as “Did you bring firewood?”, “Where do you keep your gun?” and “How much alcohol do you have onboard?” we were good to go. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, even on the 25th try!
Our first destination in Canada was tucked away in the southwest corner of Alberta – Waterton Lakes National Park. Its location, adjoining Glacier National Park in Montana along the international boundary, led to linking the two parks together in 1932. It was the world’s first international peace park, designated Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It’s part of what has become known as the “Crown of the Continent,” with spellbinding scenery spanning the corners of Montana, Alberta and British Columbia.
Waterton Lakes NP has bragging rights as the only place on earth endowed with three recognized titles: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park and a Biosphere Reserve. How special is that? There was no question we had to check this place out!
Red Rock Canyon
One of the scenic drives here is Red Rock Parkway. It meanders through grasslands, rollings hills and mountains, and ends at a vivid red-colored canyon created through water erosion. The red canyon is further accented by the surrounding lush vegetation and mountain peaks in the background.
We followed a short trail around Red Rock Canyon, and continued on for another half mile to view Blakiston Falls. We got only a peek at the falls, as the overlooks were blocked due to construction work. But they couldn’t block the view to the highest peak in the park – Mount Blakiston – which towers above them all.
Our knowledgeable camp host mentioned that there were many opportunities to see bears along the parkway. And sure enough, we saw some “indicators” that they had been on the roads as we drove. It wasn’t long before we saw a mom and cub playing on a golf course early in the morning:
Bear’s Hump hike
This very popular and strenuous .9-mile trail climbs 738′ to a magnificent view of the area. Despite clouds hovering above, the views of Waterton Valley, the glistening Upper and Middle Waterton lakes and Waterton Townsite below kept our cameras blazing. Being the first ones there in the morning allowed us to soak in the views and fresh air in solitude. We enjoyed our breakfast on the rocks in perfect peace.
Our excitement was heightened on the way back down. Steve rounded a corner, and there was a black bear RIGHT THERE on the trail, less than 25′ away. We had been making noise as we talked, but this guy didn’t seem very concerned about us.
He scampered away as Steve completed his heart attack and grabbed his camera to get a shot. Funny he went for his camera and not the bear spray – I trained him well!
International Peace Hike
How often can you hike in two countries on a single day? This trek was guided by two park rangers and required us to bring our passports. John and Pam had recommended this excellent guided hike to us, and we’re so glad they did.
Our guides were Elizabeth, an American park ranger from Glacier NP and Sierra, a Canadian Waterton Lakes NP interpreter. They led us along the lakeshore for a moderate 8.5 mile hike that began in Waterton NP and ended in the U.S. at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station. After presenting our passports to the officers we boarded a boat for a narrated tour back to Waterton. That counts as two more border crossings, folks!
Our guides were both passionate and knowledgeable, taking turns showing us what the two parks shared – an ecosystem with over 1,200 species of plants, over 60 species of wildlife and the various ways both countries work together for peace and friendship.
On the Canadian section of the trail, they talked about natural, cultural and historical aspects, while on the U.S. side each hiker was introduced to a plant specie and then encouraged to explain it to the rest of the group as we moved along the trail. It was an excellent way for each person to learn about at least a few of the plants in the area.
The pace of the hike was to Steve’s liking – no photo stops! Except for the short breaks and a pause when we encountered a mama bear and her cub on the trail, we moved along at a good clip.
We thoroughly enjoyed this hike and learned a few interesting obscure facts. One was that the trees and vegetation on the international border are cut alternately by U.S. and Canadian organizations every ten years to maintain the visual border.
Scenes around town
Watertown Village is a cute colorful townsite in the heart of Waterton Lakes NP. It was founded in 1904 by the Western Coal and Oil Company based out of Vancouver, BC. According to the 2011 census, Waterton Park Township has 88 permanent residents in 31 of its 181 dwellings.
Bear sightings were a daily occurrence, be it on the trail, at the lake or on the golf course. They’re all over up here, and we haven’t seen this many since our trek through Alaska.
At 195 square miles, Waterton NP is the smallest of the Rocky Mountain parks in Canada, and it can be visited in a day. And since it’s adjacent to Glacier NP it could easily be added to your itinerary – just don’t forget your passport. But we’re glad we spent several days so we could enjoy the town and get in some excellent hiking.
If you’re planning on coming to Canada next year, you should know that entrance to all national parks in 2017 will be FREE to celebrate the centennial of their park system. That’s good news if you want to save money on park passes, but we’re guessing the most popular national parks will be very busy.
Next up: A brief run into another province – Saskatchewan!