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What Is Waterton Lakes National Park?

Waterton Lakes National Park is a breathtaking gem nestled in the Canadian Rockies, where pristine lakes meet wildflower-strewn prairies and rugged peaks. It's a sanctuary for wildlife and a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a unique blend of natural beauty and adventure. Curious about the wonders that await in this UNESCO World Heritage Site? Join us to explore the hidden treasures of Waterton.
C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell

Waterton Lakes National Park is a protected swath of the Canadian Rocky Mountains situated in the southernmost part of the province of Alberta. It sits directly across the border from the United States’ Glacier National Park and shares many of that park's geographic and ecological elements. Waterton Lakes National Park contains a total of 195 square miles (about 505 square kilometers) of land surrounding its namesake, Waterton Lake, a glacier-fed reservoir. Most of the park is rugged mountain terrain, but its lands also include prairies and high deserts. The topographical diversity of the park makes it one of the most geographically significant areas in Canada.

Land within the park has been protected by the Canadian government since 1895, and was recognized along with Glacier National Park as a “World Heritage Site” a century later by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Together, these protections ensure that the land remains open to the public and free from development and commercialization. Parks Canada, the Canadian National Parks administrative body, does charge a modest admission fee for park visitors, but the majority of all money collected goes to conservation and upkeep efforts. The park is classified as a not-for-profit entity.

Waterton Lakes National Park lies just across the U.S.-Canada border in the province of Alberta.
Waterton Lakes National Park lies just across the U.S.-Canada border in the province of Alberta.

One of the most unique things about Waterton Lakes National Park is its diversity of biospheres, climates, and terrains. The park’s entrance is on primarily prairie land, characterized by flat, sweeping plains. From there, the land juts up into the Rocky Mountains, creating a vibrant mountainous terrain that supports both lowlands and alpine wildlife. A wetlands and aquatic system thrives in and around the lake.

Waterton Lakes National Park is open year-round, but activities like camping, biking, and swimming are seasonally restricted. Winters in the park are often harsh, and staying outdoors for long periods of time can be hazardous, particularly in deep snow. Weather is usually best between May and September, Waterton Lakes National Park’s peak season.

The park is among the least visited of all Canadian national parks in part because of its harsh winters, as well as its remote location. Calgary is the nearest big city, but it is several hours away. Most park visitors come to spend a few days exploring the area, and camping is a very popular activity.

Waterton Lakes operates three official campsites, most of which are open only during the summer months and fill by reservation. Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park is not typically permitted outside of the designated areas, though campers do have a lot of offerings to choose from; campsites range from developed to primitive, and only one site has showers and toilet facilities. A number of unaffiliated campsites sit just outside the park, providing additional options.

Parks Canada also operates several hotels within Waterton Lakes National Park, the most famous of which is the Prince of Wales Hotel. The Prince of Wales is situated directly overlooking the lake and offers visitors a way to experience the park while also enjoying deluxe accommodations. Several more modest offerings are also available, and a great many hotels sit just outside the park’s gates. Most hotels are open year-round, weather permitting.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Waterton Lakes National Park known for?

Waterton Lakes National Park, located in the southwest corner of Alberta, Canada, is renowned for its stunning mountain scenery, diverse wildlife, and the unique distinction of being part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is celebrated for its rich biodiversity, including over 1,000 plant species and a variety of animals, from black bears to lynx. The park's pristine lakes, notably Upper Waterton Lake—the deepest in the Canadian Rockies—offer breathtaking vistas and recreational opportunities.

Can you engage in outdoor activities at Waterton Lakes National Park?

Yes, Waterton Lakes National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors can indulge in a multitude of activities such as hiking, with over 200 km of trails ranging from easy strolls to challenging backcountry treks. Boating and fishing are popular on Waterton Lake, while the winter months offer snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Wildlife viewing is also a major draw, with chances to see animals in their natural habitat.

What is the best time of year to visit Waterton Lakes National Park?

The best time to visit Waterton Lakes National Park largely depends on the activities you're interested in. Summer (June to August) is ideal for hiking, boating, and wildlife watching, with warm temperatures and full access to park amenities. For those seeking fewer crowds and the beauty of wildflowers, late spring (May to early June) is excellent. Winter visitors can enjoy the serene landscape and winter sports, though some facilities may be closed.

Are there accommodations available within Waterton Lakes National Park?

Yes, Waterton Lakes National Park offers a range of accommodations. Visitors can choose from the historic Prince of Wales Hotel with its iconic architecture and stunning lake views, various other hotels, cozy bed and breakfasts, and several campgrounds for those wishing to immerse themselves in nature. It's advisable to book in advance, especially during peak summer months, to secure your preferred lodging.

Is Waterton Lakes National Park family-friendly?

Waterton Lakes National Park is very family-friendly, offering activities and experiences suitable for all ages. Families can enjoy easy hikes like the Bear's Hump trail, take part in interpretive programs, and explore the visitor center's educational exhibits. The park's Red Rock Canyon is a favorite spot for kids to splash in the creek and discover colorful rock formations. With ample picnic areas and safe, scenic surroundings, it's an ideal destination for a family adventure.

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    • Waterton Lakes National Park lies just across the U.S.-Canada border in the province of Alberta.
      By: Anna
      Waterton Lakes National Park lies just across the U.S.-Canada border in the province of Alberta.