Waterton Lakes National Park – A Diverse Ecosystem in the Canadian Rockies

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Written by Madison Valois posted on Friday, July 3rd, 2009

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Discovering the Waterton Lakes Area

The magnificent Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.

The magnificent Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.

With the magnificent Canadian Rockies rising out of the land, the province of Alberta, Canada is also home to wide open prairies where generations of farmers have stakes their claims. In the southwestern corner of the province lies one of the most distinct ecosystems in the world at Waterton Lakes National Park. The smallest National Park in the Rockies, Waterton has retained its non-commercial allure, as opposed to the busier Banff and Jasper National Parks.

Location

Waterton Lakes National Park is located 167 miles (270 km) south of Calgary. The park borders British Columbia to the west and the state of Montana to the south. As the Canadian half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, it represents the goodwill and cooperation between Canada and the United States.

Geography

Waterton Lakes National Park contains the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest region, which contributes to its unique ecosystem and geographic diversity. Designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1979 and a World Heritage Site in 1995, this is the only park in the world that has three such prestigious accolades (including it’s recognition as an International Peace Park.)

The park has been shaped by the forces of nature. Glaciers, strong winds, floods, and fires have created the tall peaks, the steep cliffs, the profound lakes, the flowing rivers, and the rolling hills that make the region so diverse. In addition, Waterton is filled with some of the oldest sedimentary rock in all of North America, as evidenced by the reddish green layers that are especially vivid in Red Rock Canyon.

Climate

Witness stunning prairie sunrises in Alberta's Rocky Mountains.

Witness stunning prairie sunrises in Alberta's Rocky Mountains.

As befits any Rocky Mountain area, Waterton Lakes National Park has its share of variable and temperamental weather. A warm and sunny morning can turn cold and menacing. Summers are short and cool, followed by mild, snowy winters where temperatures can go from 32F to minus 40. Chinooks (winds that start as cool air at the mountain peaks and descend to the prairies where they warm) can raise the temperature in winter, often creating melting conditions. The Chinooks can last for days at a time, with a speed that can go from the average 19 miles per hour (30 km/hr) to 75 miles per hour (120 km/hr.) January and November are notoriously the windiest months.

Summer temperatures are close to perfect, with the mercury staying at around 72F (22C) in July and August, and occasionally rising to 86F (30C).

Transportation

Waterton Lakes National Park is accessible only by roadway. The nearest airports to the park are Calgary International Airport and Great Falls International Airport. The park lies in between these two hubs, and you can easily take a motor coach tour to the area. Once you are in Waterton, you can hire a car for greater mobility as are no car rental or taxi services. Two-seater bicycles and scooters can be rented in town, which provide visitors with an easy way to explore the area, but once you are on Waterton’s hiking trails, there are no bikes allowed.

Flora and Fauna

Waterton Lakes National Park takes up 203 miles (525 sq. km) and includes an enormous diversity of plant and animal life. Alberta in its entirety is 41,272 square miles (661, 848 sq. km) and yet half of its plant species can be found in the park. With 970 plant species, 264 bird species, 24 fish species, and 10 herptile species along with grizzlies, black bears, cougars, wolves, bison, moose, elk, and deer, no wonder the park is a haven for those who wish to get closer to big nature.

Outdoor Recreation

Hike to beautiful Canadian Rocky destinations.

Hike to beautiful Canadian Rocky destinations.

There is a wide opportunity to enjoy solitude and serenity when in Waterton Lakes National Park. With its over 120 miles (200 km) of hiking trails for all levels of expertise, tours, and abundant wildlife, the park is an ideal nature preserve that begs exploration. And when the spirit calls for a bit of the quotidian, the town offers plenty of good shopping at local boutiques, excellent dining, and top notch accommodations.

If you are a trained hiker in good condition, take the M.V. International from Waterton townsite to Crypt Lake Trail where you can trek for 10.7 miles (17.2 km) round trip. On this trail, you will climb up to 2300 feet (700 m), encountering a 600 foot (183 m) waterfall, steep cliffs, and natural tunnels. There will be points where you will need cables and steel ladders to scale ledges and cliffs, with the end result being a stop at the magnificent Crypt Lake, a turquoise wonder set amid the trees.

An easier hike is the Carthew-Anderson Trail that begins at Cameron Lake and takes you 11 miles (18 km) through the Rockies to Cameron Falls, located in the Waterton townsite. From the Carthew Summit, you will see the vast prairies below the spectral mountaintops. On this trail you will walk through the oldest forest in the park as well as enjoy several waterfalls, lakes, and streams.

If you are new to the park, take Bear’s Hump Trail that begins at the Waterton Lakes Visitor Centre. A twisting trail that lasts a mile (0.6 km), you will arrive at a summit where you have a breathtaking view of the park.

Waterton Lakes National Park is open year round, however many of the facilities and services close. May through October are the best months to enjoy all that Waterton offers, with the winter months also popular for cross-country skiing and ice climbing.

Historical Sites

Visit the Prince of Wales Hotel National Historic Site that commemorates the completion of this grand hotel in 1927. This was also the year that a bus service was created to connect Waterton with Glacier National Park, allowing more tourists to enter the area. The hotel became a well-known stop over for Americans during the days of Prohibition, providing them with a watering hole as well as comfortable lodgings. The hotel was named after Great Britain’s Prince Edward and is still a major focal point in the area with its exquisite architecture, its astounding vistas, and its English traditions. The hotel sits on a bluff on Upper Waterton Lake where it embraces views of both the lake and the Waterton townsite. As one of the most photographed hotels the world over, the Prince of Wales Hotel is famed for its angled roof, its enormous picture windows, and the sheer majesty of its design. The Royal Stewart dining room and tea room are just some of the pleasures to be discovered within the hotel’s walls, along with the kilt-clad valet who will greet you upon arrival.

1927 was a good year in Alberta, as it was then that the tour boat, M.V. International, was completed. Taking people from Goat Haunt in Montana across the Canadian border, the boat became a Waterton landmark and is still in operation today. The cruise takes its passengers through the Rocky Mountains as guides inform and entertain with pertinent commentary. The tour is a little over two hours long and is an idea vacation destination point for spotting wildlife around the lake, such as black bears and grizzlies.

Other Highlights

The Waterton Lakes Chain takes over two-thirds of the park’s water surface area and is a great attraction for wildlife viewing. With its clear waters and its easy distance from the Waterton townsite, Cameron Lake is ideal for renting a canoe and spending a day with your binoculars and camera, observing the wildlife all around. Animal sightings are abundant on the drive to the lake as well, so keep your eyes open right from the start!

Head over to the Buffalo Paddock, near the park’s boundary. The road takes you right up close and personal with these grand beasts, so here again, take your camera and be prepared.

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