No matter where you’re coming from, Waterton Lakes National Park is out-of-the-way. When I visited Calgary and Banff in 2009, Waterton was too far south. When I visited Glacier National Park in the U.S., back in 2006, Waterton was too far to the north and east, and would have taken a couple of extra days to properly visit. So on this trip, I made it a point to finally get there — even though it was just about the worst time of the year to visit.
Okay, “worst” is probably not the right word. But Waterton Lakes National Park, and especially the town of Waterton (located inside the park), are definitely “different” in wintertime. There will be so few cars traveling into the park, you can easily stand in the middle of the road and take pictures. And once you get into the town, you’ll feel like the only person there.
Alberta Highway 5 takes you into the park from Highway 6 (which comes down from Pincher Creek). The final few kilometers of Highway 5 are exceptionally beautiful, with mountains lining up in front of you…
… and Lower and Middle Waterton Lakes at the side of the road. Perhaps it was a sign of spring arriving, in late March, but the lake’s frozen surface appeared to be getting thinner…
… perhaps melting and re-freezing every day, to form an intricate pattern of cracks and frost. You’ll have a couple of good viewpoints, from which to see the lakes, just after the park entrance. The snow might be shallow enough to allow you to park in the turnouts, but if not, you can probably put on your flashers and simply stop at the side of the road. Traffic isn’t a big concern.
Waterton has just 88 full-time residents, according to the 2011 census. But during the winter months, you’d swear you’re walking along the streets of a ghost town. Almost every building is boarded up…
… businesses are shut down…
… and if you need gas…
… you’d better be ready for a long walk back to the outside world.
That’s not to say that everything is shut down for winter. There are a couple of hotels that remain open — although their rates remain high, which is why I chose to commute from Pincher Creek. I think those hotels might also have restaurants or gift shops inside, but I didn’t see any other places to eat or shop that were open. In other words, if you’re visiting in the off-season, you’d better bring plenty of food, fill up your tank, and be willing to forego the Waterton Park t-shirts and bumper stickers.
After driving around on the empty (but well-plowed) roads, I found my way to the real attraction in Waterton: Upper Waterton Lake.
Waterton Avenue drives along the waterfront, then dead-ends at Cameron Creek, at the point where the creek flows into Upper Waterton Lake. I parked my car in the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, and trudged through the snow, to a footbridge that crossed the creek.
The edges of the creek were frozen, while the middle of the crystal-clear stream continued to trickle into the lake.
Looking north, Mount Crandell is almost always beautifully-lit by the sun, which hangs low in the southern sky around midday. Cameron Falls is just upstream from here.
Oh, and if you get the chance, be sure to dance with some of the local wildlife. It sure looks like fun, doesn’t it?
Down along the shoreline, you’ll find colorful rocks poking through the ice, providing plenty of photo opportunities.
Just keep in mind that none of this snow gets shoveled during the winter, so you could end up trudging through some serious powder. And another thing I discovered on this trip: there’s almost no place to sit and rest, anywhere, since everything is always covered with snow.
After exploring the shoreline, I drove a short distance back up Waterton Avenue, to the town’s marina. If you visit Waterton Lakes in the summer, there’s a good chance you’ll be here. During the warmer months, one of the park’s biggest attractions is a cruise on Upper Waterton Lake, which will take you across the international border. The boat departs from here on a 2-hour tour.
There’s a small pavilion here, welcoming guests to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It’s hard to imagine what this area would look like in the summer. In winter, it doesn’t offer much to visitors — in fact, it’s darned near impossible just to get to it, through snow that’s a couple of feet deep.
Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive around Waterton Lakes townsite, and out the Akamina Parkway: