Home CanadaAlberta Best Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park

Best Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park

by Valerie Vanr
MV International and other boats docked with Prince of Wales Hotel in background

Waterton Lakes National Park is a beautiful park located on the Alberta/Montana border.  This small yet diverse park showcases amazing landscapes from the Rocky Mountains to prairie grasslands to the outstanding Waterton Lakes.  

Whether your idea of an adventure is a brisk hike in the mountains, a cruise on the lake or visiting the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, you can do it all in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Let this beautiful National Park leave you happy, awed and planning your return.

Waterton Itinerary

Try this 3-day plan for your Waterton trip.

  • Day 1 Cruise Upper Waterton Lake aboard M.V. International and explore Waterton townsite
  • Day 2 Take a Waterton Hike
  • Day 3 Cycle Red Rock Parkway

Have more than three days? Take a side trip to discover two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  To the south is Glacier National Park, Waterton’s partner in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. An hour north is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, an eye-opening look at the way of life of the early aboriginal people.

Waterton Lakes National Park may be small but it is packed with incredible natural beauty.  Here are the best things to do to see this magnificent place.

Things to Do in Waterton Lakes National Park

Enjoy these activities to get the most out of your visit.

Waterton Cruise

MV International docked Waterton Lakes
M.V. International, built in 1927, cruises Upper Waterton Lake

We highly recommend that you take a cruise aboard the M.V. International, booking in advance in peak season. The International is a 72-foot ship, carrying 165 passengers and was built in 1927. It is the oldest operating passenger vessel in Canada.

The cruise departs from the marina in the townsite on Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. The international border is about midway down the lake. When the International crosses the border, you are in Glacier National Park, Waterton’s partner in the International Peace Park.

Left photo cleared path through forest marks maintained Canada-USA border Right photo Dock Goat Haunt Glacier National Park
20-foot wide maintained Canada-USA border and Dock at Goat Haunt, Glacier National Park, USA

You’ll cruise through spectacular countryside to reach the southern end of the lake and Glacier’s Goat Haunt Ranger Station then turn around for the journey back to the marina. Over the two hour cruise, the guides provide a lot of interesting and historical information in a lighthearted and humorous manner.

Prince of Wales Hotel from the deck of MV International
Prince Of Wales Hotel background deck of MV International foreground

One stunning view from the deck of the International is the Prince of Wales Hotel high on the bluff overlooking the townsite.

Visit the Prince of Wales Hotel

Front of Prince of Wales Hotel Waterton Lakes
Prince of Wales Hotel

The hotel, with its soaring roofs, gables and balconies, is an iconic National Historic Site. It was built in 1927 to service the increasing number of tourists visiting the park. They enjoyed sumptuous meals including afternoon tea which is still served today.

At the back of the hotel, on the edge of the steep cliff, the view to the south of Upper Waterton Lake is incredible. Should a storm be rolling across the lake, the view becomes jaw-dropping.

Upper Waterton Lake townsite from back of hotel
Upper Waterton Lake and townsite

The lovely town at the side of the lake is a great place to explore. You’ll learn some history as you tour and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Cycle or walk the Townsite Loop Trail

The townsite loop is about 3 kilometers on flat level ground. There are interpretive panels at many spots. Start the tour at the marina where there is lots of parking. The point at the end of the marina is a beautiful spot to photograph the hotel on the bluff.

Parkland on point at Marina Waterton Lakes townsite
Point at the Marina in the Waterton Lakes townsite

There are a pair of red Adirondack-style chairs, perfect for relaxing and a impressive photo.  Park staff have placed several red chairs in some of the most scenic areas of the park.  See if you can find them all.

Enjoying red chairs placed in Waterton Lakes
Pair of the Red Chairs placed around Waterton Lakes National Park

Back at the corner of the marina, a small plaza commemorates the lasting cooperation along the border between Canada and the United States.

International Peace Park Plaza

Peace Park Plaza Waterton Lakes National Park
Peace Park Plaza in Waterton Lakes National Park

The interpretive signs in the plaza provide information about the International Boundary Commission, the birth of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and the ecosystem known as the Crown of the Continent.

Continue your tour to the western edge of town.  To get there you can either take the streets exploring the interesting shops and restaurants, or take the path along the lakeshore and through the Townsite Campground. On the other side of town, you’ll find a beautiful waterfall.

Cameron Falls

Water falls over slanted rocks Cameron Falls Waterton
Cameron Falls

This delightful waterfall is the crystal clear waters of Cameron Creek falling over slanting ancient rocks. Walk up the paved path on the right side for closer views of the falls.  Heading back down the path, you’ll see some beautiful views of the Upper Waterton Valley. This waterfall is a stunning piece of nature at the edge of town.

One way to find more waterfalls and gorgeous scenery in the rest of Waterton Lakes National Park is to take a hike on the park trails.

Waterton Hikes

There are hiking trails for everyone, from short easy hikes, to difficult and multi-day hikes. Here are the details of several popular ones.

 Length (return)TimeDifficultyElevation gain
Linnett Lake Loop1 km20 minEasyminimal
Lower Bertha Falls5.2 km1.5 hrsModerate175 m
Upper Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake10.4 km4.5 hrsModerate460 m
Crypt Lake Trail17.2 km6 hrsEasy sections but difficult at end675 m
Red rock canyon0.7 km20 minEasyminimal
Wateron Hiking Trail Details

Linnett Lake Loop Trail

This paved loop around the tiny lake is perfect for beginners and families with small children. It is a great hike in the spring to listen for birds and see nature awakening.

Lower Bertha Falls and on to Bertha Lake

This moderate trail takes you to a viewpoint overlooking Upper Waterton Lake and along a creek to Lower Bertha Falls, a bridal-veil waterfall.  This is the start of the longer hike to Bertha Lake. Climb up steep switchbacks to Upper Bertha Falls and hike onward to get rewarding views of the beautiful lake surrounded by magnificent peaks.

Mountain reflections in Upper Waterton Lake Glacier National Park

Crypt Lake Trail

On this all-day strenuous hike, you’ll wind through a mountain forest, hike by waterfalls and up steep slopes. You’ll climb a ladder (about 2 meters long) and go through a tight 20-meter tunnel. The hike ends at spectacular Crypt Lake.

A boat shuttle from the townsite takes you to and from the trailhead.  Reserve your shuttle ahead of time to partake in this amazing hike.

Red Rock Canyon

This easy loop around and through Red Rock Canyon showcases the beautiful canyon with rocks of red, white and green.

There are more trails in the park in addition to those above. Some hikes are led by park staff. Horseback riding is allowed on some trails as well. You can check at the visitor center for details about any of the trails or any other questions you may have.

More fun things to do in Waterton

If you are looking for more physical activity during your Waterton stay, here are some other options.

Emerald Bay's Beach with hotel in background Waterton Lakes
Emerald Bay on Upper Waterton Lake

Watersports

The calm waters of sheltered Emerald Bay at the north end of Upper Waterton Lake are perfect for swimming and paddle boarding. At the beach, enjoy the sun or a picnic at the nearby tables while you watch brave people swim. It’s definitely a summer activity as the water temperature is seldom above 15C degrees.

Person kayaking on Uppe Waterton Lake
Kayaking on Upper Waterton Lake

Canoe or kayak around Emerald Bay or any of the Waterton Lakes. Steady breezes make the lakes popular among windsurfers and sailboarders too.

Waterton Biking

Take a bike ride for a change of pace and a different view of the park. Biking is permitted on all park roads and some trails. There are routes for all ability levels. Some routes may be affected by the winds which are often strong. Roads and trails can be very busy during peak season. When you are biking, be keenly aware of traffic all around you, regardless of whether it is vehicle, bike or foot traffic.

Here is a quick summary of the details of the roads and trails.

NameLength (return)DifficultyFeatures
Entrance Road16 kmEasyRelatively flat
Kootenai Brown Trail (along some of Entrance Rd)13.8 kmEasyPaved
Snowshoe Trail16.4 kmEasyWide, rolling
Red Rock Parkway30 kmEasyNarrow, winding, little to no shoulder lane
Akamina Parkway32 kmModerateNarrow, winding, little to no shoulder lane, steep in places
Akamina Pass Trail3.0 kmModerateShort, steep
Wishbone Trail14 kmModerateFlat, wide
Crandell Loop, can be a link to join Akamina Parkway and Red Rock Parkway8 kmChallengingSteep rocky parts
Chief Mountain HighwaychoiceModerateWide shoulders, some large hills
Biking Options in Waterton

Canoes, kayaks and bikes can be rented in Waterton townsite.

Waterton Park History

Waterton Lakes National ParkFirst land protected in 1895. By 1911 National Parks officially encouraged tourism
International Boundary CommissionCreated in 1925 to coordinate maintenance of Canada-United States border, it is the longest unmilitarized border in world
Waterton-Glacier International Peace ParkUnion in 1932 of Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park to celebrate cooperation between the countries
UNESCO Biosphere ReserveGlacier National Park designated in 1976
Waterton Lakes National Park designated in 1979
UNESCO World Heritage SiteWaterton-Glacier International Peace Park designated in 1995
Dark Sky ParkWaterton-Glacier International Peace Park designated in 2017
Kenow FireThis fire in 2017 destroyed 38% of Waterton Lakes National Park, including most tourist facilities on Red Rock and Akamina Parkways.  The bulk of the trail system was affected in some manner. 
Waterton Lakes National Park History
Foreground MV International docked with Prince of Wales Hotel background
M.V. International and Prince of Wales Hotel

Know Before You Go

When to visit Waterton Lakes National Park?

The park is open year round and the experience is different depending on the time of year. The Prince of Wales Hotel closes in mid-September and re-opens in late spring.

What is spring like in Waterton?

Mid-May and June are the spring wildflower season. Many different kinds of wildflowers can be seen close to roadside pullouts. Flocks of migratory birds arrive and melting snows make the waterfalls thunder. This is a shoulder season in Waterton.

When is peak tourist season?

July and August. You’ll need to book in advance. Half of total park visitors come in July and August to take advantage of the full slate of park programs. The weather is drier and more dependable.

Is there anything to see in the park in the fall?

In September and October, enjoy the larch and aspen groves with their yellows and golds and brilliant red ground cover. Wildlife viewing is prime now especially black bear, elk and deer. Hikers are rewarded with quieter trails. Most park programs are still available on weekends and accommodations are available in town.

Is the park open in winter?

Yes, from November to Mid-May you’ll have town and trails to yourself. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular but visitor services and accommodation are minimal. Be prepared for conditions ranging from warm and windy to extreme cold and deep snow.

What is the weather like in Waterton?

Make sure you wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes at any time of year. The park is known for its winds. Dress in layers, as the weather in the mountains can change rapidly. Bring rain and sun protection year-round.

Are park waters safe to drink?

While generally clean, they could contain harmful bacteria and parasites found in most untreated waters. Carry water from the park’s treated sources. There are no taps on the trails.

Are there bears in Waterton?

Yes this is bear country, so be aware. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Hiking in groups is recommended. Don’t walk silently. Announce your presence by talking, singing or clapping. Wearing bells is not enough. Pamphlets are available from park facilities about bear safety.

How do you get to Waterton Lakes National Park?

The closest Canadian airport accepting international flights is Calgary International Airport. It is about 3 hours from Calgary to Waterton Lakes National Park. Lethbridge airport accepts Canadian domestic flights only.
The closest airports in the United States are Glacier Park International Airport outside Kalispell, Montana and Great Falls International Airport, Great Falls Montana.

Prince of Wales Hotel from Waterton townsite
Prince of Wales Hotel

Waterton Accommodations

Looking for an accommodation in Waterton Lakes National Park?

Waterton Hotels

The town of Waterton is your home base for exploring the surrounding Waterton Lakes National Park. Check out these great options.

If you are camping, the Waterton Townsite Campground is a great option. Sites can be reserved through the park website.

Waterton Lakes National Park Map

This interactive map will get you to the park and keep you oriented on the roads and in town while you are here.

Side Trips

These two places have been recognized by UNESCO. If you have time, they are definitely worth visiting.

Glacier National Park

Take a couple days and travel south on Chief Mountain Highway to Glacier National Park. Travel the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, a park highlight itself, to Logan Pass and Lake McDonald. You’ll see snow-covered mountain peaks, valleys with glacier-fed rivers and lakes and waterfalls both big and small. Like Waterton, there are lots of hiking options to get you close to nature.

Check out our One Week in Glacier National Park post for some great itinerary options.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

If you arrived via Calgary, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must. The interpretive center explains the importance of the buffalo or bison to the Plains tribes for 6,000 years. Look over a vast prairie landscape, from an 11-meter high cliff, and learn more about the cultural significance of this cliff to the Plains People.

To plan your visit or learn more about the history of this site, be sure to check out our post, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Mountain scenery from deck of MV International
Mountain scenery from deck of MV International


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