Home Canada 3 Day Itinerary – The Best Things To Do in Waterton Lakes National Park

3 Day Itinerary – The Best Things To Do in Waterton Lakes National Park

by Valerie Vanr

A brisk mountain hike, a Waterton Lake cruise or high tea at the luxurious Waterton Lakes Hotel. These are just three of the many things to do in small, diverse Waterton Lakes National Park in the Rocky Mountains.  

Our guide gives you lots of options for the best things to do for a 3-day visit to Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton Lakes Itinerary

How Many Days in Waterton Lakes National Park?

Only have time for 1-day in Waterton Lakes? Take the cruise on Upper Waterton Lake. This is a great trip to get a taste of this beautiful park. With additional days, explore the park’s hiking and cycling opportunities.

This is our recommended 3-day Waterton Lakes National Park itinerary:

Have more than three days? Take a side trip to 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  To the south, visit Glacier National Park, Waterton’s partner in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, an hour north, is an eye-opening look at the way of life of the area’s early Plains People.

Things to Do in Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park may be small but it is packed with incredible natural beauty.  These activities are some of the best ways to experience all that the park has to offer.

Waterton Cruise

MV International docked Waterton Lakes
M.V. International cruises Upper Waterton Lake which is 11 kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide.

We highly recommend a cruise aboard the M.V. International, booking in advance in peak season. The 22-metre long International was built in 1927. It is the oldest continuously operating passenger vessel in Canada. For ticket and tour information, check the Waterton Cruise website.

The cruise departs from the Waterton marina on Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. When the ship is about midway down the lake, it crosses the Canada/USA international border entering USA’s 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
The “border-vista” is a 6-metre wide area clear of brush and vegetation centred on the Canada-USA border. Cruise passengers cannot proceed beyond the dock at Goat Haunt Ranger Station in Glacier National Park without reporting their entry to US Customs and Border Protection.

Cruise through spectacular countryside to the southern end of the lake and Glacier’s Goat Haunt Ranger Station and back to the marina. Guides entertain with stories and interesting facts over the 2-hour tour.

Prince of Wales Hotel from the deck of MV International
Enjoy the fresh air from the deck of the International.
Prince Of Wales Hotel background deck of MV International foreground
The Prince of Wales Hotel appears small in the distance behind me, high on the bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.

Visit the Prince of Wales Hotel

The grand railway hotel, built in 1927, served an increasing number of affluent tourists visiting the park. The building, with its soaring roofs, gables and balconies, is now a Canadian National Historic Site. Afternoon tea is still served.

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 even more unforgettable.

Front of Prince of Wales Hotel Waterton Lakes
We’re standing in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel. We visited in the fall and the hotel had closed for the season.
Upper Waterton Lake townsite from back of hotel
View of Upper Waterton Lake and townsite from back of Prince of Wales Hotel

Walk the Townsite

The Waterton townsite is a great place to learn some history and enjoy the surrounding, stunning scenery. The 3-kilometre Townsite Loop Trail circles the townsite on flat, level ground. There are interpretive panels at many spots.

Start at the marina where there is lots of parking. The view to the north, from the point at the end of the marina, of the Prince of Wales Hotel is an iconic photograph.

Parkland on point at Marina Waterton Lakes townsite
The Prince of Wales Hotel sits high on the bluff. The perfect picture is from the point at entrance to the marina.

Enjoy the red Adirondack chairs, perfect for relaxing and a impressive photo.  Park staff have placed several sets in some of the most scenic areas of the park for visitors to relax and enjoy the views.

A small plaza, between the marina and the point, commemorates the lasting cooperation along the border between Canada and the United States.

Enjoying red chairs placed in Waterton Lakes
We enjoyed a rest in a pair of the red chairs placed around Waterton Lakes National Park. Watch for them in most Canadian National Parks.
Peace Park Plaza Waterton Lakes National Park
Peace Park Plaza in Waterton Lakes National Park

International Peace Park Plaza

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.

Walk to the western edge of town, either via the streets exploring the interesting shops and restaurants, or by the path along the lakeshore and through the Townsite Campground. A beautiful waterfall is on the other side of town.

Cameron Falls

The crystal clear waters of Cameron Creek fall over slanting ancient rocks creating Cameron Falls. Climb up the paved path on the right side of the falls for a closer look.  Beautiful views of the Upper Waterton Valley are visible on the way back down the path.

To find out more about the rest of Waterton Lakes National Park, visit the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre in the middle of the townsite.

Water falls over slanted rocks Cameron Falls Waterton
Cameron Falls

Visit the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre

This modern building is open year-round with information on all aspects of a visit to the park. Get current park information; maps; trail brochures, permits and backcountry reservations; weather, trail, avalanche and road reports and any questions answered.

This centre, opened in 2022, has interpretive exhibits such as the 13 Moons Exhibit where visitors learn about aspects of the Blackfoot Tribe’s culture. Other exhibits introduce park wildlife and the dark skies of the International Dark Sky reserve. Park Canada interpreters are available to answer questions around the centre (and around the fire pit when weather permits).

The centre’s grounds are a unique, outdoor interpretive area with informative maps and displays. Learn about local plants and wildlife. A mini-Red Rock Canyon will peak interest about the canyon hike. There is something here to interest everyone.

There is lots of parking, for both RV’s and cars, and multiple EV charging spaces.

Waterton Hikes

There are hiking trails for everyone, from short, easy hikes, to difficult and multi-day hikes. These 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 passes 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 continue to 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, wind through a mountain forest, hike by waterfalls and up steep slopes. Climb a ladder (about 2 metres long) and through a tight 20-metre tunnel. The hike ends at spectacular Crypt Lake.

A boat shuttle from the townsite takes visitors to and from the trailhead.  Reserve a 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 trail options in the park. Some hikes are led by park staff. Horseback riding is allowed on some trails as well. Check at the visitor centre about the trails or any other questions.

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 biking, be keenly aware of traffic all around, 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.

Emerald Bay's Beach with hotel in background Waterton Lakes
The calm waters of Emerald Bay on Upper Waterton Lake attract paddle boarders and brave swimmers.

Waterton Park History

Waterton Lakes National ParkThe first land was protected in 1895. By 1911 tourism was encouraged.
International Boundary CommissionCreated in 1925 to coordinate maintenance of Canada-United States border which is the longest demilitarized border in world.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace ParkCreated in 1932 by uniting 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. By the end of 2022, most of the damaged tourism infrastructure was repaired or replaced.
Waterton Lakes National Park History
Foreground MV International docked with Prince of Wales Hotel background
M.V. International and Prince of Wales Hotel are two of the long-lived symbols of Waterton Lakes National Park.

Know Before You Go

When can I 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. This is the best wildlife viewing time 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. We visited in late September. It was quiet and the park was so pretty.

Is the park open in winter?

Yes, from November to Mid-May the town and trails are open and quiet. 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?

Be sure to 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
What an iconic image – Prince of Wales Hotel above Upper Waterton Lake!

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 Waterton Lakes National Park, Camping webpage.

Waterton Lakes National Park Map

Use this interactive map to get to the park and stay oriented on the roads and in town.

Side Trips

If time permits, these 2 nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites 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. 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 close to nature.

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

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

If heading to Calgary, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a must. The interpretive centre 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-metre-high cliff, and learn more about the cultural significance of this cliff to the Plains People.

To plan your visit, check out our article, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Mountain scenery from deck of MV International

For more great Alberta destinations, be sure to check out our article Best Alberta Road Trips.

Rocky path surrounded by forested hills mountain peaks

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