With an isolated location 264km from Calgary and well south of other Canadian Rockies parks, WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK appears on maps to be simply an extension of the much larger Glacier National Park, across the US border. Yet, despite its modest size, the park’s 255km of trails are among the best made and most scenic in the Canadian Rockies. Because the park is compact and easily accessed from the only settlement, Waterton, it’s particularly superb for day-hikes, with most walks climaxing at small alpine lakes cradled in spectacular hanging valleys; a few hikes, like the Tamarack Trail, head over or along ridges to offer multi-day backcountry options.
There’s plenty for those not mad about hiking too, with attractive drives along two wonderfully scenic access roads, Akamina Parkway and Red Rock Parkway. Both probe west into the interior from Waterton and are dotted with viewpoints as well as spots to picnic, camp and rent boats.
A National Park pass, costing $9.80, is required to enter Waterton Lakes; though the park is run in tandem with Glacier National Park, the two remain distinct, with separate entry fees.
Up to nine thousand years ago the region provided a hunting ground for aboriginal peoples such as the Ktunaxa (Kootenay), from present-day BC, who crossed the mountains to fish and hunt bison on the prairie grasslands around Waterton. By about 1700, rival Blackfoot peoples had extended their sphere of influence here from central Alberta pushing out the Ktunaxa, but by the mid-nineteenth century they had retreated eastwards, leaving the region virtually uninhabited.
It was the Waterton area’s first permanent white resident, John George Brown, who first noticed globules of oil on Cameron Creek, a local river, a discovery that would bring entrepreneurs to ravage the region. Ironically, given Brown’s environmental zeal, he even helped start the local industry by skimming oil from the river, bottling it, and selling it to nearby settlements. In 1901 the Rocky Mountain Development Company struck oil, leading to western Canada’s first commercial oil well, which soon dried up; a monument on the Akamina Parkway now marks its original location.
Only in the 1920s, when the Great Northern Railway introduced a bus link from its Montana-to-Jasper railway, did tourists arrive in any numbers, and it was for them that the venerable Prince of Wales Hotel was built. In 1995 UNESCO declared Waterton a World Heritage Site.