We spent four days in Waterton Lakes in September 2022, as part of Big Trip #4.
We love Glacier (it might be our #2 favorite national park?), and since I was a kid I had always dreamed of visiting Banff National Park. I didn’t know about Waterton Lakes, Banff and Glacier’s middle sibling. What an incredible trio of national parks! We had a super four days hiking, eating, and drinking around Waterton, between our super four days in Glacier and our super four days in Banff.
We crossed into Canada (Bugsy’s second time in Canada, the Airstream’s first) at Carway, a quiet border crossing station. It was a simple process: the official just needed our passports, and didn’t need to see Bugsy’s rabies vaccination documentation (but still bring your dog’s!). The day before we traveled, we entered our info on the ArriveCAN website, which may have sped up our crossing.
Waterton Lakes National Park is the Canadian next-door neighbor of Glacier National Park, and they have similar scenery: gorgeous mountain vistas and sparkling alpine lakes. It’s is an unusual place; the national park surrounds a town, which turned me off at first because of my expectation of people everywhere and structures interfering with my scenic views (which didn’t turn out to be our reality), but by the end of our four-day stay I loved it. We also needed a couple days to get used to seeing the fire damage in the park: the scars from the 2017 Kenow fire are visible throughout the park and all the dead and charred trees are jarring reminder of nature’s power.
When planning your trip, keep in mind that the prime hiking season at Waterton is July through mid-September, due to all the snow and then all the mud. Compressing all the tourism into a limited timeframe means it’ll be pretty crowded, but as with many parks, once you’re a mile or so from the trailhead, the crowd thins out a lot. The town pretty much shuts down in winter, although hardy people do still go there to snowshoe and cross-country ski, and there are some year-round residents!
We drove and hiked all over the national park, and ate and drank as much as possible in the town. Red Rock Parkway was the only area of the park we didn’t explore, but we heard the ranger say it’s the best area to see bears. If you have bikes, cycling on the park roads is very popular, and trails loop all around the townsite. You can rent cruiser bikes and surreys in town.
We spent our first three nights at a commercial campground, like we did on the east side of Glacier, before venturing into the national park campground, which was first-come, first-served at the time of our visit. Not being able to make a reservation makes us nervous before we have the lay of the land, so we like to combine the reservability of a commercial campground with a stay in a national park.
Our first three nights were at Crooked Creek Campground, a twelve-minute drive from the center of Waterton Townsite, and just a few minutes west of the national park entrance. We loved it there! Our site, #46, had privacy and views and access to the small system of trails around the tent area in the middle of the campground. The proprietor was super friendly, and he sold fresh eggs from his own chickens in the office. A short drive east of the campground is Barn Store, a basic grocery store with some prepared food and lots of gift items and snacks.
Townsite Campground is smack-dab in the middle of Waterton Town, walking distance to all the shops, restaurants, beach, and some trails. It’s fantastic! After a very frustrating check-in process (there’s a limited window of time when you have to be there to register in person, and a long line forms in advance), we landed a sweet water/power campsite near town. The campground is big, and has two sections: the older section doesn’t have sewer, but is closer to town; the newer, farther away part is full-hookup.
As I said, at first I was a bit turned off by the town in the middle of the park. But it’s a neat little town and made a great base for adventuring! The buildings and houses are cute, there are tasty food and drink options, and everywhere is very dog-friendly. There’s an exception to the dog-friendliness though: the deer in town can be aggressive toward small dogs! We were skeptical until we saw a family out for a walk and a deer started toward the dog. It wasn’t an attack, necessarily, but the humans panicked and ran. The deer didn’t pursue, and the dog was fine, but the mom got hurt: she fell down while fleeing the scene. Yikes!
The first thing you’ll notice as you approach Watertown is the historic Prince of Wales Hotel perched on a hill overlooking the lake. The hotel was built in 1927 and named after the Prince in an attempt to lure him to visit while in Canada. It didn’t work. The hotel is rustic and picturesque, and a fun place for a drink and a photo op. Note that they charge for parking; you can park at the bottom of the hill and tromp up for free, or pay $10CAD up top.
The national park visitor center (sorry, visitor centre) was our first stop in Waterton, and the ranger was very helpful with hiking recommendations and maps.
Eating and drinking
After long days of hiking, it was a treat to relax in our little town (or at our sweet campsite) over dinner or drinks. We investigated as many local establishments as we could over our short stay!
The food we were most excited about in Waterton was at The Taco Bar. A taco bar in the middle of a national park? Yes please! Our burrito bowls were a bit bland, but we enjoyed the dog-friendly patio.
Waffleton was an accidental lunch–we were starving after a morning hike, and too late for our planned breakfast of avocado toast with mandarins (??? we wanted to see if mandarins mean the same thing in Canada?) at Breakfast of Waterton. Instead of avocados and oranges, we had waffle sandwiches. Mine had greens, onion jam, wild mushrooms, and a poached egg, and it was delicious! The waffle and the onion jam gave the otherwise savory sandwich a bit of sweetness. Yum.
How can a hotdog lover not stop by Wieners of Waterton? That’s J, not me. It’s a busy little counter with picnic tables outside and an array of dog toppings and fries on offer. They do have a falafel option for non-hotdoggers, but when buying J’s dog I impulse bought myself fried pickles and can report that they’re delicious. J liked his dog too.
Wanting a healthy dinner after a little bar crawl on our last night in town, we sat at the bar at Lakeside Chophouse and ordered Buddha bowls: basically greens, grains, veggies, and add your choice of protein. The meal was just want we wanted, and we had leftovers for lunch the next day.
On our last morning in town, Bugsy and I walked to Pearl’s to pick up coffee and breakfast for the drive. We got a latte and hungry hiker wraps–eggs, cheese, a bit of greenery, sausage if you want it. Pretty tasty. Pearl’s and Breakfast of Waterton are sort of the same place.
Walking down the beach with Bugsy our first evening in town, we were attracted to the patio at Lakeside Chophouse. The three of us sat on the patio with a view of the water for friendly service, cocktails on the too-sweet side, and annoying people at the next table watching loud videos on their phones. It was a nice spot overall, and we would have liked to have had dinner on the patio when we came back for Buddha bowls a few nights later, but they were all booked up. Reserve ahead!
The farthest point we walked on our mini-bar crawl was Kilmorey Lodge, recently reopened after a fire, with a lush green patio facing the water off the restaurant. The patio tables were empty when we visited, but we were told you can’t there without a reservation, and we were sent down the hall to the pub. The view from the pub is of the parking lot, but there’s a mountain lurking in the backdrop. Service at the pub was super and our drinks were fine, but we wanted a better view.
For a quick dog-friendly patio beer one evening, we stopped by Zum’s for drink. They have some local beers on the list, and it’s a good spot to watch people on the street.
Thirsty Bear was our first choice the Zum’s day, but the patio tables are hightops and Bugsy doesn’t like those. We returned on our bar crawl day and enjoyed the heaters on the patio and the good beer selection. The food menu at Thirsty Bear appealed to us too, but we had run out of meals at that point.
We *had* to go to the Prince of Wales for afternoon tea, and it was one of our favorite experiences in Waterton! The tower of sandwiches and sweets was a total (delicious) gut bomb but what a fun experience to get dressed up (sort of–it’s not like we brought really nice clothes for a three-month road trip) and pretend to be fancy in the historic hotel.
Tamarack Outdoors is a super cool outdoor store, offering any gear you might need, shuttles and advice, and a nice little cafe with all the usual espresso and tea drinks.
Glacier Cafe, in the Lakeside Hotel, is basically a Starbucks, reliably reliable.
Dogs are allowed on trails in Waterton! Hallelujah!
As with any national park visit, we recommend researching and choosing hikes in advance, then checking in with a park ranger to narrow down your list upon arrival. We did these hikes, some with Bugsy and some without, and they’re listed in roughly descending order of our enjoyment.
And, as at any national park: GO EARLY if crowds bother you like they bother us.
The twelve-mile Akamina Ridge loop is raved about online, and for good reason: the scenery is incredible. Nowhere, however, did I read anything about it being terrifyingly dangerous in spots. Are Canadians braver than Americans? Is it just me? Holy cow. It started off innocuously: a walk in the woods, crossing into British Columbia, which was fun. Then the incline gets steeper, there’s a sketchy rock scramble and then a bit of a vertical rock wall and then a narrow ridge traverse with sheer drops… It was super scary (for me at least, and I wouldn’t call myself a chicken) but the views were absolutely bananas. I’m not sure I’d do it again, but I’m glad I did it. Hiking poles would have been nice to have for the ridge walk. This hike is not appropriate for dogs or children or acrophobes!
So I thought Bertha Lake was our favorite hike until I was editing the pictures of Akamina Ridge. That hike was just so spectacular, so even though parts of it petrified me, I’m giving it the top spot. Bertha Lake would be our favorite if we were more reasonable people: it’s gorgeous and close by, so suitably crowded–although it’s not an easy hike, which thinned the crowd some. Only a five-minute drive from the center of town, it starts with an easy mile-and-a-half or so to a waterfall, and then a tough climb to the lake. You get mountain and Waterton Lake views on the way up, and Bertha Lake is stunning. We totaled about seven miles.
For a completely different hike: Blackiston Falls is a sweet little 1.5-mile hike, very pretty and very easy. We chose this walk in the woods to a waterfall for Bugsy’s enjoyment, and we humans liked it as much as she did.
Bear’s Hump is the hike everyone online says is a must-do in Waterton… I have mixed feelings about it. The hike zigzags up up up the hillside to an impressive view over Waterton Town and Waterton Lake. The trailhead is in town, and the total hike distance is only a mile and a half, so it’s accordingly busy. The vista at the top is nice, but I’d rather hike to a viewpoint that doesn’t have a town in the middle of it and doesn’t have soooo many other people on the trail. I would still recommend it as a short and convenient (but not that easy!) way to get a big view of the area, but there are better hikes for beauty and solitude.
We chose Cameron Lake for Bugsy, and she liked this one more than the humans did. Cameron Lake is a pretty lake surrounded by mountains where you can rent boats and explore by water, or walk a little out-and-back trail along the shore. Our dog hiked–although we did see a dog in a canoe–and the trail was nice but nothing super special.
J had to take a work meeting in the truck, parking near Lakeside Chophouse to use their wifi (Verizon’s daily data caps while in Canada on our plan are loooow) so, not having a car and wanting to see more scenery, Bugsy and I walked from the campground to Cameron Falls, watching out for aggressive urban deer. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the sweet little town I had really grown fond of!
We didn’t get to two of the hikes on our list, due to time and logistics:
Crypt Lake is supposed to be one of the best hikes in the WORLD. It’s 10.8 miles past waterfalls, up a ladder, through a tunnel, and along a cliff to a glacial lake on the US border. The logistical challenge with this hike is that getting to the trailhead requires a ferry ride, and when we visited the ferry was only running once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon. That’s too long to leave poor Bugsy alone in the Airstream. The national park has a monopoly on the boat shuttle, so unless you can spend an entire day on this hike, you’re out of luck.
The one ranger-recommended hike we didn’t get to do was Goat Lake. It’s a tough hike, close to nine miles, for mountain views and a beautiful lake, and it’s at the top of our list for next visit!