Waterton Lakes National Park is different from the other parks in the Canadian Rockies. It’s the smallest park in the Rockies, and the most diverse. Its motto is ‘where the mountains meet the prairies,’ a unique geology where the expected foothills just don’t exist. The park features the three Waterton Lakes – Lower, Middle and Upper – the latter being the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. Waterton is the only Canadian National Park to share a border with a US park – Glacier National Park. In 1932, the two parks were designated together to be the first International Peace Park, dedicated to peace and collaboration on preserving the unique ecosystem.
From our travels in the northwestern US last year, we were aware of the Kenow Fire that raged through Waterton National Park during September 2017, burning through nearly half of the park. The fire had played out and was considered ‘held’ exactly 1 year (to the day) before our arrival this fall. A year later, the entire west side of the park remains closed as crews continue to clear downed trees from roads and rebuild trails to restore safety for hikers and visitors. According to the park website, as we were preparing to leave Lake Louise, there was only one day hiking trail and one campground open.
We had decided to not visit Waterton on this trip, but due to some shifts in our timing and the weather, we changed our minds. So glad we did!
‘Where the mountains meet the prairies’ is a pleasant enough motto, yet it’s tough to actually imagine until you see it. We had that jaw-dropping, OMG moment as we were driving toward the park and the slightly rolling prairie abruptly came face-to-face with snow-covered peaks that rise 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above the prairie floor.
Once in the park, we made our way to the sole open campground to find ourselves parked on the shore of the Upper Waterton Lake, surrounded by rugged mountains, with views of the tallest peaks in the park (including a few in the US beyond the border). We were a 2-block walk from downtown Waterton, a delightful, small resort village – a feature shared, as we’ve learned, with many of Canada’s national parks.
Our timing was inadvertently excellent! The day before we arrived, Parks Canada had re-opened two areas of the park, including a handful of interesting hikes. After snow cancelled a few of our hikes near Lake Louise, we could get in a few more hikes in Waterton!
Our first day in Waterton was a cool and crisp fall day. We hiked up to Bertha Lake, a glacial tarn in an amphitheater formed by the rock walls of Mounts Richards and Alderson with Bertha Peak. The start of the hike brought us along a shoulder of the Upper Waterton Lake with wide open views (after the fire…). As we climbed up through the Bertha Creek Valley, we passed the Lower Bertha Falls and at least 3 ‘practice’ falls along the way. A series of sharp switchbacks brought us to a huge view of the Waterton Lakes and prairie below us, and alongside the Upper Bertha Falls, before descending to Bertha Lake.
As impressive as Bertha Lake is, this beautiful lake hidden between the peaks high above the valley, the highlight of our hike was simply to witness the regenerative powers of the recently burned forest. In some places, the charred earth gave the impression of embers that might still be warm – a nice thought on a very cool day…but no. We were among blackened trees that had been in flames exactly a year ago, now surrounded by the contrast of wildflowers and new green vegetation that had reemerged, beginning a new cycle of growth. We were keenly aware of, and grateful for, the opportunity to be among the first to hike this recently re-opened trail.
Although the trails were calling us, the weather was again less than 100% cooperative. Rain, fog and low clouds – we could barely see the tops of the trees – hung around for 3 days. We took advantage of breaks in the weather to walk the trails through and around town. Our daily jaunts took us to the famed Prince of Wales Hotel, the Cameron Falls, along Middle and Upper Watertown Lakes, as well as past (ok, yes, even inside…) 49 Degrees North Pizza, Zum’s Eatery, and Welch’s Chocolate Shop and Bakery – all highly esteemed local landmarks.
On these walks, we had opportunity to talk with local residents who shared their heart-wrenching stories about the fire. All were incredibly thankful to the firefighters whose heroic actions, along with hundreds of lawn sprinklers placed on rooftops, saved Waterton Townsite – the homes and businesses of the roughly 100 village residents, and the cultural center of the national park. Despite seeing the mountainsides and charred trees from downtown, it’s hard to imagine 60-90 metre (200-300 foot) flames so close to so many homes and businesses.
Although Waterton Park has maintained operations throughout this summer and fall, big parts of the park along with many popular roads and trails remain closed. Unfortunately, this had a significant impact on the number of visitors to the park over the summer, with a commensurate economic impact on this small resort town.
We’d encourage anyone even remotely considering Waterton, or who hadn’t thought about including Waterton in a trip to Glacier National Park (US), to head up there. Never heard of Waterton? Visit! For a couple of years, this gem of a park will retain its beauty and stature as a National Park, without the National Park crowds. Until the scenic roads are open, the main roads through the park and partially open scenic drives will be car-reduced or car-free – great news for bicyclists! The shorter trails near town head to a remarkable variety of locations – lakes, waterfalls, historic buildings. A few longer day hikes are open, without lines of hikers. Those wanting more day hikes can easily combine shorter trails, or retrace the start of a prior day hike, heading to a different end point. (The start of the Bertha Lake trail branches off to the Lakeshore trail, Bertha Lake or Bertha Peak, all excellent day hikes.) Enjoy the huge open views made possible by the fire. Learn about the fascinating role fire plays in the regeneration of the forest. See the regeneration in action. And watch the website – sections of the park are continuously reopening.
You can bet we’re coming back!