Waterton-Castle-Crowsnest Pass: get to know that phrase. With the creation of the Castle Provincial Parks in 2017, this is a trifecta of Rocky Mountain awesomeness in southwest Alberta. Here’s a guide to some of the region’s hidden gems, all within an easy driving distance of each other.
Waterton Lakes National Park has been a jewel for generations, and remains so after the wildfires of 2017. Many campsites and hotels, including the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, remain open, as are restaurants, some of the hiking trails and some of the scenic drives and roads. Check the website before you go.
• Book a two-hour scenic boat ride on Upper Waterton Lake. Enjoy witty commentary as you cruise down to Goat Haunt in neighbouring Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana (yes, the boat ride spans two countries!). Keep an eye out for wildlife as you marvel at the spectacular Rocky Mountains.
• Do the Crypt Lake hike, one of Canada’s most talked-about hikes that includes a boat ride, a ladder, a tunnel and chains. Expect a couple of adrenaline jolts on the airy section before you chill out on the beach at Crypt Lake.
• Chow down on a gourmet hot-dog in a fresh-baked bun with homemade sauces at Weiners of Waterton.
• Enjoy a drink with a view down the length of Waterton Lake while you watch the sunset from the lounge at the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Alberta’s newest provincial parks, established in February 2017, protect an area of over 1,000 square kilometres near Pincher Creek. Together they provide vital habitat for bighorn sheep and grizzly bears with estimates of more than 50 grizzlies living in the Castle-Waterton corridor. Enjoy stunning scenery, excellent camping and a wide range of recreational opportunities including new backcountry huts, the first of which is scheduled to open in late 2018. Once they've opened, they will be operated by the Alpine Club of Canada.
• Catch the sunrise with an early morning start on a hike up Table Mountain. The reward: stellar views where the prairies meet the mountains.
• Looking for a workout with over 1,000 metres of elevation? Hike and bushwhack up Barnaby Ridge and enjoy superb views from Table Mountain to distant peaks.
• Go camping. You don’t even have to make a reservation to snag a spot. You have a choice of four front-country choices, including Beaver Mines Lake, Lynx Creek, Castle Falls and Castle River Bridge. There are a limitless number of backcountry sites in Castle Wildland Provincial Park, on one condition – you set your sleeping unit a minimum of one kilometre from existing amenities.
• Catch a couple of festivals at Castle Mountain Resort. The first – a running race called Wildr Rough Runner that includes a vertical sprint, a trail run and a five-kilometre obstacle course – takes place on June 1-2, 2018. At the end of the summer show up for the 23rd annual Huckleberry Festival over the Aug. 24 weekend.
• Hit one of the five trails at Castle Mountain Resort and get up into the high alpine. If it’s a weekend, finish with a beer and burger at T-bar Pub and Grub.
• Stop for a selfie at beautiful Lundbreck Falls just off Highway 3.
• Drive into the hamlet of Lundbreck for a cold one from Oldman River Brewing. Choose from four core brews and two to three seasonal beers along with food from local companies.
• Check out the Burmis Tree – likely the most photographed tree in Canada, thanks to its unique beauty. Located about 10 minutes east of the Frank Slide, this Limber Pine, estimated at hundreds of years old, is a heritage attraction and the subject of many pictures and poems.
• Take a stroll through time with a visit to the Leitch Colleries Provincial Historic Site. The pretty interpretive walk through wildflowers and the ruins of the only completely Canadian-owned coal mine includes story boards, photos and audio.
• Cool off on a hot summer’s day with a one-hour underground tour of the Bellevue Mine. Dress warmly as the temperature remains at a constant near-freezing mark.
• Walk the 1.5 kilometre Frank Slide Trail through car-sized boulders strewn helter skelter when part of Turtle Mountain collapsed during Canada’s second largest landslide in 1903. Don’t miss a stop at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre to hear the stories of horror and heroics in the aftermath of the 90-second landslide.
• Hike to the top of Turtle Mountain so you can peer over the edge to marvel at the scar left by the Frank Slide. You might find your heart rate is up – not just from the effort of hiking several thousand feet of vertical but by the possibility that, some day, there will be another landslide. Fortunately, monitoring equipment visible on the peak should provide a timely heads up.
• Do the moderate hike to Window Mountain Lake. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, this glittering blue lake is at its finest in summer when it’s warm enough to swim, camping is free and the wildflowers put on a show.
• The Miner’s Path – a heritage and nature trail in Coleman is ideal for those short on time. Over 60 - 90 minutes, enjoy the sound of birds, remnants from the McGillvary Mine Site and a pretty waterfall as you climb gently alongside Nez Pearce Creek.
• Enjoy stellar views along with some leg burn when you mountain bike the trails at Pass Powderkeg Ski Hill in Blairmore. There’s a trail for every level of mountain biker.
• Go local and have a glass of Steep Peak Kombucha. You’ll find it at Beaver Mines General Store, the Health Hub in Coleman and the Holy Ghost Café and Music Hall in a converted church in Coleman.
• Need a caffeine hit? Stop in at the Stone’s Throw or Cinnamon Bear Café in Blairmore.
• Spend a night at Beauvais Lake Provincial Park near Beaver Mines. With over 18 kilometres of hiking trails, fabulous birding, lots of canoeing and kayaking along with fishing, this park literally has something for everyone.