We wave back at the boat full of happy sightseers as it pulls away from the secluded dock. While they will continue on with their scenic cruise on Upper Waterton Lake, we are heading for a six-hour (round trip) adventure on a hiking trail ranked one of the best in the country.
Crypt Lake Trail in Waterton Lakes National Park is bucket list material. In 2014, National Geographic rated it among the “World’s 20 Most Thrilling Trails.” The only way to the trailhead is by boat, a 15 minute trip from the dock at Waterton townsite. Taking Waterton Shoreline Cruise’s early morning departure gives us plenty of time to do the hike and be back to the dock for the last pick-up of the day. We camped in town overnight and got to the dock early to reserve seats. If camping isn’t your thing, there are a number of inns and hotels to choose from.
More than Just a Hike
At roughly 17 km (10.5 mi) with an elevation gain of 700 m (2,297 ft), Crypt Lake Trail is no walk in the park. But it’s not that difficult if you are reasonably fit and looking for bragging rights. And if hiking through fragrant forests past four spectacular waterfalls sounds like fun, just think how thrilling it will be to climb a steel ladder and crawl through a cave to eventually stand at the shores of a pristine alpine lake.
My husband sets a relaxed pace along the well-marked trail, zig-zagging up through dense stands of fir, spruce and pine. It’s not long before we hear the rush of water tumbling over Hell Roaring Falls. Farther along the valley, we skip the detour to Twin Falls and soon afterward come upon a single strand of Burnt Rock Falls cascading 15 m (~50 ft) to an amphitheatre below – most impressive during spring run-off in early June. By early September it slows to a trickle. The sun is warm on our backs. A pair of Stellar’s jays chatter at us as we pass.
As we climb steadily up the sun drenched slope, the vistas get better and better. In the distance, Crypt Falls plunges 200 m (655 ft) from the large hanging valley that hides Crypt Lake between the ridges of Mount Boswell to the west and Vimy Ridge where we now stand. We stop to soak it all in and take photos. It’s breathtaking. And it means we are almost at the tunnel.
Ladders and Caves, Lakes and Borders
Climbing a 3 m (10ft) ladder is followed by waddling 20 m (65 ft) through a low-ceilinged rock tunnel lit by daylight seeping in at both ends. Once through, the path continues along a very narrow precipice that you’ll need to negotiate with care. Some helpful soul has bolted a cable to the natural wall to hold onto. Use both hands and watch your footing; it’s perfectly safe. Not far off, three mountain goats seem to watch us in amusement.
Almost there. After a short walk through light alpine forest, we arrive at the shores of aquamarine Crypt Lake and break out our well-earned picnic lunch. The view is stunning and changes throughout the hiking season. The towering peaks shading the lake can make ice last through June. One August hike, we walked to the snowpack at the south end to unofficially cross the Canada/US border.
The hike back to the boat launch is all downhill so we easily reach the dock in time, passing deer and elk along the way. It’s great to watch all the other hikers come through the trees, patting each other on the back and high-fiving everyone as we wait for our boat to arrive. From the sounds of it, most will be back next year.
- Boat Cruises