Sun slants though pines as our hike to the lakeside reveals a peaceful shoreline. I relax and listen to the lapping water, the soft lake breeze carrying the sounds of waterfowl. Raising my binoculars, I watch a deer step gingerly from the bushes. She lifts her head and then bounds away.
Waterton Lakes National Park teems with wildlife, especially in autumn when the elk clash during rutting season, the larch trees flare to brilliant yellow and flocks of golden eagles migrate overhead. The park is also home to the elusive wolverine, black and grizzly bears, wolves, deer, coyotes and cougars, as well as 250 species of birds.
It’s also the smallest national park in the Canadian Rockies – 505 sq km (195 sq mi) – but because of its unique geography (often referred to as where the mountains meet the prairies) and four different ecosystems, it is home to a wide variety of plants – over 1,000 species. More numbers? Fifty per cent of all Alberta’s plants grow here, with 175 rare species.
And despite its size, the park is criss-crossed with over 200 km (~125 mi) of hiking trails, some ranked in the top ten in Canada.
We usually start our day at the Visitor Information Centre in town to learn about any trail closures and cautions and what kinds of wildflowers are in bloom. A conveniently located trail off the parking lot is Bear’s Hump. It’s a short but steep workout that pays off in an unparalleled view of Upper Waterton Lake with the Waterton town nestled below.
For a gentler pace, take a short meander along the Bertha Lake Trail to the falls. It starts near the Waterton Townsite Campground. When we pause to take in the view of Upper Waterton Lake, where the trail breaks out of the forest, our debate begins. Continue on to Bertha Lake after the falls, or head back to town for a treat from Pearl’s Café? It’s a rewarding decision either way – a visual feast or one for the taste buds.
Up the Red Rock Parkway
If it’s peak wildflower season (late June or early July), there’s no doubt that my vote is for the Red Rock Parkway. There’s a small pull-in – complete with an interpretive display about grizzly bears – that leads towards the Buffalo Paddock, past mountain and prairie wildflowers scattered through aspen groves and rolling grasslands.
At the end of the road, a short, paved path loops around Red Rock Canyon. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Stroll the easy 500 m (0.3 mi) path though pine forests to Blakiston Falls. Or, if you’re up for a bigger challenge, walk to Goat Lake. At 7 km (4.3 mi) with a steeper ascent, it certainly gets the heart rate up, but it’s one of the best places in the park to see mountain goats.
Along the Akamina
Winding up from town towards Cameron Lake, the Akamina Parkway is my family’s favourite choice for walking. Last summer, just below the Crandell Lake trail, we spotted a black bear eating dandelions at the roadside.
Welcome to nature at its finest at the crown of the continent.