Wildflowers bloom and glacier-fed lakes sparkle in this isolated corner of southwestern Alberta, where the prairies meet the mountains, inviting a huge variety of flora (it's considered the wildflower capital of Canada), and fauna, from grizzlies to mountain sheep. Watertonian and Indiana transplant Beth Towe stopped here 35 years ago and never left. "I saw bison, elk, deer, several bear, a moose, and a scat of mountain sheep—all on my first day," Towe says.
Spanning a relatively small 122,788 acres, Waterton Lakes is the smallest national park in the Canadian Rockies, but it's also one of the best for quietly—and safely—observing the bears. Contiguous with Montana's Glacier National Park, it is the Canadian half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, created in 1932 as a symbol of goodwill between the two countries. If you're an experienced paddler, a kayak trip south across Cameron Lake (and the U.S.-Canadian border) could provide a floating, front-row view of grizzlies feeding and resting on the surrounding slopes.
When to Go: Although the park is open year-round, over half its visitors come in July and August. In spring, Waterton's 900 species of wildflowers and plants begin blooming along the lakeshores and across the prairie and mountain meadows. June's Waterton Wild Flower Festival celebrates the explosion of color—rare orchids, bear grass, and 30 kinds of flowers that only grow here—with photography workshops, guided hikes, and field classes. Says Banff transplant Mary Harding, "It's like walking through a bouquet wherever you go." Fall foliage paints the landscapes in wonderful yellows and reds, and late autumn hosts thousands of migrating waterfowl. Blasting chinook winds make Waterton one of the warmest areas in Alberta each winter; however, visitor facilities, services, and accommodation options are limited.
How to Get Around: The 158-mile drive to the park from the Calgary airport into the Rockies is one of Canada's most scenic. U.S. residents can access the park from Montana through the Chief Mountain (open May to September) or Carway/Piegan crossing (open year-round). All three of the Waterton Lakes (Upper, Middle, and Lower) are along the entry road. There are about 120 miles of hiking trails in the park, along with more than 200 miles of mountain biking trails. June through early September, book a shuttle ride with Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters to reach Cameron Lake and popular biking, hiking, and backpacking routes. To cover more ground, resident Towe, also a local tour guide, picks up a horse at Alpine Stables, which provides guided horseback tours.
Where to Stay: Parks Canada operates three campsites in the park. The townsite grounds are ideal for RVs and close to the town's amenities. The Crandell Mountain campsite is along the Red Rock Parkway and features five traditional tepees for rent. Belly River is an unserviced, primitive campground open seasonally for those seeking more seclusion. Opened by Great Northern Railway in 1927, the Prince of Wales Hotel was designed to lure American tourists into the Rockies with its luxury accommodation and sweeping views. It still does. Other good options include the Waterton Glacier Suites, Aspen Village Inn, and Crandell Mountain Lodge.
What to Eat or Drink: Enjoy Albertan beef at the Lakeside Chophouse, which has a patio overlooking the lakes. For a quick lunch, follow the crowd to Wieners of Waterton for gourmet hotdogs and sweet potato fries. Hiker-favorite Pearl's Café hosts the Waterton Hiking Meetup Group, so it's easy to join a group hike here. Before hitting the trail, fuel up with a Hungry Hiker breakfast wrap (scrambled eggs, sausage, cheddar cheese, salsa, bacon, peppers, greens, and mayo).
What to Buy: Books, local souvenirs, and guides about the area can be picked up at the Waterton Natural History Association Heritage Centre. Worth the Splurge on Waterton Avenue carries an eclectic mix of jewelry, locally blown glass, crystals, soaps, and lotions. Find leathers, fur, and locally made sheepskin at Caribou Clothes.
What to Read Before You Go: Wild Country: The Best of Andy Russell (McClellan & Stewart, 2004). This sampler collection of stories by Canada's beloved cowboy raconteur and Waterton Valley native celebrates Alberta's wildest spaces.
Fun Fact: "Camera trapping" allows park biologists to better monitor Waterton Lakes' wildlife and trail usage. About 25 specially designed digital cameras with infrared motion detectors are positioned in trees to capture images of animals, hikers, and mountain bikers as they pass by along some trails.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.