Photograph by Lowell Georgia, National Geographic
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Clouds settle between the mountains behind Waterton Lake and the Prince of Wales Hotel.

Photograph by Lowell Georgia, National Geographic

Waterton Lakes National Park

Part of the first international peace park, Waterton Lakes dazzles with outstanding scenery, easygoing wildlife, and picturesque tree-lined coasts.

Location: Alberta
Date Established: 1895
Size: 124,788 acres

The deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies (444 feet, 135 meters) and the first oil well in western Canada (1902) are both found in Waterton, a small park named in honor of English naturalist Charles Waterton. Set where Alberta's prairies meet the Rocky Mountains, Waterton has special significance as the Canadian portion of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Park Facts

Border Park: Waterton sits in the extreme southwestern corner of Alberta, sharing boundaries with British Columbia and Montana in the United States. It’s “where the mountains meet the prairies,” as locals like to say. Indeed, lush native grassland rolls right up to the colorful peaks, which have been carved from sedimentary rock well over a billion years old.

Picture-Perfect: With its outstanding scenery, sunny weather, easygoing wildlife, and picturesque tree-lined coasts, Waterton is a photographer’s paradise. The park’s isolation, far from any urban center and off the beaten track, keeps the crowds small.

Hikes and Bikes: All three of the Waterton Lakes lie along the entry road. Other paved routes provide quick access to park highlights. One of the hiking trails is world famous, while mountain bikers will find several trails open to them, too.

How to Get There

The closest international airport is located at Calgary, 158 miles (254 kilometers) away. From Calgary, take Highway 2 to Fort Macleod (102 miles, 164 kilometers), then turn west along Highway 3 for 60 miles (97 kilometers) to Pincher Creek, where Highway 6 runs southward for 31 very scenic miles (50 kilometers) to the park gate. Highway 5 continues another 5 miles (8 kilometers) to the “townsite” of Waterton Park, as Parks Canada describes the in-park community, summer population about 2,500. From east or west, take Highway 3 to Pincher Creek.

From the United States, you can enter the park directly. Take Mont. 17 north to the Chief Mountain border crossing and continue into Alberta on Highway 6. Be sure to inquire in advance of your visit for the Canadian post’s hours of operation and seasonal closures.

When to Go

Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017 and, to celebrate, it's offering everyone free admission to its national parks. Waterton is open year-round, but windy weather discourages visitors in winter. Few services are available in the park between October and May, when some roads are subject to closure and the townsite population drops to fewer than 40.

Spring arrives in early May. The park is busiest in July and August, when daytime temperatures reach over 70ºF (21ºC) and may hit the mid-90sºF (around 32ºC).

Low-elevation wildflowers are at their best in June, while the high country above tree line is most colorful in mid-July. Waterton’s many aspen groves paint the valley floors and lower slopes brilliantly yellow in September.

How to Visit

You’ll want a full day to tour the park’s three byways, so get an early start. Morning light on the mountain front is a spectacle best appreciated from the Waterton Valley viewpoint along the Chief Mountain Highway (Highway 6) in the eastern part of the park.

Return to the townsite for brunch and enjoy a breezy stroll along the shore of Upper Waterton Lake. The M.V. International and other passenger vessels cruise the lake. Since the waves may get bigger as the day goes by, morning is a good time to take the two-hour-plus cruise boat ride down the lake and back.

Then head up scenic Red Rock Parkway to Red Rock Canyon. The canyon is aptly named, very photogenic, and great fun for the kids.

End your day by taking the Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake to see stately peaks resplendent in the afternoon sun. The lake offers a smashing view to craggy peaks at the far end, just across the international boundary, plus rare botanical delights along the shoreline.

This text was adapted from the National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada.