When it comes to places to see on a summer road trip, Western Canada is blessed. Nowhere is that more spectacularly apparent than in the foothills that roll up to the Rockies at Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
Accenting the views is the frisson generated by meteorological mood swings around this park that anchors the province’s southwestern corner. Dry down-slope winds that can raise temperatures by as much as 30° F in several hours regularly blow through here, which is why Waterton is known as the chinook capital of Canada.
Just ask biologist John Russell, long-time resident of Twin Butte, a crossroads community just north of the park. When the Georgia Straight met Russell earlier this month, he was clearing fallen poplars blown onto the road that leads to the family compound built by his father, Andy, a renowned author and photographer. “It was like a winter storm here two days ago,” he said. “The winds must have been over 100 miles an hour.”
With gorgeous scenery on all sides, small wonder that Russell’s parents took up residence there in the 1920s. “Lots of people come in summer, fall in love with the place, and decide to move here.” In a wry understatement, Russell observed that come winter, most find the winds “a little bit much” and move on. When asked how many months of the year such conditions prevail, he replied: “Thirteen.”
Whether a chinook is blowing or not, Waterton Lakes National Park can rightfully claim to be the jewel in the so-called Crown of the Continent, a massive 44,000-square-kilometre ecoregion spread between B.C.’s Elk Valley and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana. One look at the reflection of mountain peaks on the trio of lakes’ emerald- and turquoise-hued surfaces confirms that assertion.
Established in 1895 as the fourth member of Canada’s fledgling national-park system, Waterton occupies a unique geographical chokepoint on the Canada–U.S. border, where the Rockies face off against the prairies. In summer, swaths of yellow canola spread across foothills already green with timothy hay over what is referred to as the Waterton Biosphere Reserve’s front range. From a highway viewpoint at Pine Ridge, the tableau is so arresting that park-bound visitors often come to a halt. For West Coasters who treasure Fraser Valley farm fields, the sheer scale of Alberta’s rural rangeland elevates such appreciation to another dimension.
Veteran national-park employees marvel at the ease with which visitors can explore every corner of Waterton Lakes National Park. When reached by phone at the park’s information centre, spokesperson Janice Smith told the Straight that Waterton Lakes has a global reputation for one of the best-kept trail systems in North America. “There’s such easy access everywhere in the park by roads and trails. Unlike Banff or most of the other parks in the Rockies, we’re not hemmed in by mountains. Instead, we think of ourselves as living on the prairie with the mountains at our backs,” she said.
Smith pointed out that Waterton Lakes—as the junior half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park—has a unique relationship with Glacier National Park, its Montana counterpart. “It’s the greatest thing about working at Waterton. We’ve got such good relations with the Glacier rangers. There’s a lot we share in common, but differences, too, that characterize Canada–U.S. bonds and remind us that boundaries are a human construct.”
One of the best ways to explore the two parks is to follow the moderate, family-friendly Lakeshore Trail that leads 18 kilometres from the Waterton Lakes town site along the western shoreline to Glacier Park’s Goat Haunt ranger station at the southern end of Upper Waterton Lake.
Aside from some up-and-down at the outset, most of the single-track trail rambles along on a relatively level course and passes through several welcoming campgrounds. For those who make it all the way, the reward is a ride back on Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co.’s classic M.V. International. Built in 1927 to carry 165 passengers, the tour boat makes two-hour, round-trip scenic cruises throughout the day, with a running commentary on geographical features and historical occurrences in the International Peace Park.
“There are excellent guides on board,” Smith explained, “who impart a local flavour because most of them have grown up around here. Since the community first started in 1910, when leaseholds were created, Waterton has maintained its small-town feel. In winter, the population drops to about 35 and goes up to around 300 in summers. Our business owners are the face of the park.”
Even if you only attempt the first two kilometres of the Lakeshore Trail to Bertha Bay, the rewards will more than justify the effort, not simply for the panoramic views but also for the magnificent array of wildflowers on display. Not for nothing does Alberta style itself as the Wild Rose province. Just remember to hang onto your hat when the chinooks blow.
Access: Waterton Lakes National Park lies in southwestern Alberta; it can be accessed by highways 3 and 6; see the Parks Canada website. For info on commercial services in Waterton Lakes, see their website . For info on the Waterton Park Front, see their website. For boat travel on Upper Waterton Lake, see their website.