Magnificent Waterton Lakes National Park is full of surprises

by Jim Byers

This might be the most under-appreciated national park in Canada.

Ask Canadians about Waterton Lakes, and probably half the time you’ll get a blank stare. Other times, you’ll get a small nod and the response, “I’ve heard it’s beautiful.” Most of the time, the latter phrase is followed by “But I haven’t made it yet.”
Me? I don’t remember when the place first entered my mind. But I get reminded it of every time I go home to my Dad’s house in California. For years, he’s had a black and white drawing of Waterton Lakes on a Zum’s Restaurant coffee mug that he bought years ago while visiting the park with my late Mom and some friends. I always drink my coffee out of that mug when I go home, but this time I wanted to see the real thing.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Located only three hours south of Calgary, Waterton simply took my breath away, with an outrageously beautiful lake and several smaller ones nearby, towering, snow-clad mountains, spectacular canyon drives, gushing waterfalls and a very laid-back feel to the main town, which makes Jasper feel like Banff and Banff feel like Calgary in terms of scale.

The Prince of Wales Hotel sits high on a bluff overlooking the lake as if it’s some kind of lord surveying his manor. It’s a throwback kind of place where there’s no Wi-Fi and no TV’s in the room. But who needs those when you can bask in the view of Waterton Lake and the mountains rising up behind.

I had a nice room at The Waterton Glacier Suites, with a spa tub in my room and a fireplace, plus free Wi-Fi and comfortable furnishings a block or so from the lake. I made a beeline for Zum’s and got the same coffee mug I use at my Dad’s place, then soaked up the funky interior with its colourful signs and license plate frames. I had good fried chicken on the patio as I watched the sun go down and the dusk deepen in the crisp mountain air. The Bayshore Pub makes a very good linguini with arugula, shrimp and tomatoes (try for the patio overlooking the lake), while Weiners of Waterton has fabulous hot dogs, as well as excellent coffee and wonderful orange scones and famous cinnamon rolls at breakfast.

I also stumbled into a remarkable concert at a restored spot in town called the Opera House, where you’ll find a motorcycle on display high over your head as well as colourful lanterns and old travel posters. They serve Vietnamese coffee during the day but I’m here at night and opts for a beer as I watch a Vancouver-based band called Petunia and the Vipers. The singer has a nasal, western twang and the band includes a wonderful guitar player and a great fiddler. They also will toss in a washboard or kazoo now and then, and they play everything from surf-influenced music to stuff that sounds like The Stray Cats or the Doors or Hank Williams. When I was there, an older woman of maybe 60 got up and danced on her own for a few minutes until two young women in perky sundresses joined her.

It’s a truly marvellous place, and the music was completely unexpected. But folks who come here usually aren’t looking for live music or fancy food or moose-dropping candies. This is an outdoors destination where it’s all about the glories of nature.

It’s also a World Heritage Site and an “International Peace Park” that’s governed jointly by Canada (Waterton Lakes) and the U.S., where it’s called Glacier National Park.

The main hiking attraction right in town, as it were, is hiking a knobby outcropping called Bear’s Hump. It’s a rise of about 800 feet and has some very steep sections and a half-ton of switchbacks, but I managed it in a half-hour and there were small kids bounding along beside me at times. You pass tiny yellow and pink flowers along the way if you’re in early summer and soon find yourself surrounded by fragrant Ponderosa pines and ancient rock.
The views from the top are nothing short of remarkable, with Waterton Lake stretching out far to the south into the U.S. and jagged, ancient peaks flanking the water. Especially striking are the row of outcroppings on the U.S. side called Citadel Peaks. The Prince of Wales, which seems to tower over the lake from below, looks like a Rocky Mountain doll house from the Bears’ Hump.

Folks who don’t want anything quite that strenuous can try a lake cruise with the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. I took the evening cruise, a two-hour, narrated affair where we stopped briefly at the U.S. customs station on the American side of the lake. You can find out a great deal of information along the way, including how it’s a unique part of the world where the prairies meet the mountains. You’ll also hear some entertaining stories about locals, including a woman named Eleanor Hunter who wasn’t allowed to go on a fishing trip with the men so stayed behind and fished on shore, catching the largest lake trout ever caught in Waterton Lake. Take that, gentlemen!

I took two stunning drives in the park. In my car, I navigated my way along the Akamina Parkway out to Cameron Lake, passing the site of Alberta’s first oil town and watching boats and swimmers navigate the cool waters in the shadow of Mt. Custer. It’s a wonderful drive. I didn’t see any bears, but I did spot a ton of mountain sheep crossing the road. Even better was a moped ride I took out the Red Rock Parkway to Red Rock Canyon a narrow slot with a rushing creek you can navigate on foot. The mountains tower high over your head as you meander through the canyon, and the wildflowers in early July were a rainbow of pinks, yellows and blues.  It’s one of the great drives I’ve taken anywhere on the planet.

There’s also a Buffalo or Bison Paddock where you can check out bison grazing on deep green grass in the shadows of the mountains. It was enough to make a fan of western movies and old-time books about native life on the Prairies want to cry.

As if that wasn’t enough, I also managed time for afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales, where you can get a choice of a half-dozen types of tea (or coffee) and nibble on sandwiches with prosciutto and arugula or scarf down apple cinnamon scones and biscotti dipped in white chocolate, among other treats of a totally non-fattening nature. They have 87 rooms in the hotel, which was built back in 1927 to resemble a Swiss mountain lodge with exposed interior timbers. The rooms are casual and so is the vibe.

I also managed to squeeze in 18 holes of golf at the Waterton Lakes Golf Course, a super casual place with sensational lake and mountain views that costs just $70, including a cart, for a “play all day” package. “You can play 18 holes in the morning, go for lunch and come back,” a woman in the pro shop tells me. I’m not dressed for golf so I ask what the dress code is. “Our only rule is no muscle shirts and no butt cracks,” she says with a laugh.

I love this place.

To read more from Jim Byers, visit his website.

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