Waterton Lakes National Park is a relatively undiscovered gem in Alberta, Canada.
Often overshadowed by Alberta’s other two far more popular Rocky Mountain nationals parks, Jasper and Banff, Waterton is every bit as beautiful.
What’s more, as the park is connected to Glacier National Park in the US, it is more easily accessible for American visitors.
In this article, I’ll describe how to enjoy the best of this small national park in a single day. For a longer visit, you can find even more ideas in my guide to the best things to do in Waterton.
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Good to Know: This guide to how to see the best of Waterton Lakes National Parks in one day comes to us from Nick Kembel.
Nick was born and raised in Alberta. After two decades of traveling and living abroad, he is now back home getting reacquainted with his home province.
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Where to Stay Near Waterton Lakes National Park
If you won’t be camping and would like accommodations near the park, here are the most popular places to stay near Waterton Lakes National Park.
Prince of Wales Hotel – this historic hotel features prominently on this Waterton Lakes itinerary, so why not start or end your day here? It’s also the best-reviewed hotel near the park!
For a more budget-friendly option, check into the Crandell Mountain Lodge.
The Perfect One Day Waterton Lakes Itinerary
Now let’s dive right into how to plan the perfect day in Waterton Lakes National Park, from general info and transportation to activities and other things to know.
An Overview of Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes National Park is a relatively small (195 sq mi) national park located at the southwestern corner of Alberta.
It is 125 miles (as the bird flies) south of Banff, Canada’s most popular national park.
In 1932, Waterton was combined with Glacier National Park across the Canada–US border in Montana as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind.
Together, the two parks are a UNESCO-recognized Biosphere Reserve.
The park’s name refers to three large, connected lakes at the center of the park: Upper, Middle, and Lower Waterton Lakes.
Waterton townsite, where nearly all of the park’s hotels and other amenities are found, is located on the shore of Upper Waterton Lake.
The iconic Prince of Wales Hotel is perched on a hill overlooking the town. The hotel was first opened in 1927 and is a National Historic Site.
Waterton Lakes is considered by locals a less touristy alternative to Jasper and Banff.
They especially appeal to lovers of outdoor activities, with hiking, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, fishing, cycling, stand-up paddleboarding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing being especially popular.
The park is also known for its abundance of wildflowers. Bighorn sheep, deer, and bears are notably common.
It’s very important to be bear safe and carry bear spray everywhere you go in Waterton.
In September 2017, the Kenow Fire destroyed huge swaths of forest in Waterton, and blackened trees are still visible throughout the park today.
How to Get to Waterton Lakes National Park
There is a one-day guided tour available from Calgary if you do not want to drive to the park and travel on your own.
Coming from the United States, visitors have three options for reaching Waterton Lakes National Park (all subject to current border restrictions).
By car, it is a one-hour drive from the village of St. Mary, Montana on the Chief Mountain International Highway.
A second option is to take a ferry across Upper Waterton Lake, from Goat Haunt Ranger Station in Glacier National Park to Waterton townsite.
The highly scenic ride takes 1 hour and 15 minutes. The ferries (when running) are operated by Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co.
Finally, serious hikers can walk the entire length of Upper Water Lake on Boundary Bay Trail; there is a small border crossing station on the trail, so all necessary documents will be checked and current border restrictions apply.
Getting Around Waterton Lakes National Park
No public shuttles or buses are operating in Water Lakes National Park, so driving is the best way to get there.
If you need to rent a car for your trip, I use Discover Cars on my travels.
Because of the park’s relatively small size, though, you can explore much of it by bicycle or e-bike.
Both can be rented from Pat’s Waterton Gas & Cycle or Blakiston & Co. in Waterton townsite. The best rides are along the Akamina and Red Rock Canyon Parkways.
The Best Time to Visit Waterton Lakes National Park
Summer (July and August) is by far the most popular time to visit Waterton Lakes, National Park.
Summer is the best weather-wise, but even in summer it can get cold and you can still see snow at higher elevations, so come prepared.
Waterton is also known for being extremely windy at times. Summer is the only time you might brave a tip in the icy waters of the park’s lakes.
In winter, many hotels, restaurants, and other facilities in Waterton close for the season and don’t open again until the May long weekend.
Avalanche warnings can also cause entire roads or areas of the park to close in winter.
June and early July, which is still considered spring in Waterton, is the best time to see wildflowers. Autumn is considered an especially good time to spot wildlife.
How to Spend One Day in Waterton
While you won’t have a chance to do any major hikes, it is possible to see the best of Waterton Lakes National Park in twenty-four hours or less!
Start the Day
In the morning, I suggest starting your day at Driftwood Beach.
This is a long beach on the north shore of Upper Water Lake that offers the picture-postcard view of the Prince of Wales Hotel as golden rays of sunshine from the rising sunlight it up.
As the name suggests, the beach is covered in driftwood blown across the lake by Waterton’s famous winds. The beach is only a few minutes’ drive out of Waterton townsite.
After snapping your mandatory Prince of Wales Hotel shots, drive the scenic, winding Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake (30 min).
There, rent a canoe or kayak and paddle your way around this stunning alpine lake.
If you’re lucky and the lake is calm (the earlier you come, the higher the chance; the rental shop opens at 9 a.m.), you’ll experience drop-dead gorgeous views of mountains reflecting in the lake.
It takes about 1.5 hours to paddle a full circuit around the lake. At the southern end of the lake, you’ll technically be in the United States!
There are no restaurants along the parkway, so either pack some food or return to Waterton townsite for lunch.
For something really special, splurge on the afternoon tea at the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, with incredible views of Upper Waterton Lake.
This option also means you don’t have to drive into town and find parking there.
Next, drive the park’s second scenic road, Red Rock Canyon Parkway, to its namesake, Red Rock Canyon.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Cameron Lake or 25 minutes from Waterton town, but you’ll likely stop a few times along the way to take photos of the views.
Red Rock Canyon is one of Waterton’s most unique and popular attractions. There, a creek trickles through a canyon of bright red stone.
A trail runs along either side of the canyon, with various points where you can climb down into and take a dip in the cool water.
The canyon is extremely popular, so you can expect crowds, especially on weekends in summer.
From the canyon, it’s worth walking the 1.5-mile trail (one hour return) to roaring Blakiston Falls. There’re lots of wildflowers and evidence of the Kenow Fire along the way.
Depending on your energy level by late afternoon, you can choose from one of two activities.
The first is to find a cozy spot on Waterton Beach, the rocky beach running along the length of Waterton townsite.
The beach is incredibly beautiful at this time when the setting sun shines on the slopes of the mountains across the lake.
If you need a sweet treat to complete the experience, Big Scoop Ice Cream is only a few steps away from the shore.
You may also want to check out beautiful Cameron Falls, which is right on the edge of town.
Alternatively, for those who still have the energy, Bear’s Hump trail offers one of the best views in the national park.
The trail begins from a small parking lot across from the entrance to Prince of Wales Hotel, just out of Waterton townsite.
It’s only about half an hour to the top of the hill overlooking the town, but it’s straight up, so prepare for some serious huffing and puffing.
The view of the town, the lakes, and surrounding valleys from the top is definitely worth it.
You don’t necessarily have to be at the top for sunset; the lighting is actually best a couple of hours before sunset.
Reward yourself for a day of serious explorations by taking your pick of the many excellent restaurants in town.
If craft beer is your thing, Thirsty Bear is the only spot in town with a range of beers on tap from local Alberta breweries. The food is also excellent, including their enormous fish tacos.
Another establishment that stands out is Trappers Mountain Grill, which specializes in slow-smoked meats and local trout.
If you’re really thirsty, go for the enormous, 34-oz “trapper’s size” beer.
Some of the best quick options include Wieners of Waterton, The Taco Bar, and Pizza of Waterton. Lakeside Chophouse has the only patio with a lake view.
Spend Extra Time
The following are some extra activities that you could add on should you decide to spend more days in the park.
Camping in Waterton
There are several campgrounds in Waterton Lakes National Pak. The Waterton Townsite Campground is the most convenient, right beside town.
There are no campfires, but the campground’s beaches on Upper Waterton Lake are excellent, and you can access several hikes on foot from the campsite.
Two other large campgrounds, Crandell Mountain Campground and Belly River Campground remain closed at the time of writing.
The park also has 10 backcountry campsites that you can hike into.
Crypt Lake Trail
The hike to Crypt Lake is the most famous is Waterton Lakes National Park, especially after National Geographic named it one of the world’s most thrilling hikes.
The 12.7-mile return trek up a valley to alpine Crypt Lake, which straddles the Canada–US border, includes a notorious section involving a narrow path across a rockslide, a ladder, a tunnel, and a rope section along a ridge.
Though exhilarating, the hike itself is not particularly difficult, but rather long (most finish in 6–8 hours).
To reach the trailhead, you need to take a boat, run by Waterton Shoreline Cruise, Co., with 2 sailings per day in either direction.
The ferries can be booked the day before, or in the morning of the same day.
Other Outdoor Activities
Besides all the typical outdoor activities I mentioned in the article, you can go on a guided horseback trip through the park with Alpine Stables.
There’s also an 18-hole golf course in Waterton.
Last but not least, Waterton is an official Dark Sky Reserve. Stargazing tours are offered by Dark Sky Guides.
What to Pack for Waterton Lakes National Park
The Best Easy Day Hiking Guide and Trail Map Bundle: Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
A Waterproof Passport Holder so that if something happens when you are near the water, your passport and important IDs don’t get wet.
I’ve seen people denied boarding on flights due to wet passports, and you can technically not be allowed to go over the border.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc).
I use the Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Packable Travel Hiking Backpack Daypack when I travel in national parks. It’s not expensive and gets the job done!
More Canada Travel Resources
Getting out and exploring Canada? Here are my Canada travel resources to help you plan your trip!
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Get out and explore Alberta’s nature with this Waterton Lakes itinerary!
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Before Your Trip to Canada – Don’t Forget about Travel Insurance!
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