We have a lot of favorite destinations that we like to travel to every summer on our family camping trips. Over the last couple of years, we’ve begun to realize that these places are just as much fun to visit in the winter. We swap out hiking boots for skis, pack snowshoes instead of boats and choose a comfortable hotel to avoid camping in the snow.
Waterton is an annual summer destination for us, and we always head down to Alberta’s southern-most national park for a long weekend of camping, paddling and hiking. Last January, we decided to see what this popular park was like in winter.
What to expect from a winter visit to Waterton
Remove 99 per cent of the tourists, add snow banks high enough to form a giant wall along the town streets and picture yourself in the middle of your own private town. This is Waterton in winter. I walked down the town streets at night and didn’t see a single soul outside with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have skied down the middle of Main Street without encountering a single vehicle.
We brought our sleds, skis and snowshoes, and enjoyed having the popular tourist sites to ourselves without the normal summer crowds we’ve always come to expect. While Waterton may resemble a ghost town in winter with few amenities open, you’ll be rewarded richly with solitude that is hard to come by in a popular resort town.
Top Waterton winter experiences
Snowshoe or ski to Cameron Lake - In summer, you’d drive to Cameron Lake and then fight the hordes of tourists for views of this beautiful mountain lake. In winter, you get to ski or snowshoe the final 2.5 kilometres of the Upper Akamina Parkway to reach Cameron Lake. Only strong winter lovers make the round trip journey - so solitude is guaranteed! Bring a sled when traveling with children and the trip is much easier! Expect wind and dress warm.
Snowshoe to Crandall Lake - We’ve hiked this trail in summer and it was scenic. The same trail in winter is absolutely magical! From the Akamina Parkway, it is a short 2.4-kilometre hike that even a four-year-old can do on snowshoes. Height gain is minimal, and you’ll be rewarded with having the popular lake all to yourselves. Stop for a rest at the campground, build a snowman and make snow angels on the frozen lake.
Walk along the quiet lakeshore of Upper Waterton Lake on the town site trail - In summer, you can barely take two steps on this trail before you run into a group of people. In winter, the trail is yours alone and the peace and quiet is glorious. Animal sightings are very common on the quiet town streets and the frozen Cameron Falls are a beautiful site to visit. A sled can be useful for this hike, but you won’t need snowshoes or skis. The wind in Waterton is very good at ensuring this path stays clear of deep snow drifts all winter long.
Go for a walk or snowshoe along any of the closed roads near town - You wouldn’t want to walk down the busy Red Rock Parkway in summer. But in winter, this popular tourist road is closed, and you can snowshoe or hike down the middle of the road and enjoy the snowy prairie vistas. Other popular roads are the small access roads that lead to the Hay Barn or Marquis Hole day-use areas. Both roads lead to the Waterton River where you can look for animal tracks and maybe even hike on some frozen ice. Both roads cross wide open prairie and offer up beautiful mountain scenery around you.
Where to stay in Waterton
There are only two hotels open in winter. You can stay at either the Waterton Glacier Suites or the Waterton Lakes Lodge. Both hotels offer on-site dining, which is good because all other restaurants in town are closed for the winter.
Other things you should know about Waterton in the winter
Bring any supplies with you before you leave on your adventure! All stores and the gas station are closed and do not open again until the May long weekend. Even the local church closes for the winter and local children go to school in nearby Pincher Creek. Top up on gas in Pincher Creek en route to Waterton. It will be your last chance.
Tanya loves hiking, camping, skiing and all things mountain related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com, and the founder of Calgary Outdoor Playgroups on Facebook. More information about her playgroups can be found on her blog.
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