Located in Southern Alberta, Waterton Lakes National Park is often left off the Alberta travel list, but this unique national park should not be missed.
Waterton Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park, and a Biosphere Reserved that shares this honor with neighboring Glacier National Park in Montana. While you are there, it would be a shame not to cross the border to see Glacier National Park.
With awesome backcountry hiking, the famous red rocks, and the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park has it all. Plus, you can see a wild herd of bison here. Waterton Lakes isn’t named after lakes for anything, take a boat tour on Waterton Lake, Middle Waterton Lake, and Lower Waterton Lake.
With over 200km of hiking trails, Waterton Lakes National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife including bears, elk, moose bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. When we were hiking at Waterton Lakes, there was a cougar on the trail which made everyone very excited.
Location: Alberta – 2 hours and 40 minutes south of Calgary
Size 505 square km
Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park
One of the best things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park is to go hiking. You can make your home base in town and then do day trip hikes into the mountains. There are trails to suit everyone’s needs and if you only have a short time, there are a few short trails that will give you a taste of Waterton National Park.
Red Rocks Canyon: There is a lovely loop trail that goes around Red Rocks Canyon. The Blackiston Valley Trail and Snowshoe Trail make for a great full-day hike.
Canyoning in Red Rocks: One can go canyoning and wade through the river taking in the scope of the canyon walls from below while staying refreshed in the hot summer heat. Read more: Best Canada National Parks – That We’ve Seen
Lower Bertha Falls: Lower Bertha Falls is another quick loop that is 5.2 km long. If you want to go further (which we didn’t have time for) you can do a full day hike out to Bertha Lake. It’s a 10km hike and is a bit more of an elevation gain.
Boat Tour of Waterton Lake
Waterton Village :
There is a town in the middle of Waterton Lakes National Park and it is a spot where many people make their home base. There are plenty of things to do in Waterton Village from renting bicycles and kayaks, to booking guided hikes and eating at one of the restaurants.
On our way out, we also made sure to stop and see the buffalo reserve that is located just on the outskirts of the park. You can drive your car slowly through the enclosed reserve, but make sure you don’t get out.
Buffalo can be dangerous. Although the buffalo were so far away, I don’t think we were in any danger whatsoever. It was still cool to see them live as they did hundreds of years ago.
Waterton Park Front
On our way back to our hotel in Pincher Creek, we stopped at the ‘Waterton Park Front’ one of the largest land conservation initiatives in Canada.
An agreement with private landowners has made this 30,000 acre area a place to help prevent the loss of Canada’s most magnificent ranches, to keep the landscape intact and to maintain sustainable agriculture production.
I’m glad that the Weston family decided to start this initiative in the 90’s because this region is beautiful and it’s a wonderful thing to know that it will not be destroyed.
Now generations will be able to not only view the beauty of Waterton National Park, but also the surrounding area and ranch lands nearby.
Things to do in Pincher Creek, Alberta
Pincher Creek is a small town in Southern Alberta that is the jumping off point for Waterton Lakes National Park which is about one hour away. It is a place where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains and it is an absolutely beautiful setting. Wind farms line the plains with stark mountains filling in the backdrop and cattle graze in the fields and giant bales of hay dot the landscape. It is the Quintessential Alberta travel destination.
This tree welcomes travelers entering “The Pass” and is the symbol of endurance for the people of the region. This Limber Pine Tree has stood on this site for seven centuries.
Unfortunately, this tree died in the late 1970s and eventually toppled over in 1998. However, it had become such a symbol of Crowsnest Pass that the community rallied together and stabilized the tree.
There are now stainless steel brackets anchoring the roots and a pipe inserted into the trunk to give it support. I’m really glad that they did this as the tree is an ominous site that is fitting for this historic place.
Crowsnest Pass is home to the deadliest rockslide in North American History. It is believed that over 90 people were killed during the deadly rockslide here on April 29, 1903.
Dave and I noticed a valley of giant boulders and rocks as we drove by, but we thought it was a path left by an ancient glacier retreat. It wasn’t until we visited the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre that we realized that this was from a rock slide in recent history.
It’s incredible to see the force that Mother Nature has. 82 Million tons of rock fell from Turtle Mountain and partially buried the town of Frank. To stand at the lookout point and view the massive river of rocks is a terrifying sight.
The people who lived on the outskirts of town didn’t stand a chance and were instantly buried by the momentum of the rock plowing through the river.
It is an area of great historical significance though and many dinosaur and prehistoric bones have been found in the vicinity. It was just a few km away from here that the most complete specimens of a T-Rex was ever found and it is now on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
It turns out that this location is not a town at all. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is a community of farms and ranches around it, but a town, it is not. Instead, it is a historical site where early prehistoric plains aboriginal people hunted buffalo.
Buffalo of Waterton
You can see buffalo roaming freely just outside the park boundaries of Waterton Lakes National Park in a reserve that you can drive your car through. It’s very cool to see a herd of buffalo in the semi-wild, but it is tragic to think that they are no longer.
The Cowboy Trail – A Southern Alberta Road Trip
The Cowboy Trail is an outstanding Alberta road trip from Calgary to the Rocky Mountains, into the prairies, and out of the badlands. It was one of the best road trips we’ve ever taken and we want to give you your own itinerary to follow when you make your way to Canada’s most beautiful province.
Below is an eight-day Itinerary through Southern Alberta starting in Calgary:
Fly into Calgary and pick up your rental car at the airport before making your way into the city for a night or two. Calgary is an amazing town for tourists.
We stayed at the luxurious boutique hotel, the Kensington Riverside Inn in the funky Kensington Village. It’s just across the river from downtown and they offer free bikes for guests to use during their stay.
If you are craving adventure, head out to the Canada Olympic Park and take a spin down the bobsleigh track, a zip line down the giant ski jump track, and a fun luge down the mountain. There’s mountain biking there as well. Read more: 21 Best Things to do in Calgary, Alberta
Make sure to try their world-class dining downtown. A few suggestions are Model Milk, Charcut, and The Beer Hall.
After you’ve explored the city, it’s time to hit the road for your Alberta Road Trip and it starts on the cowboy trail. Driving West on Highway 1A from Calgary takes you on a journey through Alberta’s past.
Towns like Cochrane and Turner have old-fashioned shops and main streets throwing back to the days when oil was first discovered. Black Diamond is a great lunch stop at Marv’s Classic Soda Shop where poutine and coke floats are on the menu and you can grab some retro candy for the road.
Bar U Ranch
Our first stop on the Cowboy Trail was a National Historical Site, the Bar U Ranch. It was Canada’s largest ranch in its heyday and it’s now open to tourists to commemorate Canada’s ranching heritage.
You can sip some cowboy coffee around the campfire and listen to a storyteller speak of life on the range in the 1800s. You can try your hand at roping a cow, (Don’t worry, this calf doesn’t move), take a wagon ride, and tour the houses and barns left as they were from a century ago.
High Mountain Trail Ride
A trip to Alberta’s Cowboy country wouldn’t be complete without a proper trail ride. Unlike your usual follow the leader like trail rides, a trek into the mountains with Dewy and the gang at the Anchor D Ranch will make you feel like a real cowboy. His 105 horses are sure-footed and give you the confidence to cling to the side of the mountain as you take in the incredible Alberta scenery.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes is where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains creating dramatic landscapes. You can stay overnight in the park at one of the many inns, you can rough and go camping or you can celebrate in grand style at a hotel like the Prince of Wales.
Located high on a cliff overlooking Waterton Lake, it is one of the most photographed hotels in the world. Check out: The Most Beautiful National Parks in Canada
There’s something for everyone at Waterton Lakes, Great hikes, horseback riding, canoeing, Red Rock Canyon, and even scooter rentals.
Pincher Creek is a great destination in its own right and we spent the day exploring all the amazing sights surrounding the town like Lundbreck Falls and Frank Slide’s Interpretive Centre, home to Canada’s Deadliest Rock Slide on Crowsnest Pass.
One can spend a couple of days driving around the Pincher Creek area. The landscape is beautiful and some of Alberta’s largest ranches are in the area.
See cattle graze in the fields, among the giant bales of hay, witness the endless stream of windmills sitting on the plains with the great Rocky Mountain backdrop and enjoy a quick stop at the Burmis Tree.
Pincher Creek to Dinosaur Provincial Park
The drive from Pincher Creek to Dinosaur Provincial Park is a good one. There are some very historical stops along the way such as Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where prehistoric plains people hunted buffalo. They rounded up buffalo chasing them towards a cliff where they were forced to jump over and fall to their death.
Fort McLeod is worth a stop to visit the old RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Barracks dating back to 1892 and the Fort from 1874. It’s a historical site that is part of Heritage Canada and its downtown core will transform you to another era in time. There’s also a Tim Hortons here where you can grab a double-double and some Tim Bits to keep you occupied during the long drive ahead to your next destination.
Detour to Vulcan
Named for the Roman God of Fire, Vulcan has discarded its original heritage and has capitalized on Star Trek! Here you can see a replica of the Star Ship Enterprise, there are Star Trek Murals all around the town and there is even an annual Star Trek Convention known as ‘Spock Days’ that attracts Trekkies from around the world.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
So after all that sightseeing, it’s time to visit the pièce de résistance of the Alberta Badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park. Located in the heart of the Alberta Badlands, this will add another UNESCO World Heritage Site to your Alberta Road Trip itinerary. It is here that you can walk through otherworldly landscapes and see dinosaur bones on the trail.
Route to Drumheller
Atlas Coal Mine
The Hoodoos of Drumheller
We had heard of hoodoos before but didn’t know what they were. It turns out, they are fascinating formations of sandstone spires reaching to the sky with a cap of hard stone on top.
Last Chance Saloon
Last Chance Saloon
Where to stay in Drumheller
Heartwood Inn and Spa is a popular choice in Drumheller. Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson stayed here during the filming of Shanghai Noon and Dave and Deb got the chance to stay here during our Alberta Adventure! Check out availability and pricing.
It’s a great inn with elegant rooms and friendly owners. It’s the type of place that takes an interest in what you see and do and gives excellent advice.
We especially enjoyed their famous French Toast in the morning. It’s the only thing they serve for breakfast. As the owner said to us “I do one thing and one thing very well.” Yum!
Back to Calgary
And there you have it! Your Southern Alberta Road Trip is complete. Here’s a Google Maps Route for your records…