Scenic Stop: Waterton's Winter Wonderland

Waterton National Park, Alberta

Waterton National Park, Alberta

I consider Waterton National Park to be one of the most beautiful areas in all of the mountain parks in Alberta. But Waterton in the winter can be a spooky place! Still beautiful, but definitely a little on the eerie side. My wife & I didn't know what to expect in Waterton in November, so we were surprised to find that the animals in town outnumbered the people by at least 100 to 1!

In the summer, the population of this small, southwestern Alberta town explodes to a few thousand tourists who come to experience the hiking, boating and scenic beauty of the area. In the winter, the town shrinks to about 100 people, most of them park staff. Deer and elk take over Waterton in the winter.

Upon our arrival to Waterton National Park, the gates were wide open and the attendant booths were empty as if we were about to enter a ghost town. Most businesses were shut for the season. The shops were boarded up and the streets were empty. The entire town was as if in a winter slumber. It felt like it was only the two of us plus several hundred deer.

(I wish we'd gotten a photo of this - it was eerie! - but we were very cautiously edging our way around the animals, hoping not to disturb them or trigger a stampede!)

Eventually, we saw two other people there, the only other humans we saw during the entire afternoon, strolling hand-in-hand down a distant street. Few cars were clear of snow & ice. It felt like this entire corner of province was in hibernation.

As we drove across town to Cameron Falls, we couldn't help but notice the hundreds of deer and elk grazing on the last of the foliage in the front yards of the homes. We also saw two peacock (we had to do a double-take) - somehow, they just didn't fit with the scenery of naked trees and snow-covered mountains.

Deer would stare at us drive by; elk would stop on the sidewalk and watch our movement. We felt like we were intruders in their Rocky Mountain paradise.

Feeling a bit out of place amongst the herds, we finally inched our way to Cameron Falls. We stayed in the car so as to not disturb the resident animals any more than we needed to. Even from inside of the car, the quiet roar of the falls could be heard. It was beautiful.

We continued our driving tour of the town and realized that these animals were taking advantage of the yet-to-be-frozen vegetation in the valley bottom. Snow had already accumulated at the higher elevations but the grass was still green in the valley bottom.

Upon further investigation, we learned that this migration had been taking place for ages and the animals still descend from their higher feeding grounds in the surrounding mountains, oblivious to the humans that remained in town.

What To Do in Waterton in the Winter

  • Skating is available on the frozen Upper Waterton Lake.

  • Walk the paved paths around town and enjoy watching the wildlife (please give them plenty of space).

  • Hiking in Waterton Lakes National Park would not be complete without trudging up the Bears Hump Hike. This steep climb features spectacular views of the town. Note, trail may be closed if conditions are treacherous.

  • Ice-climb some of the frozen waterfalls in the park. Check at the Warden's office for locations and conditions.

  • Winter camping is free at the Pass Creek picnic site. Why someone would want to camp in the freezing cold is beyond me, but I'm sure there are some people who would enjoy this.

  • There are two cross-country ski trails in the park. The Dipper ski trail (6.5 kilometers) and the Cameron ski trail (5 kilometers). These trails are mainly for beginners & intermediate skiers.
  • The road to Red Rock Canyon is closed to vehicles from late-October to May. This makes for a 16 kilometer corss-country ski trail.

  • Snowshoeing is also available next to these ski trails.

  • The Akamina Parkway is closed after about 10 kilometers but you can still tour the historical monument to the first oil well in Alberta.

Before You Go

  • Please note that dogs are not permitted on some trails. In other areas, they should be leashed at all other times.

  • Very few accommodations and restaurants open in the winter. Come prepared for a day-trip, or be ready to head into nearby Pincher Creek.

  • Check the road conditions before you leave.

More information about Waterton National Park is available from Parks Canada.

Driving directions to Waterton, Alberta:

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It takes about 3 hours one way (270 kilometers) to get from Calgary to Waterton National Park. Drive south on Highway 2 to Fort McLeod, turn west on Highway 3 to Pincher Creek and then take Highway 6 south.

Other Hikes & Things to Do In (or Near) Waterton

Visiting Waterton in the winter still stick in our minds as one of the most beautifully eerie experiences. Discover more about Alberta, including awesome hikes and other things to do, spectacular scenic stops, and interesting (and sometimes wacky) roadside attractions.