Crossing Borders: A Visit to Waterton Lakes National Park

While researching my trip to Glacier National Park, I noticed that most guide books also had information on Waterton Lakes National Park. What was this park, and why had I never heard of it?

I quickly learned this park is in Canada, and along with Glacier National Park, comprises the first International Peace Park, which was dedicated in 1932. Straddling the border between the state of Montana and the province of Alberta, the union aims to protect the unique biodiversity in this Rocky Mountain region.

Since Waterton wasn’t too far from where we’d be staying in Glacier, my boyfriend and I decided to finish out our trip with a quick visit to our Canadian neighbors.

Following are some tips, observations, and stories from our 24 hours in Canada:

Border Crossing #1: Land

If you’re planning to check out Waterton Lakes, don’t forget your passport! The border crossing closest to the east side of Glacier is on the Chief Mountain highway and is only open in the summer, with the majority of traffic being park-visiting tourists.

I’ve found it’s not common for Canadian authorities to stamp American passports, but they will do it if you ask. However, I had to laugh when I saw the novelty stamp I received at this crossing. Nothing official, no entry dates, just an inky image of an elk. Right.

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All the best passport stamps have wildlife on them.

Waterton Lakes Town Site

Waterton Lakes is unlike its Glacier counterpart in that there is an actual town located within the park. It’s a small hamlet on the shore of Upper Waterton Lake, and only 88 hardy residents live there year-round. The remaining homes fill up in the summer with tourists who come to paddle in the lake, hike up nearby mountains, and finish the day with a massive ice cream cone from Big Scoop.

The town is filled with hotels, restaurants, sweets shops, and gear rental companies. Deer regularly wander through the streets and bears make the occasional appearance; all dumpsters and garbage cans are equipped with bear-resistant features.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the Lakeside Chophouse, a steakhouse with a panoramic view of the lake and its towering cliffs. Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, our meal was reasonably priced and exceptionally decadent, especially after five days of camping!

Border Crossing #2: Water

One of the most popular activities for visitors is the boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake. Two-hour scenic tours run a couple times a day on the M.V. International. The boat was built on the shore of the lake in 1927 and has been in use ever since.

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Nearly a hundred years old and still ferrying tourists across the lake every year.

The novelty of the boat tour, aside from the views of sharp peaks dropping abruptly to the shore, is getting to cross the American-Canadian border by boat. In 1925, the International Boundary Commission was created to maintain the border between the two countries. Part of the agreement included maintaining a 6-meter swath of land that’s cleared of vegetation for the entire length of the border. Think thousands and thousands of miles.

This clearing is visible from the lake in both directions, and little stone obelisks mark the border on the shoreline. It’s pretty incredible to imagine that trail workers come in every 12 years or so to clear the border by hand, undeterred by major mountainous obstacles.

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A clear-cut line straight up the mountainside, the border between Canada and the United States is impossible to miss and goes on for thousands of miles.

The boat then continues on to Goat Haunt, a U.S. border crossing and the trail head for several hikes in Glacier National Park. Visitors have 30 minutes to look around the area, which is little more than a rustic visitor center, a couple backpacking shelters, and a ranger station.

If you want to hike into Glacier, you need to clear customs, and on the day of our visit, you did this at a picnic table next to the ranger station. A picnic table! When I inquired how it all works, the agents told me that they reside in Montana and drive across the border into Canada daily, where they board a speedboat at Waterton Lakes, travel the 7 miles across the lake, and then work out of the ranger station for the day. They return the way they came every evening. Not your typical border agent assignment, especially with the occasional bear wandering into the “office”!

(As a side note, when I inquired how it worked for hikers coming out of Goat Haunt and returning to Waterton, the agents insinuated that the Canadian authorities are a bit more relaxed about their border, and hikers simply need to call up the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to meet them when they arrive back in Waterton.)

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The best border crossing sign I’ve ever seen.

We weren’t doing any hiking that day, so after snapping some more photographs, we boarded the boat and motored back to Canada.

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Views from the boat, looking north into Canada.

Prince of Wales Hotel

After our boat docked, we decided to check out the Prince of Wales hotel. Impossible to miss, this majestic hotel was built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway in an effort to lure tourists to visit Glacier National Park. It’s fascinating how much of Glacier National Park’s infrastructure was created by the railroad company, and many hotels, back country lodges, and trails that the company created still exist today.

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The Price of Wales hotel was built to resemble a Swiss lodge, part of the railway’s marketing campaign to draw wealthy visitors away from their standard European vacations.

While I didn’t get to see any of the rooms, the hotel lobby still gives off an air of 1920’s wealth and charm. The hotel hosts an afternoon tea, and a well-appointed dining room is open to the public at meal times. The most spectacular part of the hotel was the magnificent views from its large picture windows, enough to make a girl swoon.

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Hotel visitors having afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales hotel.

Visiting the Park

Given the variable weather and sore legs from hiking day before, we decided to forego any hiking during our short visit. Unfortunately, the Akamina Parkway – one of only two roads in the park – was closed for construction, which left us with limited sightseeing options.

We chose to check out the Red Rock Parkway, which ends at the Red Rock Canyon. Winding our way through fields, we ended up at a narrow gorge striated with red and white rocks.

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Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park.

Having seen only half the park by road, I can’t make a complete assessment of its hiking opportunities, but my feeling is that the best scenery is accessed via longer hikes into the mountains. However, we did spot an adolescent grizzly bear loping around near the road on the way out of the park!

Stardust Motel

Instead of staying in Waterton Park (we were late making reservations and everything was quite expensive), we booked a night at the Stardust Hotel in the nearby town of Pincher Creek. While it was clear the building had been around for a long time, all the rooms have been completely remodeled with wood floors, thoughtful decor, and modern bathrooms. We even had a dedicated WiFi router and fresh cream in the fridge for our coffee à la Keurig. To top it off, the owner was really friendly and helped us re-route our drive home to shave off some time.

With the exchange rate, the room only set us back around $80. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Pincher Creek, Alberta!

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A cozy place to rest at the Stardust Motel.

Bottom Line

Our quick trip to Waterton Lakes was a fun adventure and a chance to explore a new province in Canada. That said, I didn’t find the scenery as spectacular as in Glacier National Park. I’d primarily recommend this trip if you have the desire to hike into the backcountry or if you have the extra time and want the novelty of traveling to Canada. While Glacier is the spot to do a lot of hiking and witness jaw-dropping views, Waterton Lakes seems best suited for a laid-back vacation spent on the lake.

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