We’re always looking for new places to travel as a family from our home base of Calgary, Alberta, and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park is one destination we’d always wanted to visit in winter. We travel south to Waterton each summer to go camping but we’d never been to the park in the off season where wildlife outnumbers the number of residents in the small mountain town. Waterton Lakes National Park is located three hours south of Calgary on the United States border and forms an International Peace Park with Glacier National Park in Montana. While you’d be hard pressed to have a tourist sight to yourself in the summer, you’ll share the town with deer, squirrels, and the occasional snowman in winter.
If you are going to visit Waterton in winter, you should know that the town pretty much shuts down until mid-May each year. There are no gas stations open past Pincher Creek (35 miles North of Waterton,) there is one restaurant open at the Waterton Lakes Lodge (with a make-shift cafe set up in the Glacier Suites Hotel,) there is no shopping, and the grocery store is closed. You’ll find no entertainment, movie theater, bar, or liquor store. The basic rule of thumb when visiting Waterton in winter is this: If you need it, bring it!
There are two hotels open in winter and we stayed at the Glacier Suites Hotel. The Waterton Lakes Lodge is bigger with a pool and restaurant, but it is closed each January for maintenance. Fortunately, the Glacier Suites opens up a cafe in the lobby of their hotel, serving three hot meals per day, and they do an excellent job given the facilities that they have to work with.
The kitchen is but a tiny room in the back of the lobby but the meals were tasty and sufficient for us. Breakfast was included with our room package, and we brought our own groceries with us to make lunches; each room includes a small fridge, making it possible to take care of yourself for at least one meal per day.
The staff at the hotel worked around the clock to ensure we were taken care of, and the same two employees could be seen serving and cooking the meals, answering the phones, checking us in and out of the hotel, and handling any issue that should come up during our stay. I honestly don’t think they slept during the two nights we were there.
Parks Canada has a good list of things to do in Waterton in winter. For families though, there are pretty much two main things to do in Waterton in winter; you can go cross country skiing, and you can go snowshoeing. Fortunately for us, we like both and on this particular trip, we just might have discovered one of the loveliest family-friendly snowshoe trails in the Canadian Rockies. It’s worth going to Waterton in winter just to snowshoe to Crandell Lake from the Akamina Parkway.
Candell Lake is a fabulous snowshoe destination and also popular with backcountry skiers. We chose to snowshoe it with our five-year old son but next time I visit Waterton, I’m definitely repeating the trip on my light touring skis. We lucked out with fresh powder on the trail and managed to be the first hikers on the trail that day. Our son wanted to break trail much of the way and it was an easy trail with one-and-a-half miles return from the Akamina Parkway. The elevation gain was also minimal with less than 700 feet to climb.
The Crandell Lake Trail is a lovely little hike in summer or winter and we travelled through trees with occasional scenic views to the surrounding mountains. Little dips and rolling hills on the trail provided interest, and we had a scenic stop at the lake at the half way point. The way out was quick and easy because we had promised our son he could ride the sled down the trail if he hiked up by himself. (It’s always a good idea to pull a sled behind you when winter snowshoeing with kids.)
We also snowshoed to Cameron Lake while we were in the park but didn’t enjoy this trip as much. Also located off the Akamina Parkway, Cameron Lake is one of the main tourist attractions in Waterton in summer so we were very eager to see it in winter. It’s an easy 3 mile round trip hike or ski to Cameron Lake from the Little Prairie Picnic Shelter on the Akamina Parkway and there’s little height gain. In summer you would normally drive right up to the lake so you’ll be skiing or snowshoeing on the closed road the entire time – something we didn’t personally find as enjoyable as hiking through the trees to Crandell Lake.
We didn’t have the best weather for our trip and it was actually hard to tell there was a lake at all when we reached the end of the road. The lack of views was a disappointment after hiking a snowy road for one-and-a-half miles through wind gusts that reached 50 miles per hour during our visit. The visit at the lake was very short and I think we decided it might be a summer destination for us next year. Winter, maybe not so much.
For families considering a trip to Waterton, I highly encourage you to visit during the winter festival on March 15 and 16 this year. There are many fun activities planned during the festival including horse-drawn wagon rides around the community, art workshops with the Waterton Natural History Association, and drama workshops with the Waterton Teenie Weenie Theatre Company. There will also be guided snowshoe trips to Crandell Lake that include snowshoe rentals. For more information, visit the Waterton Lakes National Park website.
For more information on the Glacier Suites Hotel where we stayed, please visit their website. We enjoyed a one bedroom suite that worked very well for us as a family. Our son slept on the pull out sofa in the main room while we enjoyed a large comfortable bedroom with fireplace in the back.
Special Thanks to the Waterton Glacier Suites for putting our family up for the weekend. Thanks as well to Parks Canada staff for assisting with the planning of our trip. Finally, thanks to Crescent Moon Snowshoes for providing the snowshoes that I wore on this trip.