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First look at Prince of Wales Hotel Waterton

My first glimpse of it caught me a bit by surprise. As our car rounded a bend, suddenly there it was in front of us – a distance away still but perched on a grassy bluff that I immediately recognized from dozens of photographs I had seen over the years: the historic Prince of Wales hotel. With its Swiss-style peaked roof, balconies and timbered details illuminated by the late afternoon sun, and nothing around it but a spectacular backdrop of crystal clear blue skies and snow-capped mountains, this elegant symbol of wilderness luxury made quite the first impression even from a distance. No wonder this is one of the most photographed hotels in the world! But this turned out to be only the beginning of what impressed us about Waterton Lakes National Park. 

Wait, where?

Vimy Ridge (formerly Sheep Mountain) Waterton
Vimy Mountain in Waterton reflected perfectly in the pristine water with colourful stones near the shore

If you are wondering where Waterton Lakes National Park is, you aren’t alone. Many people don’t have this Alberta park on their travel radar, mostly due to the fact that it gets eclipsed by its celebrity sisters, Banff and Jasper. If you do look it up on ‘the Google’, you’ll likely see that same image of the Prince of Wales hotel that has become the defining landmark for this Park. But there is so much more to Waterton than this railway-baron-era hotel, and it’s because of its relative anonymity that Waterton may be one of the best national parks to visit in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Here’s why.

The Waterton Wow Factor

It’s the location of Waterton Lakes National Park that gives this place its wow factor. Even before you enter the park boundary, the drive south of Pincher Creek offers the kind of classic vista road trippers live for: an empty ribbon of highway disappearing into the distance against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

Ribbon of highway with mountains of Waterton
Every road tripper’s dream vista

Waterton Lakes National Park starts at those mountains, and the unique geography here means there are no foothills leading up to it, so visitors who come here find themselves at a place ‘where the mountains meet the prairies’ quite literally. This catchphrase is used often to describe Waterton, but it’s not just a marketing slogan: you can actually see this geographic collision with your own eyes at a highway pullout at Pine Ridge known as the Waterton Park Front. Here on a windy overlook, you can see where grassy ranch lands extend for miles towards the horizon, only to stop abruptly when they meet the base of Waterton’s mountains.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot wildflowers near Waterton
Arrowleaf Balsamroot wildflowers at Pine Ridge

Breathtaking Mountains and Lakes

Waterton Lakes National Park panorama
The hamlet of Waterton is literally nestled between mountains

And oh, those mountains. Waterton Lakes National Park certainly has no shortage of peaks, only 40 of which are officially named. The tiny hamlet of Waterton itself is literally nestled between several of the most impressive ones, including Mount Crandell, Bertha Peak, Vimy Peak and nearby Mount Blakiston, the tallest peak in the Park. But lakes are equally a part of what characterizes the village, as it is built on the shores of Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in all of the Rocky Mountains (at close to 500 feet deep). With such a unique position, Waterton is literally surrounded by natural beauty, and it’s hard not to be left a little speechless that one tiny village can boast such stellar geography.

The World’s First International Peace Park

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park marker Waterton Alberta

The beauty of Waterton Lakes National Park is really only half of the story when it comes to what makes this particular park so special. The other half of the Park’s story actually lies south of the 49th parallel, in Glacier National Park in Montana. Both parks share several unique physical and biological characteristics that make up the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, whose flora and fauna don’t ‘recognize’ any physical border separating them. So in 1932, both the U.S. and Canada decided to take the same approach, and address the region as a whole, becoming the first International Peace Park in the world.

Waterton Glacier International Peace park Pylon
This pylon symbolizes the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park

Incorporating both Canadian and U.S. National Parks, the joint Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park became a symbol of the peace and goodwill between our two countries, and today they continue to collaborate seamlessly in their preservation, fire protection and research efforts.

A Waterton Lakes Boat Cruise is a Must

Kevin, our local guide on our Shoreline Cruise

The beauty of Upper Waterton Lake and the unique geography of this Park makes a scenic boat cruise on the lake here a must-do, especially if you are treated to one of those rare days when the winds are calm and the lake is like a mirror.

Upper Waterton Lake rock shoreline
Turquoise-green waters reflected the unique geology on the shoreline of Upper Waterton Lake

We were guests of the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company on board the Connie Marlene, where both our captain, Mike and guide, Kevin, are Waterton locals, certified Coast Guard captains and extremely knowledgeable Park guides. Both avid outdoorsmen, we learned that Mike has even summited every single one of the mountains visible from the boat!

Bald eagle Waterton Lake Alberta
Mike our Captain spotted this Bald Eagle from far away

As we cruised down the pristine 7-mile-long lake, Kevin pointed out facts about the Park, its wildlife, and unique geological features on the exposed rock faces, including what’s known as a ‘chevron fold’. Created 1.6 billion years ago when sedimentary rock layers were pushed up exposing harder rock layers underneath, this geological structure contributes to why this area is described as the ‘land of the upside down mountains’.

A Chevron fold in Upper Waterton Lake
Notice the triangle shape of this chevron fold

See the 49th Parallel – No, Really.

Seeing the Waterton landscape from lake-level gave us a different perspective on the park, in particular when it came to ‘crossing the border’. While we all know that the 49th parallel is an invisible boundary between Canada and the U.S., there is actually a physical marker positioned here on both sides of the lake, as well as a swath of cleared forest that runs up and over the mountains to delineate this border. So you can actually see the 49th parallel while crossing it on the boat, which wasn’t something we would have expected. (Still, I can’t help but wonder who gets the job of ‘mowing’ this mountain every few years!)

49th parallel through Waterton Glacier International Peace Park
This side swath of cleared mountain is the actual 49th parallel! (See the pylon at the bottom?)

FUN FACT: Until Covid-19 closed all borders, Canadian boat cruisers on Upper Waterton Lake could disembark at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station on the other side of the 49th parallel for a short ‘visit’ on the U.S. side without the need to carry or show a passport! Hopefully that will resume soon when all travel restrictions are finally lifted.

September 11, 2017: The Kenow Fire

As a Waterton local, our guide Kevin also shared harrowing details about a devastating wildfire that raged through Waterton Lakes National Park in 2017, known as the Kenow Fire, named after the mountain in British Columbia where it originated. Following the third driest summer recorded in the park, and with tinder-dry woodlands, a lightning strike ignited a wildfire that quickly crossed the provincial border, racing towards and destroying almost 40% of Waterton Lakes Park.

Burnt tree and meltwater Red Rock Canyon Waterton
Wildfires are natural occurances, and will allow for healthy forest regeneration

Moving at 10 km/hour, the speed of the fire was almost too much for the 150 or so firefighters and 11 helicopter water-bombers who fought to hold the line at the perimeter of the evacuated Waterton townsite. Thanks to their efforts, the town itself (including the Prince of Wales hotel), was saved, but you can see just how close disaster came by the scorched skeletons of the trees that are still standing.

Tree stump caricature Waterton
I think this little guy still looks worried, don’t you?

Nature Makes a Comeback

Wildfires are actually a healthy part of forest regeneration, allowing new growth to thrive and reinvigorating the ecosystem. After 5 years, the mountains in Waterton are once again tinted green where that undergrowth and new vegetation has begun to regrow. But there’s no doubt that many of the trails in the Park have suffered from a visual perspective. What were once beautiful tree-lined trails are now very bare, with blackened trees and only wildflowers and low greenery providing the colour. (I likened some of our hikes to those we’ve done in late fall in deciduous forests where the leaves have fallen.) There is still a different kind of beauty here, but it will be many years before the young saplings generate a new forest canopy on these trails.

Sunlit burnt trees Bears Hump Trail Waterton
The burnt trees on Bears Hump actually have a stark beauty to them

On the plus side however, sparser hillsides mean that wildlife is much easier to spot at a distance (bears can be a legitimate concern if you are hiking some of the Park’s backcountry trails) so less visual camouflage does make it safer for hikers.

The other good news is that the fire did not jump Upper Waterton Lake, so all of the forests and trails on the east side of the lake remain untouched. To be honest, we were so impressed with our first views of Waterton that we didn’t even notice any fire damage, and our lake cruise views were absolutely beautiful.

Jane sitting on Bears Hump Trail summit Waterton
The left side of Upper Waterton Lake was untouched, and green has started to return to the right

Hikes to Test Even the Most Outdoorsiest

When it comes to hikes, Waterton is known for some of the best trails in the Rockies, including the Crypt Trail, which National Geographic once described as one of the world’s most thrilling trails. With a combination of boat access to the trailhead, waterfalls, mountain lakes, a tunnel and even a mini via ferrata section, this hike has it all, including a 2300 foot elevation gain. In other words, this is no beginner trail! In fact, it’s one of three trails that hardcore locals and avid hikers include in the Waterton ‘Triple Crown’ along with the Akamina Ridge Trail and the Carthew-Alderson.

TIP: If you’re an advanced hiker, and plan to try for the Triple Crown, check in at Pearl’s Cafe, where they don’t just serve up delicious food, they also have a Hiker’s Club and host meetups for interested hikers.

Luckily for those of us who aren’t the most ‘outdoorsiest’ (read ‘out of shape’) there are still plenty of other hikes that will reward you with amazing views, like the Bear’s Hump Trail that Henk and I tackled within minutes of arriving in Waterton.

Jane on Bears Hump Trail Waterton
Bear’s Hump Trail is short but steep (steeper than it looks here, okay?!)

The Bear’s Hump’ Trail

It’s not often that moments after arriving at a destination at 5pm, my first thought is “Let’s go hiking!” But when Henk and I arrived in a sunny, windless Waterton with the lake so calm it was like a mirror, I knew this was an opportunity not to be wasted. So after consulting with the staff at our hotel, we headed out to hump it up the Bear’s Hump trail which promised to give us a panoramic view of the area and whose trailhead was just a short drive away.

We hadn’t even set foot on the trail when we were greeted by a herd of bighorn sheep that had decided to do some grazing right beside the parking lot. There were easily a dozen or so males, females and lambs, and they were clearly used to people, as our presence didn’t bother them a bit. We waited a bit for them to move on, but even as we started up the trail, we saw other sheep amongst the trees, too. Even with the thinned-out forest, we almost missed seeing them because they were so well camouflaged.

Bighorn sheep on Bears Hump Trail Waterton
These sheep were perfectly camouflaged on our trail

The Bear’s Hump trail was a pretty steep climb, with a series of switchbacks taking you to the top, and the occasional bench where you could rest or admire the views. One particular bench gave us both a chance to catch our breath and another gorgeous view of the Prince of Wales Hotel.

Prince of Wales Hotel from Bears Hump Trail
Beautiful vantage point to view the Prince of Wales Hotel

The Bear’s Hump Trail is one of the more popular ones so it was well-maintained and offered relatively easy footing, with the only difficulty being the steep elevation gain of around 700 feet. But once we arrived at the top, the view was everything that we had hoped it would be and more, and with the calm waters reflecting the sky and the surrounding snowy mountains, we had double the beauty to admire.

TIP: Waterton is normally a very windy location, and has been known to experience almost hurricane-force winds. So if you do happen to visit on a calm, windless day, definitely take advantage of this to do a lake cruise or hike! This doesn’t happen all that often here.

Dusk and driftwood on Upper Waterton Lake
Calm days are rare in Waterton, so take advantage of them.

The Red Rock Canyon Parkway Drive + Hike(s)

Sculpted rock walls Red Rock Canyon Waterton

Another popular choice for a drive/hike is Red Rock Canyon, located about 16 kilometres from Waterton townsite. The drive itself takes you along a parkway that offers views of alpine meadows and mountains. Sadly, this area was severely impacted by the fire so the views are not what they once were but it is still very scenic, and depending on when you visit, you may be treated to an explosion of roadside wildflowers. The Park has also spent millions restoring and rebuilding infrastructure to replace what was lost, including the road itself, washroom facilities, and the parking lot just adjacent to the Canyon.

The canyon itself is very photogenic but seems like it belongs more in the American southwest than southern Alberta, with its strikingly-coloured layers of red, green and ochre rock. Sculpted by the glacier meltwater that flows through here, these argillite rock formations are beautiful and make for great photos, especially from the bridge that crosses the canyon. You can also walk the Canyon loop trail that runs alongside the canyon if you want to follow the water a little farther upstream.

Overhead view of rapids Red Rock Canyon Waterton

TIP: As of July, 2022, only one side of this Canyon loop trail is open. The bridge upstream and the return loop on the opposite side is currently under reconstruction. For current reviews of this or any other trail, we always consult Alltrails and read the most recent reviews.

Blakiston Falls Trail

If you’d like to do another hike at Red Rock Canyon (and you should), there’s an easy 2.5 km trail that takes you to Blakiston Falls. There are smaller rapids along the way as you follow the water upstream, but the real gem is at about 30 minutes in. Here you’ll find 3 recently constructed platforms that offer excellent overlooks close to the thundering 20-metre falls that squeeze through the rocks here. Watching the power of all this cascading water is mesmerizing, and you’ll probably find yourself spending more time here than you thought since the view is a little different from each of the platforms.

New overlooks at Blakiston Falls Waterton park
There are 3 new overlooks at Blakiston Falls built by Parks Canada

TIP: The Blakiston Falls trail is in almost complete sunlight, so be sure to dress accordingly (maybe include a hat) and wear sunscreen.

Wonder at Waterton’s Night Skies

Dark sky tourism is becoming increasingly popular everywhere, and Waterton offers visitors one of the best places to enjoy the night sky in southern Alberta. In fact, in 2021, along with Glacier National Park in Montana, Waterton Lakes National Park was designated as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

If it’s a clear night, just stepping outside of your hotel or lodge is all you need to do to take advantage of incredible night sky views, and with the lakes and mountains surrounding you, the experience is serene and magical. Stars disappear behind the profile of the mountains, with the milky way seeming to collide with their peaks.

Milky Way over Vimy Mountain Waterton
The Milky Way over Vimy Mountain in Waterton

If you’re not too familiar with the night sky or would like a guided gazing experience, Dark Sky Guides offers visitors interpretive nighttime tours in and around Waterton. Operated by 4 brothers who grew up in Waterton, Keith, Kevin, Kris and Mike Robertson are all avid outdoor enthusiasts, experienced tourism professionals and certified guides, and their 5 year-old business is already winning awards. Unfortunately, we were in Waterton before their tour season started, so Henk had to ‘wing it’ on his own, but with his own expertise with astrophotography and the incredible clear skies and no moon during our visit, he had no trouble capturing the Milky Way without even having to go far from our lodge.

Milky Way over Waterton Lakes National Park

TIP: For best night sky viewing in the town of Waterton itself, you’ll want to avoid looking in the direction of the Prince of Wales Hotel. It’s lit up beautifully at night but this isn’t great for your night vision or for seeing stars.

Watch for Waterton’s Wildlife

Deer in Waterton town
Deer in Waterton town

As we discovered when we first got to Waterton, wildlife is plentiful and close by, even when you are in the actual townsite. Deer regularly stroll through the streets, and bighorn sheep seem to be particularly comfortable with humans, so we saw them on the roads, in the parking lot and even strolling towards us on the trail up to Bear’s Hump. We also heard that bears had been sighted not far from the town, but since we weren’t doing any solo backcountry hiking, we weren’t worried about encountering any, and instead just enjoyed whatever wildlife we did see.

TIP: If you spot wildlife while driving, always stay in your vehicle and be sure you are stopped in a safe place (put your hazards on as well so other vehicles proceed cautiously as well). Never feed any wildlife, (it’s illegal in National Parks). If you do come across sheep while hiking, like we did on our trail, give them a wide berth or wait for them to move on. For bears, here are more safety tips for how to be ‘bear aware’.

Bighorn sheep on trail in Waterton
This guy was walking up to ‘meet us’ on the Bear’s Hump trail

There’s Bison, Too

While seeing wild animals is never guaranteed, you do have a great opportunity to view bison in Waterton Lakes National Park at any time, thanks to a bison preservation initiative that has been operating here since 1952. An area of the Park has been set aside to allow a small herd of bison to live in their natural environment, and in 2021, six more plains bison were brought here from Elk Island National Park to add to the herd. With the help and oversight of members of the Kainai, Piikani and Siksika First Nations, the herd has already welcomed 2 new calves.

To see the bison, we drove the Bison Park Loop Road just inside the park boundary off Highway 6. The dirt road takes you around the bison’s summer paddock, and as you drive slowly through the rolling plains, we spotted prairie dogs, birds, and finally, the herd! With the backdrop of the mountains and bison grazing in front of us, we couldn’t think of a more iconic image to represent Alberta.

Bison with mountains in background Waterton Lakes National Park
Bison with mountains in background Waterton Lakes National Park

TIP: The loop trail is relatively well-maintained and suitable for most vehicles but take it slow as this is a wildlife area, not a highway. And if you’re driving a low-slung sports car, you should probably take a pass.

Enjoy Afternoon Tea at the Prince of Wales, Waterton

Swiss architecture of Prince of Wales Hotel Waterton
Even the stone walls at the Prince of Wales Hotel are photogenic

Our visit to Waterton Lakes National Park could not be complete without a visit to the Prince of Wales Hotel, especially after being so smitten with our first view of it when we arrived. One of the best ways to experience this iconic landmark even if you are not staying there is to reserve a table for Afternoon Tea. Like many of these historic properties, Afternoon Tea is a tradition that continues here and as a huge fan of this decadent indulgence, I was all in.

The first thing we noticed was that the standard uniform for all staff at the Prince of Wales Hotel are red tartan kilts (a nod to the namesake Prince Edward after whom the Hotel was named). Even the parking attendant who greeted us at the parking gate wears one, which we actually found quite charming. (Note, there is a $10 fee for parking even if you have a reservation for tea.)

View from great room Prince of Wales Hotel Waterton

Walking through the double wooden doors, we entered the Great Room, which was every bit as impressive as we expected with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that gave us an incredible view of Upper Waterton Lake directly in front of us.

The dining room where we were to have our Afternoon Tea was adjacent to the Great Room and our table offered the same view which we could admire as we sipped and snacked. The staff who served us were friendly and unpretentious and the manager even came by to introduce herself, which was a nice touch. And while the tea itself fine, the view was second to none.

Prince of Wales Afternoon Tea Waterton park
Afternoon Tea comes with the best view in town at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton

FUN FACT: Even though the Prince of Wales Hotel was named after Prince Edward (later King Edward VII), as a way to entice him to visit Waterton, the Prince never actually came to the Park. (His loss, I say.) Regardless, the Hotel was designated a National Historic Site in 1995, recognizing its architectural style and contribution to tourism in the mountains.

So, Really, Why Waterton?

Parks Canada red chairs Waterton Lakes with reflection

With all of its incredible natural beauty, spectacular mountain views, dark skies, enviable hikes, wildlife, and historic landmark hotel, if someone were to ask me “why visit Waterton Lakes National Park?” my answer would actually be much simpler: it’s the real deal.

Waterton has managed to remain its authentic self, even though many visitors do flock here in the summer months to enjoy its charms. The place still feels genuine and unspoiled, not just the way you expect a pristine national park should be, but because of the people whom we met here. Many have grown up here, operated businesses here for years, or have been coming here for generations with their families. Some live here all year long, even when the fierce winds blow in the winter, and the nearest supermarket is 40 minutes away. Brothers have formed businesses here, guides don’t just talk about the mountains; they’ve climbed every summit. The people who live, work and play here all seem to share a passion and connection to this place that is deeply rooted, more so than in the other ‘famous’ Parks that have become more internationally renowned.

Perhaps it is because Waterton is lesser known, that it feels different. Or perhaps this is just what Waterton has always been like, and what it will continue to be like in the future as well. I truly hope so.

Because I think it it this character that makes Waterton Lakes National Park one of the best parks to visit in Alberta.


Wooden wagon near Waterton National Park Alberta
The drive south from Calgary to Waterton is a scenic one

Waterton Lakes National Park is located about 2 1/2 hours south of Calgary. Because it is a National Park, there is a daily fee to enter or stay here. But if you plan to travel to many parks in Canada over the next 12 months, consider getting an annual Discovery Pass that gives you unlimited access to all of Canada’s National Parks and Historic Sites (over 80 destinations). It’s also a breeze when you enter parks, as you can often bypass the park entrance gate and just tap your pass at a kiosk and go!)

TIP: Be sure to check out the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre when you visit. It’s not just a beautiful building, there are some interesting interactive displays that describe the geography, local wildlife and provide indigenous interpretive experiences.

Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre
Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre is beautiful and informative


The lodges, motels and hotels in Waterton are typically family-run and not international names, which is part of the charm of this destination. Whatever your budget, you will find something that suits you from hiker/backpacker-friendly options to more luxurious options (like the historic Prince of Wales Hotel).

Prince of Wales Hotel on bluff Waterton
The Prince of Wales is an icon of remote wilderness luxury

We stayed at the Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort which offers year-round accommodation and a perfect location in the centre of town. The lodge consists of a number of separate buildings that contain multiple rooms and suites, including some with kitchenettes. Our Deluxe King Suite is a favourite for romantic getaways, as it features a fireplace in the comfy main bedroom, and a large washroom with a jacuzzi tub.

Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort
One of the buildings at Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort *Photo courtesy of website

The main reception building has a good restaurant and lounge, Vimy’s, that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and normally the resort offers a pool and hot tub for guests to relax. (Both were closed for renovations when we visited in June 2022, so if these amenities are important to you, check with the hotel on the construction status.)

Vimy's Restaurant at Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort
Vimy’s Restaurant at Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort *Photo courtesy of website


The Thirsty Bear Waterton Alberta
The Thirsty Bear is a popular pub in Waterton

There are some very good options for dining in Waterton, which may be surprising given the town’s small size. But because this destination does get a lot of seasonal visitors, you can find a wide range of dining options from pizza to pasta to wild game.

For a casual option where you’re likely to meet some of the locals, definitely check out Pizza of Waterton. The pizza is deep dish, the craft brews are chilled and the no-nonsense atmosphere is perfect after a sweaty hike. If you want a good breakfast in the morning or a takeaway snack to pack for your early trek, Pearl’s Cafe (that shares a roof with Pizza of Waterton) makes a lot of great options including a hearty breakfast sandwich.

If you want to make a night of it, check out the newly renovated Thirsty Bear Kitchen + Bar. This pub has a history that goes back generations, and the brand new dining room and patio are huge (its size is a good indication of the popularity of this Waterton watering hole). There’s also a small stage where they host great live music, and a food menu that goes beyond just your typical pub far. (Baja fish tacos, for one – delicious and huge.)

Baja fish tacos at Thirsty Bear Waterton
Baja fish tacos at Thirsty Bear Waterton

If you want to kick off the hiking boots and fleece and go for a more elevated dining experience, definitely book a table at the Lakeside Chophouse, where the patio view of the lake and mountains is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail, or your entire meal. Like everything in Waterton, the Lakeside has a lot of history here, but it is their eclectic menu that is the real story.

Patio Drinks at the Lakeside Chophouse Waterton
Patio Drinks at the Lakeside Chophouse Waterton


Half of the 500,000 or so annual visitors to Waterton come in July and August when the town is at its busiest. (Compare this to Banff, however, which gets 4,000,000 visitors and you’ll see why Waterton feels like a hidden gem!) If you want to avoid the ‘crush’, consider visiting in the late spring or early autumn. We visited at the very beginning of June, which was a perfect time to explore the Park: the weather was good, the town wasn’t crowded and wildflowers were in bloom everywhere.

Special thanks to Noelle Aune Communications who arranged for our hosted stay in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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