Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park

We spent the Canada Day weekend in Waterton Lakes National Park for the second year in a row, camping at a nearby campground. Waterton is one of those places where you really need to go for a week in order to see and do everything, but we tried to squeeze as much hiking and paddling into our short weekend as possible.

Summit of the Bear's Hump, Waterton Lakes National Park

Disclaimer: The Waterton Springs Campground is permanently closed. Use this story for inspiration on visiting Waterton, but for camping please visit the Parks Canada website.

As a prelude to the photos from this year's trip, I encourage you to please read the story I wrote last year if you aren't familiar with Waterton Lakes National Park.  I wrote the following story, Family Fun in Waterton Lakes National Park, last July and it covers pretty much EVERY thing you need to know about the park, where to hike, where to bike, and where to camp.  

It was written with a lot of research and is a valuable source of information for tourists to the park.  I also highly recommend reading the story if you have never visited Waterton as a family before and are only familiar with the more challenging hikes and scrambles in the area (as we were before last year's visit.)

Playing in the Red Rock Canyon

Waterton Springs Campground and Interpretive Trail - PERMANANTLY CLOSED 

We chose to camp at Waterton Springs Campground again this year because we wanted to hike the Waterton Springs Interpretive Trail. Located above the campground, it was a highlight of our trip last year and we hoped to repeat the short easy hike with the kids again.  We also like camping just outside the national park gates at this campground because the town of Waterton gets crazy busy in summer (especially on Canada Day weekend!)  We drove into the park each day to go hiking and paddling but enjoyed getting away from the tourists and crowds at the end of the day.

Waterton Springs Campground
Hiking the Waterton Springs Interpretive Trail
Hiking in Waterton
The kids always love climbing on this rock in the meadow
The Best Family Hike in Waterton - Waterton Springs Interpretive Trail

Hiking the Bear's Hump Trail

Hiking the Bear's Hump was number one on our list of things to do because of our First Summits Project that we have chosen to undertake this summer.  Noah has already tackled a couple of easy summits in Banff National Park but this would be his first "summit" in Waterton climbed under his own steam.  We hiked up to this gorgeous viewpoint over the Waterton Lakes last summer too but Noah was carried all of the way up.  This year there was to be absolutely NO carrying or assistance.  And while the Bear's Hump isn't technically a summit, it's close enough as you can see from the photos below.  In reality, it's a bump on the lower slopes of Mt. Crandall but Noah doesn't need to know that and to him, it was a mountain.

Climbing stairs en route to the summit
The Bear's Hump Summit with unparalleled views!
The hike was as beautiful as always but incredibly busy and we barely found room to park.  We couldn't actually get into the small parking lot and had to park down the road a ways.  We also chose to start a couple of hours too late.  My best piece of advice for the Bear's Hump - Start Early!! Skip breakfast, grab some power bars, and return to camp for brunch after.  It gets way too hot on this trail to be slogging up in the heat of the day.  Noah did awesome and rocked the climb up but some of the kids in our group struggled with the heat.  Thank God there was a breeze on the summit so we could cool off a bit before descending. 

My Pook and I on the Bear's Hump

Exploring at Red Rock Canyon

It's a long twisty drive out to Red Rock Canyon along the 15km Red Rock Parkway but worth the journey.  We visited the canyon last year and followed the official trail looping the canyon, continuing on to Blakiston Falls in an easy 2km return hike.  This year we didn't want to do an official hike or go all the way to the falls.  We just wanted to get IN to the canyon and play. 

The Red Rock Canyon
Very busy right at the beginning of the canyon
 Fortunately the water level wasn't too high and we were clad in sport sandals for the wet walk up canyon.  It wasn't hard to lose the crowds this way either.  Most of the tourists stop within 200 metres of the main canyon viewing area.  Walk further than that and you are pretty much on your own.  And bonus, no signs telling you NOT to go into the canyon.  We weren't breaking any rules for once in our off trail rambling.

Exploring in the canyon
The water was very cold!  Perfect for a hot day.
Next year we will return to the canyon first thing in the morning when it's quieter and we can get into the parking lot. We will also bring sand toys and prepare to hike up canyon as far as possible before it turns scrambly or ends.  We only went half a kilometre up canyon this time and I'm very curious to know what else we'd see if we hiked further. 

Noah and his friend playing in the canyon

Paddling and Beach Play in Waterton National Park

We have hiked, scrambled, biked, and camped in Waterton but had never paddled until this trip.  It was very exciting to see the park from a different vantage point out on the water and it was a great way to stay cool on a hot weekend.  We wanted to kayak and SUP on Cameron Lake but the Akamina Parkway was closed as a result of flooding so we had to stick to the Waterton Lakes.  We thought we'd paddle on Lower Lake because there are no motor boats allowed on it, but we couldn't fight the desire to be on the Upper Lake with its emerald green colour and gorgeous views down to Montana.  We stuck close to the shore and found the occasional motor boat or tour boat to be of no concern to us.  We discovered a couple of great  beaches for launching from and the children enjoyed playing in the freezing cold water before/after paddling.

Note for 2024 going forward with no end date:
"All non-motorized watercraft from outside of the park are prohibited from entering water bodies in Waterton Lakes National Park."

Cold water but the kids spent hours playing in Upper Lake every day (Photo:  Jen Sollid)
Cameron Bay
SUPing at Cameron Bay

Cameron Bay was by far our favourite beach to launch from.  The water seemed to be the greenest and clearest here making for spectacular SUPing.  We also enjoyed paddling up the Lake from this Bay towards the first backcountry campground and the Montana border crossing.  We only paddled a few kilometres up the lake but it was peaceful, quiet, and we didn't meet with a single motor boat on our way out.  We heard a couple boats on our way back but it was still a lovely paddle with still calm water (something I wouldn't presume to take for granted in a place known for its strong winds.)

Paddling on the Upper Waterton Lake on a very calm day
Paradise on Upper Waterton Lake, looking into Montana
Noah and Daddy kayaking on Upper Waterton Lake
Family Paddling on Upper Waterton Lake (photo:  Jen Sollid)

The other launch spot we liked on Upper Waterton Lake was Emerald Bay near the marina.  This bay was busier but the kids had a lot of fun playing at the rocky beach.  It was also a nice protected bay and I presume would be less windy on a typical day in Waterton.  It didn't matter where we paddled because we actually managed to be in Waterton on a weekend with no wind in the slightest.  Quite a special treat!

Playing at the Emerald Bay beach
SUPing in Emerald Bay
On our third day, we parked at the boat launch on Middle Waterton Lake and paddled across the lake until we reached the Waterton River.  We paddled down the river a short ways and took out at the Hay Barn day use area.  It was a scenic paddle with the Prince of Whales Hotel in the background and the river section was more lake than river.  There was one short section of class I rapids and before we knew it, we were at our take out spot with friends waiting for us on the shore.

Beach on Middle Lake
SUPing on Middle Lake with the Prince of Whales Hotel in the Background
Yay for a friend to SUP with
 We originally wanted to paddle from Marquis Hole day use area at the beginning of the Waterton River to the Lower Lake, taking out at the Kootenay Brown Day use area on the far side of the lake.  Unfortunately though, the Marquis Hole road was closed for flooding.  Next time we will try this for an easy river journey.

The kids loved playing on the small island at the Hay Barn Day use area

Great place to play with the kids! 
We had so much fun playing in the lakes with the kids that we actually didn't visit the water park in town this trip.  For families who prefer spray parks to rocky beaches though, there is a great spray park in town connected to an awesome playground.  Next year we'll plan for an extra day and maybe have time for everything!  Maybe.

Who needs a spray park when you've got this?!

For more information on Family Fun in Waterton Lakes National Park, please visit the story I wrote last July.  We did a lot of biking last year so you'll find all the information you need for family bike rides in last year's story.  We also explored the townsite more with the spray park, playground, Cameron Falls, and townsite loop trail.  There are lots of photos in the story along with information on everything you'll need to plan your own trip to Waterton. 

Did I miss any of your favourite things to do in Waterton?  I'd love to hear what you like to do in the area so that we can make sure we put it on the list for next year.  Maybe we'll stay a week!


  1. Thanks for all the info. I'm taking notes as I read this! I'm looking forward to visiting the park this summer with an 8 and 10 year-old...and an infant. :)

    1. thanks and I'm glad it was useful for you. Have fun this summer!