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Waterton Lakes National Park in Winter: A Wildlife Paradise

Waterton Lakes National Park in Winter: A Wildlife Paradise
Bighorn Sheep on Akamina parkway in Waterton National Park in winter

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Waterton Lakes National Park is a sublime example of a Canadian National Park. This is where the Albertan plains abruptly meet the Rocky mountains. In winter the hustle and bustle of summer is long gone and a veritable wildlife paradise awaits!

By winter the seasoner workers leave, tourist numbers drop to almost null and the tourist information office closes for the season. Winter almost transforms Waterton into a ghost town.

Most independent shops, restaurants and bars are closed until the spring thaw. Even the popular historic Prince of Wales hotel situated over Upper Waterton lake closes its doors to the sharp embrace of winter. But have no fear, there are still a few lodges that operate year round in Waterton if you’re keen to visit this off the beaten track winter destination in Alberta for cross country skiing, backcountry skiing or wildlife sightseeing. 

The townsite residents that stay through winter walk their dogs outside and a few visitors wander through but we noted that the most prominent citizens in town were deer. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that if you come for a visit you’ll find that you’ll meet more deer then human residents in wintertime!

Red Canadian barn in Alberta
Bright Canadian barn
Twin Butte Country General Store Alberta Canada
Twin Butte Country General Store in Alberta

The Drive

Take the TranCanada Highway South from Calgary through the vast prairies blanketed in snow and hold on to the stillness in the air that only winter invites. Pass brightly painted Western barns accompanied by rusting farm trucks, friendly small town faces and herds of cow ambling through the snow. Industrial towering windmills dominate the horizons of the remote prairies, breaking up the empty space between the plains and the blue skies.

We stopped at the Twin Butte Country General Store for a quick browse and a washroom break. We were tempted to grab a drink at the bar but with limited daylight we decided we would do so next time we were in the area!

bighorn sheep family waterton lakes national park
Bighorn sheep on Akiamina Parkway with mom in the front and dad pulling up the rear

Akiamina Parkway

Before exploring Waterton Townsite consider undertaking the scenic drive onto Akiamina Parkway off highway 5. A word of advice, ensure you have winter tires on your vehicle before making the journey. The road can be icy and slick in winter and we found in some places to be steep and narrow winding. There will be an elevation change of 360m or 1181 ft in the 12.2km drive to the winter closure gate. Expect to spend some time enjoying the views from small pull offs spots and animal sighting if you’re lucky!

Our first encounter of the day with wildlife was in the form of a family of bighorn sheep assembled as an informal and mobile blockade on the road. After the parents lead their offspring off the road we continued on our way, occasionally stopping at semi cleared pull out spots to take in the views of Cameron Creek snaking its path through the dense woods. 

Wild deer in waterton lakes national park in winter
Can you spot the deer?
Wildlife in winter deer in Waterton National Parks Wildlife Winter
Doe in the snow
two deer winter wildlife in waterton lakes national park
Pair of deer gliding gracefully through the snow

Little Prairie

We parked our car by the closure gate at Little Prairie to stretch our legs. As a half day trip you can continue further with your own two feet by snowshoeing or skiing to Cameron Lakes 3.0km or 1.9miles one way.

It was a road trip day though so we hopped back in our car to make the return trip back to town. Just as we had shed our jackets to get comfortable, Jonas spotted a deer in the snow. We jumped out of the car, eager for a better look.

A small deer with antlers was almost completely camouflaged in snow covered bushes. I had to look closely to locate the perky ears and button nose belonging to our new acquaintance.

A few meters away I spot its companion who was caught in the sun. We watch them for a few minutes as they rummage through the snow searching for grass. And then they were off, gallivanting gracefully into the forest and out of view.

waterton lakes national park winter wildlife male deer with antlers
Throwing us an inquisitive look
waterton lakes national park winter winter wildlife pair of female deer
A pair female deer romping in the snow
waterton lakes national winter wildlife park male bighorn sheep
Solitary male bighorn sheep feeding

Waterton Lakes Townsite

I have to say that we didn’t expect Waterton Lakes townsite to be so eerily quiet in winter. There were a few other tourists around during the weekend we visited but nothing like the tourist numbers found in the other Canadian National Parks.

Visiting Waterton Lakes was a wonderful respite from our city life and we loved walking around the cozy town. A pleasant surprise were the deer and bighorn sheep wandering around town moseying from one yard to the next, sometimes exploring the back of the house near fire pits, benches, tables and even water tanks. The quiet atmosphere and salt covered roads fashioned an inviting environment for wily wildlife.  

Waterton lakes national park

Accommodation In Canada

Basing yourself in Reykavik allows you easy access and a variety of shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Our recommendations are the following:

Budget

Cameron Lakes Cabin-You can stay a night in the rustic cabin currently operated by the Alpine Club of Canada Built in 1929 it holds the title as the oldest intact warden’s hut in Waterton National Park. Park at the winter closure gate on Akiamina Parkway. The cabin reopens in winter 2018.

Mid-Range

These two hotels are open year round if you stay in Waterton townsite itself.

Waterton Glacier Suites

Check prices on: Booking.com | HotelsCombined

Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort

Check prices on: Booking.com | HotelsCombined

Those inclined for more food and accomodation options should opt to stay in the neighboring Albertan town of Pincher Creek or in the City of Lethbridge.

AirBnB

Stay at an AirBnB in Waterton Lakes townsite itself or in Lethbridge! We found an airbnb in Lethbridge and visited Waterton on day trips. We wanted to explore the outdoors during the day but have access to a variety of restaurants, grocery stores and other amenities available in the city at night. 

We enjoy utilizing AirBnB as a couple when we want to balance budget with privacy. If you’re new to Airbnb you can sign up with a new account at Airbnb and get a $30EURO or $35USD discount on your first stay!

Safety & Hazards

Avalanche road signs

There will be sections of the Akamina parkway where road signs indicate Avalanche Area No Stopping. Follow these instructions! By no means should you stop whether it is to photograph an animal or the landscape. You could be putting yourself and others at risk. Always pull over in a safe, visible spot before going shutter happy.

Backcountry access

Exercise caution and bring appropriate equipment. Arm yourself with an avalanche safety course if you plan on deviating off the main road or exploring the backcountry.

You must bring an avalanche snow shovel, probe, and beacon if you plan on entering avalanche zones in the backcountry.

Download the free Avalanche Canada App (Android or IOS) or check the Avalanche Canada Website for information on avalanche conditions in Yoho before leaving.

Road Conditions 

For up to date road reports we recommend downloading the free 511 Alberta App (Android or IOS) or checking on their 511 Alberta Website before hitting the road.

Winter Tires

 When visiting in the winter, drive on winter tires. Renting a car with winter tires is more expensive but worth it. Road conditions are variable and you will want traction. The weather in the mountain can change quickly. If you can afford winter tires get the. Otherwise a combination of four wheel drive and mud and snow-rated tires are the next best option. Hire the best vehicle you can afford.

Planning a Trip To Canada?

We never leave home without emergency medical and trip protection cover. We utilize travel insurance from World Nomads for short trips abroad. Protect yourself and your wallet from unexpected injury, sickness & theft abroad. 

World Nomads Logo

Winter Emergency Kit

Do pack a winter emergency kit to keep in your car at all times. If there is an issue with your car, if you get into an accident with another car, pole, animal or slide off the road and more it is imperative that you have the supplies to keep you warm and safe until help arrives.

What we recommend:

Snow shovel, Emergency roadside flares, Emergency warning triangles, First Aid Kit, Jumper Cables,Dual Snow Scraper/Snow Brush, Sleeping bag, Emergency blanket, Flashlight with extra batteries,Matches, lighters, candles, 2L of cat litter, sand, or road salt for traction.

Extra clothing: hats, mittens, socks, snowpants, thermal layers

Extra snacks: energy bars, granola bars, raisins, trail mix, small bottles of water (50cl)

Dress Appropriately for the Weather

The Canadian Rockies can have harsh winters depending on the year. Temperatures can dip to -30 degrees Celsius with wind chill making it feel like -40 degrees C. Its essential to dress accordingly to the weather. It could also be +20 degrees, sunny and blue skies with snow on the ground. Canadian weather system is flexible, you have to be as well.

We recommend waterproof jackets, snow pants or quick drying pants, warm boots, quick drying pants, and layers layers layers! Don’t forget about a toque for you head, a versatile buff, mittens and hand warmers. Shop our favourite Canada travel essentials!

Canadian Guidebooks & Maps

Looking for books to take with you for inspiration and recommendation? Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies has numerous suggestions on snowshoeing routes, many of which are beginner friendly.

Visiting other parks? The Lonely Planet has a great guidebook listing amazing places to see, things to do, where to stay and eat in the National Parks.

We love the National Geographic map series as they are practical as well as great wall decoration to remind us where we’ve been and the roads we’ve took to get there.

Looking for more stellar off the beaten path trip destinations in the Canadian Rockies? Check out the best experiences found in Nordegg, Alberta and Yoho National Park in winter! 

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Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada is an absolute delight to visit in winter. Discover gorgeous waterfalls, frozen lakes, gorgeous mountain scenery and a plethora of snowshoeing and skiing opportunities! Where will you choose?
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Ready to explore Waterton Lakes? Let us know in the comments below!

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. This National Park seems like a piece of paradise, Lisa and Jonas! I fell in love with it thanks to your pictures. How many days would you recommend staying there?

    1. Hi Agness, welcome. We definitely thought so! We would recommend staying 1 or 2 nights in the area. In summer, we would say upwards to a week depending on what your interests are.

  2. What an absolutely beautiful area. The pics you posted are stunning! When I was young, I used to love spending summers in Canada with my grandparents.I have never been to this National Park, but it is definitely someplace I would like to visit one day! Thank you for the informative post!

  3. I’ve always wanted to visit Canada its such a beautiful place. I love the scenery of the National Park.

  4. Oh wow what an absolutely beautiful place this looks like. I have to admit I am a fan of anywhere that lets wildlife roam.

  5. Oh! Baby sheep! I love your photos and this seems like a perfectly quaint little town! Oddly cozy for all the snow on the ground. I’ll have to look into staying in that old cabin!

  6. Wow. The snow and pictures are so beautiful. I’d definitely take your advice and go visit.

  7. I totally need to book a trip to this park now! The photos almost look like they’re out of a children’s book. To see wildlife up close like that is such a treat! 🙂

  8. How beautiful is this place! Canada is one of the places on my list to visit. Hopefully I’m close enough to visit this place.

  9. Wow, it is just stunning in the winter time. I’d love to visit here someday!

  10. For winter nature lovers this is probably heaven. Beautiful scenery for the season!

  11. What a beautiful area! My son loves seeing the wild animals out and about, I’m sure he’d love it there! I’ve always wanted to start taking him to all the different national parks, can’t wait for this one! Thanks for sharing!

  12. All these parks are beautiful but i like to visit Waterton Lakes National Park .. i have a dream to be there

  13. WOW these are spectacular shots! Love the photos – I’d love to visit

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