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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!
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!
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.
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 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.
Accommodation In Canada
Basing yourself in Reykavik allows you easy access and a variety of shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Our recommendations are the following:
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.
These two hotels are open year round if you stay in Waterton townsite itself.
Waterton Glacier Suites
Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Ready to explore Waterton Lakes? Let us know in the comments below!