Waterton Lakes National Park: Where the Prairies meet the Peaks

By Karlie Marrazzo

Southern Alberta is a special place in my home province and my favourite place to road trip. When most people think of Alberta, they picture the magnificent Rocky Mountains, crystalline blue glacial waters, and rival city hockey teams. I was born in the dead centre of the province, surrounded by prairies, not interested in hockey, and a four-hour drive away from the majestic Rockies. No matter how far I’ve journeyed in this wide, wonderful world, a chance to explore Alberta is one I will always enthusiastically take. And so far, Southern Alberta is my favourite part of the province to explore. Wheatfields stretch into an endless horizon, hoodoos and coulees provide mystery and intrigue, and the Indigenous history is rich and fascinating. The mountains are there, too, jutting sharply from the ranch land at their base. Horses, cows and hay bales dot the landscape consistently; this is real cowboy country.

Summer 2020 has been a difficult one for so many reasons, for people all over the globe. Still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking care of our mental health, alongside our physical health, is of paramount importance. While most of us on the planet are restricted by local and international travel restrictions, getting out and safely exploring our own backyards has become more popular than ever. After having to cancel a trip to Italy earlier this spring, I have made it a priority to get out on a few Alberta road trips this year. For our second summer road trip, my boyfriend and I headed south to Waterton Lakes National Park, with a few stops along the way.

It was a clear Wednesday morning in August, and the temperature was already hot at 9:30am. In the blink of an eye, we were making our obligatory stop in Red Deer at the Donut Mill to stock up on donuts for the rest of the ride. We didn’t stop again until we reached Nanton, 242km later. By the time we got there, it was a muggy 30°C. Nanton is famous for being a small prairie town with an inordinate number of antique shops, and home of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. Eric was excited to visit the museum because of the Lancaster bomber from WWII and its ties to his family history.
Unfortunately, they weren’t open that day, so we shelved the idea until we were on our way home a few days later. We took a break from the car to stretch our legs and check out a couple of the shops. My bookworm eyes spotted a ‘BOOKS’ sign in a shop window from across the street, so I beelined towards it. It was actually a gift shop with one small corner stacked high with books, which were all only $1 each. Heaven! Afterwards, we popped into the town’s thrift shop, but I sadly didn’t find anything that suited my style. Back outside, the sweet smell of chocolate and ice cream wafted over from the aptly named Nanton Candy Store. It was a fun store with the perfect small-town mix of every type of candy and chocolate bar you could imagine in the centre of the store, with antiques lining the walls. We came away with a cool, hard to find record and a ceramic roaring tiger figurine. Having rarely left the house over the previous five months, all of my senses were on overload, and I wasn’t used to being around “so many” people in indoor spaces. And we weren’t even on Nanton’s main street! Our final stop in Nanton for the day was a shop and artist’s studio that lays claim to the “largest stained glass mosaic in town”. The mosaic is quite beautiful, depicting large dragonflies, flowers, fish, birds and plants in a rainbow of pleasing colours. We left Nanton behind for the day, leaving several antique shops behind to explore on our next visit.

The sun was slowly sinking in the west as we continued on through Alberta’s cowboy country. Most of the trip from Edmonton to Waterton is via Highway 2, a flat and wide highway through flat and wide land. About 100km before Waterton, turn onto Highway 3, pass through Pincher Creek, and then head south down highway 6. I love this part of Alberta. The grand prairie skies open up even wider and are starkly contrasted with the vast prairie fields bursting with yellow canola. Windmills begin to pop up, adding an alien feel to the landscape. Along Highway 6 is ranch land; the ground begins to roll gently, dotted with cows and farmhouses.

We arrived in Waterton and checked into the Bayshore Inn right around dinnertime. A comfortable two-storey hotel located at the water’s edge, it is a good base for a few days around town. There are a handful of restaurants in Waterton, and that night we had dinner at the Thirsty Bear, which is attached to the hotel. Most of the restaurants in town offer Canadian and pub fare, like burgers, steaks, nachos, and salads. It is worth noting that there isn’t a grocery store in Waterton, so everything has to be brought in from Pincher Creek or elsewhere, so unless you bring your own groceries with you, you’ll have to eat at a restaurant or at your hotel for every meal.

The best way to wind down in Waterton is to spend time by the water, watching the sun set behind the mountains as the waves lap the rocky beach. We perched on a log on the beach just a stones’ throw from our hotel and watched the sky change from blue to purple to grey. A bright dot appeared in the northeast part of the sky, floating over the tip of Mount Boswell. At first, I thought it might have been a communications tower lighting up as the sky grew dark, but as the dot slowly moved through the sky, thoughts of extraterrestrials and UFOs danced through my mind. A second dot appeared 20 minutes later, and the crisp, bright objects revealed themselves to be Jupiter and Saturn.

The Red Rock Parkway is a fun 9km drive that leads from the start of the Waterton townsite up into the mountains above. On our way out of town the next morning, we encountered the group of Bighorn Sheep that hang out at the entrance to the townsite. Calm, cool and collected, they grazed on grass and lounged in the road as the morning traffic slowed to pass them. Moments later we were on the parkway, climbing up the mountainside away from the townsite. At 10am, there were few other cars on the road. The overcast sky set a hazy ambience for the drive. Trees on either side of the Parkway were skeletal and black, having been burned in the 2017 Kenow Wildfire that ravaged Waterton Lakes National Park. Low to the ground, bursts of yellow, pink and purple wildflowers brought new life to the area, offering hope and beauty to the scene. A fun drive through beautiful scenery, the Red Rock Parkway offers sections of straightaways followed by gentle twists and turns, all while climbing higher in altitude with the Rocky Mountains looming on either side.

Several walks and hikes can be accessed from the Red Rock Parkway. We pulled over in the Blakiston Falls trailhead parking lot, just a few meters away from the Red Rock Canyon lot. The Blakiston Falls trail is an easy 2km/45 minute walk over a gently undulating path through burnt out forest flush with new growth. The starkness of the black tree trucks against the hazy grey sky, with the vibrant wildflowers in the foreground, made for an eerie yet calm morning hike. We only passed a few other hikers on the trail that morning. Blakiston Falls rush out the side of the canyon and can be observed safely from two new, all-metal observation decks. Back at the beginning of the trail, we continued a few meters on to Red Rock Canyon. There is a short, paved path atop the edge of the canyon, but most people were directly inside it, although people are advised to stay on the path. Layers of argillite give the shallow canyon it’s rich red tones, and a cold glacier stream runs through it. Adults and children were crawling all throughout the canyon; some sticking to the edges, some wading right through the water. Use caution if you choose to do so as the rocks are slippery and the water is cold. Although only minutes apart, Red Rock Canyon was certainly far busier than Blakiston Falls trail, popular with families and dog-friendly. Back in town, lunch that day was at The Taco Bar, a hole-in-the-wall favourite that serves up tacos, burritos, chips and salsa and cold Mexican beers. There are several tables scattered outside for customers to dine at.

Perched on a lonely hill overlooking Upper Waterton Lake and the surrounding mountains, the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel has guarded over the town since 1927. Built as a railway hotel and named after the former Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, who never bothered to visit his namesake property. The brown and green, Rustic-style hotel has withstood multiple fires over the years, and its green shale blows off the roof constantly since Southern Alberta is one of the windiest places in Canada. To top it all off, it is most definitely haunted! I spent one night there several years ago, and the howling wind combined with the eerie feeling in the room definitely made for a spooky experience. Whether or not you are staying overnight, the hotel is a popular spot for photoshoots with a dramatic background and windswept hair. The gift shop is huge and fabulous (everyone knows I heart a good gift shop), and the lobby, with it’s floor to ceiling windows, is a wonderful place to sip a cocktail or read a book. After a short rest at our hotel, we made the 20-minute walk from town up to the Prince of Wales. We popped in to the Windsor Lodge for a post-walk drink and ended up staying for the charcuterie board and heirloom tomato salad. The food was so good that we made dinner reservations for the more formal Royal Stewart Dining Room the next evening. The vintage, wildly patterned carpet, the views over Waterton Lake, and the fancy cocktails combined to make a perfectly charming evening.

On Friday morning I awoke to the sounds of howling wind blowing through the streets, trees and mountains. The sun was still shining but the temperature was cooler than it had been the previous day. We decided to do a slightly more challenging hike that day – the Bears Hump Trail. Classified as moderate, the trail is just shy of 3km round trip, with a 225m elevation gain. It is one of the most popular short hikes in the area and the trail can get quite busy. Depending on your fitness level, the hike can take an hour or more, (or less!). I don’t spend a lot of time working on my cardio at home, so I got winded pretty easily on this hike and was moving slowly, stopping for frequent breaks. Meanwhile, families with little children were passing me by at an embarrassing rate. Regardless, the journey up the mountain and the spectacular views made it totally worth it. The winds at the top of the mountain were raging; mild nervousness washed over me as the wind screamed in my ears and blew my hair into my eyes. 50km/h winds gusted up to 85km/h that day – the region is one of the windiest in all of Canada. I only spent 10 minutes at the top before I needed to get out of the wind. I regret not spending more time up there, and am more prepared for the wind next time.

Dinner at the Royal Stewart Dining Room at the Prince of Wales Hotel was just as wonderful as we expected it to be, based on our experience in the lounge the night before. Although the room had a bit of a sparse feeling due to the tables being spread out according to social distancing rules, the service was phenomenal, the food was by far the best we had in Waterton, and nothing beats the view over Waterton Lake and the town.

Our evening didn’t end after dinner. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been infatuated with the night sky. Posters of the solar system and glow-in-the-dark stars adorned my bedroom as a child. Although my astronomy knowledge is still beginner level, I chase the night sky wherever I go, whether close to home at Elk Island National Park or far away in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. In 2017, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was recognized as the first transboundary Dark Sky Park. A Dark Sky Park is “a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment,” according to the International Dark Sky Association. Canada is home to 13 parks that enjoy Dark Sky Preserve designation, with four of them right here in Alberta. Since 2018, Dark Sky Guides has been offering night sky tours of Waterton Lakes National Park.

The skies that night were partly cloudy, and as our 10:30pm tour time approached, I hoped with all my might that the strong winds would quickly blow the clouds away. We were picked up in the Dark Sky Guides van at our hotel by Keith Robinson, one of the founding brothers. An energetic man, Keith told us a bit about what the evening would entail and described the COVID-19 precautions that would be taken. There were four other people on the tour that night; we were required to wear our masks at all times in the van, and seated as far apart as possible. We drove to a spot on the north edge of the park, about 15 minutes from town. There, we set up chairs and gazed at the sky as Keith talked to us about the stars and planets that were visible to us. He told interesting stories about the birth of the stories surrounding the constellations, including the lesser-told Indigenous origins of the constellations. The skies graced us with a few shooting stars before clouding over, and we were able to hold a piece of the Campo Del Cielo asteroid. Fitting into the palm of my hand, the small, dense piece of space debris weighed 1kg.

On our way home the next day, I wanted to try to stop somewhere to get some cool windmill photos. Instead of taking the main highway all the way home, we detoured onto secondary highway 785. As soon as we pulled off, a huge wind farm stood before us, unimpeded by gates or fences. The sound of jet engines filled my ears, created by the enormous blades of the windmills slicing through the Southern Alberta wind. Oh, to hear the sound of a jet engine up close again, to feel the excitement of boarding a plane, only to emerge 10 hours later on the other side of the world. Alas, the sound and sight of the windmills satisfied my wanderlust that day. As we continued down Highway 785, ranch land spread out as far as the eye could see in every direction. Somehow, the big Alberta sky grew even larger. It felt as though we were in a toy car driving through a snow globe, the huge dome of the sky enveloping us. A handful of kilometres later, the paved road suddenly turned into a rugged gravel road. Thick, large pieces of grey rock churned under our wheels. We both gritted our teeth, hoping with all our might that none of the rocks would fly up and damage the car or its undercarriage. Taking a sporty Mitsubishi onto a backcountry gravel road might not be someone’s first choice, but 40km later, the car come through unscathed.

With everything going on in the world right now, from politics to a global pandemic, it can be easy for some to forget that the horrors of World War II are still a part of our recent history, being only one generation removed for some people. Canada played a huge part in eventually defeating the Axis powers, and lost over 40,000 people while doing so. The Bomber Command Museum of Canada, located in an aircraft hangar on the side of Highway 2 in Nanton, honours the men and women who played a part in the war. The main attraction inside the museum is the fully restored and operational Avro Lancaster aircraft. Seeing this aircraft is particularly special for Eric, as his grandfather was a gunner in just such an aircraft during the War. I read my fair share of World War II memoirs and fiction, but being able to see this relic in person, and connect its history to someone so close to me made it even more poignant. The museum also houses an incredible display of WWII era nose art – the art that bomber crew would paint on the noses of their aircraft to personalize their machines. The paintings commemorated things such as how many bombs were dropped, how many were successful, and of course, beautiful women. The wonderful pieces in the museum are recreations by local artist Clarence Simonsen. There are several other smaller aircraft and bombers on display in the museum, in various states of completion or restoration, with more being worked on behind the scenes.

From the golden wheatfields to the spectacular lake views, from the quirky small-town shops to the desolate wind farms, our road trip to windy Waterton was another successful summer jaunt.

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