From a roadside turn-out inside the entrance to Waterton Lakes National Park, you can see yellow, purple and white wildflowers spread out like a carpet across the meadow and covering rough, craggy surfaces beside the trail that winds its way up to the Prince of Wales Hotel.
The vibrant colours herald the coming of spring and are something to celebrate — a sure sign that warmer weather is on its way.
It’s early June and spring is late in Alberta, but the unseasonably cool weather is good news for wildflower enthusiasts because it means the season for flowers might last a little bit longer this year. Waterton’s unique combination of prairie and mountain ecosystems makes it one of the best places in the world to view wildflowers.
The park is home to more species of wildflowers than any other Rocky Mountain national park. More than 50 of Canada’s rarest flowers grow in the park, 30 of which are found nowhere else in the country.
Depending upon where you are in the park, you can enjoy viewing and photographing a range of flowers — from delicate alpine orchids to hardy yellow Black-eyed Susans, blue lupines, or silvery-green bear grass. Spring wildflowers are effulgent in the park and their colourful blooms make it tempting to enjoy an intimate tip-toe through the fields.
To celebrate the coming of spring and the wildflowers, Waterton Lakes National Park will be holding its annual wildflower festival from June 13 to June 21. The mid-June timing of the event means that wildflowers will be plentiful and tourists will not – making this the ideal time for an early season visit.
The festival features 70 separate workshops and field studies that allow amateur botanists, birders and photographers to learn from renowned experts in several different fields of study. Workshops include titles such as Blossoms and Butterflies, Wildflowers on Horseback, Prairie and Alpine Wildflowers, bio-control of non-native species, and native use of plants.
Other activities include photography workshops, bird watching, wildflower identification, watercolour sessions, and afternoon tea with live entertainment.
Activities throughout the nine-day festival will be led by a number of experts including talented wildflower photographers Paul Gilbert (author of Wild Colours and Wild Light ), Steve Harrington and Frans Brouwers; Calgary Zoo Botanical Education Coordinator, Jane Reksten; naturalists and scientists, Dr. John Dormaar, Dr. Brian Reeves, Jo-Anne Reynolds, and Mira Vanhala.
World renowned golden eagle expert Peter Sherrington will also be guiding amateur ornithologists on a one-day expedition to Waterton’s best birding spots.
Even if you don’t plan to attend the Waterton Wildflower festival, an early visit to the park will be an ideal opportunity to hike uncrowded trails and see pristine natural flora and fauna. But be warned – the delicacy, in both colour and form, of these wild ancestors of common garden flowers can make a 30-minute walk take several hours.
If You Go:
• Waterton Lakes National Park is located along the Continental Divide and is the only international peace park in the world – it was joined with Montana’s Glacier National Park to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932.
• Besides wildflowers and abundant wildlife, the highlight of Waterton is sparkling Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. A two-hour boat cruise across the lake will take you across the border to Goat Haunt Ranger Station and back (no customs stop required).
• Waterton Lakes National Park is located in the southwest corner of the province. It will take about five hours to drive from Red Deer to Waterton Lakes National Park. Great stops along the way include Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (just south of Longview) and Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod.
• The Waterton Wildflower Festival runs from June 13 – 21. A two-day photography field course with Paul Gilbert will cost $179 and takes place June 13 and 14. A two-day watercolour workshop with Brent Laycock takes place on June 16 and 17 and will also cost $179. The average price for other workshops is about $25 per session. For a complete schedule or to register for the festival workshops, visit: www.watertonwildflowers.com or call 1-800-215-2395.
• Most visitors to the park enjoy camping in the Townsite Campground, which has hot showers, flush toilets, food storage, kitchen shelters, and a close proximity to all restaurants and other amenities. The main downside to the Townsite Campground is the fact that it has little protection from winds, and Waterton can be very windy at times.
There are some more sheltered campgrounds outside the townsite and several excellent hotels in the townsite area. For a comfortable modern accommodation, consider staying at Waterton Glacier Suites (www.watertonsuites.com). If you want something that is rustic, but full of character — consider staying at the Prince of Wales Hotel (www.princeofwaleswaterton.com).
Waterton in a Day
If you are pressed for time and want to get the most out of a very short visit to the park try this:
• Begin your day with a stop at the Parks Canada Information Centre to pick up maps and find out about the schedules for interpretive programs that may interest you.
• Behind the Information Centre is Bear’s Hump Trail, a steep, but relatively easy 1.4-km hike that leads to a beautiful overlook. Enjoy the hike!
• After the Bear’s Hump hike, take the short drive to the historic Prince of Wales Hotel to enjoy the view. You may wish to pop inside to see the lobby and snoop around the gift shop.
• Visit Waterton Townsite for an early lunch and then either rent a surrey bike (at Pat’s Gas Station) or hike the Townsite Loop to enjoy the view of Cameron Falls. If you are on foot, consider exploring the trail behind the falls.
• End your day with a scenic two-hour Waterton International Shoreline Cruise on Upper Waterton Lake.
Hint: For an inexpensive lunch, consider a visit to the Waterton Golf Course restaurant. The menu includes yummy wraps and sandwiches at lower prices than you normally find in the Waterton Townsite.
Cavell Meadows Loop
If you yearn to see wildflowers and can’t make it down to Waterton in June, consider hiking the Cavell Meadows Loop in Jasper in mid-July. This 8-km moderately-difficult hike will take 3-6 hours to complete, but rewards visitors with colourful displays of wildflowers and spectacular views of Angel Glacier.