WATERTON — When it comes to tourist destinations, Waterton Lakes National Park may very well be Canada’s best-kept secret.
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Alberta, 180 kilometres from Calgary, Waterton attracts just 400,000 visitors a year despite the fact it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park and a Biosphere Reserve.
There are wildflowers and wildlife galore and the snowcapped Rocky Mountains suddenly rise out of the rolling Prairies as you arrive.
Waterton was Canada’s fourth national park, created in 1895 and named after Waterton Lake. The lake is named after Victorian naturalist and conservationist Charles Waterton.
The park contains 505 square kilometres of rugged mountains and wilderness and is seriously off the beaten path.
“When I first moved to Alberta and moved to Waterton, nobody knew where it was and that includes people in Calgary. I would do trade shows. I was selling Waterton because nobody knew where it was,” said Shameer Suleman, vice-president of the Waterton Chamber of Commerce.
“They would get it confused with Banff or Lake Louise.”
The one thing that Waterton offers that Banff, Lake Louise and even Jasper National Parks cannot is peace and quiet.
The most common way to get to Waterton is by car and bus tours are rare.
That means it is the perfect getaway, especially for those wanting to spend time in a more tranquil setting.
“When I’m talking to a potential employee. I say it’s what Banff was 30 or 40 years ago or Whistler was 30 or 40 years ago,” said Suleman.
“Not to mention, it’s beautiful and not a lot of people know about it. It’s a different feeling and to have so much untouched hiking and biking trails available. You aren’t bumping into someone every five minutes. It feels like you almost have the park to yourself.”
Suleman said it is the hiking and mountain biking that attracts many visitors to the park.
“I mean, Crypt Lake is constantly in the top 10 hikes in North America. It has a really well rounded Stanley Thompson-designed golf course which is now renovated. It’s a big attraction,” he said.
“They just finished some new biking trails. The shoreline cruises, which go down into Montana and you get dropped off in Glacier Park and go down to Goat Haunt and then you get to come back up, are also highlights.”
Waterton Lakes National Park borders Glacier National Park in Montana to the south, together making up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Suleman said there are two festivals each year — the Waterton Wildflower Festival in June and the Wildlife Festival in September, just as the main tourism season is coming to an end.
Waterton is home to more than 50 per cent of Alberta’s wildflowers, more than any other Rocky Mountain national park.
Over 50 of Canada’s rare flower species grow within Waterton’s boundaries, 30 of which are found only in Waterton Lakes.
Suleman said the average visitor is an affluent traveller, between the ages of 35 and 55. Most come from North America but it also draws Europeans, primarily from Germany, France and England.
There are plenty of campsites at the park but only 300 hotel spaces, so tourists are encouraged to check availability if they don’t want to rough it.
If You Go…
• Waterton is 180 km southwest of Calgary as the crow flies. If you are driving from the Calgary International Airport head south on Highway 2 down to Cardston. Turn right on Highway 5 and the road takes you directly to the park.
• Take the 20-km hike from Cameron Lake to the townsite, or cross the border taking the International Peace Park Hike into Montana’s Glacier National Park.
• Waterton Shoreline Cruise. Take a boat ride across the international boundary and go for a hike in Glacier National Park before returning later in the day.
• The Wildflower Festival runs June 18-26 www.watertonwildflowers.com
• The Wildlife Festival September 23-25, 2011. www.trailofthegreatbear.com