Erin and Andrew Sunter and their children spent a few days this summer at the International Peace Park, staying in the townsite of Waterton on the Canadian side and crossing the border for a hike along the infamous Going-to-the-sun Road in the USA.
Glacier National Park is in the state of Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park is in the province of Alberta. Together they straddle the Continental Divide at its narrowest point in the Rocky Mountain chain. The two parks were linked in 1932 as the world’s first International Peace Park to commemorate the friendship between the two countries. Fittingly, the Peace Park is called the ‘Crown of the Continent’ and designated a World Heritage Site.
We had driven up the Going-to-the-sun Road in Glacier National Park a few years ago on a trip across the northern United States so we knew it was spectacular. This time we decided to visit both sides of the International Peace Park, spending a little more time in Waterton National Park, which is on the Canadian side. Both parks are famous for their landscapes that were carved out by glaciers.
Long ago, lodges were built in the park for well-to-do visitors and trails were built between these lodges so that guests could travel about by horseback. Today the trails are used by hikers and bikers as well as those travelling by horse. Today you can also rent a boat, take a cruise, and camp in the backcountry.
The saying is that Waterton Lakes National Park starts where ‘the prairie and the mountains meet’, which is just 264 km (159 mi) south of Calgary. The townsite itself is small and family-friendly with a year-round population of just 100 people. There’s a campground by the lake, a water park for kids, tennis courts that appear to be free, a grocery store that seems to carry the necessities, a liquor store, and a few ice cream shops. What more could you ask for! For those who prefer to sleep on a bed rather than on the ground, there are several hotels including the luxurious Prince of Wales.
The park is known for its wildflowers and its bears. There are 1,000 native plants, 250 species of birds, 60 species of mammals, 24 species of fish and 10 species of reptiles and amphibians so lots to look out for. A favourite place for bear-spotting is the Red Rock Parkway, a 15 km (9 mi) road that was once a buffalo trail and offers great views of Mt. Blakiston, the highest mountain in the park (2904 m/9527 ft). We passed two bears on our drive up the road and then hiked around Red Rock canyon, an easy loop.
Aside from counting bears, favourite activities are hiking and taking a cruise out of Emerald Bay across the international border. One of the most popular day hikes is to Crypt Lake, which was certainly a highlight for us.
The international port of entry between Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park is Carway, Alberta and Peigan, Montana. The port is open year round from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm. There is also a seasonal crossing at Chief Mountain. Bring proper documentation (usually a passport).
The glaciers of Glacier National Park can only be seen today in the highest and coldest mountain peaks but the park is still 95% wilderness. There is an exceptional highway that goes through this wilderness called Going-to-the-sun Road. It’s 80 km (50 mi) long, from St. Mary in the east to West Glacier in the western side of the park. The road can be narrow and the turns very tight so there are vehicular restrictions. As you work your way up the mountains the road twists and turns and hugs the cliffs. The road was completed in the 1930s and is considered an engineering landmark.
The drive is stunning and considered to be one of the most spectacular in the world. Needless to say, it is also popular. It can be difficult finding a parking place at the scenic lookouts and sections of the road are under construction so there can be traffic delays. Consider leaving your car at the entrance and taking the free shuttle bus that is available from early July to Labour Day weekend. If you really want to experience the park you should get off the highway and hike one of the trails. An early morning shuttle is available for hikers.
The Highline Trail that parallels the Garden Wall is a classic hike. The park does not recommend it for young children and we only went as far as the narrow ledge on the edge of the Garden Wall but it was a good prep for the Crypt Lake hike we did the following day in Waterton Park
Bears, mountain lions and other large mammals roam freely between the parks. Wardens will tell you that “a fed animal is a dead animal” and that you’re too close to an animal if “your actions cause it to discontinue feeding, leave or otherwise alter behaviour”. So remember to be informed and well prepared before heading out on any hike.
See related article: Crypt Lake, Waterton Park: 1st class day hike (even with kids)
By Andrew and Erin Sunter
Photo credits Andrew and Erin Sunter
Riding the buses 2013