Umm. Yeah. So, I … well … I booked a campsite for the May long weekend. In Alberta. In a mountain park, no less. Yeah … … I know.
In fact, I haven’t gone camping on May’s legendary long weekend in several years precisely because I know! But the last few May long weekends have actually been quite nice. I was starting to feel stupid sitting at home gazing upon sunbathed trailer in my backyard. Why not give it another try, I thought?
So, I did. My first step was messing up the provincial park booking window. No problem. The national park system, having finally come to their senses in moving opening day to April from January, would be my saviour in this ill-fated resumption of May long weekend outings. And I knew just the place … Waterton Lakes National Park.
I’ve wanted to visit Waterton for decades. Seriously. I’ve lived here 23 years and never been. I’d heard many great things about this southern Alberta national park, but one relentless fact kept me from going all these years. Wind.
I hate wind. I really, really do. It hurts my ears, ruins my fun, and keeps me on escalating degrees of edge depending whether I’m in my home, my trailer, or my tent. Forget waterboarding, if you want to obtain my deep dark secrets, throw me in a wind tunnel and press the record button. I’ll sing like a drunken magpie.
Then, of course, the whole park nearly burned entirely to the ground in 2017 and I decided it was time to put my ancraophobia into perspective and finally visit. I held out for a couple more years hoping, in vain, that Crandall Mountain Campground would be rebuilt but no luck.
So, with few options (or excuses) remaining, and by now hellbent on camping this May long weekend, I booked three nights at Waterton Townsite Campground in Waterton Lakes National Park. It was a gamble. I knew it. My wife knew. Every one of you knew it. I just told myself, “it’s to the south … it’s always warmer to the south.” I really should stop listening to me.
As you can see, not only did Alberta May long weekend weather revert to the norm, it gave me an extra cuff upside the head by snowing. Thus, my first time camping in Waterton Lakes National Park also became my first time winter camping. Of the latter, it will also be my last time. But of the former, oh, you better believe I’ll be back.
Waterton Townsite Campground
Camping in Waterton Townsite Campground is not your typical camping experience. At least not ours. Its name is wholly factual with the campground being more suburb than wilderness retreat. There’s a reason I longed for Crandall Mountain to be rebuilt.
Guesstimating from map views, I’d say Waterton Townsite Campground easily comprises one-third of the town’s total footprint, if not pushing half. Rarely does one find a campground so integrated into the makeup of a national park tourist town.
The benefits of such proximity to the services and offerings of a small, but nonetheless visitor-focused town, cannot be dismissed. But as a camping experience, this is more like staying in a hotel where you’ve brought your own room with you.
My take is pragmatic. I most definitely prefer a natural campground setting but considering the general unpleasantness of the weather, being a stone’s throw from town turned out to be a blessing. The snow also kept the majority of campers and day visitors away, leaving us with wide open spaces on either side of our site. The result was a surprisingly pleasant stay at a place I otherwise would have recoiled from visiting. I guess Fate tossed me a bone, there.
Waterton Townsite Campground has a total of 237 campsites available in many different layouts and service offerings. There are seven loops (A through E, G, H) and a quick look at a map reveals an evolution to the development of this campground.
Loops C, D, E, and G appear to be the original portion of the campground. As single, meandering loops with back-in sites, they ooze “vintage”. They’ve been upgraded so that “vintage” is limited, but for my money this is where it all began.
The Parks Canada reservation website iconography is a bit confusing, so doublecheck everything I say going forward. Loops C, D, and G have power only while Loop E is un-serviced. Loops C and E are shown as “tenting” sites, though many will accommodate modest trailers etc. Units bigger than 27’ will have to look to other loops.
Those other loops would be A and B, both of which are much more modern and conform to the parking lot, pull-through (most but not all) layout of cashflow generation loops. More than half of the RV-accessible campsites are found in these two loops (50 in Loop A, 60 in Loop B) and they all come with full services (electrical, water, sewer).
If Waterton Townsite Campground is a suburb, then Loops A and H are the high-density, luxury condos area. Not my bag, but if you’ve got a beast of a camper, prefer full-service camping, or are late to the reservation carnival, this is where you’ll likely end up.
Next to loop B is quaint loop H, the walk-in tent area. With a total of 30, obviously un-serviced sites, loop H is where the hardcore, but not quite backcountry hardcore, campers will set up. The sites in here are a bit trickier to discern as the area looks more like a hummocky field. As for the “walk in”, its not much of a strain with all sites being ten metres or less from the designated parking areas.
A fancy new bath and shower facility is found right next to the parking area. A couple older picnic shelters are available as well, one of which has metal storage lockers beside it. With some trees and Cameron Creek flowing past, it’s a sweet little area for the “real” campers.
You’ll note that there is no Loop F. My guess is that it was consumed during the creation of loops A or B. There’s some limit to that logic from an alphabetical perspective but it’s my best guess. Honestly, the loop naming flow makes no sense at all. I blame the wind!
Extensive investment in Waterton Townsite Campground is visible everywhere, most notably in the dark black asphalt adorning the roads through all the loops, including the six accessible sites available for those with disabilities.
Likewise, all the sites, save for the walk-in tent sites, have a bed of fresh gravel on which to set up your unit. Back-in sites have a wooden barrier denoting the depth of the allowed RV space. And a strip of grass, the width of which varies between loops, exists between campsites.
Sites in loops A and B come with an additional concrete patio. Meh, I get the reasoning for these as constant use by campers just ruins grass, especially in notoriously dry, windy places like Waterton, but it still looks cold and unnatural to me. I suppose I should be grateful they’re at least trying to keep a smidge of greenery in these dense campground loops.
While all sites come with a complimentary picnic table, none have firepits. This will disappoint some campers, s’mores lovers in particular, but one need only look at the 360 degrees of fire scarring to understand why.
I “think” propane fires in non-flammable, portable pits are allowed. Certainly, propane cooking appliances are. And you can, actually, have a wood fire, just not at your site. Wood fires are, however, allowed in the various, communal picnic shelters dotting Waterton Townsite Campground.
Each of these fully or partially enclosed shelters (smaller ones have an open face while larger ones are fully enclosed) have an iron woodstove in which to enjoy a blaze. It’s not the same as an open fire encircled by your family onsite, but it’s better than nothing.
Plenty of picnic tables within make these shelters a nice spot to enjoy a meal or socialize with family, friends, and/or strangers. They also provide refuge from the wind. And on chilly weekends like we endured, a welcome respite from the … checks notes … checks pictures … sighs … snow.
Firewood is not available for purchase in the campground but several spots in town sell it by the bundle.
Near a couple of the picnic shelters, presumably near sites most often used by tenters, there are large kitchen wash stations for use. These come with two impressive stainless steel sinks and broad countertop space for cleaning up after a hearty meal.
Five, shiny new bathroom/shower houses have been constructed to serve all portions of Waterton Townsite Campground. The remnants of a former bathroom is evident near our campsite and I must conclude that these new structures are a huge improvement on the former facilities.
Containing flush toilets (mens has a urinal), a handicap access stall, five shower stalls, and four sinks, these are everything you’d want when Nature calls.
The showers are free but have no water temperature controls, just a push button initiator. I had no need of a shower during our weekend stay so cannot attest to the water pressure or temperature. That said, the sinks had hot water which was a delightful surprise.
As for cleanliness, they were tidy during our stay but the campground was thin on visitors. During peak summer season, I can only guess. Considering the substantial park HQ just outside of town, I’m hoping there’s plenty of park staff keeping everything spic ‘n’ span.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are no laundering facilities. With modern showers and other amenities for hard-playing cyclists and hikers, including laundry at one of the shower complexes would have been a nice addition.
If you do choose to use your onboard RV facilities and are lucky (not lucky?) enough to be in the older loops without sewer service, you will need to use the dump station. It’s … odd.
The dump station is not inside the campground. Instead, you’ll exit Waterton Townsite Campground and take Waterton Avenue, which separates the campground from the lake, all the way to the end, circle a loop, and return to where single dump station resides. Yes, one.
The pavement markings strung out a fair distance on this stretch of road suggests that this place gets REALLY busy on Sundays. Even with the dearth of campers during our grim weekend, we had to wait a few minutes for another RV to dump its load. Suffice it to say, include this likely delay in your travel schedule. Or simply plan on using a dump station elsewhere (there’s a free one in Fort McLeod, for instance).
Fresh water, though plentiful, is also a bit tricky to commandeer for your RV if you’re in a non-water site. There is no fresh water available at the dump station, our usual loading spot when camping. There are taps throughout Waterton Townsite Campground but they are sometimes hard to see.
In the tenting loop, they can just stick out of the ground in some places. Others are located on the walls of shower buildings or near picnic shelters. And they’re not all marked on the campground map which makes it a bit of a treasure hunt for first time visitors.
We eventually found one by a nearby picnic shelter and filled up. I doubt this is the preferred method on typical summer weekends as even our small rig blocked the loop road while we filled up. Better signage and/or instruction for water filling would be beneficial.
For a mountain park, Waterton Townsite Campground is sparsely vegetated. That’s a statement dripping with bias based on Banff and Jasper experience, I realize. There are some towering poplars/cottonwoods around that offer a
smattering of shade for select sites. And an effort is being made to grow more trees though those are decades away from offering genuine shelter … deer/elk willing.
The lack of trees does, however, offer better viewing of the surrounding mountains, not to mention the Upper Waterton Lake on which the town and campground lie. And those Rocky Mountains are a beautiful sight … at least they are when the clouds aren’t hiding their peaks.
We were blessed with a brief clearing of the skies on Saturday evening and finally saw the full glory of the Waterton view. I was particularly fond of Citadel Peaks and Porcupine Ridge visible looking south through the lake valley. Found in Glacier National Park in Montana, this funky series of peaks was hidden to us most of our stay but make for a terrific snapshot when exposed.
The lake, too, is an impressive sight with its crystal clear waters. Undoubtedly choppy (and dangerous) when winds are blowing, the lake is otherwise like a sheet of glass mirror surrounded by towering rock.
The campground itself is split in two by Cameron Creek, a small river feeding into Upper Waterton Lake that runs through the western portion of town. A typical mountain creek, Cameron Creek has been fully engineered to prevent erosion (or movement) through town. This limits its appeal visually, but still offers the sounds of running water and ducks happily swimming around.
At the end of Cameron Creek, where it enters the lake, there is a day use area with “beach”. It is open to the general public who can reach the area using Evergreen Avenue. Thus, there is parking available. But it can also be easily walked to from the campground.
Along with a picnic shelter and several picnic tables dispersed throughout the day use area, you’ll find a decent expanse of rocky beach. I can’t imagine wanting to swim in the lake as it has got to be very cold. Nor will you have much luck building sandcastles. But it’s a nice open space by the water’s edge and the rockhounding is pretty cool. Lots of colourful, pre-Cambrian stones with reds and greens and even some stromatolites.
To the east, running the full length of the campground between the dump station road and the lake, is a park/greenspace. There are some more public, day-use areas within, as well as a paved trail that goes into town. This too is easily accessible from the campground, particularly loops D and G.
Waterton – The Town
Beyond what I’ve already documented, there isn’t much else in the way of amenities at Waterton Townsite Campground. Being part of the actual town, why would there be? The small, staffed, kiosk when you arrive offers nothing for campers beyond registration service. Any and everything you might need is a short walk away.
This includes recreational activities for the kiddies. As is too often the norm with Parks Canada, there is no playground. There’s not even any open areas to run around in. It’s a campground and nothing more.
Luckily, the town of Waterton comes to the rescue. Just a couple blocks away is a large, modern playground fully accessible to the public that’ll easily entertain the little ones. If you’ve got older kids, another couple blocks along you will find what I think is a school that has basketball courts.
The rest of Waterton, the town, is pretty much exactly what you expect from a tourist/resort town, though on a far smaller scale than, say, Banff. It’s honestly a lot more charming having not completely been “re-invented” to modern luxury standards.
Yes, many cabins have been replaced by large, gaudy second homes but not nearly to the extent (yet!) we’ve witnessed at other parks. The same can be said of residences and businesses. There are some newer developments, and more coming, but you still get the sense that Waterton is a small town that hasn’t been overwhelmed by new money.
The small downtown has several varied restaurants, cafes, gift shops, hotels, and ice cream spots. Not that ice cream was on our priority list with the temperatures dropping below zero at night. On a warm summer day, though, a refreshing cone of sin would be wonderful.
May long weekend is the first weekend of business for most places in town. Combined with continuing covid restrictions and the weather, things were far from “normal”. Some shops remained closed while others were literally stocking their shelves with first shipments of merchandise.
There are plenty of places to snag a cool (or tacky) souvenir, wet your whistle, or fill your belly. Pat’s, somewhat of a landmark in town with its vintage gas station décor, offers rentals of all kinds including bikes. You’ll see folks touring around town in those two-seater, side-by-side, canopy bikes or any other style of mountain and e-bike. Those all come from Pat’s.
The town does boast a grocery store, though it’s more of a convenience store with a handful of fruits and vegetables. For last minute pickups or emergencies, it’ll do you fine, but genuine grocery shopping would be best done someplace with a true grocery store (Pincher Creek being closest).
If you’re more of a glamper, or a genuine tourist from out of province/country, then Waterton is a lovely spot to hang out. That said, I think we were lucky. I imagine this place is a bit of a gong show during peak summer travel season. It’s an easy day trip from Lethbridge or even Calgary. If the roadside parking literally on every street is an omen, then prepare for crowds if the weather is pleasant.
Downtown Waterton also boasts a lovely lakeside park with walkways, a marina, and boat launch. Upper Waterton Lake is hardly small and recreational boaters, fisherfolk, and kayakers/canoers will enjoy the clear water and amazing surroundings. Assuming no wind, of course.
There is a passenger tour boat that will take you up and down the lake into Glacier National Park and back, but it and many other public activities are not operating due to covid. We would not have enjoyed such an adventure in the crappy weather anyway, but once covid is dealt with we’ll be sure to visit again because I would really like to take that boat ride.
The boat also takes you to the trailhead for the famed Crypt Lake hike. I say famed because it’s on t-shirts in all the gift shops and a friend mentioned it as a highlight of his life. I’d never heard of it prior to going to Waterton. D’oh.
It’s a long hike and with no boat access to the trailhead until covid is resolved, doing this hike will require additional kilometres of hiking. Knock on wood 2021 marks the end of this disruption.
Hiking at Waterton Lakes National Park
Hiking truly is the highlight of Waterton Lakes National Park. If you’re going there for outdoor adventure, odds are you’ve got your eye set on one of the incredible hikes available. Many are quite long, and difficult, but a few short ones exist for those of us without the stamina or desire to call Nature’s bluff.
In fact, the hiking starts right in town. In addition to the many paved trails roaming though Waterton and radiating outwards to nearby attractions, Cameron Falls offers a short, moderate hike right in town.
Found at the end of Cameron Falls Drive, these falls mark the spot where Cameron Creek turns from natural to engineered as it enters town for its last few hundred metres. The falls are quite impressive in spring as meltwater puts on a show. I understand their volume diminishes as summer progresses.
On either side of the falls are trails taking hikers above the falls to lookouts of both the creek and the townsite. They’re a bit steep and narrow but the effort is worthwhile. The south trail is a bit longer and gives a better view of town while the north trail offers a better view of the falls from above.
With the weather the way it was, we stuck with the short hikes, namely Cameron Creek Falls, Red Rock Canyon, and Blakiston Falls. All were delightful and tolerable in the inclement weather but a return for some of the more elusive treasures at Waterton is a must.
Scenic Drives at Waterton Lakes National Park
If long hikes aren’t to your liking or ability, Waterton Lakes National Park has two scenic drives well worth exploring. Neither are especially long with Akamina Parkway clocking in at 16km and Red Rock Canyon Parkway a wee bit shorter. Both offer a pretty drive with scenic lookouts along the way and a worthwhile destination at each end.
We investigated Akamina first, driving out to Cameron Lake for a look around after supper. Cameron Lake is a stunning spot. A gorgeous cirque lake with a spectacular mountain backdrop, it is well worth the drive. Reminiscent of Lake Louise but without the aqua waters (crystal clear here) or the hotel, Cameron Lake would be fantastic for a paddle (or skating).
Nothing was open yet since the lake was still frozen but there are several buildings present including new washrooms, what appears to be a concession stand, and boat rentals. All the facilities tell me this place gets busy in summer. Though we weren’t able to do much, we got an uninterrupted view and peaceful visit.
The drive to Cameron Lake has some pretty viewpoints along the way as well as a couple stops of note. One is a bit of a surprise. The first commercial oil well in Western Canada is located there and denoted by a marker.
A bit further up the road was the proposed location for Oil City. Though it was never fully built, a foundation does remain. I can’t imagine what such a “city” would look like now had it ever come to fruition!
Closer to town, there are some small pullouts offering spectacular views of the Cameron Creek canyon above Cameron Falls. The road must be a packed during peak season and finding room to pull over has to be a nightmare. If you get the chance, though, it is an awesome view.
The drive to Red Rock Canyon is equally enjoyable. The road is a bit more “bouncy” with some dramatic ups-and-downs early on that will thrill the rollercoaster lovers in your crew. The rest will just grumble about their stomachs feeling woozy. Wimps.
Again, there are several worthy lookouts along the way providing beautiful views of the Blakiston Creek valley. You’ll also pass the remnants of Crandall Mountain Campground. Seeing its location only furthered my desire to camp there once (if?) it is rebuilt.
At the end of the parkway is Red Rock Canyon. A pretty little canyon carved from 1,500,000,000 year old red shales is quite a sight. A short trail encircles the small canyon but unfortunately the bridge at its apex is currently closed to pedestrians. As such, you won’t be able to complete the circuit and will have to settle for one side and then the other. I think this trail would be tolerable for most anyone so it’s a good place to take folks unable to enjoy more arduous hikes.
Red Rock Canyon is also the trailhead for the Blakiston Falls hike. A relatively short 1km hike out through the woods, Blakiston Falls is a fairly easy and worthwhile jaunt. The dirt trail leads to a fantastic set of lookouts right on top of the falls.
There is one short section near the finish that will test the will of those fearing unprotected heights, but beyond that section the brand new viewing platforms are both safe and robust. A good deal of money has been invested here so go have a look before they inevitably deteriorate to crap.
Both Red Rock Canyon and Blakiston Falls hikes must be swamped with people during summer weekends. Even during our wintery May long weekend, the Blakiston trail was rarely void of other hikers. I’m glad we went when we did and our timing resulted in a few shots of the falls without strangers in them, but such opportunities must be rare.
Horseback Riding in Waterton Lakes National Park
On both excursions, I was a bit surprised to see signage for horseback riding. On Akamina parkway we passed several parking areas designated as for horse trailers and during our Blakiston Falls hike we passed a sign for a designated equestrian trail. I was unaware that Waterton was such a popular spot for horse owners. I’m no horseperson myself, but I can understand why.
Unfortunately, the massive Kenow fire resulted in dramatic changes to the environment at Waterton Lakes National Park. The burned areas, which are pretty much everywhere you look, are now highly susceptible to invasive weeds and are therefore currently off-limits to horses. Horses are only allowed in un-burned areas of the park. Be sure to check if your desired trail ride location is even open before hauling your horse to the park.
Prince of Wales Hotel
Now, if you are at all familiar with Waterton Lakes National Park then you’ve likely noticed I’ve yet to mention its most famous landmark.
The Prince of Wales hotel is undoubtedly the centre of attention at Waterton. Having only seen it in pictures, I was thrilled to see it in person. I had no idea it is located on an elevated, barren, rocky prominence overlooking town and with an unimpeded of the lake southward. That view is something else!
I admit to finding the Prince of Wales a bit strange looking. I always expect it to have the size and grandeur of the famed Banff and Lake Louise hotels, but it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s kind of small, and awkwardly tall, looking more like an elaborate gingerbread house. No less beautiful, just … different.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to explore the interior due to covid restrictions. A brief peak via the attached gift shop hinted at an old-world castle-like interior with thick wood beams and faux-torches made all the more fantastical by the staff’s red, plaid outfits. I will definitely return to explore the interior properly one day.
The exterior, however, was a disappointment. The hotel is in desperate need of repairs. I was shocked, to be honest. I have no idea who owns the Prince of Wales hotel, but it has been neglected. Peeling paint, failing roof, rotting wood; it’s not a good look.
Granted, that the entire structure is made of wood surely makes upkeep difficult and costly. The elements must beat on that southern face something fierce. But as a focal point of a national park, I expected more care to be afforded this iconic hotel.
And obviously others think likewise as there are significant improvements being made. The grounds are all torn up with fancy walkways and patios being constructed. One must assume (hope?) exterior work to the hotel will commence as well. In the post Kenow fire rebuild, significant upgrades have been implemented throughout the park. I’m happy to see this cool hotel will be part of that.
Other Places of Interest
Perhaps the most visible improvement, aside from tall the deep black asphalt of repaved roads, is the new visitor centre. Soon to be finished but not yet open when we visited, this new visitor centre dominates the town centre.
Much larger and fitting of its surroundings than its bland predecessor, I’ve yet another reason to come back to Waterton Lakes National Park. I’m really going to have to get over this wind issue.
Waterton also boasts a golf course just north of town. It doesn’t have the visual impact or cachet of other mountain park golf courses in this province, and with snow blanketing much of it, I couldn’t really tell how good this course is. It’s modest from the look of the clubhouse and entrance, which is fine. I think the course embraces more of a links style play and considering the winds this area is famous for, that probably makes sense. Hello Scotland!
Ultimately, my first time at Waterton Lakes National park was a success. Sure, the weather was terrible but in a twist of fate that made the visit better. Fewer people, at least. And now I’ve got many reasons to come back again. We just scratched the surface of this amazing park.
I’m convinced this part of Alberta would be the hub of population were it not for the incessant wind. Waterton and nearby Castle Provincial Park, not to mention the surrounding foothills, are breathtaking. I seriously love this area. Lethbridge would be Calgary if it weren’t for that damn wind …
My other parting thought on Waterton is my regret at not visiting sooner. In particular, before the fire. You truly appreciate how close that town came to being erased once you’re there and see all the dead, burned trees literally everywhere.
This was not a distracted fire that burned some parts and left random patches untouched. Kenow razed a large chunk of the park. It’s both awesome and humbling. And though the burn scars dampen the colours, they do offer a better view of the geology; the silver lining.
As for Waterton Townsite Campground, well, it is what it is. This is not a destination unto itself. It’s not “gorgeous” or especially unique. It is convenient if you’re eager to take in the town. And until Crandall Mountain returns, it’s your only option inside the park.
I’ll give it a fence-sitting 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. The upgrades are commendable and for those wanting a full-service camping spot for your fancy RV on mountain parks adventure, it’s a reasonable place to park your RV and sleep while you explore a truly remarkable park. But if you’re looking for an escape form civilization? Yeah, you’re probably gonna wanna look elsewhere.
P.S. Something I forgot to mention! The Parks Canada website for Waterton Lakes National Park and Waterton Townsite Campground says that a community group provides WiFi service in the campground. I couldn’t find it or connect to any of the “sorta maybe” links my equipement was registering. Either we were too early in the season or the website is outdated. Or … I’m stupid. It’s a tossup, really. Just don’t come to Waterton 100% expecting WiFi to be available from your campsite. The new visitor centre will likely have WiFi. And cellular service is good in town.
Tracy Heim says
Great review! We have been to the Townsite Campground many times (and loved it), but there was one time we thought we would be blown into the lake. I can hardly wait until Crandell opens again.
The wind awoke on Monday as we were packing up to leave. Not crazy but nonetheless a reminder of what can happen. I’m grateful we missed it and if it took the snow to make is so, I’m fine with that. Having chased full hockey bags being blown across parking lots in Pincher Creek, we’re quite familiar with Nature’s fury. LOL
Barbara Richardson says
We usually visit for a day while camping at Beauvais Lake. Red Rock Canyon opened last summer and we took the drive up there, first time we’ve never spotted a bear. I have to say the Washrooms were an absolute disgrace, nearly full to the top and didn’t look like they’d been cleaned in a few days if not weeks! Goodness this is a National Park with lots of international visitors, well in normal times.
Regarding your view on Writing on Stone we have just come back from there and they are building an amazing play area, all wood, should be finished shortly.
Thanks for the update on Writing-on-Stone.
And, yeah, pit toilets are the worst at the best of times. Neglecting them? Yikes. Not a good look for a national park. Hopefully your experience was another unpleasant covid anomaly.