I started my visit to the Canadian Rockies in the gem of a town on the U.S. border, the little-visited Waterton. Staying at a motel-style lodge right on glacier-formed Waterton Lake for two days, I felt like I was still in the U.S. as the Canadian and American flags are both flown in the first International Peace Park, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, located here where the U.S. Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes Park meet. The town only has one season, the summer high season; normally it is too cold and snowy for inhabitants. Waterton’s friendly seasonal shopkeepers all have stories to tell of where they spend the rest of the year when tourists are not soaking up the beauty of the surrounding majestic mountains.
A boat ride on Waterton Lake (about $40 for two hours) crosses the U.S. border which runs through the middle of the lake and is marked by a line of felled trees up the mountain. Ranked by National Geographic as one of the best hiking destinations, some come back every year. Disembark the boat at Goat Haunt inside the U.S. park, you can process through border control, hike for days and then return on the boat to Waterton. From the boat, you will see amazing geology of million year old rock formations from collisions of the Teutonic and Pacific plates when this area was under the sea.
Over the U.S. border in northern Montana, stunning mountain views in Glacier National Park await you. Although the park is only one million acres, making it one of the smallest, it packs a big punch. Most visitors head for Logan Pass via the Going to the Sun Highway, where the main park interpretive center and rangers are located. At Logan Pass, straddle the continental divide and get backwoods maps.
Although the park is named for the glaciers which formed it, today only 26 small, melting glaciers exist here. Predictions are they will all disappear by 2025 … and even if you don’t believe global warming is the reason, warmer park temperatures definitely are. While in the park, spotting wildlife, especially bears and eagles, is common.
Other than camping, there are many hotel accommodations in the park. The fanciest luxury hotel is the Many Glacier Hotel, but search glaciernationalparklodges.com for other varied options.
A little north, one hour outside Calgary, is Canada’s mountain playground, Kananaski Park, with many hikes above the tree line.
Travel a bit further north to Banff, Canada’s first national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you will be among glacier-formed lakes and two of Canada’s tallest mountains, Mount Cascade and Mount Rundle. Banff itself is very busy, but its unimaginable beauty is what makes it a stand out, particularly the sparkling Bow River, around which the town is built. Most tourists will want to take the Banff gondola to the observation point above the treetops or enjoy rafting.
If you prefer quiet and solitude, head a bit further north to Jasper, the small town in the center of Jasper National Park, Canada’s largest. You’ll probably want to stop and see three turquoise-colored glacier lakes in Banff National Park on the way, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise and Peyto Lake, before entering glacier-surrounded Iceland Parkway. Off the Parkway you will want to walk out onto the huge Athabasca Glacier or use an all-terrain vehicle to transport you while you still can, because predictions are it will melt in this decade. If you have time and can find them, Maligne Lake (also glacier formed) and Maligne Canyon are both a bit out of town but amazing places to visit.
Jasper is a major railroad stop for trains running through Northern Canada. An interesting alternative is to start in Vancouver or Toronto and take the trip I describe above in reverse, from Jasper south to the U.S. border.