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Waterton Lakes

Also known as: Chief Mountain Lake, Knights Lake, Kootenay Lakes

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"Where the mountains meet the prairies" is the motto of Waterton Lakes National Park, the home of three Waterton Lakes that straddle the Montana-Alberta, Canada border. This unique landscape is one of the very few places where the prairies meet the Rockies without the transitional foothills common in most areas. The cause was one huge geological plate over-riding another as the glaciers of the last ice age receded. This same action created the glacial trough that holds Upper Waterton Lake.

The three Waterton Lakes consist of large Upper Waterton Lake, the southernmost lake that stretches into Montana; Middle Waterton Lake, connected to Upper Waterton Lake by a narrow channel across a strip of land called The Dardanelles; and Lower Waterton Lake, a short distance downstream along the Waterton River. The three lakes have been known by several local names: big and deep Upper Waterton Lake was called "The North Big inside Lake" by the Blackfeet tribe. Others called it Chief Mountain Lake after a nearby peak. Lower Waterton Lake is also known as Knights Lake. And the group of lakes was locally known as Kootenay Lakes until recently. Because the area around the lakes became protected land early, very little farming or development has taken place in the area that is now the Waterton Lakes National Park.

There are similarities among the three Waterton Lakes: all are clear and cold due to their glacial origin. All have little plant life (oligotrophic) and support a wide variety of fish in limited numbers. However, their geology is much different. Upper Waterton Lake is the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies, with some soundings showing a depth of 487 feet. The long seven-mile lake is narrow, only half a mile wide at its widest. Upper Waterton Lake extends across the international border into Glacier National Park in an area that can only be easily reached by water. This water access is provided by taking the tour boat from the Town of Waterton on the north shore of the lake. The cruise is popular with hikers who use it to reach either the trail head at Crypt Landing for the 5.4-mile hike to Crypt Lake or the Goat Haunt landing on the Montana end of the lake. Several hiking trails from Goat Haunt allow visitors to access spectacular sections of Glacier National Park and catch a later shuttle back to Waterton. Those planning such an excursion should be aware that they will need appropriate passports to enter the United States as a border checkpoint is located at the landing. Statistical information listed on the sidebar is for Upper Waterton Lake only, as information for the total chain in incomplete.

Once a basin of a much larger lake, 371-acre Middle Waterton Lake is more shallow, with a depth of only about 90 feet. It is separated from Upper Waterton Lake by a narrow finger of land, the result of silt from inflowing seasonal run-off. The natural channel, called the Bosporus by the locals, makes it easy for boaters to access both lakes. A campground is located along its seven-mile shoreline. The only two lakes in the park where any type of motorized boating is allowed are Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes. Both are utilized for limited power boating, water skiing and windsurfing. Water skiing is mostly limited to Middle Waterton Lake; wetsuits are recommended due to the cold waters, and skiers are warned to watch for floating logs. Because the lakes are regularly exposed to heavy wind gusts, paddle sports are not encouraged except in sheltered bays. Although the lakes are too cold for enjoyable swimming, scuba divers regularly brave the cold waters with the protection of wetsuits. A sunken paddle-wheeler in Middle Waterton Lake below the Prince of Wales Hotel draws many divers to the region. The extreme clarity of the water makes diving here an enjoyable adventure. A full-service marina on Upper Waterton Lake near the Town of Waterton provides fuel and docking facilities for boaters, along with bait for fishermen. Another lake within the National Park, Cameron Lake, rents kayaks and canoes for visitors to the park who enjoy paddle sports.

Little information is available on smaller Lower Waterton Lake. The lake is only 24 feet deep and has a shoreline of about three miles. Picnic facilities are provided on the lake, which lies along the access road to the bigger lakes. Lower Waterton Lake and Waterton River are known to be excellent bird-watching sites. Fish found in the Waterton Lakes include the following native species: lake whitefish, mountain whitefish, lake trout, bull trout (now protected), cutthroat trout, northern pike, ling (burbot), white sucker, longnose sucker, lake chub, flathead chub, spottail shiner, flathead minnow, longnose dace, spoonhead sculpin, deepwater sculpin, and pygmy whitefish. Rainbow trout, arctic grayling, lake trout, brown trout, eastern brook trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and British Columbia cutthroat trout have also been introduced. Canadian 7-day fishing licenses can be purchased for a nominal fee.

Waterton Lakes National Park is primarily a warm weather destination. Waterton Lakes National Park has an unusually rich and varied number of plants for its size; the area marks the meeting of several different ecological regions. More than half of Alberta's plant species can be found in Waterton, many of them rare or threatened. The diverse selection of plants in the park draws photographers, artists and nature-lovers annually for the Waterton Wildflower Festival in June. And the Waterton Wildlife Festival each fall corresponds with the elk rut and offers great wildlife viewing, guided hikes and lectures by naturalists. The buffalo paddock is open year-round for viewing.

Many roads in the park only open in summer. A few cross-country ski trails are available off the main road in winter; there is no downhill ski area. Waterton Lakes is about 80 miles from Lethbridge and 150 miles from Calgary. The only settlement within the park is the Town of Waterton. Here visitors will find a variety of lodging choices, from lovely resort hotels to smaller rental cabins. A few hotels are available, along with restaurants, riding stables, and rental facilities for bicycles and motor bikes. From the town, several hiking and bicycling trails lead visitors to various scenic destinations in the surrounding area. One waterfall is actually at the edge of the town itself. Several designated camping areas are available in the park, with at least one near the water's edge. Occasionally, housing is located for sale in the town on leased land. True real estate purchase opportunities are rare; however, property for sale is sometimes located just outside the park's boundaries.

Waterton Lakes hold a unique place in the modern history of both the United States and Canada. The area now known as Glacier National Park south of the border was first discovered and inhabited by miners, oil explorers and railroad men. At nearly the same time, nature lovers in Alberta convinced the Canadian government to designate the area north of the border as Waterton Lakes National Park. Waterton Lakes National Park was established first in 1895, with Glacier National Park on the Montana side of the border formed in 1910. However, European settlers were certainly not the first to enjoy Waterton Lakes: archeological evidence of transitory settlement here stretches back 10,000 years.

The same Great Northern Railway that facilitated development in the Glacier area built the Prince of Wales Hotel on the north shore of Middle Waterton Lake as a stop-over for visitors traveling to Jasper National Park. This hotel increased visitors to Waterton Lake National Park and in 1932, the Calgary chapter of the Rotary Club invited other Rotary chapters in the region to the hotel to discuss the possibility of a collaboration between the two countries regarding their adjoining parks. Largely through the efforts of Rotary International of Alberta and Montana, the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament in 1932 established the first international peace park - Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park. On June 18, 1932, this partnership was dedicated to world peace by Sir Charles Arthur Mander on behalf of Rotary International. The park symbolizes the bonds of peace and friendship between the people of the United States and Canada. In recent years, Waterton Lakes National Park was also listed as a biosphere reserve as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1979. The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A trip to Waterton Lakes is sure to delight nature lovers. It will take several days and a sturdy pair of hiking boots to see everything Waterton Lakes National Park has to offer. Call for your reservations early; the park is gaining in popularity every year. Make Waterton Lakes the centerpiece of your next holiday; the bears, the buffalo and the Bosporus await!


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Waterton Lakes


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Fish Species


  • Brook Trout
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  • Lake Trout

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