Ten winter activities to discover
Our list of 10 things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park in winter.

Winter is an excellent time to enjoy the mountain scenery and serenity of Waterton Lakes National Park. It offers good opportunity for wildlife viewing and photography, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, or even a walk and a picnic on a beautiful day.

We encourage you to get outdoors and have some fun!

The park is open year round and the winter season begins in November and usually stretches into April. During this time most facilities are closed (heated washrooms and running water are available at the Firehall and Cameron Falls in the townsite).

For camping enthusiasts, Pass Creek Day Use Area offers a sheltered winter campground.

Plan ahead by checking road, weather and trail conditions and ensure you have the right training and equipment for the terrain and conditions you are entering.

Winter activities

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing

A group snowshoeing in Waterton Lakes National Park
There is no shortage of things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park in the winter!

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to enjoy Waterton Lakes National Park in the winter. The season generally extends from December to March.

For winter 2019-20, the Akamina Parkway, Red Rock Parkway, Chief Mountain Highway and Wishbone trail will be trackset or groomed when conditions allow.

Wishbone trail, Bellevue trail, Townsite Loop trail and Prince of Wales hill area can be good places to snowshoe.

Snowshoes and skis are available to rent in the community. Stop by the Parks Canada Visitor Centre on Fountain Avenue for more information.

Before leaving home, ensure you have the right training and equipment for the terrain and conditions you are entering.

The Akamina and Red Rock parkways are open for non-motorized use (winter recreation) this winter. Treat the parkways as backcountry terrain and travel with caution.

Our neighbouring provincial parks offer groomed cross-country ski trails:

Winter hiking and cycling

Two cyclists ride fat bikes
Waterton Lakes National Park is an all-season biking and hiking destination

Whether you are interested in taking a short stroll around the community or accessing more remote locations, Waterton Lakes National Park can be a great place for winter walking, hiking and cycling.

Weather permitting, the Red Rock Parkway, Kootenai Brown trail and Wishbone trail are all open for cycling. Chinook winds often free much of the Waterton valley and east side of the park from snow.

Wildlife viewing

A bighorn sheep
Waterton townsite and the Prince of Wales hill are good places to see bighorn sheep

Winter can be a great time for watching wildlife in Waterton Lakes National Park. Depending on winds and snow, you might spot elk, deer, bighorn sheep, moose, river otters, red squirrels, snowshoe hares and marten in the park.

During fall and winter, elk move through in large herds. Look out for them while driving into the park from the north or east. A rare highlight would be seeing one of the park’s wild cats - cougar or lynx – or their tracks.

Sledding / tobogganing

A girl tubing in Waterton
Any snow-covered hill around the Waterton townsite can be used for tobogganing

Bring a sled or inflatable tube and take advantage of the slopes and drifts in Waterton Lakes National Park. Be careful to stay off avalanche paths. Favourite spots are on the Prince of Wales hill and around the townsite.

Picnicking

Mom and daughter at day use area
Enjoy a winter picnic at one of the park's day use areas

Bundle up and come for a picnic! Kitchen shelters with stoves are available but you must supply your own wood and bring your own supplies (no grocery store is open in the Waterton townsite in the winter). Most picnic areas include a vault toilet. Water and barrier-free washrooms are available at the Fire Hall and at Cameron Falls.
More information about day use area facilities in the park.

Winter camping

A winter camper pours a hot drink
Waterton Lakes National Park is spectacular in all seasons

Pass Creek Day Use Area, located on the park's entrance road (Highway 5), about four kilometers from the entrance gate, offers a sheltered winter campground. Facilities include a kitchen shelter, wood stove and toilets. Water from the creek may be used if treated or boiled before use. Heated washrooms and running water are available at the Fire Hall and Cameron Falls in the community.

The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) operate a backcountry cabin in Waterton Lakes National Park, Cameron Lake Cabin,  providing overnight accommodation in the winter.

Winter birding

Two visitors looking through binoculars
Winter birdwatching

There may be fewer birds around in winter, but with no leaves on the trees, they are easier to see. Some are very colourful such as the Steller’s jay. Chickadees, grouse and woodpeckers roam wooded areas, while ravens and eagles soar above, and dippers and goldeneye are in open waters.

Photography

A photographer taking a picture of the landscape
Capturing a beautiful winter scene from the Maskinonge lookout

From wildlife watching to stunning landscapes, winter in Waterton Lakes National Park offers many opportunities for photographers. When the ground is enveloped in a blanket of snow, the park's surroundings can take on an entirely different perspective.

Ski touring

A skier in Waterton Lakes National Park
Backcountry skiing near Cameron Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park

Depending on snow conditions, opportunities for ski touring exist on or off the trail system in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Cameron Lake Cabin, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, provides an excellent base for ski touring options. Visitors must ski or hike along the Akamina Parkway approximately 15 kilometres to reach the cabin in winter 2019-2020.

Backcountry safety

Backcountry travel always comes with inherent risks and backcountry travellers are responsible for their own decisions and safety.

The Kenow Wildfire has expanded the terrain available for backcountry skiing in the park, but has introduced new hazards. Fallen logs and sharp branches can be hidden under the snow surface. Ski with caution in the burnt forest. The wildfire has also opened up areas previously sheltered from the wind, and changed the snowpack. Consider what may have been familiar terrain with a fresh perspective.

If the terrain you plan on visiting involves avalanche hazard you will need:

  • Training to recognize avalanche terrain and understand the avalanche hazard.
  • Avalanche rescue equipment: avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel and the knowledge of how use them for companion rescue.

Many of the trails in Waterton Lakes National Park are classified with Avalanche Terrain Ratings based on the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) to help visitors determine suitable, planned objectives.

Avalanche Terrain Ratings should be used in conjunction with the current Avalanche Bulletin, issued twice a week for Waterton Lakes National Park during the winter season.

Ice climbing

A climber ascends a frozen waterfall
Ice climbing frozen Lineham Falls. Photo: Eric Carter

There are a number of locations in Waterton Lakes National Park suitable for ice climbing. Popular climbs include the Compound Gullies, Quick and Dirty, Experts Choice, Lineham Falls and Sullivan Falls.

Boulders and cliffs were exposed to extreme temperatures during the Kenow Wildfire, causing some rock surfaces to become brittle. Rocks and climbing areas that were once solid may now have increased rockfall hazard. All anchors and bolts need to be treated with extreme caution. Trees should no longer be considered as secure anchor options.

Winter climbing in the Canadian Rockies presents significant hazards that are unique to this area. Before leaving home, ensure you have the right training and equipment for the terrain you are entering. Climbers must be informed, prepared, aware of their options and respectful of the conditions at all times.

Ice skating

Linnet Lake, located next to the entrance road by the Prince of Wales hill, can be a good place to skate in Waterton Lakes National Park, if conditions are right.

Because of their size and depth, it is not recommended that visitors skate on the main lakes in the park - Upper, Middle and Lower and the Maskinonge.

Be aware that temperatures can rise dramatically in short periods of time in Waterton. Parks Canada does not monitor natural ice surfaces for safety or mark potential hazards.

Skating on natural ice in the Canadian Rockies involves some serious risks. Please review the following ice safety information from the Canadian Red Cross.

Ice safety

Many factors affect ice thickness, including type of water, location, the time of year and other environmental factors such as:

  • water depth and size of body of water
  • currents and other moving water
  • chemicals including salt
  • fluctuations in water levels
  • logs, rocks and docks absorbing heat from the sun
  • changing air temperature

The colour of ice may be an indication of its strength:

  • Clear blue ice is strongest.
  • White opaque or snow ice is half as strong as blue ice. Opaque ice is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice.
  • Grey ice is unsafe. The grayness indicates the presence of water.

Ice thickness should be:

  • 15 cm for walking or skating alone.
  • 20 cm for skating parties or games.

If you get into trouble on ice and you're by yourself:

  • Call for help.
  • Resist the immediate urge to climb back out where you fell in. The ice is weak in this area.
  • Use the air trapped in your clothing to get into a floating position on your stomach.
  • Reach forward onto the broken ice without pushing down. Kick your legs to push your torso on the ice.
  • When you are back on the ice, crawl on your stomach or roll away from the open area with your arms and legs spread out as far as possible to evenly distribute your body weight. Do not stand up! Look for shore and make sure you are going in the right direction.

Rescuing another person from ice can be dangerous. The safest way to perform a rescue is from shore.

  • Call for help. Consider whether you can quickly get help from trained professionals (police, fire fighters or ambulance) or bystanders.
  • Check if you can reach the person using a long pole or branch from shore – if so, lie down and extend the pole to the person.
  • If you go onto ice, wear a PFD and carry a long pole or branch to test the ice in front of you. Bring something to reach or throw to the person (e.g. pole, weighted rope, line or tree branch).
  • When near the break, lie down to distribute your weight and slowly crawl toward the hole.
  • Remaining low, extend or throw your emergency rescue device (pole, rope, line or branch) to the person.
  • Have the person kick while you pull them out.
  • Move the person to a safe position on shore or where you are sure the ice is thick. Signal for help.

If you are going to a remote area, tell someone you trust exactly where your group is going and when you plan to return, and any other pertinent information that will assist search and rescue personnel if you do not return as planned.

Winter travel tip

Remember to fill your vehicle with gas before visiting the park in the winter. The nearest service stations are in Pincher Creek and Mountain View.

For information on winter accommodation and amenities in the Waterton townsite, visit Waterton Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

Winter safety references