The Forgotten Gem

March 28, 2017
By Kevin R. Tam, President

Half of the fun of traveling is discovering the places you think no one else knows about and then coming back with fascinating stories of your adventures. Usually, the places you think no one else knows about might consist of a secluded path along the edge of a lake, an off-the-beaten-track huckleberry pie café or a hidden mountain stream. Usually when we think of things that are hidden, we think of things that are small. But sometimes we need to think big. Very big. In fact, very, very big.

Few people have heard of Waterton Lakes National Park but it is unquestionably one of the biggest hidden gems I’ve ever uncovered. It’s the national park no one seems to know about yet it’s hiding in plain sight. Waterton Lakes is in Canada and just across the border from the far better known Glacier National Park in Montana. Together, the two parks compose the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first multi-border park in the world. Waterton Lakes National Park is a Biosphere Reserve, an International Peace Park and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which makes it the only park on earth to lay claim to these three important titles.

Stroll along the shore in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton Lakes National Park itself is 195 square miles of mountains, lakes, streams, forests and wildflowers, all named after a conservationist from the Victorian era, Charles Waterton. Inside the park, two of the must-see sights are Buffalo Paddock and Red Rock Canyon. Buffalo Paddock is a protected area of prairie grassland containing most of the park’s buffalo which are easily visible from the road that loops through the enclosure. While the grey granite, white snow-capped peaks, deep blue lake waters and verdant green forests might be the expected colors of a Canadian national park, the red rocks of the Red Rock Canyon look like something out of Arizona or New Mexico.

The park was first protected in 1895 and is Canada’s fourth national park and the smallest in the Canadian Rockies. The area’s beauty was first recognized by a rancher named F.W. Godsal who suggested in 1893 that the Canadian government protect the area. The park’s name was inspired by the Waterton Lakes which were named by Lieutenant Blakiston after Charles Waterton so it is the name for the lakes that inspired the name of the park, not Waterton on his own.

The quaint downtown streets of Waterton.

According to the Waterton Lakes National Park website, “several different ecological regions meet in Waterton - with prairie plants of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain plants from northern areas, and coastal plants from the Pacific Northwest all overlapping. The park contains 45 different habitat types, including grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, lakes, spruce-fir, pine and aspen forests, and alpine areas. This means Waterton has an unusually rich and varied number of plants for its size, with more than 1000 vascular plant species, 182 bryophytes and 218 lichen species. Many of these are rare or threatened. More than half of Alberta's plant species can be found in Waterton.”

“The park's variety of vegetation communities provides homes for many animals, including more than 60 species of mammals, over 250 species of birds, 24 species of fish, and 10 reptiles and amphibians. Large predators include wolf, coyote, cougar, grizzly bear, and American black bear. The grasslands are important winter range for ungulates such as elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. In the fall, the marsh and lake areas of the park are used extensively by migrating ducks, swans, and geese. Some animals found here are considered rare or unusual, such as trumpeter swans, Vaux's swifts, and vagrant shrews.”

Natural wonders abound, such as this unexpected in-town waterfall.

Unfortunately, few people visit Waterton Lakes National Park, but Uncommon Journeys offers the park as part of our 8-day Elegant Canadian Rockies tours departing June 22, July 20, August 24, and September 14, 2017. While there are many tour programs to the Canadian Rockies, only Uncommon Journeys offers one with a magical and nostalgic beginning: travel aboard a 1940s style private Vista-Dome streamliner train, our own Great Western Limited.

At Glacier National Park we have included the storied Going to the Sun Highway on the famed red open-air 'jammer buses' and this is only an entrée to our next visual treat, breathtakingly beautiful and seldom-visited Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, a charming village many of our guests consider the highlight of their Canadian Rockies holiday. We then travel to Banff, stopping en route at the acclaimed Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, for a four-night stay in the heart of Banff Township. Few tours offer four nights in Banff and this allows time not only to see the nearby area, but we have included visits to lovely Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Yoho National Park and more. There are also large amounts of free time for you to enjoy this remarkable mountain setting at your own pace.

If it sounds like the trip of a lifetime, that’s because it is. And if you want to tell stories of the hidden treasures you’ve discovered along the way, then Waterton Lakes National Park is certain to top the list.

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