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What Is Waterton Lakes National Park?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Waterton Lakes National Park is a protected swath of the Canadian Rocky Mountains situated in the southernmost part of the province of Alberta. It sits directly across the border from the United States’ Glacier National Park and shares many of that park's geographic and ecological elements. Waterton Lakes National Park contains a total of 195 square miles (about 505 square kilometers) of land surrounding its namesake, Waterton Lake, a glacier-fed reservoir. Most of the park is rugged mountain terrain, but its lands also include prairies and high deserts. The topographical diversity of the park makes it one of the most geographically significant areas in Canada.

Land within the park has been protected by the Canadian government since 1895, and was recognized along with Glacier National Park as a “World Heritage Site” a century later by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Together, these protections ensure that the land remains open to the public and free from development and commercialization. Parks Canada, the Canadian National Parks administrative body, does charge a modest admission fee for park visitors, but the majority of all money collected goes to conservation and upkeep efforts. The park is classified as a not-for-profit entity.

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One of the most unique things about Waterton Lakes National Park is its diversity of biospheres, climates, and terrains. The park’s entrance is on primarily prairie land, characterized by flat, sweeping plains. From there, the land juts up into the Rocky Mountains, creating a vibrant mountainous terrain that supports both lowlands and alpine wildlife. A wetlands and aquatic system thrives in and around the lake.

Waterton Lakes National Park is open year-round, but activities like camping, biking, and swimming are seasonally restricted. Winters in the park are often harsh, and staying outdoors for long periods of time can be hazardous, particularly in deep snow. Weather is usually best between May and September, Waterton Lakes National Park’s peak season.

The park is among the least visited of all Canadian national parks in part because of its harsh winters, as well as its remote location. Calgary is the nearest big city, but it is several hours away. Most park visitors come to spend a few days exploring the area, and camping is a very popular activity.

Waterton Lakes operates three official campsites, most of which are open only during the summer months and fill by reservation. Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park is not typically permitted outside of the designated areas, though campers do have a lot of offerings to choose from; campsites range from developed to primitive, and only one site has showers and toilet facilities. A number of unaffiliated campsites sit just outside the park, providing additional options.

Parks Canada also operates several hotels within Waterton Lakes National Park, the most famous of which is the Prince of Wales Hotel. The Prince of Wales is situated directly overlooking the lake and offers visitors a way to experience the park while also enjoying deluxe accommodations. Several more modest offerings are also available, and a great many hotels sit just outside the park’s gates. Most hotels are open year-round, weather permitting.

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