Just 2 1/2 hours south of Calgary, Waterton Lakes National Park is a popular summer destination for families looking for an easy getaway and a little lake time with spectacular views. The tiny town of Waterton is only fully open during the summer months, and thus geared toward visitors — it’s perfectly charming, full of old cabins that have been there for generations, and not as crowded as other tourist destinations. The lake is gorgeous, with a shallow, smooth stone shoreline that’s perfect for picnicking, skipping stones or just hanging out and reading a book.
The drive is easy – not too crowded, through rolling farmland that opens up to stunning Rocky mountains when you reach the park itself. And of course for Canada’s 150th, admission to all Parks Canada locations is free!
What to do: Take a cruise on Waterton lake, the deepest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies, go fishing, rent bikes or a canoe, borrow a kite (for free!) or wander the quaint town, popping into bookstores and stopping for ice cream. The area is also known for its scenic hikes, with plenty of easy walks and scrambles that lead to breathtaking views. (Bonus: there are proper washrooms everywhere you go.)
Where to stay: The town is full of privately owned hotels, all of them small, most one or two story, or clusters of small townhouses. The Bayshore Inn is one of the only hotels open year-round; its rooms back onto the lake, with sliding glass doors and patios alongside the walking path, right on the water. Family suites have second bedrooms with two double beds, and a fridge and microwave to keep snacks and cold drinks on hand.
The Prince of Wales Hotel is perhaps the most photographed in Waterton; perched up on a bluff overlooking the town, it was built in 1927 and designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992. Whether or not you stay there, it’s worth stopping in for breakfast, lunch or dinner with some of the best views in Alberta, or for a proper afternoon tea. If you’re on a budget, there’s plenty of camping in town too, right on the lake.
What to eat: Waterton is a seasonal destination, so most restaurants have patios — and kids’ menus. Wieners of Waterton and Waffleton are particularly affordable, with counter service and picnic tables outside – at WoW they have kid-sized dogs and locally made smokies on house-baked buns with your choice of toppings (including their own sauerkraut!) and at Waffleton they do amazing overnight yeasted buttermilk waffles and Liege-style waffles made with brioche dough and pearled sugar, with your choice of toppings. Larkspur Coffee House brews good beans and serves up the perfect grilled cheese as well as reasonably priced specials like spaghetti and meatballs or the very best tomato and roasted red pepper soup you’ve ever had. And because the town is in a national park, there are plenty of picnic tables and community-use buildings with wood ovens and tables scattered throughout the town and surrounding park – so many beautiful spots to plunk down for a picnic.
Go prepared to see some wildlife – there were plenty of mountian sheep and deer hanging out in town at our last visit – and to spend some quality time unplugged. The town has its own open wifi, but it’s spotty – a perfect excuse to get off your electronics and relax, linger over a picnic or go skip some stones on the lake.