When my friends and I planned our southern Alberta Rocky Mountain vacation, we were pretty laid-back about which activities to do, except for one: the Crypt Lake Trail. We knew we would be camping at Beaver Mines Lake Campground in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and we were looking for an epic hike to conquer between kabob-roasting and kayaking. When we heard about the Crypt Lake Hike in Waterton Lakes National Park, we were sold.
The Crypt Lake Trail was voted “Canada’s Best Hike” in 1982, and National Geographic rated the hike among the top twenty of the “World’s Best Hikes” in the “Thrilling Trails” category in 2014. Note it says world’s best, folks. World’s. This thrill was to be ours.
What sets the Crypt Lake Trail apart from other hikes is its beauty, its wildlife, and its exciting trail features (guaranteed to get your heart pumping).
B E A U T Y
The 10.8 mile Crypt Lake Trail, featuring a 2300 ft. elevation gain, is accessed by a 15 minute ferry ride across the beautiful Upper Waterton Lake (emerald and shining are two appropriate descriptors here). Some of the trail features include numerous waterfalls, noticeable scenery changes with gains in elevation, and intimate views of the Canadian Rockies.
W I L D L I F E
One of the thrilling features of the Crypt Lake Trail is that it is prime bear country. (Thrilling and a little terrifying to this Midwestern flatlander). We also began the hike with the knowledge that a cougar had attacked a teenage girl in Waterton Lakes National Park only just last year. This knowledge made us pretty aware of our surroundings. Not to mention the necessity of letting out a hearty “Hey-o! HEY-o!” everyone now and again, just to let the bears know we were in the neighborhood. (Sort of like ringing their doorbell. They don’t like to be spooked any more than we do.) Besides hollering, we weren’t exactly sure what we would do if we encountered a bear. A grizzled Canadian fisherman we had met the day before when we were kayaking gave us at least one tip: “Back away slowly, and don’t make eye contact.” Alas, we saw no bearkind, but this did not keep the bears from depositing their dung, twice, upon our trail. I mean, they could have pooped anywhere in the forest. But no, they had to do it on the trail. I took this kind of as a hint. “We are leaving this here so that you freak out.” –Bears, pooping. We also saw quite a variety of birds, and even a marmot. On our mid-June hike, mountain wildflowers were blooming, peeking out of their buds, as the last bits of snow melted in the warm summer sun.
O B S T A C L E S
Perhaps Crypt Lake Trail’s “thrilling” status is due to the various obstacles hikers encounter. Whether it’s crossing a running stream, climbing through a cave, or skirting a cliff while hanging on to a cable, there are many exciting moments. A grown adult man said, “Basically, I got to the point where I just focused on the mountain and did not look down.” A fear of heights is not recommended for this trail.
Another thrill of the trail is that there is a bit of a time factor. For most of June, only one ferry runs between Waterton and the Crypt Lake trail head, leaving promptly at 10:00 a.m. and returning at 5:30 p.m. My friends and I happened to miss a turn on our way from Beaver Mines to Waterton, leaving us only seven minutes to buy tickets and board the boat! Thankfully, it was early enough in the season that there were still tickets available. When we arrived at the trail head, we re-packed our backpack and took potty breaks near the shore. This meant that our group was the last group to set out (around 10:30). While I enjoyed our solitude at the back of the pack of hikers, I was a little pensive about reaching the summit on time. The hike can take 2.5 to 3 hours one way, not counting hydration breaks and photo shoots, which, for my friends and me were quite numerous. (Our time was 3 hours, 11 minutes.) This left us about 30 minutes at Crypt Lake for lunch, bathroom breaks, and exploring. One gains a little extra time on the descent. Nevertheless, you really don’t want to miss the ferry back to Waterton, unless you’ve packed your down-filled parka, a flashlight, and a bedtime story book. Goldilocks and the Three Bears might be appropriate. The announcer on the ferry had announced as we were approaching the trail head, “We’ll be arriving soon, dropping you off, and picking up whoever didn’t make it back to the boat last night.” We took that to mean: be on time this evening. Anyway, the hiking time is totally doable, but it’s probably best to keep an eye on your watch.
T I P S
Here are some tips to make you fully prepared for the hike.
1. The Waterton Shoreline Cruise’s boatman’s speech is pretty informative. Listen up for history, interesting facts, and pertinent trail advice. He also might allay your fears regarding bears.
2. However, don’t be careless regarding bears. Take bear spray, a form of pepper spray designed for aggressive bears in the wild. The boatman and some other hikers downplayed the possibility of bear sightings, but my friends and I decided we couldn’t be too careful. And the majority of other hikers thought the same. We saw a total of five cans of bear spray among the ranks.
3. Toilet paper. It’s really okay. You can rough it behind that tree.
4. Take enough liquids. We took one water bottle plus one Gatorade per person, stuffing them into a single backpack along with bug spray, sunscreen, ridiculous amounts of trail food, a camera, and flip flops (in case we needed to ford a raging stream). Rushing on to the boat with five minutes to spare, the ferry man looked at our single backpack and asked where our other packs were. “We only have one pack,” we said. He shook his head, “How much water do you have? You should have 3 liters a piece. It’s a warm one out there today.” We ducked our heads and hopped onto the ferry. “Ch. ‘Warm.’” I laughed. “Maybe for Canadians!” Honestly, though, we did find ourselves conserving our water. It would have been best to take a few more bottles with us.
5. Take a watch so that you can keep track of time. I took my fancy runner’s GPS watch which was very useful for keeping track of time and distance.
I find that being fully prepared means that you will be better able to enjoy the delights of the trail.
And this trail affords many: the delicious scent of alpine air, the curious existence of mountain wildflowers, the rushing roar of steep waterfalls, hair-raising moments using the cable on the cliff, warm sun and abrupt clouds, and miles of mountains and scraggy rocks and green trees. If you sometime find yourself in the southern Alberta, I guarantee you won’t regret taking this thrilling hike in the Canadian Rockies.