Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes is a dramatic land where the transition from high prairie to Rocky Mountains occurs in less than half a mile. If you were to leave the car behind and hike toward the high country, you’d start in grassy meadows where prairie smoke flowers and orchids tickle your ankles. Passage from grasslands to forest is brief as you quickly enter patches of alder and willow that reach up like fingers on the mountainsides. Eventually you’d enter the subalpine forests with their red-bark Engelmann spruce looming overhead. The trees soon give way to reddish shale dotted with twisted pines and low-lying flowers, and that’s when you know you’re in the alpine zone. Around you are some of the most awe-inspiring mountains on earth, soaring upward to 9,600 feet. The stair-stepped Waterton Lakes (Upper, Middle, and Lower) are the focal point of the park and the start of many backcountry hikes. At the south end of Upper Waterton Lake the park joins with its counterpart in the United States, Glacier National Park in Montana. Together the two units form an International Peace Park (designated in 1932).
Getting there: If you’re in Glacier National Park, take Chief Mountain International Highway to Waterton Lakes. Or fly into Calgary and ride a Greyhound bus 165 miles to the park. Or take a connector flight from Calgary to Lethbridge that’ll put you 65 miles closer to the park, where you can rent a car.
Trails: The park is served by three main highways, and most trailheads are just off the roadways. Or make reservations with the shuttle service at Tamarack Mall in the town of Waterton Park, which will drop you at your trailhead (C$6). The 114-mile network of trails largely follows lake shorelines up through lower montane forests and into the dry alpine zones. Carthew-Alderson Lakes Trail (12 miles) carries you to Cameron Lake, and along the way it offers a sampling of the various ecological zones, plus a good chance of seeing moose and bighorn sheep. Tamarack Trail (29 miles) traces the western border of the park and the Great Divide. It’s demanding, with nearly 10,000 feet of combined ascents and descents.
Season: May to October is best; peak visitation is July to August. Trails in upper elevations usually are snow-free by July. Keep a windbreaker handy, since wind is constant at any elevation.
Permits and fees: All visitors pay a day-use fee of C$8 for a group of two to 10 people in one vehicle. For backcountry trips register at the visitor reception center 5 miles from the front gate; C$6 per person per night for a Wilderness Pass. You can call (403) 859-5133 three months ahead and pay an additional nonrefundable C$10 to reserve campsites. Fishing licenses are C$6 per week, C$13 for the season.
Maps and guides: Topo maps are available for C$10.17 from the park. For further reading, see Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, by Vicki Spring ($14.95, The Mountaineers Books; 800-553-4453) and Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, by Erik Molvar ($12.95, Falcon Press; 800-582-2665).
More information: c/o Superintendent, Waterton Lakes National Park, Waterton Park, AB T0K 2M0; http://www.worldweb.com/ParksCanada-Waterton/index.html. From mid-May to mid-November, call the information center at (403) 859-5133; off season, call (403) 859-2224.
Gros Morne National Park
Like many people, I’d long thought Newfoundland was a cold, damp island off the Atlantic coast, best suited for fishing villages and hardy domestic sheep. Then I visited its western coast and was stunned by this park’s varied beauty: miles of white-sand beaches, fiords surrounded by dense evergreen forests, and a 2,600-foot mountain that rules the horizon. But it’s the sea that dominates, sculpting jagged volcanic cliffs, high-reaching rock pillars, enormous sea stacks and sea caves, and smooth platforms. High atop the cliffs, grassy meadows flourish. Farther inland, glaciers have left their footprints, scooping out chunks of land and leaving sparkling lakes that dot the landscape. Stand on the summit of Gros Morne Mountain (the park’s namesake) and you’ll see where brash forests push their way through rocky outcrops. Occasionally you’ll share the trail with moose and alpine wildlife such as arctic hares and rock ptarmigan. If your map and compass skills are sharp, make tracks for the Long Range Mountains in the interior of the park and you may meet up with caribou during summer calving season.
Getting there: From Halifax, Nova Scotia, the quickest route to Gros Morne is via a 2-hour flight to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where you can rent a car and drive an hour to the park.
Trails: You have two aerobic choices when considering the 63 or so miles of trail. Take the gentle option and you can dayhike from a basecamp, or do several easy overnighters. One of the most appealing routes is Green Gardens, a 12-mile loop that meanders along the coastal cliffs and occasionally descends to the cobbled beaches. It’s perfect for those who want to spend their time reading, resting, and exploring tidal pools.
For a more gruelling backcountry experience, there are two main routes in the Long Range Mountains: the North Rim Traverse (18 miles, three days), and the Long Range Traverse (22 miles). Park officials call both “very strenuous.” Watch your step since the arctic-alpine barrenlands of the backcountry are fragile and fog often reduces visibility to nil. Good navigational skills, a high fitness level, and some experience are requisites, but you’re rewarded tenfold with the exquisite views, bountiful solitude, and intense wildlife encounters.
Season: From July through September it’s warm and dry at low altitudes. The weather is highly changeable higher up, so be prepared for sudden fog, chilling rain, and even snow.
Permits and Fees: A permit for C$10 is required for each backcountry site per night. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. To do the Long Range and North Rim traverses you must first sit through an orientation by park staff; cost is C$35 per person, which includes daily park fee, backcountry permit, and rental of a VHF Telemetry Unit, which helps park officials locate hikers during search-and-rescue efforts.
Maps and Guides: Gros Morne National Park Trail Guide (C$10) 1:100,000 map shows the entire park; the 1:50,000 maps 12-H/12-Gros Morne and 12-H/13-St. Pauls (C$10 each) cover the Long Range and North Rim Traverses. All are available from the Gros Morne Co-operative Association (call park phone number below).
More information: Gros Morne National Park, P.O. Box 130, Rocky Harbour, NF A0K 4N0; (709) 458-2417; http://www.newcomm.net/grosmorne/default.htm.
Jasper National Park
With Jasper and Banff separated only by a roadsign that indicates you’re leaving one park and entering the other, you might ask, “What’s the difference?” For one thing, Jasper has half the number of visitors. And its trail system is perfect for long-distance hikes-if you have the time, fitness level, and backcountry skills needed to cover routes that pass through what one guidebook calls “the premier area for remote wilderness hiking in North America.” Several river valleys carve the park, and between them are exquisite mountains that soar over 12,000 feet. The more than 600 miles of trails typically start in the Athabasca River Valley, then carry you into the high country, all the while sucking your breath away with stunning vistas of vast glaciers and the turquoise lakes they feed.
Getting there: Jasper is 192 miles west of Edmonton, Alberta, and 256 miles northwest of Calgary. Bus and train service run from Edmonton to Jasper. Brewster Transportation (403-762-6767) has daily service from the Calgary Airport, with drop-offs at some trailheads.
Trails: The North Boundary (107 miles) and the South Boundary (103 miles) trails provide days of solitary hiking, except for the elk, bear, and moose you may bump into. Both routes are below treeline (average elevation 5,000 feet), and mostly wind through forests, occasionally opening into a welcome meadow. Or try the shorter Jonas Pass trail (32 miles). You’re above treeline for about 9 miles, with views of glacier-laden mountains and if you’re lucky, herds of caribou. The trail system is organized into three levels: Semiprimitive areas have well-maintained trails, developed campgrounds, and are heavily used; primitive areas are more isolated, with wilder trails, bear poles, pit toilets, and fires permitted at campsites; wildland areas require good route-finding skills and a sense of adventure, because there are no trails, no designated campsites, and fires are not permitted. Check the “Wilderness Trip Planner” at the park’s Web site for trails in each level.
Season: Lower-elevation trails open in mid-May; the rest are snow-free by mid-July and usually stay that way until mid-October.
Permits and fees: The day-use pass costs C$5 per person, per day. Backcountry campers must also purchase a wilderness pass (C$6 per person, per night). Some campsites can be reserved three months in advance for a nonrefundable C$10 fee. Call one of the park information centers (see below) to get your spot.
Maps and guides: The Friends of Jasper (403-852-4767), located in the Jasper Information Centre, sells topographic maps and guidebooks. Sunwapta Peak 83C/6 and Columbia Icefield 83C/3 cover the Jonas Pass hike. Snaring 83E/1, Rock Lake 83E/8, Blue Creek 83E/7, Twintree Lake 83E/6, and Mt. Robson 83E/3 cover North Boundary Trail. Columbia Icefield 83C/3, Sunwapta Peak 83C/6, Job Creek 83C/7, George Creek 83C/10, Southesk 83C/11, Mountain Park 83C/14, and Medicine Lake 83C/13 cover the South Boundary Trail.
More information: Jasper National Park, Box 10, Jasper, AB T0E 1E0; http://www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-jasper/index.html. Call the Jasper Information Centre at (403) 852-6176, or the Icefield Information Centre at (403) 852-6288.