June 20th, 2024

Winter recreation awaits in Waterton

By Cal Braid - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on December 10, 2022.

Photo courtesy Parks Canada Waterton in winter is still a place where nature's immensity can be enjoyed, with opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, alpine touring, and wildlife viewing.

When winter settles upon Waterton Lakes National Park, the landscape is transformed from colourful beauty into a place of subtler contrasts. Shining white at times, a muted grey-white at others, it’s still a place where nature’s immensity can be enjoyed. The park makes opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, alpine touring, and wildlife viewing accessible despite the conditions.

Dallas Meidinger has been the external relations manager in Waterton since July 2018, and he described what a group can expect from the park in mid-winter.

“There’s a handful of hotels and restaurants that stay open all winter; the Kilmorey Lodge as well as Glacier Suites, and both of them have restaurants. There are no gas stations open at this time of year so we really encourage people to fuel up before they travel to the park.”

He said the new visitor centre is now open in the townsite.

“The construction began in 2019, it opened to the public in Feb. 2022, and the official opening was in July. This winter it will be open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It’s got a lot of interpretive exhibits that we developed in tandem with some of the local Indigenous Nations, so it really reflects Blackfoot culture. There are interpretive exhibits regarding the park’s ecology and forces of nature like wildfire and wind, and how they shape Waterton. There’s plenty of opportunity to view wildlife here. You’ll see no shortage of deer, elk, and bighorn sheep hanging around the park at this time of year.”

The park is also hosting a Christmas bird count this month-a citizen’s science project that runs through their volunteer program.

“It’s totally free. Visitors can sign up on our website and pre-register that way,” Meidinger said. “Count week is Dec. 14-20 and our big count day is Dec. 17. We use that to look at the populations of migratory birds throughout the park and we compare that year-over-year and also with other locations across Canada. It’s been going on I believe for 45 years across Canada, so it’s a long-standing activity that does provide a lot of valuable information.”

The Akamina Parkway is open to vehicles up to the Little Prairie day use area and provides cross-country ski access to one of the park’s most popular winter recreation areas, Cameron Lake. The park sets ski tracks as conditions allow along the 2.5 km stretch from Little Prairie to Cameron Lake. Chief Mountain Highway and Wishbone Trail also offer cross-country skiing terrain without set tracks and outside of avalanche terrain. The Parkway is plowed as necessary with occasional morning closure to give snowplows the space to operate safely. Red Rock Parkway is closed to vehicles during the winter, but is open for skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.

Many trails in the park are classified as challenging or complex avalanche terrain based on the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES). The park’s winter media release warns that, “Even when in simple terrain, it’s important to keep safety in mind and plan accordingly for the conditions. Visitors should consider if they have the knowledge and gear required to safely travel through avalanche terrain before embarking, whether hiking or skiing. Visitors travelling in avalanche terrain need to have essential equipment, such as a transceiver, probe and shovel, and know how to use it. Visitors also need the skills to recognize avalanche terrain and unstable conditions, and to conduct companion rescue. Parks Canada recommends that visitors wishing to recreate in avalanche terrain take an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course to learn and practice these skills.”

Parks Canada visitor safety technicians produce a regular avalanche bulletin from early December to mid-April and publishes it at least once a week throughout the winter season. The park recommends Alberta 511 as the best place to check on road conditions and closures.

Public washrooms are available during business hours in the visitor centre and in the townsite at the marina and Cameron Falls.

Visit parks.canada.ca/pn-np/ab/waterton to learn more.

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