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Waterton National Park 2009

Image by Gord McKenna

Rugged, windswept mountains rise abruptly out of gentle prairie grassland in spectacular Waterton Lakes National Park. Here, several different ecological regions meet and interact in a landscape shaped by wind, fire, flooding, and abundant plants and wildlife. The park helps protect the unique and unusually diverse physical, biological and cultural resources found in the Crown of the Continent: one of the narrowest places in the Rocky Mountains. The highlight of Waterton’s sparkling chain of lakes is the international Upper Waterton Lake, the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. In 1932, the park was joined with Montana’s Glacier National Park to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park – a world first.


In 1895, a 140 sq. km (54 sq. miles) area was protected through an Order in Council of the federal government. After a variety of status and name changes, it became what it is now known as Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton was Canada’s 4th national park, the smallest in the Canadian Rockies. Its size has varied considerably over the years but its area is now 505 sq. km (195 sq. miles).

The first major step toward preservation of Waterton was taken by a Pincher Creek rancher, F.W. Godsal, who sent a proposal to Ottawa in 1893 recommending that the Waterton Lakes area be set aside as a national park.

The park’s name derives from the Waterton Lakes. This chain of lakes, named by Lieutenant Blakiston (a member of the Palliser Expedition), honours a British naturalist, Squire Charles Waterton (1782-1865).

As part of a Canada-wide system of national parks, Waterton Lakes National Park represents the southern Rocky Mountains Natural Region – where some of the most ancient mountains in the Rockies abruptly meet the prairie. It is a landscape shaped by wind, fire, and flooding; with a rich variety of plants and wildlife.

The park is part of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem; a place with unusually diverse physical, biological and cultural resources. This ecosystem is one of the narrowest places in the Rocky Mountain chain. This means Waterton and its surrounding region sits on a key pinch point of a crucial north-south Rocky Mountain wildlife corridor.

Several different ecological regions meet in Waterton – with prairie plants of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain plants from northern areas, and coastal plants from the Pacific Northwest all overlapping. The park contains 45 different habitat types, including grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, lakes, spruce-fir, pine and aspen forests, and alpine areas. This means Waterton has an unusually rich and varied number of plants for its size, with more than 1000 vascular plant species, 182 bryophytes and 218 lichen species. Many of these are rare or threatened. More than half of Alberta’s plant species can be found in Waterton.

The park’s variety of vegetation communities provides homes for many animals, including more than 60 species of mammals, over 250 species of birds, 24 species of fish, and 10 reptiles and amphibians. Large predators include wolf, coyote, cougar, grizzly bear, and American black bear. The grasslands are important winter range for ungulates such as elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. In the fall, the marsh and lake areas of the park are used extensively by migrating ducks, swans, and geese. Some animals found here are considered rare or unusual eg. trumpeter swans, Vaux’s swifts, and vagrant shrews.

Waterton Lakes National Park also has global importance because of several key international designations:

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1932) – The Peace Park was originally created as a symbol of peace and goodwill between the United States and Canada, but has now evolved to also represent cooperation in a world of shared resources. Both parks strive to protect the ecosystem through shared management, not only between themselves, but also with their other neighbours.

On December 6, 1995 UNESCO designated the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as a World Heritage Site because it has a distinctive climate, physiographic setting, mountain-prairie interface, and tri-ocean hydrographical divide. It is an area of significant scenic values with abundant and diverse flora and fauna.

Criteria (revised in 2006)

(vii) Both national parks were originally designated by their respective nations because of their superlative mountain scenery, their high topographic relief, glacial landforms, and abundant diversity of wildlife and wildflowers.

(ix) The property occupies a pivotal position in the Western Cordillera of North America resulting in the evolution of plant communities and ecological complexes that occur nowhere else in the world. Maritime weather systems unimpeded by mountain ranges to the north and south allow plants and animals characteristic of the Pacific Northwest to extend to and across the continental divide in the park. To the east, prairie communities nestle against the mountains with no intervening foothills, producing an interface of prairie, montane and alpine communities. The international peace park includes the headwaters of three major watersheds draining through significantly different biomes to different oceans. The biogeographical significance of this tri-ocean divide is increased by the many vegetated connections between the headwaters. The net effect is to create a unique assemblage and high diversity of flora and fauna concentrated in a small area.

Waterton Biosphere Reserve (1979) – As Canada’s second biosphere reserve, Waterton was the first Canadian national park to take part in this UNESCO program. Biosphere Reserves are created to achieve a better understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural environment by integrating knowledge and experience from both natural and social sciences. Major goals are to support information exchange, research, education, training and improved land management; largely through cooperation and shared projects with local private landowners and government agencies.

The park has two national historic sites located within its boundaries. These are the Prince of Wales Hotel National Historic Site (1995) and the Lineham Discovery Well National Historic Site (the site of western Canada’s first producing oil well) (1968).

Waterton is located in the southwest corner of Alberta. It is bordered…

on the west by the province of British Columbia (Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park and Flathead Provincial Forest);

on the south by Glacier National Park, Montana;

on the north and east by the Bow-Crow Forest, and private lands in the Municipal Districts of Cardston and Pincher Creek;

and includes a large timber reserve belonging to the Kainaiwa (Blood Tribe.)

The townsite sits at 1280 m (4200 ft) above sea level and the park’s highest peak, Mt. Blakiston, is 2940 m (9645 ft) above sea level or approximately 1,490 m (4900 ft) tall.

The park is open year round although most facilities are closed in winter. Annual visitation is approximately 425,000. The year round residential population of about 100 people increases in the summer to about 2,000.


Some of the oldest, exposed sedimentary rock in the Canadian Rockies the Lewis thrust fault has exposed 1,500 million-year-old sedimentary rock.

Argillite the vivid colours of green and red layers of sedimentary rock are a result of oxidized and unoxidized iron in the rock. Both rock types, called argillite, derived from iron rich muds laid down on the bottom of an ancient sea.

Climate Waterton receives Alberta’s highest average annual precipitation levels (1,072 mm) It is also one of Alberta’s windiest places. Winter winds over 100 km/hr are common. Waterton has many chinooks, which contribute to it being one of Alberta’s warmest areas in winter (about 28 winter days with temperatures of 2.5 C and above). These winds can cause temperatures to rise dramatically over short periods of time.

Foothills fescue prairie this grassland region stretches along the plains and foothills from southern Alberta into Montana. Waterton Lakes is the only Canadian national park that preserves foothills fescue grasslands.

Rare Vegetation Of 45 vegetation types identified in Waterton’s recent Ecological Land Classification, 16 are considered significant because they are rare (small area in the park) or fragile and threatened. Notable are two grassland types and two types of aspen forest. These are threatened by non-native plant invasion, disturbance and heavy grazing pressure.

Rare Plants Amongst Waterton’s more than 1000 species of vascular plants, 179 species are rare in Alberta. Twenty-two of these plants are not found anywhere else in Alberta.

Moonwort Hot Spot Waterton has globally significant genetic diversity, best symbolized by its amazing variety of small ferns called moonworts. Waterton has 8 different moonworts. The Waterton moonwort (Botrychium x watertonense) is only found here and is considered the rarest plant in the park.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) Tall beargrass flowers and their tufts of grassy leaves are Waterton’s showiest plant. Waterton Lakes is the only Canadian national park that protects this lily. It is the unofficial emblem of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Plains-dwelling Grizzly Bears Waterton is one of the last places in North America where grizzlies commonly range into the edges of its former grassland range.


Get Your Goose On!!!

Image by USFWS Mountain Prairie

More than 100 people attended the 2012 Montana Junior Duck Stamps award ceremony. The folks pictured here posed with their towels as a videographer captured footage of them screaming, in unison, "Get Your Goose On!"

Credit: Bob Danley / USFWS

Hoping for the Early Morning Bite

Image by Bill Gracey

Seen shortly after sunrise at Waterton Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park, Albert Canada. Even if he caught nothing, it seemed to me he had a pretty good morning. And when you think he wouldn’t have any fish to clean. Life is good.

Taken shortly after sunrise at Waterton Lake in Waterton Lake National Park in Alberta Canada. The opposite end of this lake is in Montana in the United States. An extraordinarily beautiful loccation.

To see more pictures from our 54 day road trip please check out my Road Trip 2009 set


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