The Crown of the Continent is one the most diverse landscapes on the planet. With its headwaters spilling out of the region in all directions – to the Gulf, to the Arctic and to the Pacific – the region fosters a diversity of wildlife and habitats that is unmatched within the temperate regions of the world.
Glacier National Park in Montana is often considered the centrepiece of this wilderness, though in reality, the unprotected Flathead Valley in British Columbia is probably the ecological jewel in this crown.
But the one area that is almost always overlooked is Waterton National Park.
Seemingly the size of a postage stamp, the small park is home to an abundance of eco-zones and, within them, remarkably large wildlife populations for an area this tiny.
With its rolling prairies, its soaring peaks, its sprawling meadows and its dense forests, Waterton is a true wilderness that allows for the best hiking trails on the planet and some of the best wildlife encounters you’ll find anywhere.
And it’s about time this parks gets some love.
The story of Waterton’s long-toed salamander is one of the great community-driven conservation stories you will ever hear. And though we’ve tried and failed to photograph this endangered species to help with the efforts to save them, we’ve been pushing for this program to be expanded to other areas, including Riding Mountain National Park and near Kingston, Ontario, where amphibian mortality is especially high.
We have had the good fortune to photograph multiple species of frogs and toads within the park.
We’ve enjoyed many encounters with spruce grouse…
…and ruffled grouse.
The hawk population is exploding and there are multiple eagle nests.
While mule deer are everywhere…
…we’ve also found whitetail deer…
…making it one of the best places we’ve found for ungulate photography due to the exquisite backdrops that you can use to frame the subjects.
The biggest bull moose we have ever encountered was along the park’s Chief Mountain Highway and the resident bighorn population is exceptionally strong.
We’ve found weasels and marmots…
…coyotes and, of course, foxes.
In fact, the greatest wildlife encounter of our lives came last summer with a remarkable family of red fox denned near Waterton Valley Overlook.
I might be inclined to call Waterton a fox mecca.
Though we haven’t had luck, many people spot cougars on the prowl for deer near the townsite or on hiking trails (we did see fresh tracks last summer). I’ve seen many grizzlies, though fewer and fewer are being seen up close in recent years – partially due to the park’s size visa vis the massive ranges the big bruins require and partially due to the grizzly hunt in British Columbia.
But if you like black bears, look no further than Waterton.
We see on average twenty unique black bears in the park, often within a 48 hour span.
Literally, you can’t drive a few kilometres without finding one.
And have we mentioned the views?
Like this one…
…or this one…
or this one…
or this one.
If you time your visit right – usually mid-July – you can even frame the stunning vistas with a foreground of some of the best wild flowers you will find anywhere.
There are only three roads in Waterton – Cameron Lake (Akamina Parkway), Red Rock and Chief Mountain Highway – and a small townsite. Yes, there is a golf course, but at least this is a park that is managed more for the wildlife than for the people.
Though the weekends are usually very busy, the weekdays are dead. You can have animals and hiking trails to yourself, more often than not.
And the rangers managing this park are amongst the best in the business.
Yellowstone is bigger and Glacier has more views. Banff is stunning and Jasper is expansive. But Waterton might be the most under appreciated park on the planet and pack a bigger punch per capita, animal-for-animal, than any of these aforementioned wildernesses.
There are issue, of course. The speed limit is too high and the lack of protection for BC’s Flathead will have consequences for life in Waterton.
Still, you would be hard pressed to find a better place, especially if you take the time to really explore. Waterton is, truly, amazing.