A cool visitor’s center can really elevate a park visit, especially a short one. I’ve seen some cool visitor’s centers in my day – the Canyon Visitor’s Center in Yellowstone, the Travertine Nature Center in Chickasaw NRA, and the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor’s Center all come to mind – but never before had I ever seen one as high-tech as the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Centre. It was located in the middle of the townsite of Waterton, which was Mackinac-esque in that it was a beautiful late-19th-century-looking rustic town of a few crisscrossing streets, with foot traffic outnumbering vehicle traffic. The Visitor Centre had a wide front patio which was festooned with all sorts of tents, tables, and stands. Turns out, we had chosen to visit on July 16, 2022 – the third Saturday in July, or as Canadians refer to it, “Park’s Day”. There was a bit of a zoo-like quality to it, but things were much calmer inside. And much more interactive.
If you’ve ever seen those 3-D maps that you can touch to see the relief of an area, they had one. Not only that, they had one that lit up with the burn swath over time from a 2017 wildfire that ravaged the mountainsides to the west of town. The burn scars were still plainly visible outside, and this helped connect that for us, like a good Visitor Centre should.
Now that I’ve waxed poetic about it, let me direct my ire to the Parks Canada Ranger who was working the front desk. When Elizabeth went up to ask for a Canadian stamp for her stamp book, we also asked if there was a good, short hike to kill a morning inside their park. I had previously looked into the long and adventurous Crypt Lake Trail, famed for going through an extremely rugged tunnel drilled into the mountainside, but at 10 miles that was out of the question given the current (jelly-like) state of our legs as well as the very limited time available to us. Now, maybe the park ranger was just out to give us the best recommendation in an unenviable position of being asked what to do for a hike that only lasted a few hours. In fact, that’s almost certainly what he was doing. But I think the story is way better if the ranger, instead of giving us a hike recommendation from an altruistic perspective, was looking to send some annoying Americans to the toughest little trail in town. So, in any case, he suggested the Bear’s Hump, situated right on the northwestern corner of town on an outcropping on Mount Crandall. We enthusiastically thanked him – how lucky! A one-hour hike that also had great views! – then got in the car and made the short drive across town to the Mount Crandall parking lot. That’s when I looked up to the Bear’s Hump and realized that the ranger was probably laughing when the Americans walked outside.
If you’re curious, the Bear’s Hump is that exposed outcropping behind the big pine. This is the trailhead. That’s a wide angle lens that looks like it’s super far away until you look at the trees and realize how short the distance is to make it up there. Or, to put it another way, the stats:
700 feet in 3/4 of a mile is nothing to sneeze at.
Elizabeth and I were just getting started, stretching out our legs and admiring the finely crushed gravel that the trail was paved with, when Elizabeth spotted motion about 50 yards away uphill on the left side of the trail. She squealed and pointed. It took me a second to find it, but when I did, the sight was worth it – two furry, white youth… somethings. Were they baby mountain goats? That was our first instinct. Elizabeth started taking videos while I frantically strapped the Big Dog onto the Canon and prayed the (goats?) wouldn’t leave.
After enough little piggies had congregated near us on the trail, the two of them went crashing through the underbrush to an unspecified point in the distance. I figured I had scored *something* off of my Glacier Big Mammal list (grizzly, mountain goat, marmot, and moose down, bighorn still to go, or so I thought). What a cool encounter! And then, moments later, the babies burst out into the road not far below us, this time accompanied by about half a dozen adults.
And that’s when I realized that – oops – those weren’t mountain goats. It took a day or two and a chat with a ranger at the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center before we were sure, but this was a herd of bighorn sheep. You may notice the lack of sheep with big horns. That’s because in the summer, the females travel in herds with their young. Nature is pretty cool – and pretty cute!
The trail quickly began to steepen and began switchbacking through a burnt-out forest that was just beginning to burst with flowers. That might have been one of the things that I appreciate the most looking back on the Glacier-Waterton trip – the flowers everywhere were so colorful and so vibrant.
As the trail continued to get steeper and steeper, Elizabeth quickly started to show the signs of wear and tear that several days of hard hiking can put on a body. She didn’t look as bad-off as many of the little piggies who crowded the trail both up and down, bringing their crying children and god knows what else with them. But it made for a slightly grim push up the hill, especially with our boat tour giving a hard “need to be back down time”. Yes, that park ranger definitely was laughing at us back in the Centre.
I settled into a routine – go up one of the ever-shortening switchbacks, round to the downhill side, then wait for Elizabeth to catch up and catch her breath. Each time, I counted down the number of switchbacks remaining on the high-res map on AllTrails. 12… 10… 8… 6… Far below, we had a breathtaking view of the premiere hotel in the park, the Prince of Wales. I’ll show it more in a second, but the view was oh so obviously going to be one of the pleasant surprises of the trip and maybe the highlight of the entire thing when we got up over the Bear’s Hump and saw the entire Waterton Valley spread below us.
The switchbacks got shorter and shorter until the trail straightened out. Now there was just a final staircase that led to the top of the outcropping. Somehow, the crowds were thicker than ever, though I had cause to smile when I heard someone say “Sorry, I about stepped on you!” in a true-blue Canadian accent.
And then, in what was honestly a pretty abrupt finish to a brutal half hour… we stepped up over the top of the Bear’s Hump.
Breathtaking. That was the obvious word for it. Windy. That was the other thing that was impossible to ignore. Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes stretched out below us, gleaming an impossible bright teal in the late-morning sun. The mountains just stood perfectly alongside them. It was like getting to see what someone would imagine in a watercolor painting. I’m gonna stop using words when pictures will do the scene so much better justice.
It was a magical spot. In fact, it reminded me a little of the view from Inspiration Point in Grand Teton, only way, way better. I guess I wasn’t the only one thinking along the lines of “this would be a great place to propose, because:
Elizabeth told me to take a picture because this guy didn’t have a camera set up anywhere but someone else managed to take a picture with a real camera from closer so this blog is the only beneficiary of me taking that picture. Yay.
And yeah, it wasn’t only the view of the town, valley, and lake that made the Bear’s Hump so majestic. The mountains here in Waterton could match up with just about anything in Glacier with the possible exception of the Many Glacier Valley:
As crowded as it was with the piggies, and as short and brutal as the hike was, the Bear’s Hump Trail ended up being one of my fondest memories of our entire week. The view of Waterton itself will endure in my memory for a long time. And it turned out that the trail was much more conducive to speed on the downhill, when we realized that we needed to leave like *right now* to guarantee a spot on the upper deck of the tour boat down at the docks. The two of us half walked, half-trail ran all the way back to the car, huffing and puffing the whole way. Our first Canadian national park was turning out pretty nice, eh.