Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; rock-scrambling, ladder, narrow rock tunnel, narrow rock ledges en route to lake
Access: Trailhead access by boat on Waterton Shoreline Cruises from Waterton Village; $24/person in 2016, Waterton Lakes National Park entrance fee required
Crypt Lake, in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park, has been listed as being among the most thrilling hikes in the world by National Geographic and was declared the best hike in Canada in the 1980s. While I'm not sure it lives up to the level of hype surrounding it, the hike to Crypt Lake is indeed both beautiful and out-of-the-ordinary, with more than its fair share of hiking oddities. The hike to a pristine alpine lake on the US-Canada border visits numerous waterfalls and requires a boat ride across a lake, traversing a cliff ledge, climbing ladders, and crawling through a narrow tunnel. While these bells and whistles provide a decent amount of thrills, most adventurous hikers will find the obstacles along the trail more than manageable. Hikers who are unwilling to continue through the cliff traverse and tunnel will still be able to enjoy the 600-foot tall Crypt Falls, the scenic highlight of the hike.
I hiked to Crypt Lake as part of my trip out to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. I drove to Waterton via the Chief Mountain Highway from the St. Mary's area, though I'd like to make a plug for taking US 89 and Alberta Highway 2 up to Cardston: this route is easier to drive and the border crossing is open longer hours than the border crossing at Chief Mountain. Additionally, I found this to be the more scenic route, with views of the Rocky Mountains rising above rolling fields. In any case, both the Chief Mountain Highway and Alberta Highway 2 intersect with Alberta Highway 5 after crossing the border; in both cases, turn left at those junctions to continue heading west towards Waterton Lakes National Park. Follow signs for Waterton Townsite from there. Waterton Lakes charges a per-person entrance fee.
|Chief Mountain and the Rocky Mountain Front from fields near Cardston|
|Birds take flight over Lower Waterton Lake|
The boat ride was a short 15 minutes, providing nice views of the Prince of Wales Hotel and the rocky peaks around the lake. Everyone aboard disembarked at Crypt Landing to start the hike up to Crypt Lake. A few words about crowds along this hike: since boatloads of hikers begin the hike at the same time, you'll probably want to start immediately if you're a fast hiker to outpace the main pack of hikers, or stick behind the main pack if you prefer a leisurely pace. Otherwise, you'll end up squeezed into a group of 20 other hikes until you reach Burnt Rock Falls, most of the way through the hike.
The trail headed south from Crypt Landing, very briefly following the lakeshore before turning inland and beginning a climb. I quickly came to the junction for the trail towards Hellroaring Falls; I decided to head to the lake first and leave the falls for my return trip, if time permitted. The trail climbed gently through the forest, soon reaching a set of broad switchbacks with occasional views of Upper Waterton Lake.
|View over Waterton Lake|
Past Twin Falls, the trail followed a forested valley floor, with little elevation gain. I spotted many flowers in the first few miles along the trail, including beargrass blooming in the forest and paintbrush and yellow columbine blooming in more open areas.
|Burnt Rock Falls|
The trail climbed aggressively at Burnt Rock Falls, ascending via switchbacks to bypass the cliffs surrounding the falls. Above Burnt Rock Falls, I followed the trail into a meadow and caught my first glimpse of Crypt Falls.
Crypt Falls was the undeniable scenic highlight of the hike: the 600-foot tall horsetail falls tumbled down a striated cliff from a forested hanging valley; from certain angles, the waters of the falls almost appeared to emanate from the sky itself. As the trail began ascending along the east slope of the valley via switchbacks, views of the falls progressively improved and I caught glimpses of a small lake nestled at the foot of giant rocky mountains in the bottom of the valley.
|Crypt Falls tumbles down from Crypt Lake|
|Hiking up meadows full of beargrass|
Crypt Lake occupies a unique position in a hanging valley that is fully separated by steep cliffs from the valley below. Thus, the only option for reaching the lake requires crossing the cliffs to reach the edge of the hanging valley. Here, the trail was at its hair-raising finest, with a path through a talus slope gradually narrowing into a walk along a cliff ledge about two feet wide. Ahead, I could see a dark hole cut into the cliff, where the trail would follow a natural tunnel through the side of the mountain.
|Tunnel on the trail to Crypt Lake|
At the far end of the tunnel, I came upon a framed view of Crypt Falls tumbling down from its hanging valley in a landscape of austere rock.
|View of Crypt Falls from the tunnel|
|Cable section on final ascent to Crypt Lake|
|Wildflowers coat the meadow at the southern end of Crypt Lake|
|Iceberg in Crypt Lake|
|View along Hellroaring Falls Trail|
Continued steep descent finally brought the trail down to Hellroaring Falls, a series of falls flowing down angled rock, separated by turqouise pools. There were no safe spots to observe the entirety of the main drop of Hellroaring Falls. The top of the falls also provided an open spot with a nice view of Upper Waterton Lake.
|View above Upper Waterton Lake|
|Prince of Wales Hotel and Waterton Lakes|