It’s where the prairies meet the Rockies. It’s one of the most sought after outdoor playgrounds in Alberta—nay, in Canada…. It’s Waterton Lakes National Park! In 2014, National Geographic rated Crypt Lake as one of the World’s 20 Most Thrilling Trails! It’s a great way to experience this part of Alberta.
I’ve been wanting to do the Crypt Lake hike in Waterton Lakes National Park for a while now. A few weeks ago, I finally decided to plan to trip and invited my friend Kevin along for the ride.
We drove down from Calgary on Friday afternoon to buy our boat shuttle tickets from Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company. The round-trip was $28 per adult. They only sell tickets one day in advance and they don’t sell online—only in person. This was a nice excuse to spend the evening near Waterton, opting for an Airbnb 20 minutes from the park since the limited town campsites were all booked up. We explored some gift shops, ate supper at the Thirsty Bear, spotted a momma bear and cubs in the park (!), and then found our way to our accommodations.
About the Crypt Lake Hike in Waterton Lakes National Park
Location: Waterton Lakes National Park
Distance: 20 km out and back
Difficulty: Moderate due to length, caves, and cable on rocky sections
Elevation: 700 m gain
Time: Approx. 5-7 hours
Features: A boat ride to the trailhead. Gradual elevation gain with switchbacks in the forest and then above the treeline with impressive mountain views. Several waterfalls along the trail, including Burnt Rock Falls and Crypt Falls. The natural cave tunnel as part of the trail leads to the glacier-fed Crypt Lake nestled in the Rocky Mountains. The lake is near the Canada-US border.
The Boat Shuttle from Waterton to Crypt Landing
To get to the trailhead, you must take the Waterton Shoreline Cruise boat shuttle. Excited for the upcoming adventure, we arrived in Waterton around 7:45 yesterday (Saturday) morning. Many people were waiting in line by the time the first shuttle left the dock at 8:15. I can understand how this could sell out, especially since the boat capacity was reduced to 25 people due to COVID-19. Passengers also must wear face masks.
We listened as our guide provided some instructions and tips before setting us loose on the trail. To sum it up: bear bells are DINNER BELLS and those carrying water filters (like me!) might make a handsome profit. After 15 short minutes, we arrived at Crypt Landing. Kevin and I were off!
The first shuttle returned at 4 o’clock to bring us back to Waterton. We weren’t part of the first 25 passengers, but luckily another boat arrived 10 minutes later. Make sure to check the departure times unless you wanna spend the night with the bears. The last pick-up was 5:30 pm.
Hiking to Crypt Lake
This Crypt Lake hike gains significant elevation but over a fairly long distance. The switchback trails add to the relative ease. Even though it’s not the most technically challenging hike, the distance on a hot summer day and the cave section on exposed rock requires some skill and gumption.
Once above the treeline, I felt more and more like I was in an Indiana Jones movie! The rocky switchback trail continues upward, with a mountainous landscape in the background. You can’t miss the Burnt Rock Falls with its roaring natural water slide (And no, I wasn’t tall enough to ride…). Crypt Falls is another impressive waterfall flowing out of this hike’s final reward.
Ridge, Cave, and Cable
There’s an old backcountry campground right before this trail gets even more exciting. The outhouse is a sign. The ridge was less intimidating than I expected. I felt very safe with a solid path beneath my hiking boots. Still, you gotta be careful.
Once across the ridge, there’s a steel ladder—maybe eight feet tall—that leads into the 60-foot cave through the mountain. I’ve read that this is a natural cave and it definitely added to the adventure-vibe of this hike! Once through to the other side, there’s a somewhat intimidating (or… fun!) rocky section with a cable for added security. You can do it. The Shoreline Cruise staff assured us that no one has fallen off this trail…. Feel better?
Arriving at the Gorgeous Crypt Lake
It was really nice to have some time at the lake. I wished I brought my hammock and a book. It’s a great place to relax and take a refreshing (and re-FREEZING) swim. We enjoyed our packed lunch and then lounged for a while before making the journey back.
The hike to Crypt Lake is about eight kilometres (according to Strava), so it’s possible to do the out and back in 16 kilometres. It took us about 2.5 hours to reach Crypt Lake. The shuttle wouldn’t arrive until 4:00 pm, so we eventually hiked around the lake and returned to the trailhead via Hell Roaring Canyon trail. These extra sections brought the total to about 20 kilometres.
Don’t Miss the Boat: Hiking From Crypt Lake to Crypt Landing
We gave ourselves 2.5 hours to get back to the trailhead. That was plenty of time for us. The trail was a bit backed up by the rocky section with the cable and tunnel, so consider that when planning the trip back.
The Hell Roaring Canyon trail on the way back was definitely the way to go. This trail doesn’t switchback, so I’d recommend saving it for the end. It would be quite steep the other way, but on the way back it’s mostly downhill. The trail was overgrown in spots, but didn’t have many other hikers. A quiet trail with stunning views of Waterton Lake.
Crypt Lake Trail: A Unique Alberta Experience
That’s a wrap! Crypt Lake Trail is an awesome day trip and I’d say it’s suitable for most hikers. The trail isn’t overly technical and gradually increases in elevation over the eight kilometres to the lake. However, for those with fear of heights, the cave and the cabled section might be challenging—but it wasn’t too bad. If you can muster the courage to get through this section, an incredible glacier lake oasis awaits on the other side. This novel experience has a boat shuttle, multiple waterfalls, mountain views, a cave tunnel, and a beautiful lake reward at the end. In other words: 100% worth it!
Have you been to Waterton Lakes National Park? Where are you exploring this summer? Let me know in the comments below.
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