If you’ve ever hiked to Crypt Lake, you’ll understand why it’s on my All-Time Favorite Hikes list. If you haven’t, you should definitely add it to your to-do list.
It’s also high on the list of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever done. It’s incredibly difficult but also incredibly – well – incredible. It’s the entire reason my mom and I planned the trip to Waterton Lakes National Park that I talked all about last week.
I first heard about this 12 mile (19 km) round trip hike in 2011 when my friends and I embarked upon our Canadian Rockies adventure. It was the only real plan we had in the park and we got as far as stepping up to the counter to buy boat tickets to the trailhead before being told the trail was still icy and just the previous week a woman had fallen and was still in the hospital.
Needless to say, we bailed.
And now here I was, four years later, finally about to check this off my list. I’d been on vacation in Montana for almost 2.5 weeks at this point, and with all the hiking we’d done I was pretty sure I was acclimated to the elevation. My mom had been hiking all summer to prepare as well but was a little nervous.
Rightly so, as it turned out.
But mostly, we were just excited as we boarded the boat for the short ride across Upper Waterton Lake. They dropped us off at a tiny dock on the other side of the lake, in the shadow of one the more enormous mountains I’ve ever seen, and after the obligatory photo with the trailhead sign, we set off.
Right away, the trail began switchbacking up the side of said giant mountain. Eventually it flattened slightly as it curved around to the back side of the mountain, dipping down into a drainage and then climbing back up and eventually traversing a second mountain with many, many more switchbacks. They were good switchbacks though…the gradient was steady enough to keep us climbing without making the daunting elevation gain seem impossible.
There are three waterfalls visible from the trail and a fourth that’s a short (but steep) detour. It’s recommended to wait until the hike back to attempt the side trip, as there are only two boats per day so time is somewhat limited. As it turned out, we had the time but not the leg muscles. But I digress.
I don’t have any pictures of the first falls because it was at an odd angle through the trees, but as the trail switchbacked up the side of the second mountain and the view opened up, we could see Burnt Pine Falls far below, a thin stream of water falling over yellow-brown rocks (hence the name, I assume).
Further up is Crypt Falls, a 600 foot (180 m) rivulet of water falling out of the Crypt Lake basin to the floor of the hanging valley below. There wasn’t a lot of water owing to the dry weather but it was spectacular nonetheless.
About the time the view of Crypt Falls was optimal was when I started to seriously feel the effects of altitude and exertion. We had plenty of water and Gatorade and stopped for a snack but none of that does much for a lowlander’s lung capacity. I’d felt the effects of altitude before, but never had I gotten lightheaded from lack of oxygen.
After a short break, during which I regained my air supply and my mom her leg muscles, we followed the trail across a huge talus slope to the set of obstacles that would help us on our journey; a ladder, a tunnel blasted through the mountainside, and a stretch of chains drilled into the rock. These brought us to a headwall – the final climb up, then it’s just a little ways back in to the lake.
The trail opens up onto the north shore of the lake, but there’s a small trail around the perimeter that actually loops back into Montana. According to maps, the US/Canada border cuts through the very southern tip of the lake. There is no marker present but we walked all the way around the lake, meaning we at some point crossed back into the US.
All in all, Crypt Lake was absolutely worth the sheer exhaustion, oxygen shortage, and plethora of ankle rolling that we encountered.
As soon as Pat saw the pictures, he said he wanted to hike it as well. Lucky for him, I’m crazy enough to do it again!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Waterton Lakes is located at the junction of AB Highways 5 and 6, approximately 1 hour southwest of Lethbridge, Alberta
- Fees & passes: $7.80 CAD/person/day or $19.60 CAD/car; Parks Canada Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: Townsite Campground is located on the shore of Upper Waterton Lake – 237 sites, $27-$38 CAD per night (includes free showers), reservations necessary
- Hiking: Crypt Lake – 12 mi/19km, requires a ($$) boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake to get to the trailhead
- Other: this is not an easy hike, and you’re very far from any source of food, water, amenities, or medical facilities; bring all the food, water, sun protection, bear spray, warm clothes, and rain gear you’ll need for an entire day in the mountains