Canada was never part of the plan. As I was plotting my summer 2016 road trip, I had one major destination in mind: Glacier National Park in Montana. I spent the winter and spring dreaming of hiking the Iceberg Lake and Highline trails and taking a boat ride on the dazzling Swiftcurrent Lake.
But, as I tend to do while planning a big trip, I began researching online for top things to do in the Glacier region.
What can I say? Canada had me at my first glimpse of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
I could hardly believe it was real. Craggy mountains behind it, sapphire lake in front, it stands alone on a bluff – all stately gables and peaked roof. And when I learned that Waterton Lakes National Park – the Canadian version of Glacier, and home to the Prince of Wales – was only a little over an hour from where I would be staying in Glacier’s St. Mary, I was sold. I quickly adjusted my plans to include four nights in Montana, and one night over the border, at the Prince of Wales.
And I must say it was an excellent call. From the minute I crossed the border at the Chief Mountain Port of Entry, Waterton proved to be one of my best road-trip detours ever.
Over the years, I’ve visited Vancouver, B.C., as well as Banff, Lake Louise, and Calgary, Alberta, but I had never heard of Waterton Lakes. In fact, everything I read billed it as Canada’s best-kept secret. And what a secret: Towering snow-ridged mountains, crystalline lakes, and unbelievably sweeping views.
White daisies seemed to be everywhere, lining the roads into Waterton, and bordering the lake. I couldn’t resist multiple stops to take them in. Also, the imposing Chief Mountain kept popping into view on my drive along Highway 6.
Even so, for me, the real star of Waterton Lakes was the Prince of Wales. It is visible from virtually everywhere in the little town of Waterton, as well as from the surrounding mountain trails.
As I approached the hotel, I couldn’t help but think that the photos hadn’t done it justice. Glowing in the summer sun, it completely dominated the grassy bluff. Massive pots of flowers decorated the entrance, and then, once inside – that lobby! It is absolutely breathtaking, overlooking the blue waters of Upper Waterton Lake.
As I was checking in, the hotel’s afternoon tea was underway near the lobby windows. With a harpist adding the soundtrack, that first taste of Prince of Wales was a bit of sensory overload.
That’s not to say everything was perfect. As with old most old lodges, the Prince of Wales suffers a few logistical issues. One small elevator serves the entire hotel, and guests must call a bellman to use it. (A consolation: In keeping with the Prince of Wales theme, the young bellmen were costumed in colorful plaid kilts, adding a bit of interest and ambience).
The small guestrooms also were standard historic-lodge accommodations, with vintage furnishings and bathrooms. But how could anyone complain while looking out onto that view? Even with a heavy screen slightly obscuring it, I couldn’t stop gazing out my window.
I had made reservations for dinner, and after waiting in the lounge, I was seated in the dining room – again with a stunning view of the lake. After dinner, one of the bellman offered a Prince of Wales history lesson to the guests. It was an informative presentation, which included the requisite ghost tale. It seems a young female hotel gift-shop worker had committed suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony, after the handsome hotel manager had rebuffed her declarations of love. Her ghost reportedly haunts the 1920s-era hotel, along with several other souls who have died at the site. While I didn’t notice any ghosts, the gusty wind rattling my window was a bit spooky!
Still, I got a good night’s sleep and headed out the next morning for some hiking. A bellman had suggested the Bear’s Hump Trail – a relatively short hike near the hotel. When I checked in with the ranger at the visitors’ center that morning, she cautioned that the trail was steep. “I hike a lot, but I always hate doing Bear’s Hump,” she told me, adding, “Until I get to the top, and then I remember why I do it.”
I had a similar experience. The hike up is just less then a mile, but it climbs aggressively for the entire distance, ending with steep stairs at the end. But the payoff is awesome – a rocky top that offers views in all directions, including down to the Prince of Wales.
After my quick hike back down, I headed into Waterton for lunch and a little more sight-seeing before traveling back across the border. A deer nonchalantly crossed the street in front of me at one point, and families riding four-wheel bikes pedaled through the streets. At the dock, I watched a picturesque boat loading up for an international cruise.
By this time, I was wishing I had planned for more than one night in Waterton. But after a stroll along the lakeshore, I knew it was time to head back to Montana, where I was meeting up with my son that night.
I know from experience that quick detours often whet your appetite for more. And Waterton Lake is certainly on my list for a return visit.
(Entering Canada at the Chief Mountain Port of Entry and returning to the U.S. requires a passport. I was stopped at both entry points, and questioned about alcohol, firearms, and citizenship. Reservations for the Prince of Wales are available through Glacier Park Inc. It’s a bit of a splurge, and I realized during my visit that it is just one of many accommodations available in the area).