What dreams are made of!

Is Waterton the best backcountry ski town in Alberta? Driving through the southern prairies, past endless lengths of barbed fence bordering windswept grass fields, it seems unlikely. A search of the FM dial, to add some interest to the monotonous drive and landscape, reveals the local stations like two kinds of music, Country and Western. With that, backcountry skiing seems even more unlikely. Add to this, extreme winds, cold temperatures, and the perception that Waterton is “closed for the winter”, it seems impossible that the small boarded-up town could be a destination for anything, never mind skiing or boarding. Perhaps this is exactly what makes Waterton the best backcountry town in Alberta.

Southern prairie sunsets not so synonymous with mountain adventures.

The truth is, if we could buy a lift ticket to ride a lift up to endless powder, all day, with no other people around but our friends, we would… we definitely, absolutely, no doubts, would! However, buying a lift ticket only seems to buy the right to race down a highway in nervous anticipation of getting to the lift early enough to fight hoards of amped egos in a mad dash to get a few soft turns. With growing popularity in backcountry skiing, trailheads around Kananaskis, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper can have a similar feel. An anxiety filled race up the skin track to get fresh lines. Showing up earlier and earlier to more obscure destinations for each outing, hoping to beat others to the goods. Herein lies the beauty of Waterton, there’s nobody there. Winter in Waterton delivers exactly the solitude and serenity expected, wished for, and sought after in the backcountry.

Iconic, nostalgic... Pat's Waterton

More truth. Waterton is a tiny National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Peace Park, Biosphere Reserve, and all this is packed into about 500 square kilometers. Banff is roughly 13 times larger but burdened by a population about 165 times greater and a City of one million people an hour away. With the Waterton lakefront and main street fully boarded up, deeply buried in snow drifts, and only about 50 year round residents, the town has a decidedly abandoned feel. But Waterton IS OPEN in winter. Somewhat unnoticed in the heart of Town, Waterton Lake Lodge Resort serves as a winter oasis with everything you can imagine; accommodations, pool, hot tub, sauna, restaurant, bar, and a selection of odds and ends you may have forgotten. Despite driving through prairies and country music to get to the park, it is ideally nestled against the British Columbia border and Glacier National Park in the U.S. Upon arrival, there is no doubt Waterton is everything a backcountry ski destination should be.

Real life snowglobe dreams

We rode three days of light, deep, untracked snow over the “busy” holiday break on "popular" lines like Forum Ridge, Rowe Bowl, and the SW Subpeak of Carthew. We never saw another skier or boarder on any of them.

Backcounty Shangri-La.

Sometimes, everything seems right in the world

It snows in Waterton

Some Details.. The Akamina Parkway (Cameron Lake Road) provides access to tree covered ridges and dramatic rocky peaks. For winter the road is closed at Little Prairie, roughly 3km before actually reaching Cameron Lake. Parks Canada’s snow study plot is beside the road here (Elev. 1650m) so you know the information couldn’t be more relevant. Sustainable Resource Development also collects data at Akamina Pass (Elev. 1761m) which is a good resource for viewing hourly snowfall data, temperatures, graphs, etc. to plan your trip to coincide with a big dump or to see how the snow pack compares to past years.

Smorgasbord of deep lines after the storm

As if almost intentional, and perfectly so, there’s limited information available on backcountry skiing in Waterton. Our first day out we arrived before the maintenance crews had, and so our front bumper plowed the way down the Akamina Parkway deeply covered in snow. It is an odd feeling to park a vehicle at the end of a snow covered road in an area you’ve never skied before, step out into a foot of powder, look up in all directions, and think… where now? No guidebook, no people, no tracks. Rather than provide beta and therein instantly deprive anyone of the experience and discovery, I suggest this... Don’t try to find out any more, turn your computer off, and plan a trip to this tiny National Park. Hopefully there is a fresh blanket of snow on the parkway to erase any marks left by those that have been there before you. And with that, there is a simple freedom, to go anywhere your skis or board take you.

Winter in Waterton... Backcountry Shangri-La

Leave a comment