The Crypt Lake hike is a well-known day trail in the often overlooked Waterton Lakes National Park, located in Alberta, Canada. It is a difficult 17km return trail that gradually climbs over 700 metres in elevation.
This trail is the most well-known of the Waterton hikes because it involves a bit of an obstacle course – you need to climb a steel ladder bolted into a rock face, climb through a small natural mountain tunnel and edge along a narrow cliff face to reach the lake. My kind of hike!
The Crypt Lake trail is constantly rated as one of the best hikes in Canada, and after completing it – I concur! If you only have time to do a couple of Alberta hikes, make the Crypt Lake trail one of them.
To start the trail, you first have to take a boat shuttle across to the other side of Upper Waterton Lake. It was a beautiful boat ride over and it saved us hours of hiking. Before the ferry service began, Crypt Lake was only accessible by undertaking a multi-day hike.
Hiking the Crypt Lake Trail
Beginning the Crypt Lake Hike
The first part of the Crypt Lake hike was through the forest and rose slowly into the mountains. We were shaded by trees and it was relatively easy-going.
Wild berries grew everywhere around the trail – salmon berries, raspberries and blueberries. It was a veritable feast. I helped myself as we were walking through the forest. Luckily, no bears saw me eating their favourite food.
There are a lot of bears in the area so we spoke loudly to each other to let them know we were coming throughout the hike. We didn’t see any bears but we did see lots of cute squirrels and chipmunks.
The second part of the Crypt Lake trail to reach the lake, we scaled numerous switchbacks exposed to the sun, over rocky and dusty terrain. This was definitely the toughest part of the day and felt quite dangerous at times, when we slipped on loose scree.
There were a few waterfalls on the way but the most spectacular was definitely the 600m high cascade of Crypt Falls. Crypt Falls drops out of Crypt Lake and feeds a smaller lake, far below.
The Falls were like an illusion. They never seemed to get any closer and it felt like we had been walking for ever.
Arriving at Crypt Lake
Finally we made it to the section of the trail leading across a cliff face and up to the lake. After climbing up the ladder bolted into the cliff and traversing the claustrophobic 100 foot long tunnel, we were nearly at our destination: Stunning Crypt Lake.
It certainly was a sight for sore eyes.
Crypt Lake is a glorious shade of blue. It is sheltered in a natural bowl-shaped depression amidst the mountains. The opposite side of the lake is located in the US and has a year round snow field.
We ate our picnic lunch and had a much deserved break. A cheeky chipmunk was hanging around to see if we could spare him some of our lunch. He gave up after a while.
I would have loved to swim in the lake and I definitely felt hot enough on the way up there, but by the time we had eaten our lunch we had cooled down a significant amount, so we contented ourselves with a knee-deep paddle in the frosty water instead.
Hiking the Return Leg of the Crypt Lake Trail
On the long trek back from Crypt Lake, we had to be even more careful with our footing on the loose rocks. It was a relief to get back into the forested part of the trail where it was more level. Luckily we managed to make it back down to Upper Waterton Lake in one piece.
By the time we arrived back at the ferry dock we were utterly spent, but in a “Woohoo that was awesome!’ kind of way. There was just enough time for a quick and chilling dip in the lake before the boat picked us up.
When I jumped in the cold took my breath away and I clambered to get out as fast as possible. It was massively refreshing though and I love the tingly feeling you get when you have been swimming in very cold water.
Summary of the Crypt Lake Trail
The Crypt Lake trail was hard going but hugely rewarding, with amazing views over the valley, lots of wildlife, delicious berries and many waterfalls, but the lake itself was definitely the star of the show.
The trail is definitely one of the best things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park, and is worth adding to any Rocky Mountain Road Trip Itinerary.
I highly recommend the Crypt Lake hike, just make sure you are in reasonably good shape when you undertake it – and take lots of water.
The Nitty Gritty
Getting to the Crypt Lake Trail
By far the easiest and less time-consuming way to reach the Crypt Lake trailhead at Crypt Landing is to take a boat shuttle with Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. The boat leaves the Waterton Marina in Waterton Lakes National Park and takes 15 minutes and the current cost (Feb 2019) is $26 CAD return for adults and $13 for children up to the age of 12.
The boat leaves at either 8.30am, 9.30am and 10am from June 30th – September 3rd, returning at 4.30pm or 5pm.
From May until June 30th, and September 3rd – October, there is only one boat a day leaving at 10am and returning at 5.3pm. If you want to hike in May or October, make sure to contact Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. to check which dates they are open.
You need to purchase tickets up to one hour before your boat departs, and it’s best to book the day before if possible to avoid missing out.
If you don’t want to catch the boat, you can hike to Crypt Landing by taking the Wishbone trail, but it is 14km/8.2 miles one way. If you have a mountain bike, you can bike it.
Length of the Crypt Lake Trail
17km (10.5 miles) return
Elevation Gain of the Crypt Lake Trail
700 metres (2,300 vertical feet)
Difficulty of the Crypt Lake Trail
Intermediate/Difficult. It isn’t a super difficult hike and despite the ladder and tunnel, there is nothing super scary or hard – unless you are claustrophobic. Getting up there is a constant uphill slog but if you are a strong hiker, it isn’t too bad.
Keep in mind that the trail is exposed for long periods, and the heat can get to you on a hot day.
Where to Stay in Waterton Lakes National Park
You have a couple of options of places to stay in the park, depending on your budget. There are two options for Waterton camping, which is your best bet if you are on a budget like we were.
Townsite Campground is the most popular option and has a toilet block and showers which can be booked online, and Belly River Campground is a cheaper more primitive option that is first come, first served. For prices and availability, check out the Parks Canada website.
For a very worthwhile splurge, consider staying at the historic and very regal Prince of Wales Hotel located in Waterton Village, in the park.
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