An opinionated guide to the Crypt Lake hike in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. This guide is brought to you by Canadian Rockies hiking experts Kathy and Craig Copeland at hikingcamping.com.
Round trip: 17.4 km (10.8 mi)
Elevation gain: 690 m (2263 ft)
- Trailhead 1280 m (4200 ft)
- Crypt Lake 1970 m (6462 ft)
- Hiking time: 5.5 to 7 hours
Map: Gem Trek Waterton Lakes National Park
If you learn about Crypt Lake after you’ve left Waterton Park, you’ll be on your knees, eating dirt, shaking your fists at the heavens, crying “Why? Why did I miss it?”
Justifiably famous, this protean journey begins with a boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake. You’ll then hike up Hell Roaring Valley on a roller-coaster trail, pass four waterfalls, enjoy constant views much of the way, crouch through a dark tunnel, and cling to a safety cable as you round an airy mountainside.
Ultimately you’ll behold Crypt Lake in its looming cirque. The walls surrounding the emerald water soar a neck-craning 600 m (1970 ft) above the shore.
A crowd often snakes along the entire route, creating a carnival atmosphere, but that’s easy to overlook when you’re witnessing such grandeur. Hoping for serenity, come after mid-September.
It’s possible to hike here by late June, but you should expect to cross snowfields. Sturdy boots (for kicking footholds) and trekking poles are essential then. If you doubt your ability to negotiate steep snow, wait until mid-July. The Crypt Lake trip is exciting enough without an impromptu luge run.
Drive to Waterton townsite. Park in the large paved lot by the tour-boat landing.
The shuttle boat crossing Waterton Lake (between the marina at Waterton townsite and the Crypt Lake trailhead at Crypt Landing) operates from late May through early October. It takes about 15 minutes each way.
In midsummer (late June through August), you can depart Waterton Marina at either 9 or 10 a.m. and return from Crypt Landing at either 4 or 5:30 p.m. The rest of the season, the boat departs Waterton Marina at only 10 a.m. and returns from Crypt Landing at only 5:30 p.m. Prior to May 28 and after September 20, however, it returns at only 4:15 p.m.
Before planning your trip, check the current schedule and price with the Waterton Inter-Nation Shoreline Cruise Company: watertoncruise.com, <email@example.com>, (403) 859-2362.
From Crypt Landing, at 1280 m (4200 ft), the trail climbs southeast via moderately graded switchbacks, through Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and spruce. At 0.4 km (0.25 mi), a spur trail forks right, passing Hell Roaring Falls in 1 km (0.6 mi), rejoining the main trail in 1.8 km (1.1 mi). Staying on the main trail, bear left at 3 km (1.9 mi) where the spur trail merges. Gain 244 m (800 ft) before twice crossing a tributary of Hell Roaring Creek. A few minutes later, a long cascade is visible in the rocky gorge.
At 3.7 km (2.3 mi), reach Twin Falls with its huge pool. The trail continues undulating southeast through forest. Cliffs are visible periodically on the right. At 5.6 km (3.5 mi), 1600 m (5250 ft), reach Burnt Rock Falls, which drops 15 m (50 ft). Soon after, you’ll see stupendous Crypt Falls. The ascent now tilts skyward, across open slopes allowing views of cliffs and cascades.
After crossing a stream and a talus slope, the trail leads to a ladder. Climb it, then crouch and waddle through a 20-meter tunnel. It was blasted through the shoulder of the mountain to ease access to the lake. Exiting the tunnel, the trail diminishes to an airy route strung with a safety cable. Ascend another ten minutes through whitebark pine to attain the lip of Crypt Lake cirque, at 8.7 km (5.4 mi), 1970 m (6462 ft).
Descend 20 m/yd to the lakeshore. Or stay high and proceed right (west) through open forest for another ten minutes, to a viewpoint where you might have less company. Another option is to hike along the east shore to the Canada-US border at the far (south) end of the lake.
If you’re strong, hiking to Crypt Lake is a 3-hour task; allow 2.5 hours for the descent to Crypt Landing. Average hikers take 3.5 to 4 hours up, 3 hours down.
Kathy and Craig Copeland are the opinionated hikers. They write unique guidebooks—bold, intelligent, entertaining and of course accurate—that ensure you make the most of your precious time outdoors. Their titles include “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, The Opinionated Hiking Guide,” and “Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, The Premier Trails in Kananaskis Country, near Canmore and Calgary.” Visit hikingcamping.com to see or purchase any of the Copelands’ books.