Crypt Lake Hike is classic and challenging Waterton Triple Crown hike in Waterton Lakes National Park, and is one of the most unique and physically demanding hikes you’ll ever encounter. In 1981, it was rated as Canada’s “Best Hike”. Never failing to live up to its reputation, National Geographic rated this hike as one of the World’s 20 Most Thrilling Trails in 2014. This strenuous hike has something for everyone; boat rides, forest trails, mountain trails, cave, ravines, waterfalls, and many thrilling vertical cliffs. Snuggled between Vimy Ridge and Mount Boswell, Crypt Lake is a unique experience for adventurous hikers in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.
The hike starts leisurely with an early morning 20-minutes boat ride from the Waterton Village Marina to Crypt Landing on the opposite side of Upper Waterton Lake with more than 50 other hiking enthusiasts of varying ages.
While enjoying the view, the ride felt short as ‘Miss Waterton’ dropped us off at Crypt Landing on the east shore of Upper Waterton Lake, south of Waterton Village. After a short commentary on hiking time, specifically when to return to the drop off (at 5:50 pm), so you wouldn’t miss your ride and end up sleeping with the bears, ‘Miss Waterton’ returned to the Waterton Townsite Marina in Emerald Bay.
- The Crypt Lake Hike at Waterton Lakes National Park begins.
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The Crypt Lake Hike at Waterton Lakes National Park begins.
The hike to Crypt Lake is 8.7km one way with an elevation gain of 2,300ft to a maximum elevation of 6,500 ft. These values are approximate since each reference I checked varies from the next.
After we let the initial crowd move ahead so we can enjoy our hike leisurely with nature, we started our trek on good, flat trail along and above the shoreline of Upper Waterton Lake. After a good 20 minutes, the trail begins climbing on well-graded switchbacks over well kept, forest trail. The sun hasn’t risen over the horizon so we were able to slowly enjoy the clean fresh air and scent of the forest as we pass the left fork trail to Hellroaring Falls.
At this junction, you can choose to take the Hellroaring Falls trail as an alternative descent route -which I don’t recommend unless you got good knees and is very physically fit. The Crypt Lake Trail is good quality, well maintained and gains elevation on well-graded switchbacks. However, the Hellroaring Falls Trail, through the dramatic Hellroaring Creek Canyon, loses elevation initially, then continues to the upper elevation junction on very rugged, poorly maintained trail, without switchbacks to ease the upward climb. Although the Hellroaring Falls Trail is not a good option for the hike, you may consider it for the return hike –depending on your physical state towards the end of the moderately challenging Crypt Lake hike.
Picturesque views of Upper Waterton Lake unfolds as switchbacks climb, and occasionally leave the forest onto open ground. As the trail straightens and levels following the initial set of switchbacks, we took a welcome pause to enjoy the short detour to Twin Falls at the 3.5km mark of the hike to Crypt Lake. At this halfway point, the trail leaves the forest and becomes rockier, and infinitely steeper as the impressive Burnt Rock Falls appears. If this steep climb hasn’t taken your breath away, Burnt Rock Falls will -with its whitewater free-falling over autumn-coloured rocks. It is a stunning visual that will occupy all of your attention. We took a good 20 minutes here to eat, drink, and just enjoy the view and sound of the fall.
The steepness of the trail increases substantially for the next 2km on rocky and uneven surface but, it is all worth it, as the beauty of the mountains unfolds around your journey. In the distance, you can see Crypt Falls as it creates whitewater lace on a 500ft drop from the forested precipice between Vimy Ridge and Mount Boswell. Your breath will be taken away, as you set your sight on an emerald, alpine pond at the base of Crypt Falls which rests majestically below Mount Boswell.
Next, the adventure component of the hike begins with a short creek crossing, and then another short forested section which wraps around towards another rocky section. In this new section, you walk on a narrow ledge with a steep rocky wall on your left, and just 30 inches away to your right, a free fall to your death if you’re not careful. Shortly ahead, a metal ladder, firmly bolted to the rock wall appears, which will provide entry into the 20-meter long tunnel through the rock.
Sun lights can be seen at the other end of the tunnel. Although we trekked slowly and took our time to really enjoy this Crypt Lake hike alone with nature, we had to wait to use the ladder, as the group ahead of us decided to do a group photo shoot on the ladder, and in the cave. Twenty minutes later (yes, we actually waited. We’re Canadian!), we navigated the tunnel. The cave was rather tight, and a variety of movements were required to squeeze the body, the backpack and the camera gear through the narrow, irregularly shaped but relatively straight tunnel.
Journeying through the tunnel was a cake walk, a stroll in the park, however, the exit from the tunnel was an interesting experience. You start off by a short scramble to a rock ledge with a 656ft drop-off, and just as briefly, the momentum changes as you start scrambling up a slanted rock, to a cable anchored into the stone wall. Although I was focused, and luckily, it was not a windy day, I still got a bit of a rush due to the fatal exposure adjacent.
The final segment of the trail to Crypt Lake is a flat, good quality trail through a scenic forest full of beautiful greeneries and specks of wildflowers. Many rock formations are uniquely shaped and the hike continues up over ridges with interesting patterns.
Bushes with yellow flowers surround the rocky shorelines of Crypt Lake. Its crystal clear, emerald water simmers under the bright sun, and many hikers have chosen to enjoy the crystal clear, but cold water. As we take in more of our surroundings, we noticed at least 6 hikers have chosen to do the hike around the shoreline of Crypt Lake. It is an international walk because the mountains on the south are actually on the other side of the border in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. We, however, were content with just relaxing on large rock formation enjoying our lunch in beautiful surroundings, letting our feet and legs enjoy a well-earned rest in the cold, soothing water of Crypt Lake. Glacier National Park, Montana, USA is another challenge for another day.
The reverse hike was a different experience, but equally remarkable. The downward scramble with the cable assist is more exciting as the cliffs and drops enter our field of vision. The download scramble into the tunnel also raises the excitement meter by a few notch -obviously due to the vertical exposure. However, the adventure ends as we channel back through the tunnel.
The view from the rock ridge, of the expanse of Hellroaring Creek Valley, is equally awe-inspiring on the reverse hike, as we enjoy the full expanse. After passing Crypt Falls and the emerald lake at its base, Burnt Rock Falls and Twin Falls, the junction to Hellroaring Falls required our decision. We chose the Hellroaring Falls path we passed over initially, and after a rocky descent, we landed back on the main trail.
We arrived at Crypt Landing with just 5 minutes to spare prior to departure at 5:30 pm to return to Waterton Village.
The day was amazing, and although we deliberately attempted to avoid the crowd, and failed miserably, to be able to spend quality time with Jose, and Cookie in this amazing hike was an unforgettable experience. We completed this hike within 7-hours, however, it could be done more quickly albeit with shorter breaks and snack times. This hike has been a rugged, and physically demanding day, especially for Cookie, whom we had to carry back at the 1km junction just before the main trail (she almost made it!).
In retrospect, we could have finished the hike within 6-hours if we had lesser landscape photography sessions. As we went through our photographs, collectively, we had taken 310 photos. So, you can imagine how time-consuming and challenging it is to bring it down to these amount of photos.
I hope our experience and photograph ignite your adventurous soul and guide you if you choose to venture through the Crypt Lake Trail of Waterton National Park. If you had, please tell us your experience below. We would love to hear it! This is a trail that we will be enjoying many times to come.