* All photos taken by lotzacurls unless otherwise stated *
* Day hike, out and back. Several signs, very distinct path. Children under 10 and dogs not recommended.
* Difficulty: Physically MODERATE, but rated technically DIFFICULT by official website
* Distance: Roughly 19 kms total (5-7 hrs total)
* Elevation gain: Roughly 750m
* Trailhead: Crypt Landing (ferry from Waterton Marina to Crypt Landing and back). Ferry ticket includes return trip - return ticket must absolutely be shown.
* Contact Waterton Shoreline Cruises (403.859.2362) for ferry schedules and fares
Crypt Lake sure was fun! It has been consistently rated as one of the world's most thrilling hikes by establishments such as Explore Magazine and (reportedly) National Geographic in 2014. It most likely won’t disappoint you.
You certainly aren’t in mountaineering terrain on this trail, but you’re definitely past simple hiking comforts here. If you have little to no experience with scrambles but are comfortable with heights and a bit of exposure, this is the adventurous hike for you!
On this trail, you’ll walk through forests on switchbacks, pass three waterfalls (with an option to see a fourth one on the way back), traverse a scree slope, climb up a ladder bolted into the rock, clamber your way through a tunnel, scramble up a rockface with the help of cables, and finally dip your feet in a beautiful turquoise alpine lake.
Crypt Lake is well-maintained by Parks Canada as one of its most popular hikes. There is a bit of signage throughout the hike and the trail is easy to follow. If you’re taking the ferry (most people do), your ticket includes your return trip but don’t lose it during your hike. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to walk a very long 15 kms around Upper Waterton Lake back to your car at the marina.
Make sure you purchase a Parks Canada Discovery Pass before coming out. Also, check the Government of Canada Trail Report for possible trail closures and warnings (you are in grizzly territory). Be prepared/equipped for a sudden shift in weather and bring your bear spray.
Lastly, as much as I find hiking poles to be helpful, I had to tuck them into my bag a few times throughout this hike. They will be cumbersome when climbing the ladder, shimmying through the tunnel and clambering up the scramble section. But don’t leave them at home, as they will provide extra traction on the steeper sections on this trail.
OK, let’s check out Crypt Lake!
The hike begins at Crypt Landing, once the ferry drops you off. We had our bear sprays with us but were not worried about an encounter. The boat was full and although the crowd dispersed on the trail, it made for a pretty bear-safe hike.
Start off with moderate climbs on switchbacks through the forest. Not long after the trailhead, a fork leads off to Hell Roaring Falls on the right. (It’s a very stiff and soul-sucking hike uphill, and you’ll have the option of descending this same trail on your way back down. Plus, you don’t want to run out of time today). Keep left to stay on the main trail.
You’ll see a sign indicating a short off-trail to Twin Falls at 3.3 kms. We thought of stopping there on the way back down, but it never happened (we did Hell Roaring Falls instead).
You’ll climb up a few switchbacks and see vast views of the valley around you. There’s an impressive lookout on Burnt Rock Falls at 5.6 kms. Strangely how beautiful water can be when it’s simply falling down.
The next 2 kms get a bit steeper as you continue onto rocky switchbacks and slopes. There are beautiful views of the valley surrounding you throughout this part of the climb. You’ll spot Crypt Falls plunging like a long ponytail, 175m into the ravine below; you’re getting close to the more adventurous bits now.
Just before leaving the forest, there will be a handy outhouse to your left and you’ll have to cross a very shallow stream; there are plenty of rocks to step on, but poles will be useful.
The trail’s most famous -and adventurous- attributes are all within 50m of one another. A quick and kind word of warning: they are «not well suited for the claustrophobic, agoraphobic or obese» (Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by B. Patton and B. Robinson). This is a very fair caution and not meant to be offensive to anyone.
The first feature is a narrow scree traverse across a mountain slope (below). It had kinda freaked me out when I saw it online; I have experience with heights but am still so uncomfortable with them. Yet the drop-off wasn’t anywhere near as sheer as it had seemed; the path was ever-so-slightly angled toward the mountain and I could lean into the rockwall while walking. Piece of cake.
Next up is a short climb up an 8-foot ladder bolted into the mountain wall. It’s anchored very solidly onto the rock, doesn’t wobble and there’s a chain at the top to help guide you off the ladder. Just place your feet carefully when stepping off the ladder and onto the rocks that lead inside the tunnel.
Now compare these two photos: It’s easy to play with angles and make things look freakier than they are. Photo 1 makes it look like Jason is climbing the ladder over a total void and the path to get there looks incredibly narrow, steep and far below him. Not the case.
Your next bit of fun involves squatting through a cramped tunnel. It’s amusing, if not a tiny bit panic-inducing for those who can’t stand cramped spaces. At 4-feet high, you’ll be crouching most of the way, but it’s wide enough for most people to pass. It’s an awkward but convivial 20m journey, and the light at the end of the tunnel (Tah dah!) will light most of your way.
Coming out of the tunnel, you’ll get a very airy view of the valley beyond and will have to step onto some narrow rocks down to the path below. Be careful here; a forward tumble would be very unpleasant indeed.
Just after the tunnel comes the rockface and cables; this section is only about 40 metres in length and fairly wide. This, for me, was the most nerve-wracking part of the hike. Focus on where you place your feet, hold on to the cable on your left and don’t look down the dropoff to your right - it’ll go by much faster than it looks.
After the rockface and cables, the land flattens out. You’re not far from Crypt Lake (10-15 minutes) and the adventurous sections are done; you can relax now. (Keep in mind that you’ll return the way you came, and the rockface will seem steeper and more exposed coming back. Make good use of those cables and you’ll be fine!)
Beautiful Crypt Lake sits within a glacier cirque, with rock walls towering a good 600m above it. Assess how much time you have until you need to catch one of the ferry trips back. It will be, at the very least, a 2-hour hike down to Crypt Landing, but 3 hours is more realistic. Give yourself extra time in case there’s some congestion further down at the cables/tunnel.
Savour your lunch, enjoy the views and indulge in some well-earned down time. Consider taking 30 minutes for what may be your first international stroll: the path around the lake crosses over into the state of Montana.
Once you’ve refuelled and are raring to go, simply take the same path you took to get back down. You’ll lose elevation rather quickly on your way back to the ferry, so it’ll be a much more relaxed experience.
Anyone with a fear of heights might shit their pants climbing down the rockface/cables, and these camera angles aren’t helping! I assure you that it’s all very doable.
This is the type of hike for which you’ll find mixed reviews. Some folks think it’s absolutely bonkers, others think it’s totally over-hyped. Some reviews call it fun but not exactly thrilling, others find it intimidating enough for a lifetime. Between my fear of heights and extensive hiking experience, Crypt Lake was both fun and manageable - a long and beautiful trek.
This is an absolutely unique hike, and a great one to check off your bucket list in beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.
See you on the trails!
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