Hiking Crypt Lake Trail in Waterton National Park

Quite a while ago, my husband was browsing through my hiking trail book and found the description for Crypt Lake Trail. He said I’d like it: “You take a boat across the lake, then climb up into a valley, and then crawl through a tunnel and have to use a cable to get along a narrow ledge before you get to the lake.”

Crypt Lake Trail sounded adventuresome and challenging—my type of fun. However, it wasn’t in one of the parks close to us, so it wasn’t going to happen very soon.

This August, we found ourselves in the southern part of the province with our camping gear and a bit of spare time. My husband calculated how far it would be if we toured through Banff and Jasper, and how far it would be if we headed south to Waterton.

The latter plan won, as neither of us had been there. The next day, our car was pointed south. We drove through flatlands worthy of Saskatchewan that turned into rolling foothills worthy of the ranches they hosted that suddenly reared up into the mountains of Waterton.

Hiking the Crypt Lake Trail

The next morning we were up early, broke camp, and headed into the park to ask about hiking the Crypt Lake Trail. We got to the visitor’s centre at 9:45 and noticed the sign saying the last boat headed across the lake to the trail head at 10:00. I asked the warden where the dock was, and we scrambled to get there before the boat left.

The boat was full of other hikers, ranging from a 60-year-old father to several five- or six-year-old kids. Our boat pilot and guide talked to us about filtering the water, “ringing the doorbell” by shouting so the animals knew we were coming, and what time the boat picked us up after our hike to Crypt Lake.

At the trail head, Sunshine decided she needed a snack, so the rest of the bunch got ahead of us. Then she fell asleep in the baby carrier and missed the first half-hour of switchbacks.

The trail wound upwards through trees, giving us some shade from the hot sun and occasional glimpses of Waterton Lake. We could also hear the river somewhere down to our right, and at one viewpoint stopped to admire a waterfall.

Waterfall photo by daveynin on fllickr

A couple hours later, the trail left the trees and began climbing up a rockslide. At the end of the valley, one of the tallest waterfalls I’ve ever seen came tumbling over a ridge. Just to the left of the waterfall, I could see a narrow line on the side of the mountain—our trail. My husband groaned. “Don’t tell me that,” he said, for that meant we had a lot of climbing to do.

Slow but steady we made that climb. Every corner had us wondering how much further up we had to go. I kept searching the mountainside for some sign of the tunnel we were expecting. Then a group of hikers (from the first boat across the lake) passed us, and paused long enough to point out a place on the rock wall ahead of us where we could just see a few people, looking like red and white ants, inching their way along. I began to question whether Crypt Lake Trail was the best place to hike with a baby.

Sunshine was still happily riding in the baby carrier, fussing when she was hungry and falling asleep when she was tired, and garnering smiles and comments from the hikers passing us. Many were amazed that we had a five-month-old baby with us, commenting, “You’re brave!” Others said, “Wow, she’s probably the youngest hiker to do this trail!” or “You’re starting her young!”

Tunnels and Ladders

When we passed a forestry trail crew, we asked them about the best way to get through the tunnel and across the cable: should we have the baby carrier in front or in back? They advised us that the tunnel was very low, so we’d want Sunshine in front.

A stream just before the final section of the trail allowed us to take a refreshing break and fortify ourselves for what was to come. We’d been warned about the tunnel and the cable; what we hadn’t been warned about was the ledge crossing the rockslide before the tunnel.

Crypt Lake Tunnel photo by daveynin on fllickr

The rock shelf was about as wide as my brother’s two big feet. To our left, the rocks rose up into the sheer cliff of the mountain. To our right, they tumbled down to the valley, far below. I kept my eyes on the trail, my right hand on Sunshine, and my left reaching out towards the rocks. Then we had to stop, and wait for those going back to pass us, before we crossed the last, narrowest section of ledge.

At the end of the ledge, we climbed a narrow metal ladder, took a huge step from there into the tunnel, and stopped. Sunshine had been fussing and squirming all the way along the ledge, and I knew she was hungry. I had hoped she’d wait until we got to the lake, where we could take a break before starting back, but she disagreed with that idea.

Since I needed her to be still for this part of the Crypt Lake Trail, I sat down and fed her. We had just enough space in the entrance of the tunnel to do so. My husband commented, “This is probably the strangest place you’ll ever feed her.”

While she ate, several other families caught up to us. Two boys ran along the ledge ahead of their father. I wanted to scream, “Walk, don’t run!” They made it safely across, scrambled up the ladder, and disappeared into the tunnel. I hoped they would exercise more caution on the upcoming cable.

With Sunshine done her snack, we ventured into the tunnel. It was dark and cool and short. I had to bend double, holding Sunshine with one hand and using the other to help support myself. My husband had our daypack on his back, and had more problems, finally resorting to crawling through the tunnel.

Crypt Lake Tunnel photo by daveynin on fllickr

On the other side, bright sun greeted us. I crawled down a ledge and looked at the cable, disappearing around the mountain. The ledge here was wider than the one before the tunnel, yet where did that cable lead to?

The father and his boys were stopped at the end of the tunnel, admiring the view before turning back. Another family, with three teenage daughters, came around the cable and assured us that the lake was just another ten minutes.

And so, heart in my throat, I reached out for the cable and started along it. Sunshine reached out too, her small hand barely able to close around the thick cable. Then we got around the corner, to see the cable go up and over the rocks, and decided that was enough. Perhaps on our own we would have done this final section of the Crypt Lake Trail, but not with a baby.

Turning Back

So we turned back, clambered back into the tunnel, crawled our way through, and had to face the ladder. My husband went down first, while my hands got clammier and my heart rate sped up. Rocks I am okay with; ladders I am not. Especially ladders that require you to stretch about two feet to reach the top.

While Sunshine smiled at our spectators, and my husband guided me from below, I grit my teeth and inched along the rocks, probing for footholds and trying to reach that ladder that was just further than I wanted to lean. Rocks seem more sturdy to me than a small metal ladder, but the ladder offered a better handhold.

Crypt Lake trail ladder photo by daveynin on fllickr

Inch my inch, I slid my weight forward, and finally grabbed one side of the ladder, put my foot on it, and got the other side. Then I stepped down, grateful to be on solid rock again at the bottom, and we once more traversed that narrow rock ledge.

At the stream, we took a long break, eating our lunch, drinking lots of water, and letting Sunshine play on a rock. Then we changed her poopy diaper and headed back down the trail, now watching the time to make sure that we caught the boat at the bottom. We managed to get there with enough time to peel off our socks and shoes and cool our hot feet in the icy water of Waterton Lakes before the boat arrived.

Perhaps someday, when Sunshine is old enough, we’ll go back again and find out where that cable goes and what the much-praised Crypt Lake is really like.

Crypt Lake photo by daveynin on fllickr

Unfortunately, in the rush of moving, I forgot my camera. Photos ©daveynin on flickr; click on photo to view source and the rest of his amazing pictures from the Crypt Lake Trail.

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One Response

  1. violet September 2, 2008

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