#5 – Canadian Rockies Day Hikes: Crypt Lake Trail
- Location: Waterton Lake National Park
- Trailhead: Crypt Landing (via the Waterton Lake Ferry Boat)
- Type: Out-n-Back
- Rating: Strenuous
- Total Distance: 11 miles
- Trailhead Elevation: 4,232′
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,469′
- Recommended Time: Full-day
- Recommended Season: Early-June to Late-September
It’s About the Journey
Many Canadian Rockies adventures are all about the destination while an adventure on the Crypt Lake Trail is truly about the journey. Crypt Lake itself is beautiful but wouldn’t be on our top 10 of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies. The unique nature of this trail, however, does garnet it a spot as one of the best hikes in the world according to National Geographic. This entire trail is unique and beautiful with waterfalls, lakes, alpine meadows, cliffside traverses, and even a hand-carved tunnel passage. Oh, and the journey starts with a ferry boat ride.
The Ferry Boat
The adventure starts before arriving at the Crypt Lake Trailhead with a 15 minute ferry boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake. Reservations for the ferry should be acquired the day before the journey to ensure a seat on the boat. There is a trail around the lakeshore that allows the Crypt Lake Trail to be hiked without the Ferry Boat but the park’s service has closed down the backcountry campsites in this area of the park—making the then 30-mile journey nearly impossible.
The Crypt Lake Trail
Once at the trailhead on the eastern shore of the lake, hikers will be crowded onto a narrow trail that weaves through a thick forest. The downside of the ferry boat is that a literal boatload of hikers all pour onto the path at the same time. There is a boot cleaning station at this trailhead that is used to keep from transmitting invasive species into the area so please use it.
Hell Roaring Canyon
A short distance from the trailhead the trail splits. Both paths eventually lead up to Crater Lake but the path to the right first ventures through the Hell Roaring Canyon. The canyon is beautiful with Hell Roaring Falls crashing through a set of small turquoise pools. This short trail is highly recommended. Most people say to take this on during the return as it leaves you more time to make it up to the lake. However, if you are comfortable with the distance I say do this first as the trail on the far side of the canyon is almost twice as steep as the main trail making it a very hard descent. Either way, the Hell Roaring Canyon adds about half a mile to the total distance of the journey to Crypt Lake.
The Initial Climb
Back on the main Crypt Lake Trail, the path continues to climb through the trees at a moderately steep incline. It gains about 650′ in just over a mile. Nearing the top of this section there is a very nice overlook of the Upper Waterton Lake. The path then tapers off to nearly flat as it continues through the trees. It passes by the second intersection for the Hell Roaring Canyon Trail and then a small waterfall.
At just over 3.25 miles on the Crypt Lake Trail, hikers arrive at a thin but tall waterfall beautifully named the Swirling Mist Falls. This is a gorgeous sight and the beginning of the beauty that this trail really holds. From here the path returns to a stiff incline gaining about 1300′ in 2 miles. This section is increasingly beautiful as it first climbs over the Swirling Mist Falls. Then into an alpine meadow with the much bigger Crypt Falls plunging down into the valley and flowing into a small lake.
The path eventually climbs to an old backcountry campsite. The campsite has been closed but has an outhouse for those in need. This is the only place on the trail where toilets can be found. A short distance further and the path crosses over a small stream and onto a cliffside. The path traverses the rocky terrain and to a small wrought iron ladder that climbs into a man-made tunnel.
The Tunnel & Cliffs
The hand-carved tunnel is hard to maneuver through, especially with a backpack on, but it is a very cool experience. While a headlamp is recommended you never fully lose sight of daylight so they aren’t required. On the other side, hikers find themselves back on the cliffside overlooking Crypt Falls and the valley below. This is a gorgeous section but keep your eyes on your footing as it is very uneven and rocky. There is even a section where cables have been added for safety.
Once off the cliffs, it is a very short hike to the lakeshore. This area is however shrouded in shadow and snow lingers until July. Microspikes are nice to have especially in the early part of the season. Crypt Lake sits in a bowl perched on the Canadian side of the U.S./Canadian border. The lake has a lot of beauty and there is an unmaintained trail that circles the alpine lake if you have time. On the southside of the lake, the trail comes very close and may even cross over the international border. The lakeshore is an excellent spot to stop and enjoy lunch just don’t expect to have the area to yourself. The entire boatload of people will be there with you.
Hiking on a Timetable
The beauty of this journey is staggering but the ferry boat is a bit pricey and hikers are on a timetable in order to return to the departing ferry on time. I don’t like hiking on someone else’s timetable so the fact that we rated this Canadian Rockies day hike so high on our list speaks volumes to the beauty and the uniqueness of the Crypt Lake Trail. Don’t take our word for it, check out the National Geographic article.