Friday, February 10, 2017

Crypt Lake

Crypt Lake
11 miles round trip, 2300 feet elevation gain; or 13 miles including lake loop and Hellroaring Falls
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; rock-scrambling, ladder, narrow rock tunnel, narrow rock ledges en route to lake
Access: Trailhead access by boat on Waterton Shoreline Cruises from Waterton Village; $24/person in 2016, Waterton Lakes National Park entrance fee required

Crypt Lake, in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park, has been listed as being among the most thrilling hikes in the world by National Geographic and was declared the best hike in Canada in the 1980s. While I'm not sure it lives up to the level of hype surrounding it, the hike to Crypt Lake is indeed both beautiful and out-of-the-ordinary, with more than its fair share of hiking oddities. The hike to a pristine alpine lake on the US-Canada border visits numerous waterfalls and requires a boat ride across a lake, traversing a cliff ledge, climbing ladders, and crawling through a narrow tunnel. While these bells and whistles provide a decent amount of thrills, most adventurous hikers will find the obstacles along the trail more than manageable. Hikers who are unwilling to continue through the cliff traverse and tunnel will still be able to enjoy the 600-foot tall Crypt Falls, the scenic highlight of the hike.

I hiked to Crypt Lake as part of my trip out to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. I drove to Waterton via the Chief Mountain Highway from the St. Mary's area, though I'd like to make a plug for taking US 89 and Alberta Highway 2 up to Cardston: this route is easier to drive and the border crossing is open longer hours than the border crossing at Chief Mountain. Additionally, I found this to be the more scenic route, with views of the Rocky Mountains rising above rolling fields. In any case, both the Chief Mountain Highway and Alberta Highway 2 intersect with Alberta Highway 5 after crossing the border; in both cases, turn left at those junctions to continue heading west towards Waterton Lakes National Park. Follow signs for Waterton Townsite from there. Waterton Lakes charges a per-person entrance fee.

Chief Mountain and the Rocky Mountain Front from fields near Cardston
Birds take flight over Lower Waterton Lake
Following the road down into Waterton Townsite, I turned left at Mountain View Road and followed it to its end at Waterton Ave, where I turned left and parked at the marina. I bought a round trip ticket for the boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake with the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company, choosing to cross the lake on the earliest boat and return on the late boat back. There are just three boats across the lake during the summer, all leaving during the morning, so you'll have to budget a full day for this hike.

The boat ride was a short 15 minutes, providing nice views of the Prince of Wales Hotel and the rocky peaks around the lake. Everyone aboard disembarked at Crypt Landing to start the hike up to Crypt Lake. A few words about crowds along this hike: since boatloads of hikers begin the hike at the same time, you'll probably want to start immediately if you're a fast hiker to outpace the main pack of hikers, or stick behind the main pack if you prefer a leisurely pace. Otherwise, you'll end up squeezed into a group of 20 other hikes until you reach Burnt Rock Falls, most of the way through the hike.

The trail headed south from Crypt Landing, very briefly following the lakeshore before turning inland and beginning a climb. I quickly came to the junction for the trail towards Hellroaring Falls; I decided to head to the lake first and leave the falls for my return trip, if time permitted. The trail climbed gently through the forest, soon reaching a set of broad switchbacks with occasional views of Upper Waterton Lake.

View over Waterton Lake
Soon afterwards, the trail levelled out for a bit and the Hellroaring Falls trail rejoined the main trail, about a mile from the trailhead. The trail continued along the bottom of the south slope of Vimy Peak, with frequent views of Mount Boswell across the valley. A short spur at about two miles from the trailhead led to an obscured view of Twin Falls.

Past Twin Falls, the trail followed a forested valley floor, with little elevation gain. I spotted many flowers in the first few miles along the trail, including beargrass blooming in the forest and paintbrush and yellow columbine blooming in more open areas.

Trailside columbine
At the end of the extended flat valley, the trail abruptly began climbing again, soon exiting the forest into a colorful, rocky landscape. Here, about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, I came upon Burnt Rock Falls, a respectable plunge with a backdrop of intimidating peaks.

Burnt Rock Falls
While the hike prior to Burnt Rock Falls had been pleasant, it had also been mostly unremarkable. The last two miles of the approach to Crypt Lake, on the other hand, provided a level of scenery as elevated as the surrounding mountains, becoming more spectacular with every uphill step.

The trail climbed aggressively at Burnt Rock Falls, ascending via switchbacks to bypass the cliffs surrounding the falls. Above Burnt Rock Falls, I followed the trail into a meadow and caught my first glimpse of Crypt Falls.

Crypt Falls was the undeniable scenic highlight of the hike: the 600-foot tall horsetail falls tumbled down a striated cliff from a forested hanging valley; from certain angles, the waters of the falls almost appeared to emanate from the sky itself. As the trail began ascending along the east slope of the valley via switchbacks, views of the falls progressively improved and I caught glimpses of a small lake nestled at the foot of giant rocky mountains in the bottom of the valley.

Crypt Falls tumbles down from Crypt Lake
This ascent through open meadows provided clear views in all directions, including back down the valley through which I had ascended. A profusion of blooming beargrass up and down the mountainside enhanced an already extraordinary landscape. It was difficult not to just linger in this alpine garden, but Crypt Lake called.

Hiking up meadows full of beargrass
Four and a half miles from the trailhead, the trail briefly reentered the forest, passing a former campground and then crossing a creek. Here, the forest and the meadows ended: a wall of rock lay ahead.

Crypt Lake occupies a unique position in a hanging valley that is fully separated by steep cliffs from the valley below. Thus, the only option for reaching the lake requires crossing the cliffs to reach the edge of the hanging valley. Here, the trail was at its hair-raising finest, with a path through a talus slope gradually narrowing into a walk along a cliff ledge about two feet wide. Ahead, I could see a dark hole cut into the cliff, where the trail would follow a natural tunnel through the side of the mountain.

Tunnel on the trail to Crypt Lake
There were no handrails or chains here, but the ledge was fairly stable and thus was reasonably safe to hike along. I soon found myself at the foot of a ladder near the tunnel. Accessing the tunnel required climbing up a 15-foot tall ladder. The tunnel was wide at its mouth but quite narrow deep inside; some hikers may find that they need to crawl through the tunnel. Flashlights could come in handy but are not necessary, as the tunnel is ultimately pretty short.

At the far end of the tunnel, I came upon a framed view of Crypt Falls tumbling down from its hanging valley in a landscape of austere rock.

View of Crypt Falls from the tunnel
The far side of the tunnel required a short scrambling descent brought me back down to the cliff ledges. The next hundred meters or so required a cliffside ascent, this time with cables for protection. This was the very final stretch of cliffs: at the end of this stretch of cables, the trail widened out and reached the flat floor of Crypt Lake's hanging valley.

Cable section on final ascent to Crypt Lake
After crossing a small hill of white rock, I finally arrived at the shores of Crypt Lake. Massive mountains of sedimentary rock towered overhead to the south and I could see that the far shore of the lake still had some snow cover.

Crypt Lake
As the time wasn't too late yet, I chose to hike the loop around the lake. Following the trail along the lakeshore helped me escape the company of other hikers who had arrived on the same boat.

Crypt Lake
Following the loop to the southern end of the lake, I found a field full of wildflowers and snowbanks left over from the previous winter. The very southern tip of the lake touches the US-Canada border; hiking the loop around the lake briefly brought me back into the United States. Here, the border crossing has no checkpoint: the 2000 foot vertical rock walls marking the head of the valley are virtually impassable.

Wildflowers coat the meadow at the southern end of Crypt Lake
On the west side of the lake, I found leftover snowbanks calving icebergs into Crypt Lake; by waiting patiently at one snowbank for nearly 20 minutes, I was able to observe a car sized chunk of ice slough off into the lake.

Iceberg in Crypt Lake
After a long break at the lake, I started to head back to ensure that I'd be in time to catch the last boat back to Waterton Townsite at 5:30. I made good time and found myself back at the junction with Hellroaring Falls about 75 minutes before the scheduled boat departure time, so I chose to return via the Hellroaring Falls Trail.

View along Hellroaring Falls Trail
The Hellroaring Falls Trail received notably less traffic than the main Crypt Lake Trail: the path was narrow and at times a little hard to follow. The trail cut a very steep descent at times on its way downhill, but started out staying well above the deep canyon cut by the stream below. At times, there were good views to mountains across Upper Waterton Lake but only glimpses of Waterton Lake itself.

Continued steep descent finally brought the trail down to Hellroaring Falls, a series of falls flowing down angled rock, separated by turqouise pools. There were no safe spots to observe the entirety of the main drop of Hellroaring Falls. The top of the falls also provided an open spot with a nice view of Upper Waterton Lake.

Hellroaring Falls
Past Hellroaring Falls, the trail continued to descend until it reached a bench above Waterton Lake; from here, it turned north, climbing to the best view of Waterton Lake of the hike before reentering the forest and rejoining the Crypt Lake Trail just uphill from the trailhead, about 1.5 miles from the Hellroaring Falls turnoff.

View above Upper Waterton Lake
With some time to spare before the boat came, I hopped into Waterton Lake for a short swim. The lake was cold and refreshing after a long hike. I took the 5:30 boat back across to Waterton Village and then stopped by a unique vantage point of Middle and Upper Waterton Lakes and the Prince of Wales Hotel on my way out of the park- I took the photo below along an administrative road just north of the Prince of Wales Hotel.

Prince of Wales Hotel and Waterton Lakes
It's extremely important to catch that last boat of the day, as you'll have to hike an additional ten miles or so to get out if you miss it. The boat leaves on time and doesn't wait, so make sure you arrive back at Crypt Landing with some time to spare.

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