Carthew – Alderson Traverse

July 13, 2022

This is now my third year in a row visiting Waterton National Park, and I have to say – it just keeps getting better and better. I’m not sure why I stayed away for 20 years, but I’m glad I got over it.

My friend “Skipper” Deb wanted to hike Crypt Lake and asked if I’d take her. As I don’t love repeating routes, I said I’d go if we stayed overnight so I could hike something new. Being a good sport, Deb readily agreed. I learned about the Carthew-Alderson traverse from fellow Adventurer Katherine Mary and I was looking forward to the amazing colours and new terrain.

The thing I don’t love about traverses is the car shuttling. Not a problem here! We booked a shuttle from Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters that dropped us off at Cameron Lake. The hike ends at Cameron Falls, and from there it is a quick walk to just about anywhere in town.

We met so many nice people on this trail. The atmosphere is quite different from the hustle-bustle of Kananaskis or Banff. A lot more relaxed. We actually ran into a family three times – once this trail, that night at dinner, and then again the next day on the Crypt Lake trail.

Gear

Hiking boots, poles and regular day pack kit.

Overview

From Cameron Lake, hike up and around Buchanan Ridge on the Great Divide Trail. Hike through forests with various degrees of wild fire burn. Go up and over the red shale ridge. On the other side, pass the two big Carthew Lakes, and then descend to Alderson Lake. After this, it’s one long descent through the trees to Cameron Falls.

Check out the video.

Totals โ€“ Downloadable Tracks on Gaia, Displayed on Strava

Date: July 13, 2022
Group:  Two (Alisen and Deb)
Distance:  19.5  km
Elevation:  748 m (2,468โ€ฒ)
Time:  6 hours 45 minutes (includes lunch and breaks)

Hikers start at Cameron Lake and head east to Cameron Falls in the Waterton townsite. Backpackers doing the Great Divide Trail start in the town, and work their way west. All the fun stuff is between Summit Lake and Alderson Lake. It’s a bit of a long slog from the Alderson Lake back into town, so ensure you have a great conversationalist like Deb along for the trail.
The trail starts higher at Cameron Lake, so less elevation gain if going one way. Backpackers will have to endure the additional elevation gain, but as you are generally fresher and have more energy at the start, the extra few hundred meters won’t be noticed.

Parking and Trail Head

We took the 9:00 am Tamarack Shuttle from the Town of Waterton, and enjoyed a lovely guided tour up the Akamina Parkway. I learned all about the Bear Grass Flower, which was new for me. Our shuttle driver also had great intel on the route conditions from their hiking guides. There were still some patches of snow, and she gave advice on how to avoid or traverse them, which was handy. She also provided info on an additional outcrop that I took advantage of to get some amazing views. All in, I’d highly recommend the shuttle service.

The shuttle is a nice size with big windows to enjoy the view. The driver had great information for us like bear safety, bear grass, and best ways to deal with the lingering snow.

We were dropped off at the newly renovated Cameron Lake visitor centre, where there are a LOT of bathrooms. After checking out Cameron Lake, we stayed close to the shoreline trail to start our trek.

Cameron Lake. I had cycled here on the Akamina Parkway two years ago when the road was still closed for construction. The new visitor centre is open, and there are canoes and row boats available to rent.

Main Trail

The trail starts just behind the visitor centre, to the left of the boat rentals. There is a big sign to get you started, as well as a smaller distance sign.

The start of the trail.
Do not believe these distances. It’s a good 19 km to Cameron Falls at the townsite. A sign further along gives more accurate distances.

The trail starts out as a boardwalk, but turns into a regular trail as we gained elevation. The trail ascends the side of Buchanan Ridge in a series of wide sweeping switchbacks like only the national parks can make them. No straight up Kananaskis slog here.

We had gained quite a bit of elevation from Cameron Lake without much effort. While it is sad that the wild fires decimated a lot of the forests around Waterton, the unintended up side are the views it created. This is looking at Forum Peak, which holds the distinction of being in three different territories – Alberta on the east, British Columbia on the West, and Montana on the south side.
We were very lucky that the Bear Grass was in full bloom. What an interesting looking flower! Apparently, this is the furthest north and east it grows. I had never seen one before, and I thank the shuttle driver for mentioning them.

Once we gained some elevation, the trail circled around the base of Buchanan Ridge, and led to Summit Lake. Here we got a more accurate distance sign, a view into Montana, and our first peak at the famous red rock shale on the Carthew-Alderson ridge.

Deb on the trail as it curves towards Summit Lake.
Summit Lake. As you can see from the photos, the weather was pretty iffy. It had been raining all night, and there was a small thunderstorm to the east. Normally I’m all in for a mountain swim, but not today!
Newer and more accurate distance marker at Summit Lake. Note the 4 km back to Cameron Lake, and the 15 km to Waterton. That equals 19 km, which is what I recorded on my GPS.

From Summit Lake, we turned uphill and started gaining elevation. This is when we got our first look at our high point – the red rock ridge above. Despite it being mid-July, the snowpack was still lingering. For the most part it was no big deal, but there was one section of an old cornice on a rather steep descent that I had to maneuver around.

Deb taking a short break while I stomped around the snow. It doesn’t look like much here, but it’s an old cornice so was more or less straight down.

As I was hunting for a good way down, it started to rain. There was a thunderstorm to the east, and while I don’t advocate being anywhere near an electrical storm, I was keeping an eye on this storm. It would build, then dissipate, and never seemed to get past Cameron Lake. After discussing it with Deb, she came to the same conclusion that we were travelling away from the storm, and decided to keep going.

It was here that I met two types of hikers. Hiker A was a group that was coming back down from the ridge. They did not like the rain, and were heading back to Cameron Lake. The leader of their group felt that everyone on the mountain should share their decision and promptly turn around. Now! Instead of engaging in conversation as to why I was still going up, Hiker A dove straight into badgering me to turn around. I patiently stood there, watched, and waited for some kind of conversation other than “you’ll be damned if you keep going” to erupt. Nope. When they got tired of me not responding, they then accosted the two groups coming up after us.

Shortly after that delightful group, I met Hiker B, which was a grandparent and child under 10. They also decided to turn around. Instead of insisting everyone do what they were doing, they simply said “I’m not comfortable with this rain.” Fair enough. Hiking with someone else’s kid means taking things down a notch. I wished them well.

Shortly after, the rain stopped, and the electrical storm to the east died out completely – long before we got anywhere near the ridge. I got lucky. However if it was still raining and the electrical storm was indeed heading our way, I would have gladly turned around. Moral? If you’re worried about another hiker’s safety, engage in a conversation. Don’t badger or threaten.

But I digress… The hike to the ridge was a long sweeping walk across red shale. There was then a series of switchbacks to gain the actual ridge.

The burnt forest makes for an eerie passage as we started across the side of the ridge.
We are now across to the other side of the ridge, and working our way up the switchbacks. We would see the family of 4 behind us again at dinner that night, and then tomorrow on the Crypt Lake trail. The little girl was amazing – she followed me up to the ridgetop. The family of 6 behind them were great little hikers.
There are poles with orange markings all along this ridge. These help keep everyone on the trail, and are probably a lifesaver in bad weather. To the right is the trail to the outcrop.
Deb was not enjoying the heights, so I left her on the ridgetop where she was joined by the family of six. The dad of that group was also having a hard time with the heights, so they all sat together until I came back down. I hiked up to the outcrop, and this was my view. Stunning! That’s the Livingstone Range in Montana, not to be confused with our Livingstone Range in Alberta.

Distance to the ridge top was about 8 km, with an elevation gain of 754 m. Hiking time to ridge was about three hours at a relaxed pace.

After I hiked up to the outcrop, I picked up Deb and the family of six, and together we made our way off the ridge and down to the lakes below.

Hiking back along the ridge. We would descend on the far side of the rib on the right. As you can see, the sky to the east had cleared. No more storms.
Deb heading down off the ridge. She was not waiting for me to take photos. She wanted off that ridge NOW! Note the spike in front of Deb – even with the lingering snow, we could figure out the way down by following the posts.
THIS is the Carthew-Alderson Traverse ‘money shot’. Absolutely epic colour and scenery, with the Carthew Lakes below.

Once we left the ridge, we followed the switchbacks down to the first Carthew Lake. As there was a massive snow slope, I decided to slide down it. Once at the first lake, we hiked over to the left shore, and continued around to the end. There was a short drop and a cute waterfall that led to the second Carthew Lake.

Our trail was soon blocked by snow. I took the opportunity to save my knees and slide down the slope to the water’s edge.
Looking back towards the ridge. Still so much snow. The lower trail was completely snow covered.
Working our way down between the lakes.
We are just above the second Carthew Lake, with the third being a little pond.
Gorgeous little waterfall that feeds into the second lake below.
Enjoying lunch and a foot soak at the second Carthew Lake.

We had been hiking for about 10 km, and about 4 hours. Time to take a break. We all stopped on the shores of the second Carthew Lake and enjoyed a long lunch break. I took the opportunity to soak my feet in the cold water, which does wonders to relieve the swelling. We still had another 9 km to go, plus another 20 km tomorrow, so keeping my feet healthy was a priority.

After lunch, we hiked around the second Carthew Lake, and hiked up and over a rib coming off Mount Carthew. I felt this was the most challenging part of the trail. It was quite a steep descent, and the trail was narrow and rocky. We had epic views of Mount Carthew and Buchanon Peak. We could look down onto Alderson Lake, but decided to skip the lakeshore trek.

The shore of the second Carthew Lake is nicely built up. We are headed for the row of low trees ahead, to go up and over the rib.
Looking back at Carthew Lakes.
Going over the rib coming off Mount Carthew. The landscape changes from red rock shale to more typical limestone.
As the trail descends, we had a great view of Buchanan Peak. I’ll have to come back and take the high road next time.
The trail swings back towards Alderson Lake. This is a steep descent on a rocky trail.
Thanks to the lingering snowpack, we passed several waterfalls that were putting on an impressive show.
Alderson Lake is the largest of all the lakes. The trail cuts to the left before the lake, with an option to backtrack to the lake itself lower down.

Deb and I felt like we’d already had a good shoreline lake visit, so decided to push on and not visit Alderson Lake. From here, it was a long 6 km back to the town of Waterton in a thick forest with not much in the way of views. I was buoyed up a bit when I finally saw the Akamina Parkway below, but we were still a good km away from Cameron Falls.

This is the turn off to visit the shoreline of Alderson Lake. It’s only 200 m away, but with another 6 km ahead of us, we decided to push on instead.
We had 5 km of hiking with a gradual descent as we contoured around the backside of Bertha Peak. Despite the burnt forest, there were no views. This is when you need a good conversationalist on the trail. Thanks Deb ๐Ÿ™‚
When I finally saw the Akamina Parkway across the gorge, I was so happy! The Town of Waterton looks tantalizing close. We were still about 1 km away from Cameron Falls. It was here that the family of six motored on past us. Nothing like youth to keep you speedy.
I knew we were super close when we hit the tourist fencing. At the end, just above the falls, are some steep switchbacks to get below the falls. My knees did not enjoy that part.
Alisen and Deb at Cameron Falls. Awesome job Deb on your first long distance hike!

The Carthew – Alderson Traverse is a fun exploration of Waterton National Park. It has everything from sweeping red shale vistas, to crystal clear lakes, to towering limestone mountains, this hike has it all.

I was super proud of Deb for conquering her fear of heights. It wasn’t easy, but she didn’t give up! Way to go Skipper!

Deb and I spent the night in “Steve” at the Waterton Town Campsite. They have hot showers, flush toilets and lots of green space. As Waterton is so small, we could park the van and walk everywhere we needed to go. The next morning we were up early to catch a different kind of shuttle – the water shuttle across Waterton Lake to Crypt Lake.

My 1991 VW Vanagon is named Steve, as in “The Six Million Dollar Van” ๐Ÿ™‚ Vanagon owners will totally get this. While owning a campervan is a total freedom machine, it does take effort to keep it running.

Thanks for reading! Please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers, or follow me on Instagram

Alisen

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Posted in Adventures, Hiking
16 comments on “Carthew – Alderson Traverse
  1. John T says:

    Awesome recap as always Alisen, I wish you had video of your snow slide! ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Thanks again. Way to go Deb!

    • alisendopf says:

      Funny you should say that… Deb did video my slide, but unfortunately when I was making the video I wasn’t able to get it from her.

      The cute thing about that was, I was helping a family of 6 down off the ridge as the dad was scared of heights. All 4 kids had to ask me after the slide – do you have a wet bum? Yes, yes I did. Was it worth it? Oh yeah ๐Ÿ™‚

      • John T says:

        I had the wet bum experience at Maligne Canyon once, doing an ice slide on a winter hike.
        I had rain pants, but did I put them on? Of course not. I agree, it was worth it! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • alisendopf says:

        LOL! Rain pants – too much effort.

        Did you go to the bottom of the canyon in the winter? I hear it’s pretty spectacular down there.

      • John T says:

        I did, and it was spectacular. 4 of us + guide. I think it was tending towards Spring, so the river ice slide was a bit wet, but fun. I had at least 3 layers on, which is likely why I didn’t bother with the struggle to get into waterproof pants.
        ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. What a gorgeous trek. We haven’t been to Waterton in years either. Maybe we should:) I also hadn’t heard of Bear Grass. I wonder if it is elsewhere in Alberta or just Waterton. Maggie

    • alisendopf says:

      According to the tour guide, this is the furthest north that Bear Grass grows. I was chatting with someone in Colorado and they have a lot of it down there.

      I know! Waterton is pretty special. I might do a backpack there this summer as there are some good peaks to be had as well.

  3. Diana says:

    Wow! This is amazing! I love Waterton but Iโ€™ve never done this hike. Looks like itโ€™s time for a return visit.

    • alisendopf says:

      It’s pretty spectacular. The cute little girl who was following me up to the outcrop was from California. Now that the borders are open again, there are lots of Americans.

      However, I was looking across to your side of the park – that Livingstone Range is definitely calling my name. Might have to figure out how to get up there. I know it’s way busier on the US side and you need permits to explore. Makes the logistics that much more daunting.

  4. Hanna says:

    Marvelous hike!! I noticed your brilliant idea of sliding down the snow, sparing your knees ๐Ÿ˜Ž

    • alisendopf says:

      Absolutely! I do over 50 hikes/scrambles/summits in about six months time, so my knees take a beating. Anytime I can give them a break I do. I also absolutely LOVE snow ๐Ÿ™‚ If you know how to manage a slide, and pick your spots, it can be done safely. I actually walked way out into the middle to avoid the rock spur.

  5. We visited Waterton National Park in 2016, the year before the major forest fire swept through the area. We were only there for a day, which wasnโ€™t nearly enough time to fully explore the park. The Carthew-Alderson traverse looks like such a scenic hike. Iโ€™ve never seen Bear Grass before either, it looks so pretty. Itโ€™s a bit of a bummer that it rained, but at least you were hiking in the direction away from the storm. I would have ignored that bossy person too. They very well could have been right, but I donโ€™t like it when someone starts making demands and tells me what to do.

    • alisendopf says:

      The park is now starting to rejuvenate itself, and we are finding beauty in the destruction. The Fireweed (a very tall purple flower that grows in open areas, mainly fire breaks) is on display now. Our shuttle driver also mentioned the views being an upside to the fire. Unlike a flood that causes so much permanent damage, forests do come back. Thankfully.

      Ha ha! I see that we are very much alike. No, I didn’t like being told what to do. Now that I think about it, that kind of behaviour can be dangerous. If I was undecided, and she ‘pushed my buttons’ I might have made the opposite decision just because I was being pushed. I’ll have to keep that in mind…

      • Itโ€™s pretty incredible how nature heals itself after a forest fire and the wildflowers afterwards are stunning. Thatโ€™s a good point about how forests do come back and that fires are actually important to stimulate new growth and are part of the natural cycle.

  6. Gorgeous hike! The views from the high point you reached are great. As are the views from where you took the “money shot”. You almost make me want to book a flight and go to this area!

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