The Crypt Lake Trail in Waterton National Park has been named one of the most thrilling hikes in the world and one of the best trails in Canada. Hikers reach the trailhead via boat from the Waterton Township for a full day on the trail. The Crypt Lake Hike climbs 900 meters over 10 kilometers making its way through the Canadian Rockies.
The path requires hikers to cling to cliffsides, climb an exposed ladder, and squeeze through a natural tunnel. Along the way, there are is no shortage of views with lakes, waterfalls, and towering mountains overhead. In the end, hikers are rewarded with a turquoise blue lake perfect for a chilly dip on a hot day.
Crypt Lake Hike Guide
Crypt Lake Trail Key Stats
- Length: 20 km
- Duration: 4 – 8 hrs
- Elevation Gain: 900 meters
- Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
- Best Time To Go: July to September
- Parking: Waterton Marnia
- Return Boat Ticket Cost: $28
GPX File For The Crypt Lake Trail
Crypt Lake Hike Route Description
To start the Crypt Lake Trail, you’ll need to head to the Shoreline Cruise company’s booth at the Waterton Marina. The ticket booth opens at 8:00, and the first boat departs at 9:00 or 8:30 on the weekends. It is common to find lines at the booth, so leave plenty of time for the ticket purchase.
They’ll run several ferries until all hikers have reached the shoreline, to a certain point at least. The boat ride to the Crypt Landing on the east side of the lake affords plenty of time to enjoy the views of the lake and the historic Prince of Wales Hotel.
If you’re a fast hiker, prefer solitude on the trail, make sure to get on the back of the ferry, and to catch the first one. The path is narrow, and you’ll spend most of your day trapped behind slower hikers or repeating the phrase “excuse me.”
From the Crypt Landing, you’ll find the trailhead, and the journey begins straight uphill. A series of switchbacks through the forest leads uphill for the first 2km and 200 meters of elevation gain.
It’s an easy grade that can feel laborious if not a little boring at times. Along the way, hikers can catch some glimpses of Waterton Lake down below before heading deep into the valley. This section of the trail is known for its long line of hikers as everyone falls into their own pace and separates.
After the first section of elevation gain, the trail levels off and stays flat for the next 3 km. As it moves deeper into the valley, the forest begins to open up, and hikers get amazing views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls down below. At around the 5km mark, the journey up to the Crypt Lake begins with several switchbacks and winding terrain that continues deeper into the mountains.
This section of the trail can be incredibly warm with no sun protection, so make sure to have sun protection and be prepared for the workout.
This is the most physically demanding section of the Crypt Lake trail as it gains 400 meters over 2.5 km. In the end, the path levels off and arrives at the “hair raising” section of the trail. Here the trail crosses a small ledge around a meter wide that is situated over a cliff.
We expected a bit more but found it casual enough to stroll up the ladder without a second thought. The ladder is located in a small chimney that is semi-exposed and leads to the most unique feature of the trail — a narrow cave that cuts through the rock and is about 1.5 meters high at its smallest.
Upon exiting the narrow cave, hikers will find themselves on another narrow ledge that leads around the headwall to Crypt Lake. Nervous hikers should not worry as a fixed cable provides a reliable handhold as they move across the shelf.
We were able to walk along the ledge without need for the line, so if you’re nervous, just relax. It’s far less scary than it appears. However, the views are wild as the trail sits hundreds of meters from the canyon floor. It is understandable why the track intimidates many!
Once past the cave and ledges, it’s only a couple hundred meters left until the rewarding Crypt Lake. It’s the perfect spot to cool off and enjoy lunch.
There is a great rock around the right side of the lake for diving and jumping if you’re brave enough. If you make good time up to the lake you can chill out and enjoy the day. We were able to take a nap and sit for almost three hours, as we wanted to let the less experienced to navigate the nerve-wracking ledges.
The journey down the Crypt Lake trail follows the same route unless you plan to make the detour to Hell-Roaring Canyon. We did not find the detour worth our time, but everyone has a different opinion. When you leave the lake, plan for enough time to catch the last boat out at 5:30 p.m. Generally, a reasonable estimate for the return time is to shave thirty minutes off your approach, as it’s easier to walk downhill.
Tips For Crypt Lake Trail
- If you’re a fast hiker, make sure to get on the first boat. We had the intention of running a fair amount the trail but found ourselves on the last boat of the day. While we were able to arrive first to the lake, it involved us passing around 200 people. For what it’s worth, we still managed to make it to Crypt Lake in an hour and a half.
- Just like fast hikers, if you’re a little slower than average, try to hop on the first boat. That way, you’ll have more time to complete the trail.
- Relax and take your time on the ledges. It’s okay to feel nervous, but everyone is capable of making their way across.
- If you’re more confident about the challenging terrain, it’s best to time the crowds as it’s easy for bottlenecks to form on the ledges and cave.
- Skip Hell Roaring Canyon if it’s a hot day. The trail down to Hell Roaring Canyon is dusty and offers little shade as it drops into lower elevation. We found it hot and mostly overgrown compared to the main trail. Would have preferred sitting on the dock while we waited for the boat.
- There is no drinking water along the trail or on the boat. Come prepared with enough water for the day and/or bring a filter so you can refill at Crypt Lake.
- The trail is kid-friendly if they’re comfortable walking for a long distance uphill. We saw several families with kids from eight years and up on the trail. Of course, it all depends on the child. Parents should know best.
- Photographers will be disappointed by the light. The hike with the boat means you’re hiking in the middle of the day with a terrible light. We usually walk away with better photos from a day in the mountains.
Crypt Lake Hike Duration
The average time for the journey up to Crypt Lake is three hours plus or minus a half hour. We were able to complete the trail around Crypt Lake and back down to Hell-Roaring Canyon in around three hours — we ran many sections up and downhill. Most should plan for at least seven hours of hiking if they plan to add Hell Roaring Canyon.
This does not leave a lot of leeways as you are limited by the boat times. The first boats arrive around 9:00 a.m. and the last boat out is around 5:30 p.m. They were counting passenger numbers when we hiked the trail, but I’d hate to be the hiker who requires the company to call SARS.
Advice on Hikes in the Canadian Rockies
If this is your first time hiking in the Rockies take a conservative approach. Pick an adequate hike for your fitness, plan for plenty of time, pack water and food, and don’t be afraid to turn around. If you want to learn more about what to wear hiking we have a great post. We also have an excellent post on tips for new hikers.
For long hikes, set a turn around time at the departure. Any time we set out for an objective I determine a time at which we need to turn around in order to arrive at the parking lot or campsite by dark. I would recommend not hiking in the dark as it’s easy to get lost and it’s not fun in bear country.
On that note, always carry bear spray if you plan to hike in the park. We carry ours in the neighborhood and bears have been known to stroll through town and busy parking lots. Always practice wildlife awareness when you’re on a trail, and please give animals space.
In regards to times keep in mind your mountain fitness — different than the gym. The low end of the times in this post is a constant fast pace uphill with little to no breaks and a brisk pace downhill. Most hikers should plan for a middle of the road time with the estimated duration.
It’s also super important to know that there are limitations and to come prepared. These are very serious mountains and it easy to get in well over your head with life-threatening consequences.
Lastly, a GPS tracker could save your life – it’s one of those backpacking essentials I like to have on me just in case I need to hit SOS. Alltrails is our favorite app to have on a hike. It shows the correct trail way, elevation, and other hiker reviews. We paid the subscription fee so that we could download all the data we need to our phones. Best $2.50 (per month) ever spent!
What to Wear On a Hike?
The most basic principle of what to wear hiking is layering. Anyone that has spent time in wilderness or mountains can speak to the fact your temperature can fluctuate a lot on a hike. You can easily start off cool at the base of the mountain and get hot as soon as you begin moving.
What to Wear On a Hike in the Rockies?
- Down Jacket: A down jacket is an essential in the Rockies. They pack down and fit easily in a backpack. However, despite their lightweight nature, they can offer a lot of warmth which is needed on almost every mountain summit.
- Hiking Pants: Good hiking pants are important in the Rockies as there is a lot of loose scree and rocks that can tear others pants easily. Our favorite hiking pants are the Fjallraven Kebs (Mens and Womens)
- Hiking Leggings: Hiking leggings are great for women in the Rockies. They provide awesome mobility and these ones from Arcteryx aren’t see through and are heavy duty.
- Windbreaker/Rainjacket: An important item to have while hiking is a windbreaker jacket. They come in especially handy on mountain summits when the wind is aboslutely whipping. Arc’teryx Windbreakers are our preferred jackets
- Sunglasses: Proper eye protection is important. Our favorite sunglasses brand is Smith.
- Scrambling Gloves: I don’t go on a hike or scramble in the Rockies witout a pair of rugged clothes to protect my hands. My favorites are from Outdoor Research.
- Trail Runners: Honestly I complete most hikes in trail runners so I can run or jog parts of the trail when I want. My go to trail runners are made by Salomon.
- Hiking Boots: On multi day hikes when I am carrying a large load I turn to proper hiking boots. The Salomon Outline boots are fantastic.
- Wool Socks: Don’t cheap out on your hiking socks. A proper pair of wool socks can make the difference between wet and dry feet.
- Hiking Underwear: The difference between hiking in normal underwear and actual moisture wicking underwear meant for outdoor actitivites is extreme. Yes they are more expensive but they last forever. My favorites are from Patagonia.
- Performance Shirt: The Outdoor Research Echo Series are the best hiking shirts for men and women.
- Hiking Poles: Can save your knees, especially on the descent of some of these steep hikes. Black Diamond is my preferred brand.
- Lightweight Backpack: You’ll need an awesome backpack for carrying all your gear. My favorite hiking backpacks are made by Camelbak.