WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK – In some ways, Waterton looks the way you would expect it to when you approach – mountains still covered in snow, grass starting to green up, businesses open in the townsite.
But take a closer look at the mountainsides west of the entrance road, and you’ll see scorched trees poking up through the snow. Familiar turnoffs remain barricaded, and the stone remnants of the old visitor centre are still standing behind a temporary fence.
The Kenow Fire burned 38 per cent of the park in 2017, according to Parks Canada, totalling 20,000 ha. More than 30 park assets were destroyed or significantly impacted. But the park still expects to have a busy season.
VIDEO: After last year's wildfire, Waterton prepares for visitors in 2018
After an evaluation, Parks Canada says the townsite, facilities along the entrance road, Chief Mountain Highway, and Upper, Middle, and Lower Waterton Lakes have been made available for use.
“Waterton’s a great place for people to come visit in the summertime, and we do have lots of areas open in the park still,” John Stoesser of Parks Canada said in an interview Wednesday, May 2. “There’s some hikes on the east side of the park. The Wishbone Trail’s very nice. The Bellevue Trail’s also a nice prairie hike as well, just off the Red Rock. There’s pullouts all along the entrance road. And the townsite’s a gorgeous place to be in the summer.
“In addition to that, there’s special events that will be happening, interpretation programs, volunteer activities. So, we certainly encourage people to come and get involved.”
The Akamina Parkway will be closed for all of 2018. A portion of Red Rock Parkway is accessible for non-motorized use but is closed completely from Bellevue Trail to Red Rock Canyon. The canyon, Cameron Lake, Crandell Mountain Campground, and other popular areas will also remain closed.
LINK: What's open for 2018
“We’re working as hard as we can to open up areas. So, if anything does open up in the park, other trails, things like that, we’ll communicate that right away,” Stoesser added. The golf course is expected to open this year, and Parks Canada is working with Alpine Stables to eventually provide horse riding from a temporary facility.
Two campgrounds will be open: the townsite and Belly River locations.
The park has been providing visitor services out of its operations building, but a temporary visitor centre is being established at the Lions Hall on Fountain Avenue in the townsite. The site of the former visitor centre will be returned to a natural state.
Parks Canada says all open areas have been evaluated and deemed safe to visit. However, people are urged to be aware of potential safety issues that linger following the fire, such as air and water quality, displaced wildlife, rock fall and slope stability, and hazard trees. Parks Canada said the risks of falling trees have been mitigated along any trails that are open
“Everyone’s working really hard here. A lot of the staff are heavily involved in Waterton, so everyone’s trying as hard as they can to do what it takes to rebuild and keep the park in ship-shape condition,” Stoesser said. But there’s no indication yet on how much it will cost to rehabilitate the park, or timelines. Parks Canada expects the reconstruction to be “unprecedented and complex.”
Visitors to Waterton will be charged the regular admission fee. Stoesser said the money that fee brings in is important to the park’s ongoing operation.
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