The Carthew-Alderson Trail is one of Waterton Lakes National Park’s Triple Crown. The world-class hike is listed in the ‘My Waterton National Park Visitor Guide‘ as an 8 hour, 20.1 KM (12.5 mile) one way trek with altitude gain of 650 m (2,132 ft) so, not a season opener. The hike is between the north end of Cameron Lake, at the end of the Akamina Parkway, and Cameron Falls in Waterton Village. Many people make a reservation with Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters, for a spot on the early morning shuttle bus, providing transportation to Cameron Lake at an elevation of 1,660 m (5,446 ft). Waterton Village is at an altitude of 1,280 m (4,200 ft).
There are 32 hikers and a dog on the shuttle this day. I will take some time to relax at incredibly beautiful Cameron Lake to avoid the crowd on the trail. The surface of the lake is steaming in the chill of morning. The trailhead is east of the exhibits and a wide, paved path leads between the park office/snack shop and the well-equipped boat rental facility to a sturdy, wooden bridge crossing Cameron Creek at source, to a right turn past trailhead signage, onto excellent, flat, wide trail. The trail is named Alderson-Carthew at both ends on each Parks Canada sign. They should know. More about this later.
A portion of the 400 m (0.25 mile) trail south, along the east side of Cameron Lake, is partially on wide boardwalk, before an abrupt left turn onto consistent and reasonably graded switchbacks elevate me through dense forest, with occasional glimpses of Cameron Lake below. The forest is lush, green and cool in the morning as surface shrubbery shares saturated space with old-growth, subalpine fir trees.
There is the constant sound of running water as tiny creeks run under, and occasionally over, the trail, feeding the lush, dense and aromatic forest. Frequently at trailside, an alcove, resembling a sanctuary for offerings, hosts a tiny, trickling waterfall over rocks surrounded by greenery. Each is unique, beautiful and visually/audibly captivating. Magic!
The long, sweeping switchbacks through dense forest eventually transition to relatively flat trail in more open forest and meadow. Easy hiking through copious wildflowers, and hints of mountain vista, lead to the trail junction at pristine Summit Lake, 4.3 KM (2.7 miles) from the trailhead at Cameron Lake. I decide to continue straight through on the Summit Trail for another unique view of delicate Summit Lake. Curiosity drives me further east towards Boundary Trail, which culminates at Boundary Bay on Upper Waterton Lake in the United States. I am rewarded with an amazing view of Lake Wurdeman nestled below the steep and formidable cliffs of 2,867 m (9,406 ft) Chapman Peak in Montana. Multiple waterfalls drop thousands of feet and I soon arrive at an acoustic sweet spot where the roar of thousands of tons of falling water are amplified by surrounding mountain walls and reverberate toward me. I reluctantly accept the fact I am on a different and equally challenging hike and it is time to return to the Summit Lake junction for the continuation of the Carthew-Alderson hike.
The Carthew-Alderson trail gains elevation consistently through forest on good, and periodically, rocky trail. There are edgy sections with a view to the valley below on the right. Within a kilometre (0.63 miles), views of the trail ahead, along the slope beneath 2,630 m (8,629 ft) Mount Carthew, begin to open up. The trail ahead is below a ridge joining the summit of Mount Carthew with an outlier high point called Carthew Summit at an altitude of 2,311 m (7,582 ft). Carthew Summit will be the maximum elevation achieved on the Carthew-Alderson hike. The initial views of the scree based trail are both intimidating and awe-inspiring. The anticipation of spectacular mountain views is overwhelming. This section of the route is going to be one impressive event.
There are a few people resting on the dual pinnacles at the top of Carthew Summit. To capture the all around view, I capture two short videos. The first is south, to predominantly west, and ending to the north towards Mount Carthew’s summit. The second video requires me to change location slightly for a sweep from north, to east, to south. It is the best I can do under the circumstances, standing on an exposed and relatively small piece of real estate.
On my retreat from Carthew Summit, I have the opportunity to conceal a summit stone in a crevice close to trailside for another wanderer to discover and potentially appreciate.
From Carthew Summit I will hike north on the ridge top towards the summit of Mount Carthew. Massive vistas on either side provide starkly different and spectacular views. A slight breeze takes the edge off the hot, humid day. More people are justifiably loitering in this area, perhaps to rest, but more likely to absorb the incredible ambience. I continue on the ridge top past the main trail descent to admire the tenacity of unique and beautiful plant life, struggling to survive in the arid, windswept, scree terrain. It can take some of these fragile plants more than twenty, brief, growing seasons to issue first bloom. I watch carefully where my feet land. They will never touch a plant in this incredibly challenging terrain. The chain of Carthew Lakes begins to peek through the valley to my right (east). As I approach the summit of Mount Carthew, the trail branches right and descends the slope steeply as Carthew Lakes begin to command full view. Wow!
At the northwest corner of Upper Carthew Lake, a very brief and easy scramble traverses a rocky, cascading waterfall where melt, from the large snow field above, drains under and through a snow bridge into the lake. The curl right to the southwest shore is achieved on tenuous footing over another snow field which leads to a wildflower emblazoned trail, at the edge of the shoreline, all the way around to the north shore, where the trail enters a brief section of low forest hosting the rise over rock to open ground before dropping on steeper trail to a magnificent, pristine waterfall. It is here I will reload my water bottles with the Katadyne filter for the first time.
The trail approaches Lower Carthew Lake at only one short section which is not particularly photogenic due to close proximity. Lower Carthew Lake altitude is 2,160 m (7,087 ft). The trail past the lower lake passes delicate waterfalls cascading through broken rock before beginning an impressive, edgy and steep descent on rugged trail beneath massive snow fields clinging to the upper walls of 2,409 m (7,903 ft) Buchanan Peak. Surrounding mountains define the borders of the impressive bowl I am entering. The view, as I travel over a wide variety of terrain, is breathtaking. There are several offtrail opportunities taken for photographs.
The trail winds it way down into the impressive bowl as surrounding mountains gain increasing presence. To my right, a tall waterfall tumbles down a steep rock face, fed by water from Carthew Lakes, now far above me. A steep, switchbacking, scree descent presents new views of Alderson Lake below me and an offtrail, for better angle, of the tiers of waterfalls leading from Carthew Lakes above, into pristine, mesmerizing and emerald Alderson Lake, now a short hike through forest below me.
Alderson Lake appears below me at the bottom of the bowl. It is mountain bound by the steep cliffs of 2,692 m (8,832 ft) Mount Alderson. My lens is insufficiently wide to take in the entire scene. I highly recommend standing here and taking in this incredible view. It is overwhelmingly beautiful. The emerald color of shallow water in Alderson Lake is complemented by the vibrant royal blue of deep sections. The lake is stocked with fish and Alderson Lake Campground rests on the north shore, a 6.5 KM (4.1 mile) hike from Waterton Village.
From the open, rock landscape of the bowl, I plunge into descent through dense forest and soon arrive at the trail junction to Alderson Lake Campground. It is only 300 m (0.2 miles) into the wilderness campground and my curiosity wins the case over tiring feet. It is time for refreshment anyway. I am greeted by an excellent biffy.
Tent pads are well maintained and I choose one to enjoy nourishment. My nutrition, for this long day hike, on a hot day, comes primarily from GU Energy in the form of Electrolyte and Chomps, Honey Stinger Bars, Clif Bars and Boost. These products make it easy for me to carry a lot of nutrition in a small space without risk from spoilage or contamination. From my experience hiking in the desert, I know this works for me. It is a short walk to the beauty of Alderson Lake where I can replenish water and mix up electrolyte replacement for the final stage of the hike.
After a satisfying rest, meal and water replenishment at Alderson Lake, I hike the short distance back to the Carthew-Alderson trail junction to begin the final 6.5 KM (4.1 mile) trek to official trail ending at Cameron Falls in Waterton Village. This final section is predominantly on excellent trail through forest on a gradual decline with an occasional switchback to buffer the steeper descents. The forest opens up into small meadows periodically to provide outstanding views of surrounding mountains.
There are large and fascinating features along the trail. The view, first of the Akamina Parkway on the opposite side of the deep valley, and then of Vimy Peak rising above Waterton Lake is a welcome sight. It signifies the end of the trail, and a long hiking day, is near. It has been a spectacular day.
The fenced section of trail, above rushing Cameron Creek below, reveals the concrete remains of retaining walls, lumber guards and derelict, concrete structures with large rusty hatches which were once used to provide Waterton Village with their water supply. I did not previously know these artifacts of years past were here.
The hike ends officially at Cameron Falls. I have another kilometre (0.63 mile to hike to the Bear Mountain Motel which coincidentally is adjacent to Tamarack Outdoor Outfitters where my Carthew-Alderson experience began nearly 10 hours earlier. The shower looks good and the ginger-glazed salmon steak dinner at Zum’s Eatery looks better. Tired. Straight to bed. Exciting plans for tomorrow.
The official, and correct name, of the hike is arguably the Alderson-Carthew Trail. There is evidence the one-way hike is called Carthew-Alderson when executed from Cameron Lake to Cameron Falls, and Alderson-Carthew when the one-way hike is done from Cameron Falls in Waterton Village to completion at Cameron Lake. Parks Canada calls it Alderson-Carthew. Gemtrek Maps names it Carthew-Alderson. Hiking guides do not agree. There seems to be great confusion. It is of little consequence. The only important measurement is the nature of the hike. It is amazing.
Elevation statistics differ between reference sources. This could be attributed to variance between net and gross elevation. My position is this. If you draw a large check mark (√)on a piece of paper, then rotate the paper 180 degrees so the check mark is upside down, it will be similar to the profile of the Carthew-Alderson hike where the short stroke represents the steeper profile of the Cameron Lake to Carthew Summit ascent component, and the longer stroke of the check mark represents the more gentle descent from Carthew Summit to Cameron Falls. Altitudes are as follows:
Cameron Lake – 1,660 m (5,446 ft)
Carthew Summit - 2,311 m (7,582 ft)
Waterton Village – 1,280 m ( 4,200 ft), so
Net elevation gain is 651 m (2,136 ft) and net elevation loss is 1,031 m (3,382 ft). That is the way I see it. Net elevation is nearly the same as gross elevation. The trail is predominantly all up, or all down, with little variance. I would estimate gross elevation is no greater than 2% of net. The hike profile would indicate the ascent from Cameron Falls would be longer, larger and more gentle, with a steeper and shorter descent to Cameron Lake, so the easiest way to do the hike is from Cameron Lake to Cameron Waterfall in Waterton Village, as I have done.
Whatever way you look at it, the Carthew-Alderson hike is one spectacular experience. I can now add this hike to Crypt Lake which leaves only one hike remaining to complete the Triple Crown.
Not all local residents agree on the three hikes which make up the Waterton Lakes National Park Triple Crown. At least one, very knowledgeable, person suggests Lineham Ridge is a more than worthy candidate.