In February, 2022, visitors to Alberta’s Waterton National Park were welcomed to Parks Canada’s newly opened visitor centre, Waterton Lakes Visitor Centre. The centre introduces visitors to the natural beauty, history, and culture of Waterton Lakes National Park, which is also part of an International Peace Park, International Dark Sky Park, and World Heritage Site.
Visitor centres at Canadian National Parks are cornerstones of Canada’s tourism industry, providing visitors with information and history of the area to enhance the visitor experiences while supporting tourism in parks across the country.
The visitor centre was constructed as part of a $103 million investment in Waterton Lakes through the Government of Canada’s Federal Infrastructure Investment Program. It will be open year-round and has been developed to integrate seamlessly into the Waterton townsite.
According to Parks Canada, “Waterton Lakes National Park is a place of convergence—steep mountains abruptly meet wind-swept prairie; distinct ecosystems intersect; diverse animals and plants mix; and people come together.” The visitor centre reflects that convergence by including modern interpretive exhibits, interpretive programming, and visitor information services. Exhibits highlight the area’s substantial biodiversity, unique landscapes and the forces of nature that shape them, including wind and wildfire.
Salman Rasheed, Waterton Lakes’ Field Unit Superintendent with Parks Canada, says the timing of the centre’s opening couldn’t be better. “The visitation in Waterton has increased over time and especially during COVID-19,” he says. “We anticipate around 500,000 visitors annually, or up to five million people in the next ten years to visit this particular visitor center.”
Waterton Lakes National Park is in Treaty 7 territory and has long been a place of significance for the region’s Indigenous peoples, including the Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) peoples. Rasheed says that Parks Canada is honoured to work in collaboration with Indigenous partners across the country, and that special care was taken to ensure the materials developed reflect local Indigenous history, traditions, culture and connection to Waterton Lakes National Park (Paahtómahksikimi – inner sacred lake in the mountains).
“As visitors enter the centre, an Indigenous welcome song is played with nods to local Indigenous cultural continuing throughout the building,” says Rasheed. “We’re really excited about working closely with our Indigenous partners on developing Indigenous exhibits that reflect their history.”
“The centre offers a combination of modern interpretive exhibits and then Indigenous interpretive programming and visitor information services,” continues Rasheed, “so visitors get a sense of connection to the space immediately.”
Having the area accessible by foot and wheelchair was an integral part of the design. Eliminating the need for idling cars as much as possible aligns with Parks Canada’s commitment as stewards of the environment. “Because we manage ecosystems and ecological integrity, this continues to be our first priority and so we started right from the get-go to create sustainable infrastructure,” says Rasheed.
Materials for the centre were sourced from suppliers whose products are environmentally responsible. The Centre is also in the process of attaining LEED accreditation.
Dark Sky Park
Outside, the centre invites visitors to enjoy a walk on its grounds, which features native plants and interpretive displays in English, French, and Blackfoot.
Visitors who stay later into the evening are in for a special treat. Waterton Lakes National Park is the first transboundary International Dark Sky Park (certified by the International Dark Sky Association). Everything one can learn about a Dark Sky Park is in the Centre, which makes seeing the night sky even more spectacular.
“It never fails to stuns visitors because not many people have seen what the true night sky looks like, what the milky way looks like, what some of the constellations look like and so it really promotes or a unique way of experiencing a national park,” says Rasheed. “We truly look forward to visitors enjoying the Centre and what the Park has to offer.”