Who hasn’t been on vacation and thought, “Wow! I would love to live here!” But what’s it really like? I spent one full year working and living in Waterton Lakes National Park, which gave me a small taste of what local life in a tourist town can be like.
Waterton is a bustling summer destination tucked away in the southwest corner of southern Alberta. Dramatic landscapes and ample hiking trails make it popular amongst outdoors lovers. The tiny village features hotels, restaurants and shops, all locally owned (no franchises here) that offer premium priced meals and accommodations.
Come wintertime, almost everyone closes up shop. They board the windows of hotels, restaurants and shops, and the owners typically head elsewhere for the winter. There are a couple of hotels that stay open for the snowshoe and cross country ski crowd, and one restaurant/lounge stays open. According to Alberta Southwest, about 30 people live in the park through the winter, mainly employed by Parks Canada, a handful of hotel and restaurant employees, and a few die-hard locals.
Winter is the best time of year for the locals of Waterton. The traffic is gone, the trails are empty, and we all gather at the lounge to watch hockey, drink and hang out. Have you ever walked home after a few in 100 kilometre per hour winds and snow drifts up to your thighs? It makes you feel alive!
But who am I to act like I know what it’s like after one year? What is it like for people who have been born and raised in these towns? Or who move there, planning to spend their lives there? I caught up with a few residents and found out.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Julie MillarJulie and I crossed paths in Waterton; as I transitioned out of living there year-round, she moved in permanently. She started off working at the local restaurant and went on to open Taco Bar Waterton, the only Mexican restaurant in town.
Julie grew up spending summers in Waterton her entire life before transitioning to a year-round resident 11 years ago. She calls herself a local as she’s made her life in the scenic town. “I think a person can call themselves a local when they have a cottage here or, if they work here, when they’re brave enough to stay through the winter.”
The cost of living in Waterton is very high, with 95-year-old two-bedroom cabins going for $900,000. Julie is fortunate to live in a cottage that has been in her family since 1927. In all national parks, homeowners only own the structure; the land is leased from Parks Canada.
Julie runs her business seasonally. Seasonal staff that work for the restaurants, shops and hotels typically have fair priced staff accommodations, making the cost of living for workers more affordable.
Julie MillarIn terms of amenities, Waterton doesn’t offer much in or out of season. During the tourist season, there is one grocery store and gas station open in addition to restaurants and gift shops. Trips to Pincher Creek (45 minutes) or Lethbridge (1.5 hours) are required for medical care, a pharmacy, non-souvenir clothing and pretty much anything else. “Winter has a very different vibe. Whether a resident or tourist, you feel like you have the place all to yourself!”
Julie’s favourite part of living in Waterton is the chance to live in one of the most breathtaking places on the planet. “It never ceases to amaze me how magnificent it is and how lucky I am,” she says. “I also love how close our community is.” Her least favourite part is the wind. In Waterton, gusts of 100 kilometres per hour are common in the fall and winter and have gotten as high as 150 kilometres per hour.
Tourists are the lifeblood of places like Waterton. But they can often make missteps.
“I wish the tourists would take wildlife safety seriously,” she says. This includes not feeding or petting deer, not getting out of vehicles when seeing a bear, not littering or improperly storing food/garbage which can attract wildlife and keeping a safe distance from animals. “They also need to know that deer are very aggressive (toward dogs and their owners) when they have fawns.”
Jasper National Park
Megan is a photographer residing in Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies with more than 11,000 square kilometers of wilderness. This park is well known for the Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. Nestled in the heart of the park is Jasper, a town of about 4,600 permanent residents and 680 seasonal.
Megan has been a resident of Jasper for three years. According to Megan, around Jasper, the term local is reserved for folks who have lived in town their whole lives.
Like most tourist towns, the cost of living (rent, gas, groceries) is high and many people tend to leave the area after a few seasons. “My partner and I currently rent in town and are hoping to buy a home one day through a co-op which fixes the housing cost on certain units to make it more affordable,” Megan says. “Unfortunately, this takes years to see an opening, but we are here for the long run and waiting it out will pay off eventually.”
Besides photography, Megan also works in a gear store in town. Her partner works for the municipality of Jasper which pays enough that, when combined with Megan’s income, makes living in the area more manageable.
Jasper has many town amenities, but Megan makes the drive to Edmonton every few months to stock up on cheaper clothing, furniture, toiletries and groceries.
Megan’s favourite part of living in Jasper is having the world’s best playground for a backyard. “I’m always amazed by the beauty of Jasper, and for us and our outdoorsy lifestyle, living here is 100 per cent worth it,” she says. Far from perfect, the busy season can get pretty chaotic in town, but that was something Megan and her partner knew about and were prepared to deal with when they moved.
Like others, Megan wishes that visitors would understand that they are guests. “We all are, really,” she says. “When you’re in a national park, we are all working to protect and conserve the land to keep it pristine for the next generations to enjoy. So please think about that before you toss your trash on the ground or carve your name in the trees.”
Banff National Park
Banff might be the most iconic spot in Canada. People around the world will recognize photos of Lake Louise. Louise Tuck knows Banff well as one of few people who were born and raised in the park. Louise has called the iconic mountain town home for more than 30 years.
“I've had countless people say to me, ‘Wow, I had no idea anybody actually lived there’ when I say I'm from Banff,” she says.
Louise and her husband recently purchased a home in Banff in April 2021. The cost of living is extremely high but well worth it. “We lived in Calgary for a few years prior to moving back, and both of us are much happier in the mountains.”
The primary source of income for Louise and her husband is photography. They can afford the cost of living with their photography work and find they save a lot in travel expenses now that they are no longer travelling back and forth to the mountains.
In terms of mountain towns, Banff offers most typical amenities, but it will cost you. “You can find almost everything you're looking for in town, you just pay a premium for it,” she says. As for shopping, there's a great selection of outdoor gear but if you're looking for formal clothing, you're out of luck.
Louise’s favourite part of living in Banff is seeing the mountains every single day. “It has such a positive impact on my mood and I'm extremely grateful to be living in such a beautiful place. The view of Banff Ave with Cascade looming in the background never ever gets old, even 30 years in.”
Endless adventure options fulfill the dream for any mountain lover: hiking, biking, climbing, paddling and camping. Living in the mountains is never boring!
Like most tourist spots, the downside of living there is that it can get hectic (extremely busy) in the summer. Like most locals, Louise has learned to adapt, avoiding Banff Ave and walking or biking instead of driving on busy weekends.
She gives the same advice for tourists who come to Banff: do not feed the animals or get out of your vehicle and approach them. Respect that they are wild and that by feeding them, you're affecting their ability to find food on their own or they will associate humans with food which could have numerous, long-lasting negative impacts.
Jasper National Park is located in Treaty 6 and 8 as well as the traditional lands of the Beaver, Cree, Ojibway, Shuswap, Stoney and Métis Nations. Banff National Park and Waterton National Park are located on the traditional lands of Treaty 7 Territory, comprised of the Stoney Nakoda Nations of Wesley, Chiniki and Bearspaw; three Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy: the Pikani, Kainai and Siksika; and the Tsuu T'ina of the Dene people.