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Visiting Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lake National Park, Alberta: the intriguing character of argillite rock

Updated on February 2, 2015
Provincial flag of Alberta
Provincial flag of Alberta | Source
Red Rock Canyon, Alberta
Red Rock Canyon, Alberta | Source
Argillite fragment
Argillite fragment | Source

Pulsating with colour and significance

These remarkable rock formations at the self-descriptive Red Rock Canyon, in Alberta, are located in Waterton Park National Park (founded in 1895). They form the riverbed of Red Rock Creek, and are much photographed by visitors at what is essentially a day destination for the summer months.

These formations are made of rock called argillite, a sedimentary rock. It is possible to understand the geological process by which the argillite was formed by its colours. Red argillite is formed by mudstone compressed with oxygen. Green argillite — in an unusual colour for rock, but present in lesser proportions at Red Rock Canyon — is formed by the compression of mudstone without oxygen (1).

Argillite has traditionally been used by many First Nations carvers in Western Canada in the production of artwork. The Haida First Nation of British Columbia has been particularly known for its skilled carvers in this medium (2).

Red Rock Canyon is sometimes the subject of field trips for interested rock researchers, including those sponsored by the Calgary Rock and Lapidary Club (3).

The Canyon extends to a depth of 20 metres in places. A pathway known as the Red Rock Canyon Loop Trail guides visitors around several hundred kilometres of the Canyon vicinity, with interpretive panels, viewpoints and seating at intervals along the Trail.

Blakiston Falls, approximately 2 kilometres away, are easily accessed from Red Rock Canyon. The similarly named Mount Blakiston (4), which rises to 2910 metres, overlooks the Canyon.

A large parking lot is situated close to the Canyon. The road between Waterton Village and the Canyon is aptly named the Red Rock Canyon Parkway (5), along which there are warnings of bear activity, and, when I visited the Canyon, the party with which I was travelling duly spotted a grizzly! Prospective visitors should note that the Parkway is closed during the winter months. Motorists should be aware also that the Parkway is rather narrow in places, and that traffic sometimes moves very slowly, not least because of stopped vehicles.

The Red Rock Canyon vicinity is an outstandingly photogenic spot in the Canadian Rockies. It just so happened that I picked a less than photogenic afternoon in the rain — one of the hazards of mountain excursions — to visit the Canyon. One can well understand how weather conditions in the Rockies can suddenly change, with the resulting need for caution and travel preparation.

This is hardly the Canadian version of the US's Grand Canyon! (If such as designation exists, then the Ouimet Canyon in Ontario might go some way to fulfill it.) But it is all the same an outstanding and memorable site. One is almost reminded of the rocks and waters of the Niagara Falls — on a smaller scale — while floodlit, but with the colour remaining when the floodlighting is switched off!

January 30, 2015


(1) See also:

Further information:

(2) Much of development in Alberta has for obvious reasons revolved around the fruits of geological research and suryeying, and its museums have very significant content of geological significance. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has among its collections items of argillite artifacts by First Nations carvers.

(3) See also: Particularly during the summer months when the Canyon is more accessible, the Canyon makes for a viable, field trip destination from the Calgary and Lethbridge areas.

(4) Named for Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891), of the Palliser Expedition of 1857-1860.

(5) See also:

Map location of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada (in dark green)
Map location of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada (in dark green) | Source

Also worth seeing

Within Waterton Lakes National Park, the lakeside hamlet of Waterton (distance from Red Rock Canyon: approx. 16 kilometres) attracts many visitors, including numerous hikers; among these attractions are the berth for boat trips on Waterton Lake; a Heritage Centre at 117 Waterton Avenue; the Cameron Falls; the much photographed Prince of Wales Hotel overlooks nearby Waterton Lake.


How to get there: Air Canada flies to Lethbridge Airport (distance from Lethbridge to Waterton Village: 124.6 kilometers), via Calgary, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available; some visitors may prefer to make the road journey to Waterton Village directly from Calgary Airport (distance from Calgary to Waterton Village: 259.2 kilometers). A shuttle bus is available in the summer (advance reservations necessary) from Waterton Village to Red Rock Canyon; contact: ; tel. 403-859-2378; fax 403-859-2605. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. You are advised to consult appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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