The Grotto Canyon is located just ten minutes east of the town of Canmore, Alberta. The Grotto creek flows down from the mountains into the narrow valley and twisting canyon. When the seasonal temperature drops the water surface freezes solid. This allows you to walk on the creek bed that winds through the canyons winter wonderland. Taking a walk through Grotto Canyon is an excellent activity for non-skiers visiting the area or for those looking to break up their ski days with something different.
Another popular hike in nearby Banff National Park goes through Johnston Canyon. It’s a beautiful area that is also well worth going into. In Johnston canyon the walk is mainly up above the river on a series of trails and catwalks. Being able to walk on the creek bed at the bottom of Grotto Canyon gives you a totally different perspective.
It had been snowing the night before and continued to do so during our hike. The area was even more beautiful with the blanket of freshly fallen snow.
We did the hike with a guide from Discover Banff Tours. Before being led onto the trail we were fitted with ice clampons for our boots. These devices allow you to grip into ice and slippery sections of trails, and in our case the frozen creek.
At first it seems the trail views will be more industrial than nature like. The walk begins under power lines and then passes by the Baymag magnesium plant. The pounding of the machinery becomes louder as you approach the plant, but then surprisingly once you enter the forest and go into the canyon the sounds completely disappear.
During the hike our guide Mark talked to us about the history and geology of the canyon and surrounding Rocky Mountain areas. It’s fascinating to look at the limestone walls knowing they used to be under the sea millions of years ago.
On a section of limestone wall in the narrowest part of the canyon there are aboriginal pictographs. The images were painted between 500 and 1500 years ago using red ochre. They appear to have a link to the aboriginal culture of the Southwestern United States. If you didn’t know they were there you would probably walk right past. They are located on the left hand side of the canyon just prior to reaching the water fall and sit at about eye level. Unfortunately they have significantly diminished due mostly to human touch. The oils in our hands accelerate the erosion process.
The paintings depict several human and animal figures. We can only guess what the meaning of the art is. It could be for spiritual, or ritual significance or marking the details of animal hunting in the area. The most intriguing figure is a small hunched human bent at the knees. It is holding a long thin object to its mouth. This is immediately identifiable as the Kokopelli flute player. It was used as a symbol by the Hopi aboriginal people that resided in the southern U.S.A. The similarity of the character on the Grotto Canyon walls is too much to be a coincidence. It appears the Hopi traveled thousands of kilometers north and through the Grotto Canyon.
In the bottom left hand corner of the image below you can see the faint image of the bent over Kokopelli flute player.
Just up from the pictographs are the frozen Grotto falls.
Information And Tips For Winter Hiking In The Grotto Canyon
- A light hike of less than 4km’s return trip.
- Minimal elevation gain, 50 meters
- Allow for 1.5 to 2 hours return
- Some form of ice grips on your footwear is a must.
- You may find hiking poles helpful
- Wear boots, it can be slushy or have snow cover
- Ski pants would be best
- Dress in layers so you can adjust to the temperature as needed
Directions To Grotto Canyon
- Traveling from Calgary you can drive the longer and more scenic route by heading west on Crowchild Trail. It turns into Hwy 1A (Bow Valley Trail) and after approximately 80 km’s will lead you right to the Grotto area.
- The quicker route is to head west down the Trans Canada Highway to the Seebe turn off Highway #40 and make a left onto Bow Valley Trail for approximately 11km’s.
- From Canmore head east of Bow Valley Trail for 14 kilometers (about ten minutes) Look for the signed Grotto Pond Day Use Area and use the parking lot there.
- The trailhead is marked with a Grotto Creek Trail sign.
This tour was provided compliments of Discover Banff Tours. If you would like to book a guided tour through the Grotto Canyon we recommend going with one of their friendly and knowledgeable guides.