The Grotto Canyon Trail, just outside of Canmore, is becoming increasingly popular in winter and for good reason. It’s easy and a lot of fun – plus it’s one of those rare hikes that is perfect for all ages. Accessibility is excellent with the trailhead about an hour’s drive from Calgary. The downside is that parking on winter weekends tends to be at a premium unless you visit early or late in the day.
On the Grotto Canyon Trail, you can expect to be wowed by impressive canyons, frozen waterfalls, an icy creek bed and ancient pictographs. You might even catch ice climbers scaling the frozen falls, or kids sliding down what looks like a river of ice. You need a couple of hours to do this trail justice.
Finding the Grotto Canyon Trail
The Grotto Canyon Trail is super easy to find. Simply drive Highway 1A from either east or west and look for signage along the highway. From the intersection of Benchlands Trail and the Trans-Canada Highway in Canmore, it’s a 12-minute, 12.8-kilometre drive. From downtown Calgary, it’s a about an hour’s drive via the Trans-Canada Highway, Highway 1X and Highway 1A. The parking is beside Grotto Canyon Pond.
Note that it is illegal to park on the highway, and you will be ticketed. I recommend parking as close to the highway as possible if you’re visiting at a busy time. That way you won’t be caught behind a long line of cars when you’re ready to leave.
Should you get to the parking lot, and the crowds are nuts, turn around and go east about five minutes and do the Jura Creek hike instead.
Before you go: Always check the trail report just in case there are any closures.
Grotto Canyon hike details
Distance: Approximately 4.2 km return
Elevation gain: 115 metres (some sites report higher numbers but there is nowhere near 260 metres of elevation gain which is regularly reported.)
Time needed: 2 – 2.5 hours so you have time for stops.
Best time to do it: Wait until early January when there have been hard freezes and the waterfalls are larger. The later you go in winter, the better the Grotto Canyon ice walk will be.
Dogs: Allowed on a leash.
Washrooms: There are outhouses at the trailhead.
Don’t forget: Microspikes are a necessity if you want to prevent a fall. Buy quality. They shouldn’t be able to slip off easily. If you have kids, they should also have a pair, even though they don’t have as far to fall. Check out these ones.
Tours: Although the Grotto Canyon ice walk is easy to do on your own, a tour will provide a pick up from Banff, ice cleats, a hiking pole, hot chocolate, and a professional guide so you won’t miss the pictographs.
Needed: You will need a Kananaskis Conservation Pass to park your car without getting ticketed. The area along the Grotto Canyon Trail is in Bow Valley and as such meet Alberta Park’s requirements for passes. Purchase one online here, either for a day or a year.
Food after the hike: I highly recommend heading to Valbella, Communitea, Rocky Mountain Bagel Company or Harvest Café.
Grotto Canyon Trail description
The beginning of the Grotto Canyon Trail is not the most beautiful – and its noisy. Fortunately, you can knock off the 0.8 kilometres in about 10 -12 minutes. The first part of the trail is under a powerline beside the Baymag magnesium oxide plant.
From there you head into the woods for a short section before coming out to a wide area with a nice view towards Canmore. Then the fun begins and the noise from the Baymag plant disappears. Depending on when you visit, you will alternate between walking on packed snow or ice (unless its recently just snowed). The couple of times I’ve done it have been at least 90% ice.
As you head along the Grotto Canyon trail, the canyon walls increase in size. It’s very beautiful and a wonderful way to spend part of a winter’s day. In no time you’ll reach the ice falls – where you may have to wait in line to get a shot! To their right, you’ll also see a river of ice that was a surreal colour of blue in 2022. Follow it up – if you are well equipped with microspikes that bite into the ice, to reach another icefall. Perhaps you’ll catch some ice climbers in action here.
The descent on the narrow trail back to the ice falls can be tricky. Some people were on their rears for short section but getting soaked because of a thin layer of water on top. There is a rocky trail that you can use to the side of this river of ice.
When you’ve had your fill, retrace your steps. Then come back and see how different the Grotto Canyon trail looks in summer.
Looking for a longer hike?
From the icefalls there is an obvious trail to the left (if you’re looking at them straight on) through another canyon that continues for at most a few more kilometres. Walk through the canyon for about five minutes to reach a wide-open area. This is well worth doing as its very pretty. From there you can hike along a stream bed, passing a large hoodoo with a cave – that I wouldn’t recommend visiting. Remember, it’s always harder to come down a steep slope than it is to go up.
From the hoodoo, we once walked for perhaps another 15 – 20 minutes. It doesn’t get any more interesting – and in fact in short order you’re into the trees. Most people turn back long before this point. In fact,most people turn around at the first set of icefalls – but at the very least hike up the short canyon just past them.
Grotto Canyon Pictographs
It took three tries hiking the Grotto Canyon trail to find the famous pictographs. They’re easy to miss, partially because they’re quite faded. If you’ve arrived at the icefalls, you’ve missed them.
The pictographs are located near the end of Grotto Canyon before the falls. As you’re heading up the canyon there is one last turn to the left before the icefalls. They are on the narrow pinch point at eye level.
The pictographs are thought to date back to somewhere between 500 and 1300 years ago. There are several prominent images and many that are faded. The clearest one shown below is of a man with a two-horned head holding a staff. Apparently near the base of the outcrop (which I failed to notice) there is “a grouping of three figures with triangular bodies and some type of headdress.”
Most figures can’t be spotted by the naked eye. According to the Mountain Nature Podcast “over the centuries, a thin, translucent veneer of calcite has slowly been covering the face making them harder to spot, and the simple reality of time has also degraded some of the images.”
According to researchers, these pictographs don’t resemble other rock art in the region. They have been traced to the Hopi people who lived in the Four Corners region of the US (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah). One image – the fluteplayer (known as Kokopelli), resembles pictographs found only in Hopi Country.
Animal fat and ochre, possibly sourced from the Paint Pots in Kootenay National Park, is the main ingredient to the pictographs. For a very detailed explanation check out the article entitled Grotto Canyon Pictographs and Life with Less Snow.
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