With impressive mountain views, dramatic canyons and ancient pictographs, the Grotto Canyon ice walk is one of the best family-friendly winter hikes near Canmore.
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Located in the shadow of Grotto Mountain by scenic Bow Valley Provincial Park, the trailhead accesses Grotto Mountain Pond, which is a great picnic spot and also popular for fishing and climbing. It leads to the Grotto Canyon hiking trail, which is only about four kilometres round trip and can be completed in a couple of hours.
What to pack for the Grotto Canyon hiking trail
With very little incline, Grotto Canyon considered one of the easy hikes in Canmore…that is, as long as you bring your crampons. The ice canyon gets incredibly slick (even more than a skating rink), and is nearly impossible to explore without ice cleats.
It’s also helpful to bring a hiking pole for additional stability, and for testing the ice to avoid accidentally stepping into a pool of freezing water where it might have melted. Wear non-slip, waterproof footwear and plenty of layers, since it can get quite windy in certain parts of the canyon.
The Grotto Canyon hike
The out-and-back trail starts with sweeping views of Grotto Creek and the surrounding mountain ranges, before heading into the narrow cavern which was carved out by surging meltwater from a receding glacier thousands of years ago. The steep canyon walls protect a variety of plant life, like limber pine and Douglas maple.
Frozen conditions during the winter months create the enchanting ice walk, which twists and turns past limestone walls for about a kilometer before arriving at the set of frozen waterfalls. The spectacle makes it easy to see why this is one of the best Alberta ice caves, and a popular spot with climbers.
About 500-1000 years ago, Indigenous people would visit the area in search of guidance from the spirit world, and recorded those visits by painting pictographs on the canyon walls which can still be seen today.
Some hikers choose to turn around at the falls, or you can continue for another few minutes along the trail which opens up into an alpine valley that’s home to the Grotto Canyon cave. Members of the Palliser Expedition named the area in 1858 after discovering the cave tucked into the mountain, which they described as having a large stream leading to a clear pool and green mossy bank.
Visitors can make the short climb up the steep scree to explore the inside, or enjoy a picnic among the rocks in the sun-drenched valley before heading back down through Grotto Canyon.
How to get to the Grotto Canyon ice walk
The Grotto Canyon trail parking lot is just off Bow Valley Trail (Highway 1A) a few minutes west of the hamlet of Exshaw. The drive takes about an hour from Calgary and just 15 minutes from Canmore.
On weekends during winter, try to arrive before 9 a.m. since there’s limited parking and the lot can get very crowded. There are signs advising not to overflow park on the highway or in the ditch, as vehicles may be ticketed.