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Grotto Canyon Ice Trail, near Banff

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When you decide to visit the Canadian Rockies in winter, there will be a whole lot of places you can’t go, but thankfully there are a handful of things you can do, that you wouldn’t be able to do in the summer.  For example, how does walking through a canyon, on a river of ice sound?

Grotto Canyon provides the opportunity to walk on water, as you wander through a canyon.  And despite the sales pitches from tour companies, you can make this trek on your own, for free, and do it quite safely.  Your ultimate destination will be this frozen waterfall, but let’s back up to the beginning of this hike to learn how you can do it yourself, without shelling out $50 or more for a tour.

The trailhead for Grotto Canyon is outside of Banff National Park.  From Canmore, follow Highway 1A (the scenic alternative to Trans-Canada 1) east, as if you were headed back to Calgary.  As soon as you pass the Baymag plant (a manufacturer of Magnesium Oxide, which is used in cement and laxatives), watch for Grotto Mountain Pond on the left, and a road that leads to a parking area at the trailhead.  From the parking area, you’ll have a nice view of Pigeon Mountain, on the opposite side of the Bow River.

The first 20 minutes of hiking will leave you wondering if you’re in the right place.  The trail follows an old dirt road for a while, passing under power lines…

… and directly behind the Baymag plant.  The noise from the plant makes this part of the trail somewhat unpleasant.  Don’t worry, once you get to the canyon, you won’t hear the plant anymore.

The trail splits off from the dirt road and heads briefly into the woods.  Be sure to watch for the hiking signs.

Just before you reach the mouth of the canyon, about .5 kilometers from the trailhead, you’ll come upon a nice viewpoint, where you can look out onto Bow Flats, and the mountains that surround Canmore.  Then, the trail turns…

… and enters Grotto Canyon.  Since this is winter, the trail is the ice, so go ahead and step onto the slick surface, and head into the canyon.

You will need a set of ice cleats on your hiking boots, in order to safely and confidently walk up the frozen creek. My set of ICEtrekkers worked wonderfully here, and in many other places during this trip, and I strongly recommend you invest in a pair.

During my visit in late March, the ice was a little slushy in a few places, but for the most part, it was solid and easy to walk on.  I didn’t see any places where the ice appeared thin.  If you visit later in the season, it’s possible that there could be spots that will break through.  But falling through this ice wouldn’t be like falling into a frozen lake — at worst, you’d get a cold foot.

The trail winds its way through the narrow canyon, passing between sheer rock walls.

In places, boulders are tall enough to poke through the ice.

In this spot, you can clearly see the effects of rushing water.  It’s hard to imagine a flash flood sweeping through the canyon.

Occasionally I spotted a crack, and heard a trickle of water underneath.  Even in places like this, the ice was several inches, to almost a foot thick.

Keep hiking atop the ice, until you’ve gone about a kilometer in.

You’ll know when you’ve reached your destination, because you’ll see this giant ice wall in front of you…

… lots of rocks and logs around your feet…

… and this frozen waterfall, in a side canyon, off to the right.  It isn’t easy to get close to this waterfall, since the ice that runs up into the side canyon is pretty steep.  If you have an ice axe, you might want to use it here.

I found a way to scramble up the rocks, on one side of the side canyon, which led me to a good viewpoint.  But the truth is, it wasn’t a very safe climb, and getting down was even more difficult, and quite awkward.

I didn’t try to go any further up the canyon.  The ice was getting slushy, and I figured I had seen the main attractions, so I turned around and headed back.

Keep an eye out, and you’ll spot some ancient pictographs in Grotto Canyon.  I didn’t see them, but I’ve read that you can find them, just before you walk around the final curve, before the waterfall.

As you reach the mouth of the canyon, you’ll be treated to another nice view of Pigeon Mountain.

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