Grotto Canyon is popular for hiking, ice climbing and rock climbing in Bow Valley, Alberta.
Grotto Canyon, located at the east base of Grotto Mountain, is a short drive west of Calgary, Alberta. The exit from the TransCanada Highway passes through Morley to a left turn onto the more leisurely, scenic drive along Hwy 1A past Yamnuska and the Hamlet of Exshaw to park in the Grotto Mountain Day Use Area at Grotto Pond. It is a beautiful picnic area and the Grotto Creek trail-head is obvious.
Note: Following the impact of the June 2013 floods the Grotto Canyon ice walk is nothing similar to what is illustrated here. Rock has largely replaced ice.
Crampons on hiking boots will avoid problems navigating the slick, well trampled, 1.1 KM (¾ mile) access trail to the entrance of Grotto Canyon. The hiking crampons are pressed into service immediately as the hike proceeds over icy trail and a steep-walled drainage.
The narrow trail changes to slick road prior to passing the busy and noisy Baymag #2 Mineral Processing Facility. A short distance further, the trail-head is clearly signed and the short trek begins through mixed forest to the edge of the next drainage emanating from the entrance to Grotto Canyon.
The sunny conditions may not continue much longer. There are snowstorms at higher elevations over Canmore and Banff National Park. Grotto Mountain looms large above the immediate field of vision with frozen Grotto Creek below. There is an option to scramble down to the creek, or to take the trail up and over to a more gentle approach to the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk.
Today the ice in Grotto Canyon is wide and deep, the product of multiple freeze and thaw cycles which fatten the ice and create excellent ice climbing opportunities.
This ice walk will be on predominantly new, smooth and clean ice, frozen overnight after yesterdays brief thaw. Otherwise, the previous weekend traffic would be obvious on the surface. It is very fortunate to enjoy these conditions.
As the short, narrow canyon twists and turns, the enclosed ice provides a fascinating, mostly level surface with occasional sections where it is necessary to punch in the crampons to ensure a good grip. It is wise to use proper hiking crampons for safety. Ice climbing crampons are overkill for an ice walk, but they will definitely do the job. Hiking crampons will last many years and there is no shortage of ice routes to enjoy in the winter season. Hiking poles provide increased stability.
Grotto Canyon is a popular and busy rock climbing area in summer. Many of the walls, if you look closely, are bolted and anchored. Options for rock climbing are well documented in Sport Climbs of the Canadian Rockies, authored by John Martin and Jon Jones and published by Rocky Mountain Books.
About ¾ of the way through the short canyon, there are ancient pictographs on a flat, vertical rock surface to the left. They are about 2 meters (6½ feet) above the ice surface, and not well-defined, so it is necessary to look carefully, particularly in low-light shade. The red ochre color is more easily observed with sunlight on the wall.
Just past the pictographs is a narrow, straight tunnel section of the canyon which in winter, shows ice seeps at the end. These are short, popular ice climbs named 'His' and 'Hers' with anchors resident in rock above. The main ice climbing event is Grotto Falls tucked away in an alcove to the right. There is no-one climbing on it so a quick scramble provides a better view of the first tier of Grotto Falls. There is a nice view of 'His' and 'Hers' on the descent from Grotto Falls. These ice climbs are included in Waterfall Ice Climbs in the Canadian Rockies by Joe Josephson. The guide is currently out of circulation.
Continuing through Grotto Canyon, the route swings west through Grotto Canyon beneath formidable Illusion Rock. A short distance later the hoodoo conglomerate. The formations, particularly the large mound hosting a cave are always a popular photographic subject.
Hiking further into the valley provides views of the unique formations and fascinating terrain from the other side. On the return hike, there are excellent views of the tops of Heart Mountain and Mount McGillivray. Mature, hardy trees grow directly from thin cracks in surrounding rock.
The return hike past 'His' and 'Hers' finds a spectacular sunbeam making Grotto Falls glow brilliant in contrast to the dark surroundings of the narrow alcove which hosts the ice waterfall. There is only a brief opportunity to capture the grandeur of the temporary apparition. The ice walk continues down the canyon on ice with a thin layer of water flowing over the surface. The thawing period, in the warmer temperatures of the afternoon, will freeze overnight and create tomorrows fresh new layer of ice eliminating any hint of our presence.
The luck continues. Sun is shining on the pictographs which makes the ancient images far more prevalent. There are a couple of the red ochre images lower than the rest which have previously remained unnoticed.
The remainder of the Grotto Canyon ice walk is routine over excellent and damp ice. Towards the end of the ice walk the hiking proceeds directly towards the impressive presence of Pigeon Mountain.
A short scramble up the side of the draw meets the access trail and the hike retuens via the same route taken in with a short off trail segment past the Baymag plant for a better view. Heart Mountain fills the background and its form is enhanced by the shadows of afternoon sun.
The weather has been perfect and the ice amazing. Surrounding views are spectacular and the timing for sunbeams could not have been more fortunate.
Everyone should do the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk at least once.