Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley - Hiking Alberta

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada A view of the ice walk within Grotto Canyon in the Bow Valley Corridor just west of Exshaw, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

The sunny conditions may not continue much longer.  There are snowstorms at higher elevations over Canmore and Banff National ParkGrotto 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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada The view to snowstorms in mountains to the southwest.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada Grotto Canyon Ice Walk - Bow Valley Corridor, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Personally, I have not been into Grotto Canyon since the flood and I have no plans to be in there before you are going. Grotto Falls and His and Hers are common objectives for early season ice climbers and this has so far been an outstanding year for ice. I checked Gravsports-Ice.com, which is a forum for ice climbers. They are in there and climbing with full screws so I expect your mission will be a good one in this strange year of dynamic temperature shift. Other comments invited from anyone but particularly from anyone who has been into Grotto.

This is a fantastic ice trek. We were there mid Feb last year as well and the ice was just beautiful and clear. We're heading up on Jan 26 but I thnk we might be taking a bit a chance. We havent been there since the flood so not sure what we're going to find. Have you or any of your readers been there this winter?

Thank you for your kind words, Sheryl. Soon, your growing season will begin and you can enjoy the best of both seasons. Spring colors are always a highlight and while I enjoy the new growth, I am learnig a lot from your blog about creating my own. Grotto Canyon is accessible after spring runoff and makes a wonderful hike. No doubt there will be rock climbers at work and the hike past the canyon and through the valley is an excellent day. Probably wise to carry footwear to negotiate water.

I've only hiked Grotto Mountain during the summertime - it's a wonderful place to visit. Your photos are fabulous, and with the added bonus of just the right light, you managed to beautifully capture the pictographs.

Thank you for sharing your experience, Andra. It brings balance to our experience which was virtually ideal in every way possible. Ice, confined between steep rock walls, is very sensitive to temperature differential. Timing of the day is important as well as the change of temperature from overnight to daytime high. Our trip was a shallow overnight freeze and a few degrees above freezing for the high in the afternoon. This years ice is excellent. It is thick from multiple freeze thaw cycles. On our return trip we had thin water flow on top of the ice and, towards the end, the occasional slushy, soft spot without danger of punching through. We were not wearing gaiters. Those of us who ice climb are very familiar with the fickle nature of the surface. In warm conditions, the ice is like plastic and often running wet. In significant cold, the ice is brittle and shatters on impact with the axe. Some years the freeze-thaw cycles are too wide and ice conditions can be poor or not existent. Other years, the weather goes cold and stays cold. The ice does not bulk up without the freeze-thaw cycles. My humble blog is my personal journal. My memories are to share and for me to review later in my life. I try to call them exactly the way I see them. No rose colored glasses. On the other hand I want to encourage people to get out there and enjoy this incredible resource we have at our convenience. There is a learning curve. There is the unexpected. It is wise to carry extra bits of gear to cover off the unexpected. I have countless war stories which involved unexpected conditions and being ill prepared. It is part of the process. Sometimes you must take a chance, throw caution to the wind and just do the best you can. Start slow and easy. Build experience and gear gradually over time. I have driven to trailheads and unexpected weather conditions have convinced me to leave it for another day. There is always an opportunity to change the days plans. If I look back on several decades of experience, the most memorable and most exciting were the adverse missions where we had to battle for victory. Sometimes it took several months to realize how great it was. The tough missions are the ones we review over and over for the rest of our lives. It is never a reason to stop or give up. It is a learning experience that allows the ability to do it better and smarter the next time. It is life. Thanks for sharing your experience, Andra. We share the nature of it, and the smiles they conjure up at our own naiveté, and we realize how much we have learned and grown. We revel in the understanding of nature and how conquering our own ingnorance and fear translated so positively to all aspects of our lives. The important thing is to get out there and try. Something. What we do may not be for everyone.

Your timing was impeccable! Your photos are gorgeous! I have been to Grotto Canyon twice with the first time being Feb. 20, 2006. I learned that the forecasted temperature for the day has to be ideal as does the time of day you plan to head back out of the canyon. The canyon floor was frozen for our ice walk in but upon our return it had melted extensively and the slush/water was over our ankles and over our boot tops, plus at times we broke through ice and sunk up to our calves. It was in a section of the canyon that we could not go around the deep slush, but had to go through it. Gaiters may have made a difference but I don't know. Our boots, socks, pants were drenched and our feet were freezing. I also learned that day to always bring spare socks for the drive home. Another thing, because it was not too long of a drive there, we wore our hiking boots in the car and did not bring other footwear. This was all back in 2006 when I was a newbie. I learned so much that day! I returned on Jan. 1, 2009, prepared, and had an absolutely totally wonderful experience. What a special beautiful place Grotto Canyon is. Thank you for sharing your trip with us, it just reminded me that I am due for another visit.

Thanks for your comment, Leigh. The Grotto Canyon Ice Walk is worth the time and effort. It is an excellent and unique, fairly casual day. We were blessed with near perfect conditions. March could be possible. I believe the YakTrax are insufficient and limiting, possibly dangerous. Proper grip is important. You should be able to rent strap-on instep crampons for hiking boots. There are brief sections where litle inclines require stamping the picks into the ice for grip. Walking up to Grotto Falls will test the limits of the insteps. Ice climbing crampons will work well for all the ice components but are limiting outside the Canyon where the ice picks may be damaged by mixtures of snow and rock on access and in the valley. I have used ice climbing crampons in Grotto Canyon for access to climb 'His', 'Hers' and Grotto Falls. Instep crampons are the best overall gear choice for an ice walk combined with a variety of terrain in access and to the valley beyond. Enjoy! It is an excellent winter day experience.

Would like to do this - perhaps in March if the cold weather holds. Looks beautiful and I do have one pair of crampons. Would yactrax work too? I hadn't heard of this place before this post. Thanks Barry.

Thank you, Helen. In early spring runoff, the Grotto Canyon could be impassable due to fast water flooding. Through the summer and fall, the canyon and valley can be hiked. There will be some rock hopping and shallow water hiking with occasional short lengths of trail around obstacles where the width of the canyon permits. The canyon itself is a fairly short walk but continuing into the valley beyond accesses trail for several additional kilometres ending in a dramatic view of Grotto Mountains east face. There are many climbing routes on the steep canyon walls. It is a popular rock and ice climbing destination year round. Thank you for your kind words, Helen. Always good to hear from you. I hope you have not been impacted by the summer fires.

Wow, so spectacular! I assume there would be a trail for summer access. You have so many ways to enjoy the winter outdoors. Thanks again for sharing with such brilliant photography!

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