This review of Grotto Canyon is thanks in part to the National Parks having confusing rules. We had decided to hike Johnston Canyon, and only found out once we got to the turn off, that the highway was closed! There was no mention of it when we were planning our visit, and it’s because Johnston Canyon itself is NOT closed, just that section of the Bow Valley Parkway. It’s a popular hike and they are trying to prevent overcrowding by making it more difficult to access, but I wish we had known this! The only way in is an extra 6km hike or bike, each way. We might have tried it if we didn’t have our kiddo, but we will come back another time with bikes!
Unfortunately this means that other areas are much busier, so I’m not sure how much the precaution helps.
Grotto Canyon – An Alternative to Johnston Canyon
Because there was a change of plans, we then had to seek out wifi in Banff late on a Saturday morning. I know Banff is famous and everything, but it’s very busy in a very small area, and not my cup of tea. The restaurants were all lined up outside, but we were able to find a quieter one on the second level of the mall.
We looked at a list of frozen waterfalls and canyons in the area and picked Grotto Canyon because the waterfall looked nice and it was on the way back to Calgary. It also had fewer recent reviews, so we were hoping it wouldn’t be as busy as some other locations. (Ha!)
Where to Stay
We decided to stay in Calgary (Balzac actually,) which is about an hour and 10 minutes from Grotto Canyon. An hour doesn’t seem like a lot of driving to us, especially through the mountains, so we decided to save some money. There are a LOT of hotels out by the Calgary airport and you can get insane deals right now. We stayed in a king room with a sofa bed at a brand new Days Inn for only $61 a night (including taxes!)
The hotel pool and waterslide were open, but you did have to call the desk to book a time slot. The hotel wasn’t busy, so we used the pool twice on Saturday evening. We actually loved booking a time because it was restricted to only one room at a time, so we had the whole pool to ourselves! That never happens.
Sunday morning we wanted to use the pool again but they had no openings until 12:30 and checkout was at 11. Without us even asking the hotel staff offered us a late check-out so that Siobhan could use the pool again. She did NOT want to leave.
Where to Eat
There isn’t a lot in the immediate area of the hotel, because it is new and out by the airport and Cross Iron Mills mall.
We ordered and picked up pizza from Cal City pizza on Saturday night, and it hit the spot.
Sunday morning we had brunch at Abe’s diner, a trendy little place with a great menu. It was amazing! We arrived early because weekend brunch is a serious business in these parts, but I think because of the time change nobody else was in a rush. We only had to wait a few minutes.
If you aren’t familiar with the area, Cross Iron Mills is a huge shopping centre with a big food court and actual restaurants, so if you are around during the day it isn’t a bad location.
Getting to Grotto Canyon
Grotto Canyon is just outside of Canmore, so if you want to be right near the action you could definitely stay there. It’s about a half hour from Banff. If you are coming from further away, the nearest big city is Calgary, and you would take the highway heading west. It is not inside the National Park, so you do not need to have a park pass.
On the way to Grotto Canyon, stop down the road at Gap Lake for some pictures! It’s a beautiful blue-green lake with mountains on all sides.
If you want to visit the canyon without a vehicle, you could bike the 13km from Canmore.
It was unseasonably warm when we were there, so it would have been fine to bike! Luckily the river was still frozen for the canyon ice walk. You can also hike beside the canyon in the summer, but I’m not too sure what that trail is like.
What to Bring
Water Bottles – We couldn’t find matching tops for any of our bottles so we had to buy water.
Ice Cleats – a MUST for the winter hike (at least for adults. Siobhan was fine because we could help her.) You want something intense like this. Small cleats are fine too, but you won’t be able to climb the last hill to see one more waterfall. (You will also need poles for that.) Luckily we had cleats already from our trip to Abraham Lake.
Boots – It was a warm day and extremely slushy when we went, so bring waterproof boots just in case.
Snacks for the kiddos.
Other than that you don’t need to pack a lot. The trail is not far from Banff or Canmore, so you have options to go for lunch or pick up a sandwich to pack along. In the summer I probably wouldn’t bring smelly food because I’m sure there are a lot of bears in the area.
There are pit toilets by the parking area, with hand sanitizer, so you don’t need to worry about using the bathroom.
Parking and Timing
We arrived later in the day than you would want to, due to the fact that we had been planning on going to Johnston Canyon. It was about 12 and the parking lot was completely full. We were very lucky that someone was leaving right as we drove in, because there were plenty of other people who had to do laps trying to get a spot. Some people were calling out their window to every person they saw, asking if they were leaving. It was chaos. I actually didn’t even want to do the hike at this point, because I HATE crowded places and my anxiety was flaring up. Jason said we had to, because we got a parking spot!
If you plan to visit Grotto Canyon on the weekend, arrive before 10 I would say. The whole hike took about two hours with a small child at an EXTREMELY leisurely pace.
The First Part of the Hike
Having missed out on Johnston Canyon, accidentally visited Banff on a weekend, and then fought our way through the parking lot, I was in a mood.
Then there was the hike….
The first part of the hike is trash. I won’t lie to you. We meandered up a hill for quite a while with many other people, on a trail that followed the power lines. The trail starts to get quite loud as you approach a MINERAL PROCESSING FACILITY, and it is nothing like the mountain hike one pictures. The plant sounds like a highway long after you have passed it. Therefore, I was still in a mood.
We got to a clearing at the top where lots of people were gathered so we assumed this was the waterfall. It was a dry river bed, which didn’t look that pretty, being next to the processing plant and all. The trail continues down a steeper hill and enters the canyon. From where we were standing we could only see the boulder that everyone was climbing over to access the canyon. It looked pretty difficult to get over and I assumed it was a narrow rock climb beyond it as well.
“Should we just go?” I inquired.
“I think we can make it!” said Jason.
There were a lot of people doing the hike and that boulder is a pinch point. So we waited as a constant flow of people struggled over it on their way out. We watched some women scream as they slid down the front of it.
Needless to say, I was still not sure about this.
(As you may recall, I slid down a hill and wrecked my pants, chasing another waterfall only a few weeks ago!)
Where the Hike Improves
As it turns out, this is where the hike actually gets nice. Once you are over the boulder, you climb down onto the frozen river and the rest is an easy hike up the ice. No more climbing required!
Climbing over the boulder and back out again was actually quite easy in regular boots. It was not the terrifying sport it first seemed. If you are worried about it, bare feet would probably be good for grip. Definitely don’t wear your cleats on the rocks. That may have been the problem for other people.
Hiking Grotto Canyon
The canyon is amazing! The hike is uphill on the way towards the waterfall, but not strenuous at all. The river winds for a good long ways. The ice is a pretty blue colour and it is so neat to be able to walk up it.
Like I said earlier, it was warm and quite slushy when we were there, so we had wet feet but grip was much easier that way. There were a lot of people in the canyon, but because everyone hikes at a different pace, it wasn’t too crowded.
There are two frozen waterfalls straight out of the rock at the top of the canyon, and another one up a steeper section of the river off to one side. For the waterfall further up the river you would need poles and really good cleats. We just looked from the bottom. If you aren’t bringing kids and had the proper equipment, I’m sure that part would be fun.
The views on the way back down are even nicer than the way up, because you can see the mountains through the canyon. The waterfalls are really pretty, but the long ice walk up and down the canyon was the real star.
In the end I’m very glad Jason forced me to keep going, because if I hadn’t left from the first look at the parking lot, I probably would have turned around at the processing plant, and DEFINITELY would have left when I saw people screaming and sliding out of the canyon. It was a gorgeous hike and very easy, which is perfect for kids (or cranky adults after a heavy brunch.)
If you were to visit the Canadian Rockies for an ice walk and didn’t want to pay for Maligne Canyon or brave the crowds of Johnston, I’m sure on a regular year this hike is fairly quiet. It’s also closer to a town and a short drive from Calgary. It is too bad that the first part of the trail follows the power lines, because to start and end on that note is a little disappointing, but still totally worth it!