The Grotto Canyon ice walk is a very fun and unique thing to do in Kananaskis in winter. The transformation of the cute little Grotto Creek from summer to winter is quite amazing! In summer, Grotto Creek is a gentle mountain stream running through a beautiful canyon. Over the course of winter, this modest little creek becomes a large sheet of brilliant blue uphill ice.
If you are lucky enough to catch it at a time with large ice buildup and minimal snow cover, chances are good that the Grotto Canyon ice walk will be one of your favorite winter activities in Kananaskis.
Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
- Grotto Canyon Icewalk Highlights
- When to Ice Walk Grotto Canyon
- Grotto Canyon Pictographs
- Grotto Canyon Trail Statistics
- Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Location
- Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Map
- Best Traction Device for the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
- Recommended Gear for Grotto Canyon Hike in Winter
- Grotto Canyon Icewalk Safety
- Ice Walk Grotto Canyon Trail with Kids
- Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
- Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Logistics
- Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour
- Kananaskis & Banff Winter Activities
- Banff Trip Planning
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Grotto Canyon Icewalk Highlights
Ok… let’s talk about what’s NOT a highlight first… The first 0.8km of the Grotto Canyon Trail is quite possibly the worst section of hiking trail in Kananaskis. You walk along a power line near Highway 1A towards the big and loud Baymag magnesium oxide plant. Don’t worry about this short & easy leg of the Kananaskis winter hike – the Grotto Canyon ice walk is so fun that you’ll soon forget all about it.
Once you pass the Baymag plant, it starts to feel like a real winter hike as you enter the forest for 0.5km short stretch. Before long you’ll arrive at the mouth of Grotto Creek Canyon where you can sit on a park bench to put on your micro spikes and enjoy amazing views of the Bow Valley mountains surrounding Canmore. If you look closely, you may even see people wild ice skating on nearby Gap Lake.
The magic of this Kananaskis ice walk becomes immediately apparent as you enter Grotto Canyon. There’s a small waterfall at the mouth which is often frozen over which will be your introduction to ice walking.
Once in Grotto Canyon, depending on your luck with ice conditions, you’ll alternate walking between long sheets of slick canyon ice and packed down snow. Some years it feels like the entire width & length of the canyon is full of ice and others it’s mostly snow. We recommend you go and enjoy Grotto Canyon either way as it’s always magical thing to do in Kananaskis in winter.
The 1.5km walk through Grotto Canyon to the frozen waterfalls is very beautiful in winter. In addition to the icy canyon floor, the canyon walls can get quite narrow and/or very high above. This fun combination of winter elements will make you feel like quite the winter adventurer! The ice walk sections are an especially fun and memorable experience.
At the end of the Grotto Canyon ice walk, you’ll arrive at a towering frozen waterfall. The beauty of the icy blue color is hard to describe and must be seen in person. Get up close to the frozen waterfall to enjoy the details of the huge icicles and to listen to the sound of water still flowing underneath.
It’s hard to resist grabbing and sucking on a crystal-clear icicle, but you’re not supposed to drink the water in summer (beaver fever anyone?), so try to resist the frozen variety in winter.
Most people stop their ice walk on the Grotto Canyon Trail at the frozen waterfalls, but it actually continues to the left and right if you wish to extend your Kananaskis winter adventure:
To the right, you have the chance to walk up a narrow slot canyon, often fully covered by ice. If the conditions are right, it’s a reasonably steep sheet of rippled ice which is incredibly fun to walk up with the right traction device. (I was able to do it confidently in my microspikes, but my friend was unable to do it in his Yaktrax). There’s a smaller frozen waterfall at the terminus of this section.
To the left, the Grotto Canyon Trail continues for several kilometers. The trail extension is not official, nor maintained beyond the frozen waterfalls. This section of Grotto Canyon is much less popular, but if you are looking for a longer winter hike or snowshoe, this is a satisfying option. The tightness of Grotto Canyon transitions into a wide valley which offers some really good mountain vistas. The snow can get quite deep on this section of Grotto Canyon trail, so we recommend snowshoes.
When to Ice Walk Grotto Canyon
As with most natural phenomenon, the best time to experience the Grotto Canyon ice walk depends on a lot of variables – including luck. For example, how early and quickly did the creek freeze in fall? How much snow has fallen recently? How many freeze/thaw cycles has there been this winter?
Although this may vary from year-to-year, we have found that hiking Grotto Canyon Trail in winter is better towards the end of winter.
For example, in December there isn’t typically much ice on the floor of Grotto Canyon. You can still enjoy an ice walk at Grotto Canyon during this time, but you may find that the trail alternates between patches of ice and rocky snow. You may also find your boots break through the ice into the shallow stream below the ice. The Grotto Canyon waterfalls are frozen, but are much smaller in size than later in winter.
By comparison, in March, you’ll typically find the ice coverage at Grotto Canyon much better. The canyon floor will likely be completely covered with brilliant blue ice. The frozen waterfalls at the end of the trail should also be very well formed.
Avoid Recent Snowfall Events
The Grotto Canyon ice walk experience is best when you are walking on a brilliant blue layer of ice. If it has snowed heavily in Canmore or Kananaskis recently, you may wish to wait until the snow has had a chance to melt and turn into a fresh top-layer of ice.
If you aren’t sure about the Grotto Canyon trail conditions, you can always check out recent Instagram posts.
Grotto Canyon Pictographs
The Grotto Canyon ice walk isn’t just a super fun thing to do in Kananaskis in winter – you can also see a bit of Alberta history. As you near the Grotto Canyon waterfalls, look to the left to see some pictographs of humans and animals, thought to be drawn between 500-1,300 years ago by the Hopituh Shi-nu-mu people (“Hopi” for short).
One of Grotto Canyon pictographs is thought to be a flute player (also known as a “Kokopelli”). This symbol was only used by the Hopi people and has been described as their symbol of fertility and as a traveler. As Hopi clans explored new territory, they left paintings of the flute player along the way.
Despite having hiked and ice walked Grotto Canyon umpteen times, I’ve never actually seen the pictographs. Probably because they are near the waterfall, which is beautifully distracting. But another reason is because they are faded and hard to see. Oil from human skin is very damaging to the pictographs, so if you lucky enough to spot them, please don’t touch.
See images of the Grotto Canyon pictographs.
Grotto Canyon Trail Statistics
Aside from the slippery ice to contend with, Grotto Canyon is a very easy winter hike in Kananaskis.
How Long is the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk?
The round-trip distance of the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk trail is approximately 5.2km.
How Steep is the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk?
The first leg of the Grotto Canyon winter hike is slightly uphill, but is generally very flat. Once you reach the Grotto Canyon, you’ll be walking upstream in a mountain canyon, so the trail gets a little steeper, but it’s never too bad.
This portion is the ice walking portion of the Grotto Canyon Trail, so chances are you’ll be having so much fun you won’t even notice the uphill. We recorded the total elevation gain on the Grotto Canyon ice walk as 259m.
How Hard is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk?
The only thing that’s hard about the Grotto Canyon ice walk is managing the slippery ice surfaces. It’s a short and reasonably flat Kananaskis ice walk, so as long as you have the proper gear with you, almost everyone should be able to enjoy this unique Kananaskis winter activity. Keep reading for our gear recommendations.
How Long Does Grotto Canyon in Winter Take?
The length of time it will take a typical adult to complete the Grotto Canyon icewalk is around 60-75 minutes.
Grotto Canyon is a very popular thing to do in Kananaskis with kids in winter. Kids are slower hikers and will always want to stop and play on the ice. We recently hiked Grotto Canyon with our kids (aged 5 & 7) and we completed the ice walk in just over 2 hours.
Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Location
The Grotto Canyon ice walk is located between Canmore and Exshaw in a unique part of Bow Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis. You’ll find the Grotto Canyon ice walk trailhead at the parking lot near Grotto Mountain Pond.
If the Grotto Canyon parking lot is full, another fun trail is just 5 minutes down the highway. The kid-friendly Jura Creek winter hike features two slot canyons and often has sections of ice walking.
What’s interesting about the Grotto Canyon Trail is that the Bow Valley Provincial Park includes all the areas south of Highway 1A, but north of the highway the only area in the provincial park is the land around Grotto Mountain Pond and the full length of the Grotto Canyon Trail. All the mountainous land just outside the Grotto Canyon trail is not included in the Bow Valley Provincial Park.
Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Map
The Grotto Canyon Trail is well-signed and really easy to follow; once you find the trailhead (in the middle of the Grotto Pond parking lot) simply follow the signs all the way to Grotto Canyon.
We used the AllTrails app while on the Grotto Canyon ice walk, but to be honest, we didn’t need it for navigation purposes. We use AllTrails for all our adventures in the Canadian Rockies and hiking with kids around the world. In addition to helping stay on the trails, we like the ability to track our stats (distance, elevation gain, etc.).
To find the Grotto Canyon ice walk map in AllTrails, simply search for “Grotto Canyon Trail”. You are close enough to Exshaw that you should get intermittent cell service on the ice walk, but just to be safe, download your hiking maps prior to leaving.
A paper map isn’t required for this Kananaskis ice walk, but if you prefer to bring a paper map and compass as an additional safety layer, we highly recommend Gem Trek hiking maps. We own the entire set of these excellent Banff and Kananaskis hiking maps. They are exceptional 3D topographic maps which I love looking at for hiking inspiration.
The Grotto Canyon map is found in the “Canmore & Kananaskis Village” Gem Trek map. You can order it before your trip, or you can pick it up here as they are widely available.
Best Traction Device for the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
This is kind of obvious, but your biggest risk on the Grotto Canyon ice walk is slipping on the ice. Having good quality traction on your winter boots is essential. Winter hikers to Grotto Canyon have several options for traction devices:
1. Traction devices we do not recommend for the Grotto Canyon icewalk:
Yaktrax Traction Device: Yaktrax are a popular multi-purpose traction device used around Banff for winter walking or running. They are popular as they are very comfortable for walking on winter hikes or snow-covered walking trails in Canmore or Banff. The lack of spikes makes them comfortable to walk on, but not great for ice walking.
I recently hiked Grotto Canyon in winter with a good friend who was wearing Yaktrax. He was able to make it to the frozen waterfall, but he had much more trouble with his footing on the ice than I did.
Steel Button Traction Devices: Our first ever purchase of winter traction devices was a steel button contraption (similar to these ones) we found at Costco. They were effectively useless on ice, so we threw them away and never tried this style of traction device again. This was quite a while ago, so perhaps technology has improved, but I just don’t see them being effective for traction on the Grotto Canyon ice walk.
2. Decent Traction Devices for Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
Snowshoes: Grotto Canyon is such a popular thing to do in Kananaskis in winter that the snow is almost always hard packed from foot traffic. Therefore, you will not need snowshoes in the traditional sense to manage deep snow, but you can use the crampons on your snowshoes to manage the slippery uphill ice in Grotto Canyon.
Snowshoes are not your best option for traction at Grotto Canyon in winter, but if you already own a pair and don’t wish to drop more cash on micro spikes, then feel free to use them – just step carefully and use your crampons strategically.
Snowshoes are also an effective option for enjoying the Grotto Canyon ice walk with kids. It’s hard to find decent traction devices for kids, so snowshoes are a good alternative. As a bonus, you can enjoy using them on these easy Kananaskis snowshoe trails.
3. Best Traction Device for the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
Kahtoola MICROspikes: Take a look at the steel spikes on the bottom of the Kahtoola MICROspikes and you’ll see why we love these traction devices so much. They are a scaled-down recreational version of the crampons you’ll see on mountain expeditions.
We’ve owned Kahtoola MICROspikes for many years and are happy with their effectiveness and sturdy construction. We often use them in place of snowshoes while enjoying popular winter hikes around Banff. Specific to ice walking at Grotto Canyon, we are very confident walking on slick uphill ice while using them.
If you are looking for good quality traction devices to use for a variety of winter activities around Banff and Kananaskis, we highly recommend Kahtoola MICROspikes.
Traction Devices for Kids
There are traction devices for kids too. Kahtoola doesn’t make microspikes for kids, but you can often find smaller versions by other manufacturers. Our kids have High Stream Gear Ice Cleats for Kids, but these are often sold out on Amazon. There are other traction devices for kids – just watch the sizes carefully as many of these products are for bigger kids.
4. Trekking Poles
No matter which traction device you use for your feet, you should consider using trekking poles to help your balance. We’ve tried trekking poles and to be honest, we don’t like them nor use them, but we seem to be in the minority. Trekking poles are widely used around Banff and Kananaskis in winter.
It makes sense… winter hiking on snow or ice in the mountains is often very slippery and trekking poles add two more points of contact with the ground, thus greatly reducing your odds of slipping.
Recommended Gear for Grotto Canyon Hike in Winter
If possible, wear waterproof or water-resistant winter boots on the Grotto Canyon ice walk. It’s common for the water in Grotto Creek to continue running under the ice all winter long. The ice can get quite thin in spots and your feet can break through and your feet will get wet (although it’s rarely very deep). Regardless of what you wear on your feet, be cautious of thin spots in the ice. You’ll be glad your boots are waterproof if you are unlucky enough to break through the upper layer of canyon ice.
Also, keep in mind that you will be hiking in a narrow canyon in the middle of winter. This means the walls of Grotto Canyon will block the sun, making it feel colder than the forecasted temperature.
Making temperature matters worse, the canyon walls tend to form a wind tunnel so you’ll have some wind chill to contend with as well. We recommend dressing in layers and having a good daybag to store unused layers in.
Grotto Canyon Icewalk Safety
Taking care of your foot traction on ice isn’t your only safety concern at Grotto Canyon in winter.
- No matter what activity you do in Kananaskis in winter, it’s always a good idea to check the trail report before you go to check for any area closures, dangerous animals in area, etc. Please check the Grotto Creek Canyon trail report by Alberta Parks before you head out.
- If there is ice on Grotto Canyon Creek, then bears should be hibernating. But that’s not a reason to let your guard down as wolves, cougars, elk, etc. still provide a safety risk to Kananaskis visitors. Take a few minutes and read “Living with Wildlife” by Alberta Parks.
- This Kananaskis ice walk follows a narrow canyon nestled in-between Grotto Mountain and Gap Mountain. Any time you venture towards the base of a mountain in winter, you need to assess the avalanche risk. Avalanche.ca is an excellent resource for assessing your Kananaskis avalanche risk.
Ice Walk Grotto Canyon Trail with Kids
Hiking the Grotto Canyon ice walk with kids is a super-fun thing to do in Kananaskis in winter. The novelty of walking on slippery ice uphill though a beautiful mountain canyon will be a thrill for kids of all ages. The Grotto Canyon trail is short and flat enough that most kids should be able to complete it without issue, as long as everyone has the proper traction gear.
We’ve done this fun Kananaskis ice walk with our kids several times and they love it. The first time we enjoyed the Grotto Canyon ice walk with our kids they were 2 & 4. They do not make traction devices for very small kids, so we alternated between carrying our kids backpack carriers and simply holding their hands tightly.
Once your kids are old enough to walk confidently in snowshoes, they can snowshoe on the ice at Grotto Canyon. Snowshoes have a set of crampons on the bottom which should provide enough traction for your kids to navigate the uphill ice walk through Grotto Canyon.
Before going on the Grotto Canyon ice walk with kids, be sure to have a plan for your foot traction. For the adults, it’s very important to have excellent traction with the ability to move quickly in case you need to go help a little one who slipped. We personally use and highly recommend Kahtoola MicroSpikes.
Small kids can wear snowshoes, or if they are big enough, they can wear children’s microspikes. If you opt for kid’s snowshoes, look for a pair with good quality front and back crampons. If you prefer kid’s microspikes, look carefully at the shoe sizes. Many microspikes claim to fit kids, but they are actually for small adult feet. These ice cleats for kids fit EU sizes 26-32 (which fit feet 6 3/8″ to 8.5″).
Looking for more kid-friendly activities in Kananaskis? The Heart Creek Trail is another nearby fun winter activity for kids.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
There are two spots along the Grotto Canyon Trail which are ideal for a short break.
For those who enjoy Rocky Mountain scenery, the ideal spot will be to sit on the bench just before the trail makes a sharp right into Grotto Canyon. From here, you’ll enjoy views of many beautiful Bow Valley mountains, such as Wind Ridge, the Three Sisters and beyond.
For most, the best spot to stop and enjoy a break is at the foot of the frozen waterfall found at the end of the Grotto Canyon ice walk. This is a popular spot to stop, but thankfully there is a surprising amount of space to spread out, plop down and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Grotto Canyon in winter.
Grotto Canyon Ice Walk Logistics
- On-leash dogs are allowed on the Grotto Canyon ice walk trail.
- The Grotto Canyon parking lot serves the Grotto Canyon Trail and the Grotto Pond day use area. It’s a medium sized parking lot, but these are two popular things to do in Kananaskis, so the lot can fill quickly especially on weekends. Be aware, there is a warning sign here regarding vehicle break-ins. Bring your valuables with you or better yet, leave them at home.
- There are toilets at the end of the Grotto Canyon parking lot.
- There are many picnic tables around Grotto Pond.
- There are no drinking water facilities at Grotto Canyon, so top up your refillable water bottles before you leave home.
Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour
By this point, you’ve read all the info you need to enjoy the Grotto Canyon ice walk. If, like many people, you don’t have the proper winter hiking gear, transportation, etc. then check out this Grotto Canyon Ice Walk tour by Discover Banff Tours.
This popular Kananaskis icewalk tour includes all the winter hiking gear you need as well as hotel pick-up and drop-off. As a bonus, unlike me, they know where to find the petroglyphs!
Whether you enjoy the Grotto Canyon ice walk on your own or on a guided tour, we hope you enjoy it as much as we do!!
Kananaskis & Banff Winter Activities
- 30+ Amazing Things to do in Banff in Winter
- Visiting Banff in December
- Banff at Christmas
- Easy Cross-Country Skiing Trails in Banff and Area
- Chester Lake Winter Hike
- Watridge Lake Trail in Winter
- Torpor Snowshoe Trail in Kananaskis
- Shark Lake Kananaskis Snowshoe Trail
- Cascade Amphitheatre Banff Snowshoe Trail
Banff Trip Planning
- How to Get to Banff National Park
- Getting Around Banff without a Car
- Expert Tips to Spot Banff Wildlife
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