Hiking season in the Canadian Rockies got off to its usual slow start; at higher elevations, many trails were still snow-covered and/or under avalanche warnings until late June. Early season bear and tick warnings were fairly widespread and some wildlife conservation closures were in effect until late June.
Spring shoulder season, we find trail condition reports one of the most helpful resources when selecting a suitable trail for early season hiking. The Alberta Parks website lists current trail conditions for Kananaskis country and Parks Canada describes current trail conditions in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper and Waterton National Parks. Prime hiking season is July through mid-September. One year-round, easy half-day option is Grotto Canyon.
The the official trailhead is at the Grotto Mountain Pond parking lot, approx. 12 kms from Canmore on the 1A highway past the Baymag plant #2.
The front section of this hike is boring. Bypass most of this section by parking at the unofficial lot just off the access road to Baymag plant #2. (Downside alert: there are no pit toilets at the unofficial lot. Also, parking at the Grotto Mountain Pond lot provides the option to nab a picnic table in the shade for a post-hike nosh and/or the ability to extend the outing by exploring the short trail that circumnavigates the pond.)
The trail turns fun about 500 meters beyond the unofficial parking lot adjacent to Baymag plant #2 (about 1 km from the official trailhead). Once you turn into the canyon and start working you way up Grotto Creek, endless opportunities for rock hopping and creek crossing make for a kid-friendly stretch, right up to the T-junction where a trickle of a waterfall and a lovely arch in the rock wall make for a great photo spot. Along the way, observant hikers may spot rock climbers and/or some faded red pictographs (a little downstream of the waterfall, on the west side of the canyon), reported to be between 500 and a thousand years old.
In late May, there was still a fair bit of packed snow and ice in the shaded canyon.
At the waterfall/t-intersection, we dug cleats out of our packs and headed uphill to the northeast (to the right facing the waterfall) to check out the still-mostly-frozen big chute waterfall. Because it was so icy, we had this section of the trail entirely to ourselves!
Beyond the T-Intersection
To the dismay of Mr. GeoK, a large-sized geocache a few km up the canyon was calling my name, so after safely descending the icy waterfall chute, we headed northwest. This is where we noticed big changes to the landscape since our last trek up Grotto Canyon about 10 years ago.
The first noticeable change? Lots of inuksuik (yes, that’s the plural of inuksuk)! There’s an especially numerous grouping just beyond the t-junction waterfall – a popular spot to enjoy lunch before turning back towards the parking lot. We also spotted a few more isolated ones further up the canyon.
The second, more pervasive and permanent change is thanks to the 2013 flood. The well-established trail that meandered in and out of the trees the last time we were here is, for the most part, gone. Instead, there’s a seemingly endless rubble field of pebbles, rocks and boulders, making sturdy footwear is essential. Climbing up, over, around and staying balanced on the unexpectedly wobbly stones was a great test of my knee (then six months post ACL replacement).
Another frequent turnaround spot is the hoodoos and small cave that are about 3 km from the official trailhead.
The geocache was another 1.5 km beyond the hoodoos, so I kept going. Between the heat and the rubble, Mr. GeoK wasn’t having the greatest time, so as soon as I signed the geocache logbook I headed back down canyon to meet up with him. Trail reports I’ve read suggest the canyon eventually opens up into a valley surrounded by beautiful Rocky Mountain peaks.
We encountered a couple hundred people hiking up canyon as we hustled back down. We stopped once, just long enough to get a couple of photos of the Baymag plant:
The parking lot at Grotto Mountain Pond was overflowing when we got back at about 1:30, so rather than walk the short loop around its circumference, we opted to open up a parking stall. Another reason to head on out? We were more than ready for lunch! All that post-flood debris made for much slower going than we’d anticipated!
Total distance = 9.7 km
Total elevation gain = 390 meters (336 net); elevation will vary, depending on how far you go
Total time = 3.5 hrs, including about half an hour for photos and exploring the frozen chute waterfall
While not the most scenic hike, there is definitely a fun factor to this half-day outing – creek crossings, rock-hopping, pictographs, waterfalls and rock climbers are all appealing. In the winter, ice cleats should be considered essential.