For anyone coming with a family for the first time to the Calgary/Banff area, one of the top five hikes (for novice and experienced hikers of all ages) that I would recommend is Grotto Canyon. It’s about 10 minutes east of Canmore on highway 1A so you don’t need a national park pass. Depending on where you’re staying it’s about an hour from Calgary or half an hour from Banff.
Grotto Canyon is a 4km hike (2km in and 2km back out) through a forest and into a canyon. The trail is open year round and is quite flat. In deep winter, it requires crampons but the rest of the year you don’t need any special gear.
In spring, the canyon portion may be inaccessible due to snow melt and rain, but there’s an alternate “High Water Trail” for those few days when the creek becomes a raging river.
Kids love it because you get to scramble over rocks, jump over the creek, blaze your own trail, duck under logs, walk through slightly spooky stretches with cliff walls on either side of you and picnic by a gurgling waterfall while you sit on big slabs of rock that rise up out of the ground beside the creek bed. Small groups from nearby schools visit every year.
Adults love it because the kids can’t fall off cliffs or get too wet or wander off too far (those cliff walls help keep everyone corralled) but it never seems to have too many people, so it still feels like you’re exploring nature.
This year we decided to go out on a sunny autumn day but discovered once we made it to the foothills that the first snow of the year had started to fall in the area. It was SO magical! I loved it.
You start off at a fairly large parking lot (with toilets).
There are picnic tables beside the lake there and you can usually watch a few people fishing from the shore (with a fishing license) if you decide to stop for a picnic.
The trail is quite well marked and easy to follow. Each time there’s a branch, there will be a blue sign with an arrow that points you toward Grotto Trail.
The first third of the hike is through a forest …
… and past a rather noisy magnesium ore processing plant. Darren loves stuff like that so I’ll try not to complain about it too much, but I could do without a big factory thingy in the midst of my nature walk, heh.
Like many trails in the provincial parks, this one follows the cut lines they make for power lines and one starts to feel like maybe this isn’t going to be such a pretty walk but just a couple minutes past the green sign about the mineral processing plant ...
... you’ll see a blue sign pointing to a smaller trail on the right and things get more fun!
A couple more minutes on this narrow path through the forest you come to a wide open rocky area with a bench to your left. You can stop and rest on the bench if you’re tired or just want to enjoy the view for awhile.
The opposite direction from the bench is the canyon which is where the real fun starts!
From here, the trail is less defined. You basically just walk through the narrow canyon however you like. There’s some guidance on where to go so you never feel lost, but this hike is all about scrambling around and having fun. You can take turns leading or all make your own routes.
Take your time, have fun and keep an eye out for petroglyphs (rock carvings made by indigenous people) on the cliff walls.
The Grotto Canyon hike is great for fantasizing. It’s easy to imagine yourself travelling with a band of fellow rangers Lord of the Rings style or searching for centaurs with Harry, Ron and Hermione or stalking fire breathing dragons with your fellow Knights of the Round Table.
You can go “full hobbit” *grin* and have a picnic when you arrive, a second picnic at the waterfall (halfway through the hike) and a third picnic when you finish your hike. The great thing about this plan is you only have to carry one picnic on the hike, since the other two happen near where your car is parked!
The end of the trail is marked with a sign that says “trail not maintained”. This sign is just after the big slabs of rock by the waterfall. I don’t recommend taking kids past this point.
If you’re lucky, there will be rock climbers scaling the walls near the end of trail sign. It’s fun to watch them!
As a note, sometimes the online trails websites list the Grotto Canyon trail as having a 250 meter elevation gain. It doesn’t! ... unless you scale the sheer cliff at the end, heh. Assuming you’re not a cliff climber, the hike is quite flat but a bit scrambly and rocky.
If you are a cliff climber, there are little metal rings set into the cliff so bring your gear and have fun... I even saw someone hoist their (amazingly well behaved) golden retriever up the cliff one time! They had a harness for him, so I don’t think that was the first time that dog went mountain climbing.
Walking back out is just as fun as walking in. Everyone’s favourite part is right at the mouth of the canyon. You climb up and over a boulder where you’re pretty much forced to sit on your bum and slide down the other side.
Success is in the Footwear
I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t wear heels.
Both of my girls are part mountain goat and cheerfully scramble around in Birkenstocks and Sketchers but I suggest wearing hiking boots or at least a sturdy pair of runners.
Hiking boots are great because they have a thick sole, are usually water resistant and have good ankle support. Having said that, most kids are pretty nimble and have no trouble tackling the hike in whatever sports style shoes they wear for gym class.
What you need:
- Reusable container or bag
- Variety of snack foods such as:
- Filberts (I know. They’re nuts. But they have such a fun name that they get special mention!)
- Dried fruit
- Shaved coconut
- Dried chickpeas
- Chocolate chips
- Fruit gummies
- Give each of the hikers a reusable container.
- Let everyone fill their container with snack items of their choice
- I like to put a measuring scoop beside each snack to “police” how large a portion everyone can take of each treat. I might only allow 1/4 cup of M&Ms but put a one cup measure beside the almonds.
- I like to rename trail mix depending on our fantasy mood of the moment. Magic Mix, Ranger Rations, Gnomish Nibbles... whatever strikes your fancy!
Disclaimer: As always, my opinions are my own.
You might also enjoy visiting these sections on DLTK's Sites:
- Winter Crafts and Activities
- Forest Animal Crafts and Activities
- About Alberta Canada (including worksheets)
All photos in this blog post are copyright Leanne Guenther or are used with permission.
Wife, mom and the woman behind the scenes of the DLTK's Crafts for Kids websites. The websites are a terrific hobby -- run by (me) Leanne, a mom with two girls as my official craft testers and my husband as my technical support. DLTK are the first initials of each of the people in my family (I'm the L!). Whenever we send out little cards or whatnot, we sign 'love DLTK' ... when I started the website I used the initials. Had I known the website would get actual strangers visiting it, I would have picked a less mysterious name but we're all stuck with it now!
You can view my other blog posts here.