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While visiting Banff in summer is a bucket-list activity for many, the winter months are actually my favorite time to go! It turns into a winter wonderland with the snow-covered Canadian Rockies and waterfalls frozen in their tracks. It’s an ideal way to get outside in the cold winter months and enjoy the natural beauty of this area.
There is one hike that boasts all of this area’s glory – The Grotto Canyon Icewalk just outside Canmore. This short and easy hike near Banff will have you venturing through a canyon up a frozen creek bed. Besides just being a stunning adventure, you will see some ancient Indigenous pictographs, impressive rock formations, and its famously blue frozen waterfall!
We have done this hike multiple times and think it is the perfect addition to your Banff winter itinerary. Here are the top 10 things you need to know about the Grotto Canyon Icewalk so you can enjoy this stunning outdoor excursion as much as we did!
1. About Grotto Canyon
Grotto Canyon is a beautiful hiking area, just 10 minutes outside of Canmore. In the summer, you can follow the slow-moving creek through the canyon but is better known for its stunning views in the winter. The creek freezes over and turns a vibrant blue color and the ice is so thick you can actually walk on it! This is easily one of the best hikes to do in the Canmore area.
Winter is my favorite time of year to visit Grotto Canyon. The most impressive part of this icewalk is the waterfalls that are frozen in time (literally). They are called “icefalls” and some can reach up to 30 meters (100 feet)! You might even see the crazy ice climbers scaling these giant frozen falls.
Grotto Canyon also holds a unique history in the Banff area. Along the way, you’ll see Indigenous pictographs created by the Hopi people that traveled from the southwest United States. The symbols have many meanings and origins that have shaped Indigenous history in the valley. If you aren’t looking for these pictographs, they are easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled!
The best time of year to visit the Grotto Canyon Icewalk is from late December to early April, this gives the canyon time to freeze over! Plus, visiting Canmore in December is a magical experience. However, visiting Grotto Canyon is beautiful any time of the year, and is even one of the most fun hikes when it rains in Banff! So whether you go in the winter, the rain, or catch a sunny day, Grotto Canyon is a must-see when you’re in the area!
Related Read: Lake Louise is another destination that is just as great in the winter as it is in the summer! Here are our top things to do in Lake Louise during the winter.
2. Where is Grotto Canyon?
Grotto Canyon is at the base of Grotto Mountain, nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. You can expect some of the most beautiful mountain views in this area! It is only 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Canmore, which is one of the best areas to stay in Banff and will only take you 10 minutes to drive to the Grotto Canyon parking lot.
If you are coming from Banff, you can reach the trailhead in about 30 minutes. It is a 37-kilometer (23-mile) straightshot down Highway 1, making it very convenient to access no matter where you’re staying. If you’re driving from Calgary to Canmore, it is only a 1 hour (93 kilometers/58 miles) drive, making it a great day trip!
3. How long is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk?
In total, the Grotto Canyon Icewalk is about 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) in distance. You can expect the hike to take about 2-2.5 hours to complete depending on how much time you take at the waterfalls. The route is an out-and-back style hike with each direction being about 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) in length. You will have a fairly minimal elevation gain of about 100 meters (328 feet), so it is doable for most hikers.
The trail is well-marked and has plenty of signs to point you in the right direction. This route is considered easy, although walking on ice can feel a bit uneasy at times! It is undoubtedly one of the top hikes in Banff and I try to make it here every time I’m visiting in the winter. There are even more trails that continue on through the valley if you’re looking for a bit more hiking while you’re out!
4. How hard is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk?
The Icewalk is considered an easy hike with a minimal elevation gain of 100 meters (328 feet). Roundtrip, is 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) and should take about 2 hours, so it is fairly accessible for most people. It is a great chance to get outside and one of the best ways to experience Banff in winter! This is a great hike for kiddos, they have such a fun time exploring this winter wonderland.
Any time you’re walking on ice, wearing crampons is essential for your safety. There are a few sections with small inclines that can get slippery, but wearing crampons makes it no problem! At the canyon’s entrance, there will be some rocky areas to navigate, so anyone with mobility issues can take a little more caution in this area. Otherwise, I would not consider this a hard activity.
Related Read: Need a pint after a hike? Check out Canmore’s best breweries and distilleries to relax after a day of adventuring!
5. What to expect on the Grotto Canyon Icewalk
The trailhead takes off from the Grotto Canyon parking lot, and I must admit the first kilometer/half mile isn’t very impressive as it is right off the highway. But stick with it because you will soon be in the forest headed for the falls! You will reach the frozen creek in Grotto Canyon within 15 to 20 minutes which officially starts your Icewalk experience.
If you’ve never seen a frozen waterfall before – prepare to be amazed! The views are breathtaking throughout this whole hike. It is eerily quiet because the snow absorbs any road noise, so you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
This is a good time to sit down and put on your crampons as you will continue walking on ice for the next few kilometers. You can continue following the frozen river, but be sure to go slow as the path can get slippery. Depending on the time of year you visit and recent weather conditions, the path will either be full of ice or have some snow coverage. As you navigate through the narrow river bed, you can take in the stunning canyon, frozen falls, and revel in this winter wonderland!
What really makes this hike special is the ancient Indigenous rock art you can see. These famous pictographs are estimated to be about 1,500 years old and they are truly fascinating to see. They are located just before the waterfalls and are fairly faded so be sure to keep an eye out for them. It is thought that these were created by the Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (Hopi) people.
The pictographs aren’t easy to find. On your hike in, as you are walking towards the waterfalls, you can find this Indigenous art on the left-hand side of the large rocks. They are right at eye level just before the last sharp left-hand turn before the waterfalls. If seeing them is important to you, booking a tour is a great way to ensure that you can find them. Out of respect and to help preserve this ancient art, be sure to look but don’t touch the painting.
Besides the paintings, people come from all over to experience the natural beauty of Grotto Canyon. The walk up the river is about 25 minutes during which you will be surrounded by unique rock formations and large canyon walls until you reach the waterfalls.
While the waterfalls begin freezing earlier in the winter, visiting from late January to March will give the most impressive views. The falls will be fully frozen at this time and are simply stunning! You can walk right up to the waterfalls and touch the giant icicles that form here. While it may be tempting to break one off and eat it, I’d recommend avoiding this as this is untreated water and you might get sick which would certainly spoil your trip!
The trail is absolutely gorgeous and I love how it changes throughout the winter season. You could get the iconic bright blue icy walkway or a snow-covered path. Both are incredibly beautiful and the unpredictability adds a sense of adventure to this cold-weather hike. The waterfalls can mark the end of your hike, or you can extend your winter adventure by taking the path that forks either to the right or left-hand side.
Going left will take you a few kilometers further up the canyon where the walk will turn less icy and slippery and will continue to just be a nice winter walk. This area isn’t as popular and therefore not as well maintained or marked but can be a fun way to extend the hike and showcases a cool inukshuk (stacked stone) garden.
Going right, you will continue up the creek along the icy walkway before reaching another frozen waterfall. Take caution, as the canyon gets quite narrow and incredibly slippery through this section. You may be able to see ice climbers ascending the walls. We spent some time here watching the climbers go up the walls which was definitely a cool experience.
Related Read: Having trouble picking the BEST scenic tour? Let us help with our guide on the 7 best tours of the Canadian Rockies and how to pick one!
6. Is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk free?
Yes. The Grotto Canyon Icewalk is one of the best free things to do in the Banff area! While the hike is free, you will need to have a Kananaskis Conservation Pass displayed on your car in order to park here and enjoy other winter activities in the Kananaskis. If you don’t already have one, you can buy your pass online for $15 CAD per day or $90 CAD per year, depending on how often you’re in the area!
This hike can certainly get popular, as it is one of the top things to do in Canmore, so the parking lot can fill up quickly. Be sure to not park along the highway as you will get ticketed. The busiest times are on the weekends during the winter, so I highly recommend visiting early in the morning or on a weekday. You will see fewer people and be able to enjoy the canyon without the crowds!
Kananaskis Conservation Pass
It’s important to note that you will need a Kananaskis Conservation Pass if you want to visit the Kanananakis Region, which you can either purchase daily or for the year. You will need this for all vehicles parked in the park and public land sites in Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley. The passes can be easily purchased online for $15 CAD per day (1 vehicle) or $90 CAD per year (up to 2 vehicles).
7. What equipment do you need for the Grotto Canyon Icewalk?
This hike is best done in the heart of winter when the river and waterfall are completely frozen. Canada in the winter is incomparably beautiful, yet bitterly cold! You will need to ensure you have appropriate winter gear to ensure you are safe and comfortable on this walk. Temperatures can change quickly and wind chill can add to the cold so it is important to be prepared!
Crampons or ice cleats are an absolute must for this hike! We don’t often insist on gear for people to use, however, we truly believe this hike is not safe without spikes for your shoes. You will spend most of your time walking on ice meaning there are no breaks from the slippery surfaces. Ice cleats should be worn by every person attempting this hike. We didn’t take any and both had a bad fall!
Bringing along hiking poles can also work to provide extra stability, especially for those with mobility concerns. As this is a winter hike, I also highly recommend you layer appropriately with a good winter jacket, sturdy waterproof hiking boots with wool socks, and gloves. Bringing along a water bottle is also a great idea.
If you don’t have the appropriate gear for the hike, need transportation, or simply prefer the ease of tours out of Canmore, booking a Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour is a great idea!
8. What is the best tour of the Grotto Canyon Icewalk?
If you are wanting to go on this winter adventure and are looking for a great tour to join, we’ve got you covered. This Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour is our top pick, as it takes care of all the details for you and lets you simply enjoy this beautiful area!
If you’re not from Canada, driving in the winter can be a bit daunting at first. So the fact that this tour transports you from the convenient meeting point in Banff (Mount Royal Hotel) makes it all the more appealing. Plus, if you don’t have your own crampons or hiking poles, these are included in the tour, which will make your hike much more enjoyable. You’ll be looking like a real Canadian by the end of it!
One of the biggest reasons we recommend booking a guided winter tour from Banff on this trail is to help you find the Indigenous pictographs that can be seen along the walk. This ancient rock art can be difficult to spot, and your guide will not only point it out but explain the history behind it as well as the rock formation along the route. You really don’t want to miss the pictographs, they are quite beautiful to see!
In total, you will spend between 2-2.5 hours walking the trail and taking in all the beauty of the area, and learning lots of fascinating things from your guide. It includes transportation from Banff, essential winter gear, plus maple cookies and hot chocolate! The tour lasts about 4 hours with transportation and costs $101 CAD per person. You can reserve this experience online here.
Related Read: If driving during the winter isn’t your jam, we have the perfect solution – take a tour! Here are the best Banff bus tours so you can enjoy the area without the stress of driving!
9. Is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk suitable for children?
Yes, the Grotto Canyon Icewalk is a great family-friendly hike, children love seeing the frozen waterfalls! The walk doesn’t have steep elevation gains and instead is relatively flat throughout, so it is definitely doable for kiddos.
However, the hike can be very slippery so it is important that kids are wearing crampons to ensure stability. The hike is not stroller accessible so it’s easiest if kids are either small enough to be worn in a carrier or can hike independently for the full 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles).
This is definitely not your average hike! It is full of beautiful scenery and lots of interesting sights along the way that will keep kids engaged and excited. It is a fantastic way to get outside and enjoy one of the best things to do in Canmore during the winter!
10. Is the Grotto Canyon Icewalk worth it?
Absolutely! The Grotto Canyon Icewalk is a great winter activity for anyone looking to have an adventure in the Rockies. Walking up the icy alpine creek is a unique experience and the views of the canyon are absolutely stunning. The ancient pictographs along the way add a unique historical element to the experience.
The Icewalk is specifically great if you go towards the end of the winter. The waterfalls are frozen, the creek bed is covered with beautiful blue ice, and the views of the snow-capped mountains are absolutely gorgeous! If you have the opportunity to come back in the summer, it can be really cool to compare how different the hike is during this time.
Related Read: If you’re heading to Banff in the winter, you can hit the slopes too! Check out our guide to the best places to stay in Banff for a ski trip.
Other Things to do While You’re in Canmore
If you’re planning a trip here, there are so many great things to do in Canmore! If you’re still putting together your Canmore winter itinerary here are some of my personal favorite activities that I would recommend to anyone!
- Go ice skating on a frozen lake – An epic experience during winter in Canmore is going skating on one of the area’s frozen lakes (usually frozen solid by mid-December). A few of my favorites are Gap Lake, Lake Louise, and Vermilion Lakes. If you don’t have your own skates you can easily rent a pair from Gear Up in town.
- Wildlife Safari – Canmore is home to an abundance of wildlife, including black bears, grizzlies, moose, bighorn sheep, foxes, cougars, elk, coyotes, lynx, mountain goats, wolves, and more. Spotting wildlife on your own is often a coinflip, so I recommend going on a wildlife tour with an expert who knows where and what to look for. This private half-day wildlife safari tour is a fantastic option that includes a drive through the Rocky Mountains and a nature walk to track wildlife.
- Drink local craft beer – One of my favorite ways to warm up after outdoor activities is to sit down to a pint of craft beer! Plus, this part of Canada is well known for its craft beer scene, so you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of breweries around Canmore. My favorite in Canmore is The Grizzly Paw, which not only has great beer, but amazing food and incredible views too!
- Go snowshoeing – Snowshoeing is a great way to access popular hiking trails around Canmore and gives stunning views of the Canadian Rockies covered in snow! This snowshoe tour is the perfect way to hit the trails and comes with snowshoes and a local guide so you don’t get lost. It makes for a memorable day!
- Hike Ha Ling Peak – Ha Ling Peak is known as the best hike in Canmore, and while most people only do it in the summer, it is even better in the winter! This 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles) out-and-back trail is rated as moderate and while it is a bit of a workout, the views at the top are totally worth it. It is Canmore’s best hike for a reason!
- Day trip to Lake Louise- A day trip from Canmore to Lake Louise will give you one of the most iconic Canadian sights – the frozen lake in front of the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise! You can ice skate, take a snowy hike, or enjoy coffee inside the beautiful hotel. Visiting Lake Louise during winter is a must, and it is conveniently located less than an hour from Canmore so you can easily explore it as well
Where to Stay in Canmore
Grotto Canyon is only 10 minutes outside of Canmore, making this the perfect launch point for your adventures! Canmore has a ton of fun things to do in and around the city, as well as some awesome places to stay. Luckily for you, Dan and I have stayed in a lot of different hotels in Canmore and have been able to narrow it down to our absolute favorites!
Here are the best places to stay in Canmore including our personal top choice, a budget option, and one for those looking for absolute luxury!
Coast Canmore Hotel & Conference Centre – Our Top Choice
Coast Canmore Hotel & Conference Centre is our absolute favorite place to stay in Canmore. It is affordable without sacrificing any of the comforts you’ll need for a relaxing and enjoyable stay – suitable for almost all travelers and budgets. They have an onsite pool, hot tub, and fitness center along with a delicious bar and restaurant (Table Food + Drink).
Coast Canmore Hotel is located right in the heart of downtown Canmore walking distance from 8 Street (Main Street in Canmore), and just across the road from the Canmore Shops where you have a selection of restaurants, cafes, and takeaway places.
Oh, and did I mention the views from the hotel windows are breathtaking? This is especially true during the winter!
On top of all of that, they have a variety of rooms to choose from including ones that are pet-friendly (super handy when we are traveling with our Yorkie, Rex). The average cost per night ranges between $200-$300 CAD.
You can book this hotel on Booking.com. Be sure to book as far in advance as possible because these guys are usually fully booked!
Canmore Downtown Hostel – Budget Backpackers Option
If you’re a budget backpacker and looking for a hostel then Canmore Downtown Hostel is your best choice! These guys offer clean and comfortable facilities, dorm beds as well as private rooms, and a social atmosphere perfect for meeting other backpackers.
Copperstone Resort – Luxury Escape
If money isn’t an issue, then Copperstone Resort may be the luxurious option you’re looking for. It is located a 10-minute drive outside of Canmore (15 minutes from the Grotto Canyon Trailhead) which makes for a peaceful escape from the town. There is an outdoor hot tub and many of the rooms are full suites with kitchens and multiple bedrooms. However, rooms here don’t come cheap and are often up to twice the price of most hotels in Canmore, around $350 CAD. Note: A 2-night minimum is required.
You can check the prices and book Copperstone Resort on Booking.com.
If you want more options you can look through all hotels in Canmore here!
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to some of the best places to visit in Alberta requires transport. Although you can use public transport, on some occasions, it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Renting a car will definitely make exploring all of the fun things to see and do in Alberta easier.
Car rental in Canada isn’t super cheap, but it isn’t overly expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year and the type of car that you rent. For car rentals, I use the website DiscoverCars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Thanks for reading!
The Grotto Canyon Icewalk is one of our favorite winter hikes near Banff and a top thing to do if you’re staying in Canmore. The views are unbeatable, from the snow-covered Canadian Rockies in the distance to the bright blue frozen waterfalls. This truly gives you a glimpse of the stunning natural beauty of Banff. We hope you enjoyed reading this blog and found it useful as you’re planning your winter vacation.
There are plenty of other things to do around Banff, no matter what time of year you visit. We are somewhat of experts on the area and have tons of tips, itineraries, and bucket list-worthy activities that you can check out. Spend some time reading through our Banff blogs and start planning your trip, you won’t be disappointed! Here are three awesome activities to get you started: