Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Grotto Canyon - May 2012

Once upon a time a Canadian girl got to fulfill two life-long dreams in one trip; to visit the Holy Land, and to experience life on an archaeology dig. Her worst fear about the trip did come true: she fell in love with Israel and archaeology, and another trip is always at the back of her mind, and if money had been no object, she would have gone again every summer since. (The adventure inspired her to quit her job and pursue a university degree, which is a story for another post.)

However, something happened on the trip that she hadn't counted on at all: she made a friend! When the heroine of a story is an introverted bookworm, finding kindred spirits doesn't happen often - largely because one would have to take one's nose out of a book to notice them. :) But when people travel together, there's a lot of time to chat, and when one finds that kindred spirit, one generally tends to forget about being an introvert because there are so many interesting things to talk about.

One of the most fun legacies of my 2008 trip to Israel was almost immediately clicking with my roommate, Jenn Shack. We had several mutual friends who told me that we'd get along, but since I'm not the world's chattiest person, especially with strangers, I was a bit sceptical. But get along we did, to the point that some of the other volunteer diggers asked us how long we'd known each other, expecting the answer to be years, when in fact it had only been days.

In 2009, Jenn moved to Alberta to pursue a Masters degree, and now with that done, she's heading back to Ontario to do a PhD. When we were in Israel, discovering a mutual interest in exploring the mountains, I told her about a hike in the foothills that I really love, and said we should go there one day. Well, we're running out of time before she leaves for the east, so despite questionable Alberta spring weather, we headed out last Tuesday.

We left Calgary about 11 am, in the POURING rain. Our trip nearly ended before it even began, thanks to one of my windshield wipers snagging on something and springing up in the air with a snap that nearly startled me into driving off the road. (I still don't know what was wrong with them - they snapped back and forth all the way there and home again, but they won't repeat the trick for my husband, so who knows...) Thankfully, by the time we got to the exit for Morley, the rain had let up to a mere drizzle, and the clouds had lifted enough that I could actually see the hill we'd be hiking by.

To get to Grotto Canyon from the TransCanada, you take the Seebe/Exshaw exit (about 45 minutes from the Calgary city limits), and take the 1X to the 1A (also known as the Bow Valley Trail), where you go left, towards Exshaw and Canmore. (Seebe is a former company town, now a ghost town. One of these days I want to hike in there - I love urban and rural decay!) Once you've passed through Exshaw, about five minutes up on the right you'll see a beautiful mountain pond, which is Grotto Pond. Technically that's the trail-head, and there are outhouses there. I usually keep going up the road for another minute, and turn right at the Baymag Plant #2. If you keep to the right, there's a gravel access road that meets the hiking trail, and I park there. This cuts off the tedious part of the trail and lets you get to the interesting bit that much faster.

Follow the trail past the plant, keeping a sharp eye out for a very small green sign with a hiker on it. Make sure you turn right just before the sign! The trail goes uphill at that point, and comes out overlooking a creek basin, with a wonderful view of the mountains.

From a February hike in 2010

Hop down into the creek bed and head up the canyon (to the right of the above photo). This stretch of the trail is different every season, and every time I've been there. In the height of summer, it's a gentle creek of icy-cold mountain run-off, and the 'hike' involves a lot of hopping from rock to shore to log to rock, which I find VERY fun (wear rubber boots or be prepared for damp feet) and since the creek is never much deeper than my knees, there's very little actual danger. In February, it's a slick slope of ice that requires patience and skill to negotiate up without breaking a limb, but going back, the downhill slide on the ice makes you feel like a penguin (be prepared for a wet bum...).

Icy canyon - looks like Narnia!

This time of year it's a mix of thick sheets of muddy ice (not slippery), thin sections of ice over rocks (be careful - there's no or not much water under them, but if your foot fell through, you could break an ankle) and bits of shallow creek with lots of rocks. You really have to pay attention to where you put your feet, since it's not warm enough out yet for the cold water to feel good on overheated feet. :)

When I say thick layer of ice, I mean THICK!

About an hour after leaving the car, the trail comes to what looks like the end, with a waterfall up ahead and to the right.

Frozen waterfall

This is where I like to break for lunch, because any amount of exercise makes me hungry, so by that point I'm STARVING. The canyon opens up a bit, so there's a good selection of flat rocks to sit on, and sometimes you can watch people ice or rock climbing.

Only slightly damp, thanks to a drizzle rather than a deluge.

The trail heads to the left at what looks like a dead end. There's usually not much water or ice up that way - just rocks. After about 10 minutes, the canyon opens up into a valley, and up on the left there's a sandstone cliff with a cave in it. The inside of the cave isn't much - just a dirt hollow big enough to stand up in and feel like you're in a cave. I haven't made the scramble up the near-vertical hillside myself, but that's what I've been told by others.


I've never gone further than this point, although the dry/rocky creek bed does go on past the cave. But by this point I usually need a bathroom and a Timmies so I'm ready to head home. I like the mountains, but I'm not die-hard about it...

As you head back out, once you're a few minutes downhill from the waterfall, keep an eye on your right-hand side for very faint red-painted pictographs on a flat section of the cliff face. The height they're at varies depending on whether you're walking on the creek bed or on top of a few feet of ice - they might be at eye-height or a bit higher.

Heading back into Calgary I always take the old 1A highway to Cochrane, which is far more scenic, and gets me to a Timmies and a bathroom faster! Watch out for a cute little white settler-era church on your right, as well as assorted wildlife crossing the road. We got home around 4 pm, so despite the fact that it's not really a long hike, with the drive to and from town, it takes the better part of a day.

The morals of this story are: do things that some people think are crazy, make friends with people who are doing the same crazy things, and get out and enjoy the mountains! And if you want to hike Grotto Canyon with a tour guide, let me know - I'll do it for the price of a Timmies. :)

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