Tuesday, December 30, 2014

DIY Ice Walks Near Calgary

What do you do when it isn't snowy enough to snowshoe or ski, and it's too icy to hike?  Go for a canyon ice walk!  While there are many excellent tour companies offering ice walks, with the right equipment, you can do it yourself. The experience of walking on a frozen creek is special as you can only do it in the winter and you get to see canyons from a different perspective. Instead of looking down on the creek, you get to look up. Best of all, you get to see ice falls! 

Where to Go

Three great ice walks near Calgary are Grotto Canyon, Exshaw; Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park; and Jura Canyon, Exshaw.

Jura Canyon is only 3 kilometres round trip and closest to Calgary. A sculpted canyon located only one kilometre from the road, Jura is unique in that it is very narrow.  The trail is level and serene, the latter because few people know of this canyon. When we went, in late November, we didn't run into anyone all afternoon!

Expect to walk about 2 kilometres on trail and 1 kilometre on ice. The trail is stroller friendly up to the canyon, but a child carrier would be easier since there is a short, steep hill from the car to the trail.

From Calgary, take Highway 1 to the Seebe exit, get on to Highway 1A and continue approximately 8 kilometres to the Graymont Exshaw Plant. The plant will be on the left side of the street and the trailhead is on the right of the street, near a large sign. If you enter the hamlet of Exshaw, you have gone too far.

Map to Jura Canyon - the marker shows the plant location where you should park
For more information, please check out the trip reports by Tanya Koob and Barry Taylor, respectively.
Jura Canyon
Little POG trying out her new Atlas Sprout 17 snowshoes
Kids may need help climbing over boulders and trees in the creekbed.
Walking on the ice is so fun!
Jura Canyon is very narrow!
Playing in the snow by Jura Canyon
Grotto Canyon is a longer ice walk (4.2 km round trip) that has pictographs and frozen waterfalls. The falls at the end of the canyon are high enough to climb, so you may get to see ice climbers in action! While Jura is unique for being so narrow, the advantage of a wider canyon such as Grotto Canyon is that there are fewer obstructions to climb over or around. Plus, it is possible to pull your kids in a sled most of the way! Expect to walk 2.2 km on trail and 2 km on ice in the creekbed. 

From Calgary, take Highway 1 to the Seebe exit, get on to Highway 1A and continue 11 kilometres to Grotto Lake Parking lot. Take the Grotto Creek trail until you come to a park bench, then head into the creek (do NOT enter the creek until you are past the magnesium carbonate plant or you will have to climb over a lot of deadfall/driftwood). Also, do not proceed beyond the falls at the end of the creek unless you are an experienced ice climber with proper ice climbing gear.

Grotto Canyon Ice Walk (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Grotto Canyon Pictographs (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Ice Climber on Grotto Canyon Ice Falls (Photo: Brent Stephens)
Christmas Eve 2015 at Grotto Canyon

Johnston Canyon, located in Banff National Park, is stunning any time of year. Don't be turned off by the tour buses and crammed parking lot. This many people cannot be wrong; Johnston Canyon is a beautiful, must-stop spot. Although you will not be walking on the frozen creek for the majority of the hike, icewalk gear is vital to safely traverse the icy catwalks and pavement.

Johnston Canyon Catwalk
It is 2.2 kilometres round trip to the Lower Falls or 5.4 kilometres round trip to the Upper Falls. Lower Falls is a beautiful destination in itself, but if you can make it to Upper Falls, you will be rewarded by higher, even lovelier falls. While you can access the creek between Lower and Upper Falls, you should stay off the ice as the snow/ice bridges may not be as solid as they appear and water is still flowing beneath the ice. For more ice safety tips, please see this post.

Lower Falls, Johnston Canyon
Upper Falls is a popular ice climbing spot
Upper Falls, Johnston Canyon
Heading back
Since the catwalks are narrow, the best mode of transport for little ones would be a single sports stroller or child carrier (a double stroller is too wide for others to pass you). If your children are hiking without assistance, keep them close, as the catwalks are very high! 

To get to Johnston Canyon from Calgary, take Highway 1 westbound to Castle Junction (about 157 km). Take the exit to Bow Valley Parkway East / Hwy AB 1A East. Continue east on Bow Valley Parkway for 6.2 kilometres to the Johnston Canyon parking lot (on the left side of the street). The other option is to take the Bow Valley Parkway/Johnston Canyon turnoff just past Banff, but be warned that the road is extremely icy in the winter and the speed limit (if you can go that fast) is only 60 km/hr.

What To Bring

Tour operators provide ice cleats and hiking poles for ice walks because ice cleats are cheap, light, and easy to hike in, but I recommend microspikes or snowshoes. High quality snowshoes offer better grip than ice cleats as they can handle uneven terrain. I also tend not to use poles when hiking with children as I need to keep my hands free to help my little ones climb over obstacles such as rocks and logs. (If you are carrying children in carriers/backpacks, you should use poles!) 

Ice Walk Gear Options
  • Microspikes - Microspikes are more aggressive than ice cleats, less dangeous than crampons, and a lot lighter than snowshoes. Kahtoola Microspikes are a popular, high quality make.

  • Snowshoes - If you bring snowshoes, ensure they have metal crampons on all sides (not just the front). An excellent choice is MSR's Lightning Ascent snowshoes. They are light and have great crampons and binding straps. A disadvantage of snowshoes is that they are heavier than microspikes/ice cleats and require you to walk slightly wider so you don't step on your snowshoes. For children's snowshoes, I recommend the MSR Tykers. They provide the best grip - my kids don't slip like they do when they are wearing Snow Trek or Atlas snowshoes.
  • Ice Cleats - If you choose to wear ice cleats, keep in mind, that they offer great traction on flat surfaces (sidewalks), but poor traction on sloped surfaces (such as ungroomed canyon ice). I attended an ice hike with an experienced hiker who walked up a slight slope with ice cleats and busted his nose open requiring six stitches. The folks in crampons / snowshoes were able to traverse the same section without incident. When choosing an ice cleat, select a pair with metal studs at least 2 mm long for the best traction (Source: www.icecleatsguy.com/ice-cleats-pages/ice-cleats-policemen.html). Chain ice cleats would be my second choice, followed by coil ice cleats. 
  • Instep Crampons - You can also use instep crampons (not ice climbing crampons) that attach to your boots. Check that they attach well to your boots and that the fasteners are easy to open and close. 
Other Essentials
  • Footwear - Wear warm socks and winter boots as you will not be travelling fast on the ice. Slow travel is safe travel. 
  • Extra clothing - Extra mitts and socks are most important as little explorers may get wet.
  • Warm beverages and snacks
  • First Aid Kit, hand warmers, foot warmers
  • Optional items: A foam pad to sit upon (diaper change pads work well!); ski/skating helmets for the kids; stove, fuel, pot and hot chocolate mix to make hot chocolate on the trail; hand and foot warmers; trekking/ski poles.

When to Go

Mid December until the March is usually the best time to go on an ice walk in the Alberta Rockies. Be prepared for slush or patches of open water if the weather has been unseasonably warm.

General Ice Walk Safety Tips

  • Wear snowshoes / ice cleats / crampons. 
  • Walk, don't run! 
  • Let an adult take the lead to ensure the way is safe.
  • Be on the lookout for open water, obstacles (logs/boulders), and falling ice. 
  • Stay on level ground. The steeper or bumpier the ice, the more likely someone will slip and fall.
An ice walk is a great way to experience winter, especially if there isn't enough snow for skiing and snowshoeing. If you gear up appropriately, you can do it safely and inexpensively. Have fun and let me know which ice walk was your favorite!

More Winter Fun


Beautiful photos and places. Thanks for sharing, very enjoyable post!

Thank you Jane! Ice walks are so unique because you get to walk right in the creekbed and get a different perspective. I hope you get to do one this winter!

Thanks for the information. Awesome article on winter activities.
Lupe @gohuntgame #LeadTheWay

Thanks Lupe! I have to admit I did not like winter the first few years I lived here, but it's grown on me. : ) Bonafide ice and snow lover now!

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