Bow Valley – Tougher Trails
By: Graeme Pole
Grotto Canyon, 2.5 km (Wear sturdy footwear, flash flood warning!)
Trailhead – At Grotto Pond Day Use Area on Hwy #1A; 12 km east of Canmore; 16 km west of the junction with Hwy #1X.
Grotto (means “cave”) Canyon is popular with sport climbers. In winter, waterfall ice climbers practice their craft on frozen seeps along the canyon walls.
The first 600 m of trail is along an old roadbed carpeted with the minuscule evergreen wildflower, yellow mountain avens. The rubble along the roadbed is material eroded from upstream in the canyon and deposited here, creating a landform called an alluvial fan.
You can best appreciate the shape and height of the fan in the view west from the canyon mouth. The view also takes in the Bow Valley, Gap Lake, Mt. Lougheed (3107 m), and Pigeon Mountain.
The trail drops into the canyon and swings north (right). This is the end of a well-defined trail. In the canyon you will be walking on water-worn rock slabs, rubble, and boulders. Keep to the canyon floor. For your safety, if the creek is running, and especially if it has been raining, you should turn back here.
About 1 km into the canyon, you reach “the forks”. The right-hand branch climbs to a small waterfall. The left-hand branch winds toward a more open valley, where limber pines and Douglas-firs grow. You may see the large hoodoo formation that contains a remarkable cave. This marks your turnaround point.
Given their long association with the Rockies, First Peoples left behind relatively few examples of rock art. Pictographs, most of unknown origin, have only been found at only a handful of locations. The rock paintings at Grotto Canyon depict human and animal figures and were first noticed in the 1960s. Please do not touch them.
Grassi Lakes, 4.0 km loop, or 4.2 km loop (Caution, fall risk!)
Trailhead – From the west end of Main Street in downtown Canmore, follow signs for the Canmore Nordic Centre and the Smith Dorrien-Spray Trail (Route 742). Follow this road 4.7 km to the Grassi Lakes Day Use Area, on the left, 1 km past the Canmore Nordic Centre. (See Map pg. 35) The Grassi Lakes trail is a classic, close-to-town outing. It begins at the gate on the power company access road. At the junction in 150 m, keep left. The trail climbs at first gradually, then steeply, through a forest of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce with wonderful wildflower displays in the understory. Look and listen for yellow-rumped warblers. After passing through a few wet areas, at about km 1 the trail reaches a viewpoint that looks out onto the limestone rampart of Ha Ling Peak (2408 m), the waterfall on the outflow stream beneath the Grassi Lakes, and the peaks of the Fairholme Range across the Bow Valley. Don’t wander off the cliff edge.
A series of rock steps and railings get you up the steepest part of the hike on the headwall below the lakes. This rock staircase was the handiwork of Italian immigrant, Lorenzo (Lawrence) Grassi. While fellow miners sat idle during a strike in the 1920s, Grassi went to work, roughing out the trail to the Grassi Lakes, building a log swimming pool there, and enlarging caves nearby to use as shelters.
Grassi’s physical strength is the stuff of legend, but enduring proof lies in the trails that he built. Look at the rock steps that he placed without help on this trail – still in use 90 years later. Grassi died at Canmore in 1980 at age 90. You may see a plaque that commemorates him, near the lower lake.
The grade relents where you regain the power company access road. Follow signs to reach the south shore of the lower lake. You can make a figure-eight circuit of the two lakes which, despite all the nearby manipulation of water for hydro-electric development, are fed by spring water and drain naturally. The lakes have pleasing blue-green hues.
After you spend time at the lakes, you have two options for return. Either retrace your route of ascent (harder), or use the power company access road (easier), by turning north (left) from the east end of the lower lake. The road makes a steady descent. About halfway down, look for the ruin of a cabin on the right.