Grotto Canyon FAM Tour

Layla and I were lucky enough to get to do another FAM tour with Discover Banff Tours in mid December. This time it was Grotto Canyon.

Grotto Canyon is located just outside Canmore in Exshaw, an area made up of a number of plants and a small hamlet. 1The group was made up of around 25 of us and 2 guides, one of which also took us on the snowshoe tour of the Paint Pots.

We put on our snow cleats and walked through a stunted pine forest before coming to a viewpoint at the edge of the forest overlooking The Bow Valley. 23On entering the canyon the path changed from packed snow to ice and in places the ice wasn’t very thick. People’s feet were disappearing through the ice all over the place but thankfully the creek we were walking on was only 10cm or so deep.

Once deeper inside the canyon and more sheltered from the sun the creek became hard with layers of ice and footing was much stabler.  The canyon walls slowly became higher as we progressed and soon the walls rose high above us and trees clung onto the sides, the snow hanging off their branches.56At one point we were shown ancient pictographs on the canyon walls which were likely created by Hopi visitors from the Arizona region. The ochre used to paint the designs was most likely collected from the Paint Pots.811We stopped for lunch in a lovely area containing frozen waterfalls people were climbing. We ate Maple cookies, had hot Chocolates and watched the folks climbing, the squirrels foraging for food and took lots of photos. What a lovely spot for a break.10791213After our break we headed back through the canyon just as the sun came out and lit up the ice and the snow covered sides. It was just beautiful.1314

More info:

Who: DiscoverBanff Tours

Where: Grotto Canyon, Banff National Park

What: Hotel Pick up & Drop off, Ice cleats & hiking poles, refreshments

Difficulty: 4.2km, 100m elevation gain

Duration: 4 hours

Price: $74 Adult / $42 Child





Johnston Canyon Evening Icewalk

Again, we were lucky enough to receive another FAM tour with Discover Banff Tours this week, to do their Johnston Canyon Evening Icewalk.

You may have read my previous posts about doing Johnston Canyon in both Winter and Summer during the day, both were fantastic, so being able to do it at night with a guide was extra special and quite a different experience.

My colleague Layla, our friend Selena and I were collected from the town lot around 6:30 and piled into a minibus with about 12 other local girls from various hotels around Banff and Canmore. Some we had already met from other FAM tours both this year and last. Banff is a small town and you regularly run into people you have been on other excursions with which is really nice.

On the journey out to the Canyon, our guide, Denice told us about herself, the tour company and interestingly, on how unnatural light, such as mobile phones and street lights affects us humans and the wildlife around the world. It was a bit of a shock to see how nature and the human brain reacts to it. The last thing a lot of us do before bed is check our phones and this can affect sleeping, which I was aware of, but I didn’t know the reason why. Apparently this is due to phones giving off artificial blue light. Red light is a way of nature telling us that it’s time to sleep, that is why the last of the sun’s rays are red as it sets, and why doctors tell insomniacs to install a red light in their bedside lamps to fall asleep easier.

Once at the trail head, we were given Ice cleats (much easier to put on that snowshoes!)  and headlamps which we were able to keep.  We headed off into the night, past the resort and down the the Canyon. The 3 of us were eagerly chatting and catching up on each other’s adventures so were constantly behind the group, it was very icy in places and not being able to see too well made it slow going.1Heading down the icy path with our headlamps on.

Once into the Canyon proper and with the metal railing to guide us, we were able to shut off our headlamps to get the full effect of the night sky. Our guide had studied astronomy since 1995 so was well equipped to point out various constellations to us. I found it a bit baffling, it was hard to see where she was pointing at times and most of the time I wasn’t able to figure out what the constellations were, I just saw a bunch of stars, some brighter than others but no pattern. 1Walking on the steel catwalks attached to the Canyon wall.

Something to look into as I think it’s fascinating and she did mention NZ was one of the best places to see the stars as it has such low artificial light. What I did see was Meteorites shooting across the night sky, that night the Geminids meteor shower peaked and apparently as many as 120 meteors an hour could be seen. As we stood there looking up at the stars I saw a couple of bright lights shooting across the sky which I’ll never forget, I could have stared up at that sky for hours and at that point I wished I’d had a decent camera and a tripod instead of an iphone5. Still, its all in my memory.2I think the three of us wished we had better cameras….

On arrival at the lower falls we came across another tour group and stopped for Maple cookies (yum) and hot chocolates. We made our way through the small cave to get a better view of the falls but my camera made it look like a big blob.2I have better photos of this waterfall..

On the walk back we had the opportunity to turn off all of our headlamps and walk in the complete darkness which was eerie but mesmerising as well. The human eye is an amazing organ in that it so quickly adjusts to the darkness. The outlines of the trees and the rocky outcrops of the canyon edges meant we could walk along guided by only the starlight. 3It wasn’t that cold in the Canyon due to it being so sheltered, didn’t even need gloves!

As we neared the resort we turned our headlamps back on and continued over the bridge and back to the van where we handed in our cleats. The trip back to Banff was quiet apart from some us us discussing some of the silly questions we have had from some of our guests which was quite funny.

I’d give this tour a 7 out of 10. The walk is easy, not too strenuous and the ice cleats mean you shouldn’t fall over, it was very icy so you definitely need them. I think folks who have an interest in the constellations would get more out of it than I did in that sense.

Johnston Canyon is an activity anyone can do without a guide, day or night, Winter or Summer and plenty do. It is great to learn and be able to ask questions to a professional though.

More info:

Who: Discover Banff Tours

Where: Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park

What: Hotel Pick up & Drop off, Ice cleats& hiking poles, refreshments

Difficulty: 2.2km, 65m elevation gain

Duration: 2.5 hours

Price: $74 Adult / $42 Child

*1st photo is courtesy of Discover Banff Tours



Snowshoeing in Kootenay NP

In Early December I was lucky enough to be invited on a Snowshoeing FAM tour with Discover Banff Tours.

Discover Banff Tours is one of the most well-known tour operators in Banff and provide lots of exciting tours in and around Banff National Park. Starting in 1998, they specialise in small, personalised groups run by professional, local guides who have a passion for Banff and the National Park.

They are also involved in the Banff Ambassador Program, so almost every young traveller who comes to Banff to work, goes on their Discover Banff and its Wildlife tour when they first arrive as part of the programme.

We were collected from the town lot behind the Mount Royal Hotel at 9:30am and got into a full minibus that left for Kootenay along with a second bus full of local hotel workers. En route we were introduced to our guides, Anick and Nick, who gave us an overview of the tour, a brief history of the snowshoe, the fur trade in Canada and a brief explanation of the weather and geography of Kootenay National Park.

It was all very interesting, and I learnt a fair bit I will be able to pass onto our guests while selling this tour.

After arriving at the Paint Pots trail entrance, we clambered out of the busses and were instructed on how to put on the snowshoes that were delegated out to each of us. They are basically just a strong, wide, plastic base with 3 straps that hold your foot in and spikes on the bottom under your toes for grip on the snow. Quite odd once you put them on but after a few steps you get used to them.1Getting geared up at the trail head.

We took off in 2 groups and followed each other down the trail for about 20 metres then turned off into the forest where we meandered around and over fallen trees, up and down small mounds of snow and out to the clearing of the Vermillion River.  The sun was low but bright against the white fluffy snow surrounding us and it felt warm on our faces as we came out onto the clearing. There, we were given a bit more history about the Paint Pots and a chance to walk around freely in the deep snow.2 Learning about Kootenay National Park.

Crossing the large, wooden bridge was a bit of a challenge, climbing up and down stairs in snowshoes is no easy fete I can tell you! The Kootenay River that starts high up in the surrounding mountain passes, flows down to the US, back up into Canada and finally out to the Pacific Ocean was semi-frozen and where it had frozen, small multi-levelled waterfalls appeared making the flow even more interesting, especially as it glistened in the late morning sunlight. 3Glistening Keeoenay River in the morning sunlight.

After splitting into smaller groups, we ambled off into the Pine forest on the opposite side of the river where Anick stopped to explain the distinct types of Pine trees in the thicket we were walking through, after about 5 minutes walking at a fast pace we hit upon a large, flat clearing containing relics from the Ochre mining days. Old, rusted pipes and scoops litter the ground amongst the snowy mounds that in Summer are dark red Ochre mounds that were once destined for Calgary to be made into a pigment base for paint.4Ochre deposits under the snow.

We trudged up the trail towards the Paint Pots site and on the way up we found a small snow-covered hill to the right of the trail, our guides thought it would be a great idea to have a race from the top back to the trail and test out our running style in snowshoes. It was pretty funny, although most participants only managed a fast walk instead of a full-on run. 5Ready to hurtle themselves down the snowbank.

Once at the Paint Pots we had a look around and learnt more about the Ochre and how they collected it for. I think this site is better visited in the Summer, so you can actually see the colours of the different pools as well as the red Ochre on the ground, in the Winter, it’s all covered in snow, so you cannot appreciate how different this spot is to the rest of the park. It’s still beautiful all the same.

We wandered out of the clearing and back into the woods again, this time heading up above the pots on a trail through the tall Pine forest. We stopped briefly to observe a large tree favourited by passing Bears who had been scratching at it. There were huge claw marks all over it, the highest one being about a foot taller than me. Standing there I was glad it was Winter and the Bears in the area had already gone off to hibernate…hopefully.

We met up with the remainder of the group for a well-earned rest in a sloped clearing covered in deep snow. Our guides set up their small camping stoves to heat up the Maple Taffy and handed out hot chocolates to keep our hands warm as we waited in anticipation for out sweet treats. Maple Taffy is made by boiling Maple SAP to 112 degrees and then pouring it onto the cold snow where it sets. A popsicle stick is then rested on the Taffy as it sets then rolled around the stick to create a Maple lolly-pop.

This traditional dessert’s origins lie in Quebec, Eastern Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and New England. 7Making traditional Maple Taffy.

While most of the group rested and indulged in hot drinks and Taffy, some tried the ‘crazy carpets’. Basically, pieces of thick plastic you ride down the slope on, head first! People would go to the top, lie on the crazy carpet and zoom down the hill at high speeds, either crashing into the snowbanks in a burst of powder or making it all the way to the end and stopping softly as the slope flattened out.

After packing up all the gear and putting our snowshoes back on the whole group made their way back into the forest to head back to the trail head. This was probably the most technical park of the hike, as we were climbing over fallen trees, crossing small semi frozen creeks and negotiating sticks and branches that were blocking the trail. A few people stumbled as the backs of their shoes got stuck between tree branches, this included me, and I understood why snowshoeing burns 400 calories per hour after this short jaunt through the woods.8Negotiating fallen trees, creeks and snowbanks in the woods.

We made our way easily through the clearing and over the bridge, again, with great difficulty, and meandered, in small groups, back to the vans where we parted ways with our shoes and jumped in for the 45-minute journey back to Banff.9Overall, I’d give this tour a 6 out of 10. The guides were interesting, knowledgeable and friendly and made sure everyone was coping with the pace. The walk itself was both relaxing and challenging, we had a lot of different terrain to walk on which kept things interesting and the weather was excellent.  I do however prefer this particular walk in the Summer due to the Paint Pots being a place where the colours of the ponds and the ground is the main attraction. In winter all that is covered in snow, so you cannot appreciate it.

More info:

Who: Discover Banff Tours

Where: Kootenay National Park

What: Hotel Pick up & Drop off, Snowshoes & hiking poles, refreshments, crazy carpet ride

Difficulty: 3km, minimal elevation gain

Duration: 4 hours

Cost: $74 Adults / $42 Children