It’s hard to imagine a winter vacation in the Canadian Rockies without skiing or snowboarding involved, especially with the quantity and quality of ski resorts falling within such a short distance. There’s no denying that standing on top of a mountain with blue skies overhead and perfect corduroy or knee-deep powder is what dreams are made of.
But what do you do when the skies aren’t so blue, the winds are whipping, and just the thought of sitting on the chairlift makes your toes go numb? Or maybe you’ve skied through every last inch of pow you can find? Or perhaps you’ve spent so much time in the lift lines that the lifties know you by name and they’re getting (a little too) friendly? We’ve all been there.
The good news is that the Canadian Rockies are home to some of the best non-skiing winter adventures you can find, and here are 5 favourites we’d recommend adding to any Rocky Mountain vacation:
Buried deep beneath Grotto Mountain in Canmore, AB is Rat’s Nest Cave, a 4 km-long, naturally-made labyrinth of water-worn passages. Formed by glacial waters thousands of years ago, this (now mostly-dry) cave offers a very unique experience for visitors.
Due to its archaeological significance, Rat’s Nest Cave is a protected site. Humans have been visiting the cave for thousands of years, and its earliest visitors have left signs of their presence in the form of pictographs and animal bones. In fact, right at the entrance of the cave you can see a pictograph mural containing dozens of handprints and 7000 year old animal bones. Due to the historical delicate nature of the site, visiting the cave requires joining a tour with Canmore Cave Tours. Take the word “tour” with a grain of salt because what you really get is a day full of caving like actual explorers.
Canmore Cave Tours offer “wild cave tours,” meaning the cave has not been developed in any way. You’ll be dressed head to toe in proper caving attire (all included) and you will climb, crawl, wiggle, slide, and optionally - squeeze, your way through the cave. Nervous about small spaces? Don’t be. The smallest space you “have” to go through is the size of a manhole cover and is quick to pass through. Much of the cave is very large, they actually host concerts at certain times of the year in a chamber called the “Grand Gallery”.
The thing that might surprise you most about the cave tours is that they are available year-round. The cave maintains a constant 5 degrees celsius every day of the year making it a great place to visit no matter the season. Evening tours are available because the Cave Tours team is kind of used to being in the dark.
There are two main tour options including the Explorer Tour (4.5 hours total, 2.5 hours underground, adults: $130) and the Adventure Tour (6 hours total, 4 hours underground, adults: $165). The main difference between the tours is that the Adventure Tour includes an 18m rappel and a section of the cave called the Laundry Chute. Difficulty-wise the Explorer Adventure Tours are very similar as in they are easily catered to the individual. Both tours require a 30-minute uphill hike to reach the cave.
The Rat’s Nest Cave Tours are ranked as one of the top attractions in the province of Alberta and are sure to be a highlight of your vacation. Not only can you escape winter’s chill, but you’ll see some of nature’s most unique creations (look up stalactites and stalagmites), explore the area’s natural history, learn about some of the unique science done in caves, maybe try your hand at rappelling or squeezing, and just generally have a good ole time. It’s not one to be missed.
If you’ve ever driven through the Canadian Rockies in the summer you are likely familiar with the collection of waterfalls that crash down the sides of the mountains, inspiring endless streams (pun intended) of Instagram attention. But have you ever wondered what happens to them in the winter?
In the summer a Canadian Rockies waterfall is noisy, wet, and something to be viewed (usually from a distance). But in the winter they are transformed into silent slivers of silver (say that five times fast) and for the right adventurers, they offer an access route to parts of a mountain that are otherwise inaccessible. With the right skills and tools it is possible to climb over mounds and through chandeliers of ice that just months, weeks, or evens days prior didn’t even exist.
This might sound a little extreme, and it certainly can be. It can also be surprisingly accessible and once you give it a try you might even find it mildly addictive. There’s something to be said about the first time you swing an ice tool - one of the main, pointy implements involved in the process - and feel the solid “thuck” of the pick firmly embedding in the ice.
Intrigued yet? Good, you should be. You should really give it a try because it is one of those quintessential mountain experiences that will garner you substantial attention around the water cooler (especially when you whip out a term like “screaming barfies””). Ridgeline Guiding is the perfect place to start your Ice Climbing endeavour, and owner Patrick will ensure you get an experience that is the perfect level of adventure for you.
Ridgeline Guiding offers a number of options for Ice Climbing, including introductory courses on local “ice crags” and private, full-day excursions up some of the many world-class climbs in the area. Patrick is a fully certified Alpine Guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides so rest assured you are in qualified hands. He can set you up with all of the climbing equipment you need. You don’t have to worry about a thing.
Ice climbing is a super fun way to spend a day in the mountains and it will change the way you look at waterfalls forever!
For many, the term dogsledding usually conjures up images of sliding across frozen tundra in the far north with a pack of curly-tailed, blue-eyed huskies. Well, that’s pretty accurate. Except that we do it right here in the Canadian Rockies and the huskies are a little more diverse in their appearances.
Dogsledding is one of those activities that just screams Canada and it should definitely be on your list of “must-dos” if you’ve never had the pleasure and even if you have. Mad Dogs and Englishmen is the smaller of four dogsledding kennels in the Bow Valley and they offer some excellent fur-powered adventures that will help you get your “mush” on (pro-tip: Dogsledders rarely say “mush”, instead preferring to use terms like “hike” or “let’s go” in an excited voice. Bonus tip to impress your guide: they use the commands Gee (pronounced like the letter G) and Haw to direct the dogs right and left respectively).
With Mad Dogs and Englishmen you can opt for a 1, 2, or 4 hour trip or spring for a full day or overnight experience. A tour doesn’t just mean sitting in the sled and enjoying the view (although that is sometimes an option), you can get right in there and help load and dress the dogs, give them all the love in the world, and even drive the sleds. The dogs are pros, but if they don’t see you helping on the back of the sled they might even stop running and give you the stink-eye.
A common misconception is that sled dogs are made to run against their will, but when you walk up to the teams for the first time and see them jumping into their harnesses itching to run you will quickly dismiss that idea as madness. Yes, it’s their job, but these dogs LOVE to run, even the quiet, shy ones. They also love cuddles so go ahead and get right in there.
The Mad Dogs and Englishmen teams consist of mix-breed huskies and their appearance will likely surprise you. Probably not the huskies you’re imagining, but don’t fret, they are legit. Those curly-tailed, blue-eyed dogs you’re imagining are generally referred to as Siberian Huskies and being pulled by a team of Siberians would be something like being pulled by a team of house-cats. If you meet Amak, one of the only Siberians in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen lineup, you’ll completely understand what we mean when he’s sitting in your lap in the sled!
Most kennels work with mix-breed huskies combining Siberian Huskies and other working breeds to bring out the best traits of both. So when you see dogs that look remarkably like greyhounds, pointers or border collies, it’s because they are - partially. These dogs are the superstars of the dogsledding world and you’re going to have to give it a whirl to see why!
Snowshoeing is an incredibly easy and enjoyable way to get outside and have fun in the winter and people have been doing it for millennia! The mountains of the Canadian Rockies provide endless opportunities to tromp around through wild, untouched snow, surrounded by magnificent mountain vistas.
The act of snowshoeing simply means wandering around with snowshoes strapped on your feet, which prevent you from sinking into deep snow. The art of snowshoeing means learning how to do it gracefully, with the right equipment, in the right place (just try walking backwards in a pair of snowshoes to see what we mean). It is something you can certainly accomplish on your own and equipment is available for rent in a number of locations in the Bow Valley, however we would highly recommend joining a tour with a local guide.
Jenna Nodding, owner of Get Outside, is a certified backpacking guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain guides and an experienced hiker and snowshoer (in 2013 she solo-hiked the Appalachian Trail in the USA - a distance of over 3500 km). Don’t even think about challenging her to a backwards-walking race in snowshoes! Jenna is a wealth of knowledge in local history, biology, and geology and she knows all the best spots to explore.
There are a number of options for getting outside with Get Outside and there is truly something for everyone. You can be sure Jenna will show you places that will leave your heart singing, and as a professional physiotherapist you will likely learn a little about staying healthy in the mountains too!
Go on, strap on a pair and see where your feet take you!
Grotto Canyon is one of those magical places that never fails to give you goosebumps. In the summer it boasts a babbling stream from a variety of seeps and falls along the steep canyon walls and is well worth a visit. In the winter, that babbling little stream freezes, creating iridescent-blue ice that in places spans the entire canyon from wall to wall.
A walk into Grotto Canyon is a little like a step back in time. The high canyon walls feel old, and if you know where to look, there are pictographs created by some of the canyon’s earlier visitors. After about 45 minutes of walking the canyon opens up a little in a small amphitheatre home to a few ice climbs popular with local climbers. You might even recognize one of the ice pillars from a scene in Snow Dogs, a Cuba Gooding Jr. movie. For most, this is the standard turnaround point, usually after a snack and a warm drink, but you can wander for hours farther up the canyon if you like.
Grotto Canyon is a popular spot with visitors and is open to the public. Sometimes it is possible to complete the hike in standard winter boots, but it is generally recommended to use ice cleats as the ice can be incredibly slippery at times. It can also be very wet and slushy depending on the weather.
We would recommend hopping on a tour with our friends at Kananaskis Outfitters to get the most out of your visit. Their expert guides will share all kinds of information including the location of those elusive pictographs. In addition, they are always aware of conditions so you don’t have to worry about getting skunked (aka showing up only to learn that conditions are terrible and that you shouldn’t go) and they can even provide the ice cleats to make the walking safer.
Grotto Canyon is definitely worth adding to your to-do list and is a great alternative to the much busier Johnston Canyon down the road. Plan to spend anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day there, depending on how far up the canyon you wander.
As you can see, the Canadian Rockies has plenty to offer in addition to skiing and we’ve barely scratched the surface with this list! If you are planning a visit to Canmore and Banff this year we highly recommend sliding a few of these into your schedule. You might miss out on a little quality time with your new lifty friends, but you won’t be disappointed!For more great winter activities visit our friends at Adventure HUB