Canmore, Alberta is considered one of the premier climbing spots in the world. However, due to our waterfall ice, alpine and trad attracting so much attention, the sport climbing opportunities sometimes get overlooked. My house sits square between four major sport climbing canyons, Cougar Canyon across the Bow River to the north, Grassi Lakes behind us to the south, Heart Creek and Grotto Canyon to the east. Each of these canyons feature literally hundreds of sport routes with some trad mixed in here and there. As with all canyons in the Canadian Rockies, chasing the sun can be quite the challenge on cold days. Knowing which crags get sun at which times of the day can play a crucial role in your decision making of what routes to climb in which canyon. This is the Canadian Rockies, thus our crags are mainly summertime attractions only. Grotto, Heart and Grassi all put out short ice routes in the winter.
Grotto Canyon is at the east end of Grotto Mountain, just east of Grotto Corner. Grotto Mountain makes up the eastern end of the Fairholme Range (along with Lady Mac Donald and Squaws Tit) before it runs into the Bow River and Kananaskis Country.
I have counted at least 235 routes on 20 separate walls in Grotto Canyon (I have climbed approximately a third of them as of 2006). The majority of these routes are in the 5.10-5.11 range. Dr. Topo has gone through the painstaking task of putting together quite the print friendly topo climbing maps showing all the routes. These would be much more beneficial than our local guide book, Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, but I recommend you take both into the canyon. On the down side, Grotto Canyon contains some of the most polished routes and attracts the least amount of sun of the before mentioned climbing areas in and around Canmore. On the upside, there is more climbing variety in Grotto Canyon and it is the least crowed.
The polished rock is worse on Illusion Rock. Hemingway Wall catches morning sun. Water Wall, Paintings Wall, the Upper Right Wing and Upper Narrows get the best afternoon sun. The Alley catches good evening sun. A few climbs farther in, Grotto Slab for example, require double rope rappels, but Grotto Canyon mostly requires just one rope raps. Whichever route(s) you choose, start the day off right at the local climbers hangout, the Summit Café on Cougar Creek Drive off of Benchlands Trail which is on your way to Grotto Canyon. It is the best coffee shop in town and serves breakfast and sacked lunches. Ask for Steve.
The crags/walls are listed in order as you hike your way north through Grotto Canyon:
Three Tier Buttress
Lower Right Wing
Upper Right Wing
Grotto Falls (Ice Route in Winter)
Getting ThereThe TransCanada Highway runs from Calgary through the Rocky Mountain Canadian National Parks on its way to Vancouver. Right before you enter Banff National Park is the town of Canmore. The Benchlands Trail is what I would call the main Canmore exit off of the TransCanada. Head north on the Benchlands Trial as it curves right and turn right onto Elk Run Blvd. Elk Run dead ends into 1A. Take a left hand turn onto 1A. Drive 5 to 10 minutes and take a left into the entrance for the Baymag #2 plant. Instead of following the road up to the plant, take an immediate right dirt road fork. Turn left onto a rough dirt trail road that follows the powerline easement. There will be a small pullout on your right that has a marked trail, but you can also continue a little further to an open parking area up on a hill. Hike north up the hill towards the mouth of Grotto Canyon. We still used this access as of 2006 with no worries or warning signs, but future access is always being discussed.
Red TapeGrotto Canyon and the east end of the Fairholme Range are not in Banff National Park, but border Kananaskis Country. There are no permit requirements to enter, climb and/or park in Kananaskis. All camping is regulated within park boundaries. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the town campsites. This can be obtained via the Kananaskis website which is included in the camping section below. There is no official camping allowed back in Grotto Canyon. You will see evidence of such however between Exit Wall and Garden Rock. The petroglyphs are not to be disturbed on Paintings Wall.
When to ClimbAs with most rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies, the driest time is from June through September. Virtually no one rock climbs in Grotto Canyon during the winter months.
CampingThe closest camp site would be back in Canmore at the town campsite located at the information center off of the TransCanada. The Alpine Club of Canada’s national office is located in Canmore (just west from Grotto Canyon off of 1A) and also serves as a hostel, a recently renovated one at that. There is actually a benchlands trail that takes you from the Alpine Club to Cougar Canyon.
You cannot camp outside of the marked specific camping areas in Canmore or Kananaskis. Refer to the Kananaskis Provincial Park website for more information regarding backcountry camping. Of course there are tons of lodging options in Canmore from 5 star spas to cheap motels.