There are three ice walks in Alberta – and they all provide unforgettable experiences. Enjoy a high fun factor as you slip slide along frozen rivers, stopping to admire icy waterfalls or beautiful ice formations. On one of the ice walks in Alberta you can slither into a cave and stand behind a curtain of frozen water. On another, you can enjoy the view down into a multi-hued canyon while standing on a cantilevered catwalk while on, yet another ice walk you can if you know where to look, find pictographs.
All three ice walks in Alberta – Maligne Canyon, Johnston Canyon and Grotto Canyon can be done with or without a guide. But if you really want to learn about the natural history of the canyons, then a guided tour is the way to go. And during COVID, it’s the really the only way you can visit Johnston Canyon unless you’re up for an epic kind of day. (More below.)
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If you do any of the ice walks in Alberta on your own, be smart. Take a pair of icers so you don’t fall and bang your head. A hiking pole is very handy on the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk as there are long stretches of smooth ice that resemble a skating rink. And dress for the conditions. It can be chilly in the canyons as some sections don’t get a lot of sun. A pair of handwarmers could be a welcome addition too.
Ice walks in Alberta guided tours
Check out Get Your Guide and the tours they offer. They have a morning and afternoon Johnston Canyon Ice Walk tour, an evening Johnston Canyon Ice Walk, and a Grotto Canyon Ice Walk. In Jasper they also offer a 3.5 hour guided tour – which I’ve done. Without a guide, there is no way I would have seen or entered the cave we passed pictured below.
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk in Banff National Park
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is one of the classic winter activities in Banff. It’s usually very busy unless you visit early or late in the day, but don’t let that deter you. It’s a memorable half day adventure, no matter when you go.
I’ve done the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk under a variety of conditions. Sometimes it’s simply an easy walk up to the second set of falls while on other occasions, it’s so icy and slippery that without a set of icers, it would be tough though fun going.
The Lower Falls are just 1.1 km up the canyon. While they’re a worthy destination, I would encourage you to continue to the second set of falls, just 2.7 km from the trailhead to see the massive frozen waterfall – and sometimes, ice climbers in action.
The hike is never onerous. There are a couple of short, steep sections but over 2.7 km you only gain 120 m, so this is a very family-friendly outing. Allow 2 – 3 hours to do the return trip, depending on your hiking speed and how many stops you make.
From the Upper Falls you follow a less trodden trail to see the view above the falls. Energetic hikers and snowshoers can then pick up the trail to the Ink Pots and make a day of it. But you’ll probably need snowshoes to do this.
Good to know before you go in 2021: The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is difficult to access this year because of COVID. Highway 1A is closed to the trailhead. But if you go with a guide, they can offer a shuttle service. Or you can go self-propelled on foot or by snowshoes but count on a long day of easy hiking. The good news – you’ll probably have Johnston Canyon to yourself.
The other newsworthy information for 2021 is that infrastructure is being upgraded at the second set of falls. There will be flagging in place but apparently little in the way of posted signs telling you that you can’t go to the end of the trail to view the frozen falls – but you can still get a good view.
Maligne Canyon Ice Walk in Jasper National Park
It takes about 90 minutes to hike to the furthest reaches of Maligne Canyon. Along the route stop to admire man-sized icicles, slither headfirst into a cave and step behind a frozen waterfall to marvel at its ethereal beauty. And then if you’re lucky catch some ice climbers in action at the end of the trail. Both kids and adults will love this easy adventure. When we did it, the kid on the tour said the highlight for her was going inside the cave. If you’re not on a tour, I think you’d miss the cave entrance completely.
Maligne Canyon is a delight from start to finish. Accessed via a short drive up Maligne Road from Jasper, the ice walk can be done with or without a guide. This hike is amazing with a guide, as there is so much interesting geology that you would never learn about if you did it on your own.
No matter how you see the canyon, be sure to dress warmly, and take icers. There is a lot more ice to navigate on this walk than there is on the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk.
Grotto Canyon Ice Walk – one of the ice walks in Alberta that is sometimes like a skating rink
The Grotto Canyon Ice Walk is only about an hour’s drive from Calgary. This year with COVID, it’s particularly busy as it’s such a fun outing for all ages.
If you do want to visit on a weekend, I highly recommend that you get to the trailhead by 9:15 AM to get a good parking spot. I’d also recommend backing into your parking spot so you can easily pull out when you’re finished. And obey signs on the highway or you’ll be going home with a ticket.
The start of the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk isn’t that pretty. You’ll see and hear the Baymag Mineral Processing Facility until you turn into the canyon, about a kilometre from the trailhead. Then it’s a fun kilometre to reach the frozen waterfalls. Most of this section is icy and very pretty. Good skaters would probably love the short smooth sections!
Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to research the location of the Grotto Canyon pictographs before my ice walk but I did do some online searching after. According to the Mountain Nature and Culture Podcast, they are found at the narrowest point in the valley on the left hand rock face just before you reach the frozen waterfalls.
At the waterfalls, there’s a rough ice slide that some kids were enjoying. Adults might find the sliding a little too hard on their rear ends.
Many people stop at the waterfalls but don’t. Continue up through the pretty canyon for about 10 minutes to reach a valley. Up on your left, hoodoos and a cave are visible. The steep hike to the cave is easy enough to do, BUT it’s tricky coming down. When I was there people were dislodging scree and rocks, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
Allow two to three hours to do the ice walk.
All three ice walks in Alberta are super fun to do but I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite. They’re all so different! The ice walks are a great introduction to hiking because of the high fun factor – and it’s a treat this year in particular to be outdoors, smiling and having a good time.
Further reading on winter activities in Alberta
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