Grotto Canyon Hike to Pictographs
Round Trip time: 2:50
Height Gain: 170m
Distance Round Trip: 4.6km
Date: Oct. 16 2010
Grotto Canyon is a unique hike that offers opportunities year round; in summer time it boasts a hike up a river bed passing an absorbent amount of climbing slabs and ultimately leading you to the hidden Grotto Falls. On your way you will pass one of the most exciting additions to this hike, the old Hopi pictographs created by native visitors from the Arizona region. The Native American Nation of the Hopi people currently reside in Northeastern Arizona on 1.5 million acres of land (Waters, 1963). They refer to themselves as "the Peaceful People" which stems from their full Native name Hopitu.
The ancient myth of the Hopi people and their descendants is described in the Book of the Hopi. The pictographs found at Grotto Canyon depict animals and humans and appear to be between 500 to 1300 years old. The flute player, which is one of the more clear pictographs along the limestone wall of the canyon, is the symbol of the Hopi people and was only used by them. According to the book, when the Hopi originally came to North America, they split and travelled in 4 different directions. They were to meet again at a common place which ended up being present day Arizona.
One group was said to travel to the north, to the land of rock and ice. These groups may have travelled a period of three centuries, possibly longer. They left drawings of the flute player, also named as Kokapelli, possibly to mark their travels and for any other Hopi travelling that way, although there are many speculations as to why these drawings were painted. Kokapelli, the flute player, is said to be the symbol of fertility as well as a traveller. The drawings were painted on the rock walls with ochre, the same substance that is found at the Paint Pots in Kootenay National Park. There is not much left of their drawings on the canyon walls but enough is visible to have fun trying to distinguish what they could possibly be.
The first kilometer of the trail is through a forest passing the Baymag plant #2, a processing plant for magnesium-carbonate. From then on you are walking up a creek bed until the end. Depending on how high the creek is, travel will vary from boulder hoping to stepping over small streams. A much different and exciting trip compared to your normal hike.
If hiking in early spring, great caution should be taking as melt water and rain use this narrow canyon as an outlet which can be very hazardous should the water level rise. Same care should be taken if heavy rains are forecasted as flash flooding is possible in such a narrow vicinity.
How to get to Grotto Canyon?
From Calgary you can take Crowchild Trail (1A) west about 81 kilometers counting from Stoney Trail in the northwest. Alternativly and quicker is to head west on the Trans-Canada Highway to the Sebee turn off (Highway #40) and make a left (west) onto Bow Valley Trail for about 11 kilometers. If coming from Canmore, head east on Bow Valley Trail for about 10 kilometers. Either route you take, look out for the signed Grotto Pond Day Use Area sign and pull into the parking area there.
Grotto Canyon hike Trip Log
The trailhead is on the west side of the parking lot. A large sign with "Grotto Creek Trail" painted on the wood makes it easy to spot. It starts off on a small narrow path that leads you through the forest before the trail widens and allows you to walk side by side.
As you continue on the trail you will come beside Baymag's Plant #2. A small tablet explains the history and what the plant is all about in present day. Soon after, a small opening on the right side which is marked with flagging tape is apparent. Follow this path as the forest thickens around you.
Once you come out of the trees you are greeted by the eroded river bed of Grotto Creek. From here you have two options. One is to start heading up river immediately, the other, to follow the hiking trail as it goes up hill and parallels the creek bed along the west side. The first time we did this trail we took the hiking path but after 15 minutes we dropped down into the creek bed. On the return we stayed in the level creek bed until the end which was a lot quicker.
If you do follow the hiking trail, the path is narrow for the most part and does wind up and down. There is a small clearing that offers a nice overlooking view to the west as you hike along, but other then that... it just adds more mileage and less fun then hoping along the rocks below.
This is where the fun starts. Depending on the water level you might be doing a lot of jumping over streams, or a simple step over. When we went the water level was pretty low which allowed us simply walk and skip over any obstacle we came across. Early in the year there is a lot of water that flows through here and it can get very hazardous as some parts do narrow considerably. Even though you are stuck on the river bottom the view is amazing. It's odd to say that, but it's not every day when you're out in the woods your able to see the view from this angle. Generally as rivers and creeks erode the rock below it carves and cuts away but it's all hidden from our eyes. In Grotto you can feel the texture of the rock and see the amazing cut outs in the rock first hand.
As you skip along the rocks, if you pay close attention to the canyon walls you will notice a fair amount of climbing bolts in the walls. There are over 200 climbing routes routes through out the canyon. As you round the last corner before reaching the waterfalls you come to the other historical portion of Grotto Canyon, the ancient Hopi Pictographs. There is a fair bit of literature available for these pictographs and a bit of mystery swirling around it as well. One of the many options is "Plains Indian Rock Art" by James D. Keyser & Michael Klassen.
The last couple hundred meters takes you to the end of the Grotto Canyon hike. You are presented with what looks like just water dribbling out of the rock wall which in winter, freezes up and turns into a massive ice pillar. To the right, a small waterfall, Grotto Falls, is hidden away and is the main source of water that runs through the canyon.
The canyon does continue to the left (west) but if your goal is to reach the falls and the pictographs then this is the turn around point and return is the same way you came in.
Onwards to Hoodoos and the cave
If you choose to continue on through the canyon you have the opportunity to check out a small sandstone cave as well as a few hoodoos. As you start down further into the canyon, it briefly narrows before expanding to the general width that it was before. There doesn't appear to be a stream running through here so it is mostly just run off water that runs through here so chances are the bed will be completely dry when hiking along.
After about 15-20 minutes of trekking through the canyon, the walls open up into a small valley. The hoodoos and the hill that houses the small cave are visible as a large pile of brown sandstone on the west side of the valley. There are a few trails that seem to meander through the valley floor.
For those of us who have a hard time to not checking ominous black holes in mountain sides this is a nice surprise along the canyon floor. The way up to the cave is a little trickier then it looks from a distance. It is considerably steep and there is only a small ledge less then a foot wide to traverse to the entrance.
The cave itself is only about 20 feet deep and tall enough to walk around hunched in but does allow you to get a nice overview of the valley which is a nice change from being on the bottom of a dried up river bed. Be sure to check from the ground to make sure there isn't any wildlife hiding in there for shelter as well as that could be an unhappy surprise.
Return the same way.
GPS Plotted Route
The start point is the parking lot at the Grotto Mountain Pond; the right hand edge of the red line. As it heads west, the first split in the road is where you make a right and head down the small path through the trees. On the way back it was getting dark and we decided to follow the creek further out of the canyon and hook onto the path there instead of going through the forest which is the 90 degree bend on the bottom left of the red line.
The couple spikes in the center are from walking up and down to the water fall I believe as there is no sharp elevation gain anywhere else in the canyon.
Note: The above GPS read out does not include the extension to the hoodoos and cave.
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