Can you picture yourself soaking in a hot tub minutes after finishing a day of cross-country skiing in the mountains? Or drinking a local beer after an icy walk in a mountain canyon?
If you answered yes, head to Canmore, a gem of a mountain town where there are lots of things to do in winter. It’s only an hour’s drive west of Calgary and just minutes from the gates of Banff National Park. If you have a couple of days you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how many things to do there are – largely because an amazing number of outdoor adventures are right on Canmore’s doorstep.
Below I’ve listed a sampling of things to do in Canmore and how much time you need to do them. Add in a place to stay for a night or two (see below) and a few good meals. Voilá – a perfect Alberta winter getaway.
Do the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
Time needed: 1.5 – 2 hours
The Grotto Canyon is a fun, family hike that doesn’t take a lot of time. When there’s been a cold snap the hike is really an icewalk as you follow a frozen creek up a narrow canyon towards a waterfall. Icers are a necessity under these conditions BUT when it’s warmed up – as it did for me, then they are optional. It was still icy in places – but mostly avoidable. Just before you reach the waterfall look for the pictographs down low on the left. Unfortunately I found out about them after I got home.
Don’t stop when you reach the waterfall but continue left and make your way up towards the hoodoos and a cave. You can continue for some time past here on rocky terrain but most people turn back at the hoodoos.
Its 1.1 kilometres from the parking lot to the creek bed, another kilometre to the waterfall and then about a kilometre up to the hoodoos. Don’t be put off by the Baymag Mineral Processing Facility you see and hear in the first kilometre because once you turn into the canyon the noise dissipates.
Trailhead Location: The Grotto Lake parking lot is located 3.4 kilometres west of Exshaw and approximately 13 kilometres east of Canmore on the 1A highway past the Baymag plant #2.
Go Cross-country skiing at the Canmore Nordic Centre
Time Needed: 1 – 4 hours
With over 65 kilometres of groomed and natural cross-country ski trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre both skate and classic skiers will find a trail to love no matter what type of skier they are. While the trails are frequented by locals because as Olympian Sara Renner says “they’re so convenient and accessible and they give you the most bang for your buck”, they’re also popular with the Calgary crowd.
Tickets can be purchased at the Nordic Centre between 9 AM and 5 PM. Adult pricing is $15. Seniors (55+) can purchase tickets for only $11.25. Skiing is free after 5 PM for everyone. Bonus points – there’s night skiing on 6.5 kilometres of lit trails. Onsite you can rent skis, use a wax room, buy gear and clothes and enjoy a fine mountain view from the restaurant.
Time Needed: Allow half a day
Three dogsledding companies call Canmore home; Howling Dog, Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours and Mad Dogs & Englishmen Expeditions. All offer a variety of tours that include everything from a two hour outing around the Spray Lakes to mushing under the stars to an overnight camping experience.
I’ve only done the two hour dogsledding tour out of Canmore and really it just whets your appetite for more. You’re offered the opportunity to mush the sled yourself – and really you must try it as the fun factor goes way up when you’re in charge.
Go snowshoeing off of the Spray Lakes Road
Time Needed: Allow 2 – 6 hours depending on how far you have to drive
Canmore itself doesn’t get a lot of snow so unless there’s a big dump plan to head out of town. There are lots of nearby options in both Banff National Park and off the Spray Lakes Road.
At the top of the Spray Lakes Road you’ll find the Goat Creek parking lot and trailhead. While you can cross-country ski the 18 kilometres on the Goat Creek Trail to the Banff Springs Hotel (you’ll need to shuttle a car to the far end) you can also head in the other direction along the High Rockies Trail – the westernmost section of the Trans-Canada Trail. This trail runs for 80 kilometres but beware as there are no facilities. Plan on an out and back snowshoeing excursion for as long as you have the energy.
If you drive another 35 kilometres south on the Spray Lakes Road from Goat Creek you’ll reach the large parking lot for Chester Lake. Its here you can experience one of the premier snowshoeing experiences in the province via a five kilometre trail to the lake. After about 40 minutes of climbing at a moderate grade you reach a large meadow and the going gets easier all the way to the lake. If you’ve got the time make the side trip to Elephant Rocks – the scene of massive boulders dropped helter-skelter. The views on a bluebird day enchant.
How about some caving near Canmore?
Time needed: Allow 2-6 hours depending on the tour
If tight spaces under tons of rocks don’t scare you then you must try the Canmore caving experience. I did the six hour tour of Rat’s Nest Cave just outside of town and survived. While much of the caving is straightforward and I actually liked rappelling in the dark, I’d have to pass on another slide down the laundry chute. But if you’re into adventure and it’s a freezing cold day outside (don’t forget caves stay at a comfortable 5°C) then sign up for a tour (some are as short as two hours) with Canmore Cave Tours.
Where to eat in Canmore
For the best coffee in town head to Mountain Mercato on Main Street. If it’s a nice day you can sit outside. Breakfast, lunch and dinners (Thursday – Sunday) are served too. While you’re waiting check out the extensive gourmet food selection in their retail space.
If you’re into eggs benny or great pancakes (try the raspberry) head to Chez Francois. Too bad their coffee is only so-so. I’m never in Canmore when its lunch time but I’d probably just head back to Mountain Mercato or over to Communitea Cafe where they’ve got a beautiful, bright space and lots of local, organic offerings. For beer check out the Grizzly Paw Pub. High end diners should check out Crazyweed Kitchen; romantic diners will want to visit the Tapas Restaurant. For a view try Murietta’s Bar & Grill. And if you love Mexican head to kid-friendly Aroma Mexican.
Where to Stay in Canmore
You’re spoiled for choice in Canmore as they really do offer the full gamut of accommodations.
Inexpensive: The Canmore Clubhouse run by the Alpine Club of Canada is located 4.5 kilometres out of town. Members pay only $30/night, non-members $40/night.
Bed & Breakfast: Try Grandview Chalet B&B. Their location close to the Nordic Centre is superb and so are their breakfasts!
New Kid on the Block: Basecamp Resort offers well-appointed rooms with thoughtful touches like local coffee and Rocky Mountain soap along with a washer and dryer (soap provided), a fully equipped kitchen and an awesome hot tub. The downside in my books as I just stayed there, is the lack of a personal touch as you’re given a code to your room so you don’t have to talk to anybody. Ever. But maybe that’s just me. Prices are reasonable.
Boutique Hotel: The Paintbox Lodge in downtown Canmore offers five comfortable, well-appointed suites and a mountain breakfast. They are well known for their onsite cooking classes too.
The Canmore Winter Carnival
Bookmark 11 days in February so you can be in Canmore for the Canmore Winter Carnival. While well-attended by locals, its got plenty to offer the out-of-towner too. The two weekends bookending the festival have the most events on while the weekdays offer themed evening activities.
Thank you to Travel Alberta for making this post possible.