hiking the Rockies for rookies

Part of the reason we wanted to move to Canada was for this little thing called the Rocky Mountains. These glorious peaks stretch all the way from northern British Columbia and western Canada, down to New Mexico in the States, and they're really quite the spectacle. We live in Calgary, about an hour drive from Banff National Park, and just being able to visit these amazing mountains makes the move so worthwhile.

We've always been active people in some way, and big lovers of the outdoors. I grew up in the Girl Guide and Scout communities, so my summers were often spent hiking and camping in the British countryside, whilst Nikki has been obsessed with sport since she could walk. That being said, our mountaineering knowledge is limited, due to our upbringing in pretty flat surroundings, and so as much as we'd like to jump straight in and conquer some of the highest peaks that Alberta has to offer, we know that everybody needs to start small.

We've tried out a few trails here and there, but we found these three walks to be perfect for any novice climber who wants to see some killer views, but isn't sure about investing in crampons and hiking poles just yet.

Tunnel Mountain, Banff (1,692 m)

This short climb is only a few minutes walk from downtown Banff, which makes it easily accessible if you're feeling spontaneous. Nakoda people call this mountain 'Sleeping Buffalo' because of the shape it resembles from afar. We drove up to the trailhead parking lot and made our ascent from there - due to the icy conditions we wanted to endure as little snow as we had to! The 4.5km trail is mainly comprised of steep switchbacks, but it doesn't last long before you come out to an open summit with incredible views of Banff town on one side, and the Bow River valley on the other.

We did the trail in early March and the whole path was compact snow, although we didn't find this a problem. Some people were walking with crampons, others in fashion trainers - a decent pair of hiking boots will do the job just fine. We saw an elk grazing in the woods right at the beginning of our walk, and despite warning signs of cougars in the area, we didn't have any wildlife issues. All in all, a great first hike in Canada!

Upper Grassi Lakes (1,525 m)

Grassi Lakes has become one of our go to walks in the Rockies so far. Stuck on where to go one afternoon, we did a Google search for easy hikes in the area and came across this beautiful trail on the outskirts of Canmore. There are two routes you can take, the easy or the hard walk, and we've tried our hands (or feet) at both. The lakes were named after an Italian miner, Lawrence Grassi, who was a respected climber in the area and actually built the trails himself. The trail is full of surprises, from the breathtaking views on the hard route, ancient pictographs in the upper canyon and even the emerald lakes themselves.

The easy route is a wide trail that cuts through the forest until you reach the lower lake, whilst the harder route starts off reasonably flat before a steep incline up some precariously placed stone steps. These steps are arranged in switchbacks, and climb up the side of a waterfall, so this can be seriously icy in the winter months. We recommend the harder climb up with a leisurely stroll back down.

Once you reach the lakes you can take in great views of Canmore from above, before climbing up more steps to the canyon above. The upper lake and canyon walls are popular with rock climbers, so it's pretty cool to pause and watch them scale these impressive rock faces. We have been warned of bears around the Canmore area in particular, so always remember to carry bear spray!

Grotto Canyon Trail

We love a waterfall, and the idea of walking down a creek bed to see one was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. Grotto Canyon Trail is about 10km outside of Canmore and more of a flat walk than a hike, although I would recommend shoes with good grip, as the loose rocks make for a bit of a scramble along the creek. It's 4km out and back, so a great way to finish off a day out in Canmore before driving back to the city.

The first kilometre and a half passes a mineral processing plant before ascending into thick vegetation, coming out to the edge of a wide canyon. The view from here is incredible, but the strong winds meant we didn't linger too long. We climbed down into the canyon and over some boulders and landed alongside the trickling creek bed, which is where the rest of the walk picks up.

The creek bed can be a scramble, and in places we had to cross over the creek water, so we were glad to be wearing waterproof shoes. Despite the hot weather, shaded parts of the canyon still had large chunks of ice, which were covered in dirt and could be mistaken for a flat rocky surface, so be warned! This canyon is very popular with rock climbers, and we stopped for a while to watch them ascend the walls before continuing on our way. The trail ends at a small waterfall which is up a steep rocky hill. I started charging up towards the waterfall without thinking about how slippery it would be going back, but it ended up being easy enough to slide down, using roots and boulders for support.

This walk is apparently a great place to spot bighorn sheep, and we read that bears rarely venture into the canyons, where food is scarce, which is a plus!

* Always check trail conditions before starting any hike, and be prepared for weather changes

* Bear spray is essential in the Rockies! Travel in tight groups and make noise when walking through thick wooded areas. Make sure wildlife know you are coming.


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