One of the most beautiful ice walks in Alberta, Maligne Canyon is a sight to behold as you plunge into the depths of a canyon 365 million years in the making. For a few cold months of the year, Maligne Canyon is littered with magical ice sculptures growing out of the canyon walls.
If you get the chance to do it in summer time it is a wonderful contrast to the winter experience. Normally the water rushes and pounds through the canyon walls as the roar echoes upwards and through you. In winter, a strange silence befalls the canyon as the roar of the water is gone and all that is left is the sound of ice crunching beneath your feet and your imagination remembering the rushing cold water below.
I am not much of a swimmer so any walking on frozen lakes or rivers, especially at the tail end of the season when the melt has started makes my imagination run on over drive as I envision the worst. Crazy day dreaming aside, walking along the ice and being able to run your hands over ancient layers of limestone fifty meters below the surface is a wonderful experience.
Maligne Canyon is carved out of the Palliser Formation. About 365 million years ago this area used to be a shallow sea which was popular with the lime-secreting plankton crowd. Combined with the remains of various other brachiopods, gastropods, and more, the deposits eventually came to form the layer that is now referred to as the Palliser Formation.
The one important bit of information that cannot be stressed enough is to wear proper foot wear. Crampons will make your life very easy, but at the very least the cheap traction cleats should be brought. There was at least a dozen people I came across trying to slip and slide their way though. A couple experiences what look like rather painful falls and this was all before the usual rush of tourists in the afternoon. The ice shelf in the canyon is not flat. There are numerous upward and downward slopes to negotiate on solid ice. Ice is very slippery and runners or hiking boots do a whole lot of nothing on it.
Maligne Canyon Trip Log
Once you have found suitable parking spot at the 5th Bridge along Maligne Canyon, head across the bridge and make a right to head towards the canyon itself. The trail starts of nice and wide and goes uphill for a couple about hundred meters or so.
Once at the fork you are presented with the trail that continues going up, or the right which is a much narrow trail that appears to head down directly to the creek bed. You will want to make a right and head downwards.
Continue on for approximately one kilometer as you twist and turn along the banks of the Maligne River. On the day I went the trek in was nice and frozen, on the return though this stretch was deep mud that just stuck to everything. If warm days are predicted I would suggest getting an early start.
As you continue onwards you will eventually come across a wide cascading style waterfall on the opposite side (north side) of the river bed. There is also a green sign right on the trail that states this is the start of the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk. Squeeze under guard rail and make your way onto the rocks.
If you haven’t come across any ice at this point, don’t be discouraged as the Maligne Canyon itself is a bit colder and seems to hold the ice substantially better than the open river bed leading up to it. The entrance into the canyon itself is the tricky portion depending on conditions. This is also a good time to put on your crampons or traction aids.
The entrance is a nice smooth down sloping rock which provides almost no quality hand holds. I imagine with more ice built up it would be a little easier. When I went through it there was only a very thin noodle down the center and the ice towards the top was only an mm or two thick. I was able to get up easily with crampons but going down I ended up kicking into the log that was conveniently perched there.
Once you scramble out of the little hole and are back up on flat ground, the winter wonderland adventure starts. I lost track of how many people thought going through the canyon without some traction devices was a good idea. Most asked for help as they tried to walk down the smallest of inclines since runners and boots don’t do well on solid ice, weird!
The ice formations around you start to grow, almost as if out of a ferry tail as you travel deeper in.
I imagine there is a fair bit more ice earlier into the season as I went through in March and there was a lot of evidence of melt happening already. There is a section that involved traversing a set of logs before making your way up a small ice wall about waist high. There are steps chewed into it from the many visitors that allow easy traversing of the incline.
At this point you’re entering the much deeper portion of Maligne Canyon. The canyon walls suddenly rise up around you and the ice floor turns very smooth. If you have done the walk up above in summer time, it is an amazing experience being at the bottom of the canyon where you normally only get a glance into at sections.
As you move in further the previous water flows start to make the canyon walls look very interesting. At one point there is a very smooth dome cut away into the ceiling caused by a whirlpool when the canyon was in its infant stages. This was actually one of my favorite portions to see as you typically see the smoothed out whirlpool areas in the rocks on the sides of canyons as the water gets caught and spun around. Having it up in the ceiling gave the perception you were walking through an ancient temple as the walls around you flare out as they get deeper.
Two of the largest ice falls are also located here. Through winter they create an amazing wall of ice on the canyon walls. Unfortunately being at the tail end of winter a lot of the ice had stress cracks through it and sections already broken off. It was still a great sight to see as the water falls on the side in summer time are not much more than a trickle of water.
The large frozen water fall is where the official tour groups turn around and also the end of the official trail. There was an older couple that arrived from further in the canyon and after a short chat I ventured to see what they came across. They stated the ice shelf collapsed and after moving the ice they did hit water. I do not know the quality of the ice past the official trail as it is no doubt the end for a reason. As they said it didn’t go on for much longer I decided to check it out myself.
The ice just past the large ice falls was broken in a rather dramatic fashion creating a pretty cool sight. Being able to see underneath of what was walked on just moments ago made for a slightly uneasy feeling.
The couple stated that up ahead the ice was broken and upon poking it with their pole they did break through and saw deep water but stated it was obvious. Now “obvious” could be taken rather subjectively… so as I walked through the now eerily quiet canyon, each crunch of the crampon on the ice below and echoing sound of random noises made me question how obvious this thin ice would be.
I came across another whirlpool carving just after the initial break in the ice which had a massive collection of deadfall. It looked as if it was a large birds nest from a prehistoric pterodactyl. It looked very cool but the people up above apparently did not have much regard for the potential that people would be on the ice. Twice I had to grab the camera and tripod and bail to the canyon wall as large stones the size of a small ball came tumbling down with nearby debris as the sound of people and kids echoed from up above.
About ten meters later I came across what the couple described. It was definitely obvious. The ice shelf, which was at least a foot and a half deep, collapsed and made passage impossible. I did not even attempt trying to reach down to poke it as it seemed like a very bad idea. The edges showed off water deep enough to disappear into blackness and in general a very uneasy feeling. At that point I noped out of there and headed back. It would be interesting to see what the rest of the canyon held and what the main falls would look like from the ice but that would have to be saved for another day when the ice might be in much better condition.
What were your experiences Maligne Canyon?
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