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Go Underground with Canmore Cave Tours

by Karen Ung

For an unforgettable experience, explore Rat’s Nest Cave beneath Grotto Mountain with Canmore Cave Tours.

Calling all adventurers! If you’d like to explore underground caverns, wriggle through squeezes, and experience absolute darkness, you need to try spelunking with Canmore Cave Tours. With over 25 years of experience, they have an awesome track record of providing safe, high quality tours with knowledgeable guides.

Partnership Disclosure: This story was written in partnership with Banff Lake Louise Tourism, Canmore Cave Tours, and Banff Lodging Company. All words and opinions are my own.

The Explorer Tour

Upon arrival at Canmore Cave Tour’s office, we are given a “what to expect” talk before reviewing and signing waivers. It’s the last chance to back out for those afraid of confined spaces. While most of the tour is spent walking upright – sometimes holding onto a secured rope so you don’t slip – or bum scooting, there are a few low, narrow passages (called squeezes) where you’ll have to crouch low or army crawl.

Next, we are outfitted with coveralls, helmets and headlamps, harnesses, knee pads, and gloves (plus a pack to carry everything in). It seems like a lot of gear, but you’ll need every piece inside the cave – and the coveralls help keep you warm too. The cave remains about 5 degrees Celsius year-round making it a pleasant place to cool off on a hot day, or a welcome break from extreme cold in the winter.

After a short drive to the unmarked parking lot below the cave, we hike almost straight up for one kilometre, gaining 300 metres in elevation. Our guide, Sarah, stops every few minutes to tell us about the area’s history, geography, and critters that live around here while we catch our breath. She shows us some cool fossils too!

Sarah is perfect for her job. Not only is she a Geography student at the University of Victoria, she is also super passionate about caving. She has explored several cave systems, including Thanksgiving Cave in BC, one of the largest caves in Canada (8.4 km long). When we ask how big Rat’s Nest Cave is, we’re surprised to hear it’s four kilometres long!

Near the cave entrance, Sarah asks if anyone needs the “facili-trees” then shows us how to put on all our safety gear. When she’s satisfied that our harnesses are snug enough and helmets secured, she unlocks the gate and welcomes us to Rat’s Nest Cave (the cave is locked to prevent people from going in and getting lost. With no cell service in the cave, you can imagine how dangerous getting lost could be!).

First things first, it is not a rat-infested cave. We are reassured that the cave is home to just one bushy-tailed wood rat named Chewy, “who is adorable” (and only lives there in the winter). Chewy’s nest is near the entrance, perched above a pit of animal bones. While some of the animals died naturally (fell in and couldn’t get out), others were hunted and butchered near here; we can tell by the telltale striations (knife marks) on their bones. Further evidence that humans have known about these caves for thousands of years, are pictographs on the cave walls.

Rat’s Nest Cave is a “wild” cave, so there are no lights, catwalks, or railings. It’s just you and your headlamp – and your trusty guide! In sketchy spots, there are ropes to clip on to, for a controlled slide on slick rock. On our route, there was just one manmade feature, The Box, where a connecting passageway was dug out and reinforced with a wooden box and ladder. Climbing down is like entering an Indiana Jones set… minus the giant cockroaches and human skulls. Being a lot younger, my kids compared it to the Upside Down; the flowstone definitely looks like something out of Stranger Things.

We creep downward, holding onto a secured rope so we don’t slip, listening to the echo of our footfalls. At slippery sections, Sarah reminds us to stay low and announces, “There will be awards for best bum scoots!” In the dark, it’s hard to tell how much elevation we’re losing. It’s only on the return trip that we see how steep the descent was.

Over the next couple hours on the Explorer Tour, we visit the Grand Gallery and Grotto, see cool cave formations made of calcite (scallops, soda straws, flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites), learn what Moonmilk is, experience absolute darkness, and try a few squeezes. One particularly tricky one called Challenge Squeeze requires adults to turn on their sides to fit through. When I get to the other side and exclaim, “That was like going through the birth canal!” Sarah laughs and says I’m not the first to say that. There is, however, another squeeze called The Birth Canal and it’s “tighter and wetter.” We will not be doing that one today (just as well, I can just imagine what my tweens would say!), but we try a few other squeezes and visit Bacon Strip Calcite which lives up to its name and makes us hungry.

Gazing up at soda straws (thin, hollow stalactites) over a foot long, Sarah shares that they grow about one centimetre per hundred years. Since these structures are ancient and fragile at the same time, it’s another reason cave access is limited. We feel lucky to be exploring this weird and wonderful subterranean world that is virtually pristine.

Distance and time are hard to measure in the dark. While it feels like we’ve been hiking for kilometres, Sarah tells us we’ve only gone about 500 metres in two hours. Can you imagine how long it would take to travel the whole four kilometres of Rat’s Nest Cave?

The 4.5-hour Explorer Tour (which includes 2 hours in the cave) was the perfect introduction to caving, but won’t be our last time! To be honest, my kids initially didn’t want to go – they thought wandering around in the dark underground would be boring – but after only a few minutes in the cave, they wanted to go in the front, close to Sarah, and ask her questions. Even my youngest, who tends to be a bit shy, was asking, “Is this a bone? How old is this stalactite? Can you go down there?” It was cool to see them so excited about the cave and its features. Their favorite parts were the squeezes, crawling in the dark (we turned our headlamps off for a few metres to experience total darkness), listening to water dripping in the Grotto, and bum sliding.

If you’d like to spend even more time underground, sign up for the Adventure Tour! The Adventure Tour includes all the fun of the Explorer Tour, plus an an 18-metre rappel, more terrain and more squeezes over 6 hours (4 hours in the cave). I did the Adventure Tour pre-kids and loved it!

Know Before You Go

There’s a half hour hike to the cave (1 kilometre with 300 metres elevation gain), so wear running shoes, trail runners, or hiking boots. Footwear with good traction will help you in the cave too.

Coveralls, harnesses, helmets and headlamps, knee pads, and gloves are provided to keep you safe and dry. Since it’s about 5 degrees Celsius year round inside the cave, wear pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and light jacket/hoodie you can move easily in. Caving requires agility and is a lot more athletic than expected, however many of the tighter squeezes are optional so you can opt out if you don’t feel comfortable.

Tours Offered by Canmore Cave Tours

  • Explorer Tour: 4.5 hours including 2.5 hours underground. Ages 10 & up.
  • Adventure Tour: 6 hours including 4 hours underground. Ages 12 & up.

What to Bring

  • Bring a bottle of water and small snack for the hike.
  • DO bring a GoPro or your phone if it has a durable dust-proof case.
  • Since there’s a lot of dust in the cave and some of the squeezes are tight (even for me at 5’3″, 120 pounds), I do NOT recommend bringing a DSLR.
  • Your sense of adventure!

Where to Stay

Hidden Ridge Resort has spacious, well-appointed condos on the side of Tunnel Mountain, just minutes from downtown Banff, and 20 minutes from Canmore. Mountain bike or hike from your door, then relax in the outdoor pool and hot pools with spectacular mountain views.

If you would prefer to stay in downtown Banff or Canmore, Banff Lodging Company has several other desirable properties to choose from. Until October 11, 2021, book your first night and receive 30% off any additional nights.

For More Information / To Book Now

To learn more about the 4.5-hour Explorer Tour or 6-hour Adventure Tour, or book your adventure, visit Canmore Cave Tours.

Save 20% at Canmore Cave Tours when you book a room with Banff Lodging Company.

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