The Banff area has some of the most impressive scenery in Canada but did you know that there’s also incredible beauty to be found underground as well?
One of the largest cave systems in Canada is located in nearby Canmore, just 20 minutes drive east of Banff. This maze of chambers and passageways (over 4km!) is accessible with the help of Canmore Cave Tours, who have been exploring the Rat’s Nest Cave for decades.
Thrilling, fun and surprisingly educational, our 4.5 hour long Explorer tour featured intricate cave formations, thousand year old artifacts and a whole lot of hands-on rock action. Read on to discover our experience and everything you need to know to join a spelunking tour yourself!
Thank you to Banff and Lake Louise Tourism for hosting us during our two night stay in Banff. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Canmore Cave Tours
To visit a cave and stare awestruck at the intricate formations is one thing, but crawling around in narrow passageways is quite another. Canmore Cave Tours is all about the latter, with the Rat’s Nest cave system being almost as wild as when it was first explored.
For example, there are no guardrails, stairs or viewing platforms to be found. Instead of walking around on pathways, you’ll be shimmying, sliding and climbing through small tunnels to reach spacious chambers.
This is an exhilarating adventure for anyone who has ever been curious about what lies below. It’s also a distinctively different challenge (mentally and physically) like no other in the Banff and Canmore area.
2020 tours have been adapted to meet Covid19 protocols. Maximum groups sizes have been reduced and masks must be worn inside the cave. Physical distancing of 2m is enforced while hiking to the cave entrance. More information can be found on the Canmore Cave Tours website.
Rat’s Nest Cave
Our tour starts with an uphill hike to the Rat’s Nest Cave entrance. This is the first indication that this trip underground requires a little more adventurous spirit than others.
The cave opening is a gash in the side of the rock face, accessible only via a polished ramp. A locked gate prevents entry to most – now a provincial historic site, Canmore Cave Tours are the gatekeepers to Rat’s Nest Cave.
Though the cave system was ‘discovered’ by hikers in 1972, there’s plenty of evidence that it was known about for much longer than that.
Right above the entrance, there is an ancient pictograph on the rock. Other examples are found inside the cave itself. This gives the indication that the cave may have held cultural significance for First Nations for thousands of years.
Just past the entry gate is a deep pit containing a myriad of animal bones, some of which are more than 7000 years old. Stone tools have also been found here. It is believed that the cave has long been used for shelter by humans as well as animals, such as the bushy-tailed wood rats that the cave is named after.
Crawling, squeezing and climbing underground
Moving away from the entrance of Rat’s Nest Cave requires sliding down a surprisingly steep section of smooth rock, with the ceiling dropping ever closer on the way.
For tricky sections like this, cave visitors are clipped onto a safety rope. This helps to make the whole experience a lot more fun than scary.
This first section, however, is only the beginning. There’s plenty more to explore yet. Rat’s Nest Cave features the classic cave sequence of a large space then a narrow passageway, followed by another large space.
One of the first large chambers on the tour is nicknamed the ‘Bone Room,’ where you can examine some of the ancient bones found in the cave a little more closely. Our guide pointed out a few of her favourites, with one featuring a particularly large incisor.
Next, we climbed down a man-made hexagonal-shaped hole (nicknamed ‘the Box’), made a sharp turn to the right and crawled into another chamber.
In addition to all the climbing and shimmying, we were also given the opportunity to try out a couple of different ‘squeezes’ along the way. These are narrow passages in which you need to contort your body to get through. It may only last a few seconds but offers a jolt of adrenaline.
Alone in the darkness
Much as there are no fixed walkways in Rat’s Nest Cave, there is no fixed lighting either. Hands free headlamps offer the only source of light. This makes it harder to forget how deep in the earth you are.
This limited lighting became more apparent whenever we crawled through the tighter passageways to arrive in a large chamber. Bouncing off the high ceiling and disappearing into an impossible number of crevices, our spotlights would reveal something new with every look.
At one point on the tour, our guide asked us all to sit down and turn off our headlamps. The darkness was immediate and absolute. The silence, too, was deafeningly apparent.
The final, and deepest, room on our tour definitely the most impressive. The crystal clear twin pools in the Grotto are surrounded by beautiful staircase-like calcite formations.
Delicate soda straw stalactites (which grow at a rate of 1 cm/100 years) hang from the ceiling and continually drip water into the pools.
To continue exploring from here, you’d need to bring scuba diving equipment through the cave. Obviously, this is only for experienced cave divers. It’s a dangerous feat, with the sediment on the bottom of the pools a threat to visibility.
As curious as I may be, I am becoming familiar with my limits and I think cave diving is one of them.
The Grotto was the perfect place to ‘end’ our underground tour, though we still had to adventure back the way we came before reaching fresh air again. Uphill most of the way, it was trickier in places but felt more straightforward overall.
Sliding out of the cave entrance into the bright light was a shock to the senses, quickly overtaken by a sense of accomplishment and wonder.
Canmore Cave Tours: What you need to know
If you’re considering booking with Canmore Cave Tours but still have a few questions or concerns about the experience, this is the section for you! Read on to find out everything you need to know about going on an underground adventure with Canmore Cave Tours.
Explore Rat’s Nest Cave in the comfort of your own home, with Canmore Cave Tours’ interactive, 360-degree virtual experience! Check it out here
Choose your adventure
Canmore Cave Tours run four different tours in and around Rat’s Nest Cave:
- Explorer Tour – 4.5 hour tour (2.5 hours underground) taking in the ‘Grand Gallery’ and ‘Grotto Pool.’ Optional squeezes through tighter passages
- Adventure Tour – 6 hour tour (4 hours underground) with all features of the Explorer tour plus longer route, 18m rappel and additional squeezes (some optional) and formations
- Solitude Tour – A customised private adventure, with up to 4 hours underground
- Discovery Hike – A family friendly interpretive tour that visits the entrance of the cave and includes a pass for the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre
With a constant underground temperature of 5 degrees Celsius, Canmore Cave Tours are able to run trips all year round in Rat’s Nest Cave. Unlike other seasonal activities in Canmore, this is one you can do in both winter and summer.
The Solitude Tour and Discovery Hike are currently available at the time of writing (August 2020).
The Adventure, Explorer and Solitude tours are all rated as ‘moderate.’ When considering your own fitness for these tours, you must be prepared to:
- Hike uphill for 30 minutes at the start of the tour (in all weather conditions)
- Crawl and climb for short periods of time in the cave
- Crouch, sit, walk and slide on uneven and slippery surfaces (attached to a safety rope)
- Be comfortable in a dusty, enclosed environment
I think moderate is an accurate rating as you do not need to be remarkably fit to take part in any of these tours but you need to be able to move with some agility.
The crawling and sliding sections are quite short, with plenty of places to get your breath back. Our guide stopped often on the hike and also while underground to ensure everyone was travelling at a comfortable pace.
The smallest space on the Explorer tour was about the size of a manhole. There was also an optional squeeze we could try.
The main difference between the Explorer and Adventure tours is that the latter includes a 18m rappel (or abeil) down an underground rock face and two additional cave routes to explore. The second section has a number of different squeezes, with the feet first ‘Laundry Chute’ being the biggest challenge.
If you’re unsure, have a look at the Rat’s Nest Cave virtual experience. It offers a walk-through of the cave system, so you can decide which tour is right for you.
What to bring
Most of the necessary equipment for this underground adventure is provided by Canmore Cave Tours. This includes kneepads, gloves, helmet, headlamp, harness and safety lanyard as well as coveralls.
I was pretty happy about this since JR and I once went caving on Vancouver Island and we had to wear our own clothes. Needless to say, they got really dirty. The coveralls have a couple of really deep pockets in which to store small items.
- A backpack is shared by pair of visitors, to carry all of these items to the cave entrance. This backpack has plenty of extra space available if you need to bring a few personal items (see below). Keep in mind though that is left outside (under shelter) while you’re in the cave
- It is a good idea to bring some snacks (e.g. a granola bar or two), especially if you know you may need a boost of energy. We brought ours into the cave but didn’t eat them until we left. We also had a bottle of water and left it in the backpack outside
- Another optional item is a camera. If you decide to bring one, it needs to be small – a smartphone or a point-and-shoot (no DSLRs). Using one is at your own risk, however, since the cave is very dusty and it would be easy enough to damage it while crawling or squeezing
What to wear
Being that this cave tour takes place underground and outside, it is important to wear clothing appropriate for both of these locations.
- The hiking trail up to the cave entrance is exposed at first (open to the elements) before becoming more forested. Canmore Cave Tours run trips in all weathers so there can be sun, rain or even snow
- The temperature in Rat’s Nest Cave, on the other hand, is a steady 5 degrees Celsius all year round. The Canmore Caves Tour website suggests to ‘imagine what you would wear if you had to spend a few hours in a refrigerator’
When considering what clothing to wear, remember that layers are key. There is a chance to take layers on or off before entering the cave. Wool and synthetic fabrics are much better than cotton as they provide more warmth when wet.
It is recommended to wear trousers and long sleeves in the cave, preferably with a warm sweater or additional layer. If you tend to run a little warm during physical activities, I’d be careful not too wear too much (I did and regretted it).
In terms of shoes, hiking boots are best but sturdy running shoes can also work. Canmore Cave Tours also suggests rubber or winter boots during the colder months.
At the current time, it is also necessary to wear a mask. Canmore Cave Tours will provide one but you can bring and use your own if preferred (we did).
Meeting the tour group
It is best to book a tour in advance to ensure a spot. Every participant needs to sign a liability waiver, which can be completed and submitted digitally before the tour. At the current time, there is also a Covid declaration to fill out.
Our Explorer tour group included two other couples and our guide (total of seven people).
The meeting point for Canmore Cave Tours is at #129 Bow Meadows Crescent, Canmore, T1W 2W8. Arrive 10 minutes before the tour start time.
After introducing themselves, our guide checked our temperature and provided everyone with all of the necessary safety equipment plus hand sanitizer and masks. We tried on our overalls there and then to ensure fit.
The next step was to travel in convoy, using our own vehicles, to the cave parking lot (10 minutes drive). There was one brief stop along the way at a rest area, offering a last opportunity to use a washroom.
The cave parking lot has space for about ten or so vehicles. After gathering all of our backpacks and ensuring everyone was there, we started to hike the trail to the cave entrance.
Hiking to the cave entrance
The hike to the cave entrance takes around 30 minutes. It is uphill most of the way, with a generally steady incline. There are a couple of steep sections but they don’t last long.
Our guide stopped a couple of times along the way to point out some interesting geological features along the way (including fossils). There are also some beautiful views of the Bow Valley.
The last part of the hiking trail goes through a canyon. We were asked to put your helmets on at this point. The walking surface is rocky and more uneven here, but there are fixed ropes to help with grip and balance.
Entering Rat’s Nest Cave
A canopy tent provides shelter outside the Rat’s Nest Cave entrance. It is here where you add or remove layers in preparation for entering the cave. Kneepads and harnesses are first to be put on with the overalls on top.
The entrance to Rat’s Nest Cave is sloped and very slippery from use. There is a rope to assist the short climb. Immediately after passing through the metal gate, cave visitors then clip onto the safety cable to wait for others to enter. It’s time to go caving!
- It’s a good idea to put sunscreen on prior to starting the hike as the first section does not have much shade
- Canmore Cave Tours does not offer transportation to the cave parking lot so you’ll need you own vehicle or they will organise a taxi for you (additional cost)
- Super cute bushy-tailed wood rats are very occasionally seen around the entrance to the cave, usually exploring solo. Bats do not hibernate in Rat’s Nest Cave and are rarely seen
- There are no washrooms available after the rest area stop on the way to the cave parking lot
- The tour ends back in the cave parking lot – you are free to head to your next destination from here
Where to stay in Canmore
Canmore is a great place to stay, not just when taking part in a Rat’s Nest Cave tour. It’s a beautiful laid back mountain town, just 20 minutes east of Banff. There are dozens of incredible hiking trails in the area and a bustling downtown area to explore in the evenings.
Located very close to the Canmore Cave Tours office, the Bear & Bison Inn is a luxurious option for couples. Ten uniquely styled rooms (each with four poster beds and jacuzzi tubs) overlook the stunning Three Sisters peaks. A three course breakfast is included with every stay.
Closer to downtown, the Georgetown Inn is another unique place to stay in Canmore. There are twenty guest rooms in this Tudor styled property, some with clawfoot tubs (perfect for a post cave tour soak!) The English theme continues throughout, with the wood paneled Miner’s Pub downstairs and pretty garden patio outside.
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