Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Family Adventure in Rat's Nest Cave, Canmore Cave Tours

My son and I are always looking for fun adventures to fill our days, and so I jumped at the opportunity to take a cave tour in nearby Canmore. It had been years since I'd last explored Rat's Nest Cave under Grotto Mountain, and I couldn't wait to get back down there again - this time as a family trip.

Rat's Nest Cave Tour, Canmore

Introduction to Rat's Nest Cave

Canmore Cave Tours guides groups into Rat's Nest Cave, a large undeveloped cave under Grotto Mountain in Canmore, Alberta. The company has been introducing visitors to this cave since 1992 with the goal of "offering our guests the most extraordinary, unforgettable experience possible."

The people who work for Canmore Cave Tours describe themselves as the "custodians" of this provincial historic site. They are passionate cavers and cave advocates and they control entrance to the cave (for its protection.)

There is no way for the public to access the cave without joining a guided tour, and there is a locked gate across the cave entrance to ensure nobody sneaks in after hours.

Climbing up to the Rat's Nest Cave entrance

Directly from the Canmore Cave Tours Website:
"Rat’s Nest Cave is a special place. In 1987 it was designated a Provincial Historic Resource because of its incredible archaeological significance. It is home to ancient pictographs, 7000 year old bones, and beautiful cave formations. At over 4km long, Rat’s Nest Cave is one of the longest caves in Canada.
The water-sculpted passages of the cave offer us seemingly endless opportunities to learn and explore. At 5 degrees celsius, the cave is a cool but comfortable destination every day of the year, a trait enjoyed by cave residents like bushy-tailed wood rats, and North America’s smallest mammal - the pigmy shrew."
With no lights, handrails or walkways, we are left to enjoy the cave in its natural state, just as the original explorers did."

Visit the Canmore Cave tours website to look at a map of the cave system.

Helmets with bright lights help to guide explorers through the cave

What to Expect from Tours in the Rat's Nest Cave

This is a wild and natural, authentic cave tour. There are no handrails, no lights other than the ones you wear on your helmets, and the cave floor has not been changed or altered for easy walking. There are no staircases, no easy ramps to follow down to lower rooms in the cave, and you will be crawling on your hands and knees!

Remember the bum scoot that toddlers do while learning to walking? You'll get good at this move during your cave tour! You'll also perfect your crab walking and test the health of your knees as you crawl around on the cave floor (fortunately you'll be wearing knee pads!)

Also, know that it helps if you have some experience with rock climbing! You will be wearing a harness and clipping yourself to a safety line with a short length of rope through much of the cave. This is to protect you from falling into the giant pit that's right beside the tunnel entrance (filled with animal bones,) and protects you from taking a tumble down the steep pitches you must climb down (and back up) in the cave.

You'll be given an introduction at the beginning on how to clip and unclip from the safety lines, but it does help if you have some experience using carabiners and working with a rope.

Clipping and unclipping from safety lines in the cave

Introduction to The Explorer Tour that we did

We chose to do the 4.5 hour long Explorer Tour (roughly 2 hours spent inside the cave.) This tour is recommended for children 10 years of age and over.

The youngest person on our tour was my son, and the oldest person was 80! In between, we had three teenagers, myself, and one other adult.

Our tour ended up taking 5.5 hours (I think we were underground longer than 2 hours, and our group was slow on the hike as well.)

The Adventure Tour requires an 18m rappel (recommended only for youth 12+) but our tour involved just basic scrambling with the safety ropes.

Outline of Our Caving Day Schedule

11am: We met at the caving office in Canmore for 11am and I'm pretty sure we were at the office until noon. One family was having challenges with their credit card (which delayed the registration process) and we all had to fill out waivers. We also had to try on our red jumpsuits, helmets, and gloves, and get our bags ready to go.

One in two people would carry a backpack with two sets of coveralls, helmets, harnesses, ropes, gloves, and personal items. (If you want to make your pack lighter and split gear into two packs, or if you want to use your own backpack, bring a backpack with you.)

Noon: Around noon we convoyed our way to the trailhead roughly 10 minutes away, following our guide. (We'd be with the one guide all day.) And note, you need to drive to the trailhead in your own vehicle. (Shuttles can be arranged though for an additional fee.)

We got to the cave, packed last minute items into our packs (water, extra layers, and snacks) and headed up the steep hiking trail to the cave. It took us probably 30 to 40 minutes to hike up to the cave with many breaks. Overall, we were on a good trail until we reached the canyon below the cave. Here we put on our helmets and could use a fixed rope that had been placed along the edge of the trail to pull ourselves up.

1:30pm: By 1:30 we were heading into the cave after hanging and leaving our packs behind under a tarp near the cave entrance. We took nothing into the cave with us other than safety gear and the items on our bodies.

4:00pm: By 4:00 we were back outside and ready to hike down to the parking lot where we'd end our tour.

4:30pm: Back at the parking lot and ready to drive back to Calgary.

Times are all a rough estimate. 

Our caving group in Rat's Nest Cave

Is the Explorer Tour Family-Friendly? 

Yes, BUT....

Below are the basic requirements (and words of caution I'd give) before you sign up for the tour with your children:

Ready for action outside the cave!

  1. There are no bathroom breaks in the cave (though the guide can help you with this in the case of an emergency, hello pee bottle or squatting over a bag!)

  2. Every member of your group should be comfortable scrambling, and climbing up and down steep terrain while pulling themselves up and lowering themselves down with a rope.

  3. You need to be comfortable in confined, tight spaces. There are a few optional squeezes you can try, but even without these sections, there are tight spaces (including the box you need to climb up and down.)

  4. Fear of the dark would not be a good thing here! Even with the headlamps, it's still pretty dark in the cave. (Hence why most of my photos are a little blurry and lack the usual quality I strive for.)

  5. You'll carry nothing with you (and you have to be ok with this.) I was a bit worried about going into a cave for 2+ hours with no food, no water, no extra layers of clothes... - as a mom I'm used to always being prepared for every single thing that could ever happen on an outing (even to the playground!)

  6. Every member of your group should be in good physical shape and accustomed to regular exercise. A high amount of exertion is required on the hike up alone. My son did fine here because we regularly go for long bike rides, spend 7 hour days hiking, and enjoy rock climbing as a family.

  7. Fear of heights would also be a bad thing for this tour. There are many steep climbs/descents in the cave (and it was extremely hard to climb out at the end.) My son was in tears at the end because he couldn't pull himself up the final polished rock section and required help. Myself, I was certainly nervous at times lowering myself down the safety ropes, knowing the rock I was sliding down was polished with few holds - and that a fall would hurt. (And nobody is belaying you down each steep pitch. You are sliding down the polished rock on your bum while using the safety rope as a brake with your hands to slow down your slippery descent to the cave floor below.)

One of the tight spaces my son squeezed through in our tour

Tips and Suggestions for Doing the Explorer Tour with Your Children

Below are just a few additional tips and suggestions:

  • Bring snacks inside the cave!! Kids can not be told "it's ok, we'll be out soon." When they're hungry, they're hungry NOW. My son was upset near the end because he was hungry and I hadn't packed a granola bar into one of my pockets. (Totally my mistake on that one!)

  • Wear something with good pockets underneath your overalls. Fortunately I had a light vest underneath with a good pocket for my cell phone. I also could have carried a granola bar or two.

  • Make sure you all go to the bathroom before entering the cave! I made my son eat high fibre cereal the whole drive out so that he'd go to the bathroom before we got to the cave (and success, he did!) - We also tried not to drink a lot before entering the cave.

  • Wear good grippy shoes! We had hiking shoes on and they were necessary for the hike up/down, along with the scrambling inside the cave.

  • Dress for the temperature in the cave. It is only 5 degrees Celsius inside the cave. We both had fleece sweaters on underneath our overalls, and I also had a light vest on. - And you can carry extra layers with you (that you'll leave in your backpack outside the cave) if you don't want to hike up wearing everything.

  • Bring lunch with you. You can eat it in the office while signing waivers and getting your introduction, or eat it right before you enter the cave. (I recommend a snack before entering the cave too.)

  • Discuss anything particular to your children with your guide before starting your tour.  I was nervous about the bathroom situation so discussed this with our guide. In hindsight I should have also discussed food.

  • Explain to your children the "group factor" before your tour. The tour might not always go as fast as your kids would like. You will move at the pace of the slowest person. They might have to take breaks on the hiking trail (when they don't need one) and they might get stuck behind somebody having problems in the cave (and will have to be ok with that.) The reality is that you are with a group, and you'll be going at the pace of the group.

  • Bring enough adults to supervise/keep your kids safe. The guide is not going to spot your kids from below when they are climbing down the steep sections. He's not going to pull them up the steep climbs either on the way out. You are the one that is responsible for protecting your kids (beyond what the safety ropes can do,) helping them if they struggle, and for offering extra support. For me, I wish in hindsight that my husband had done the tour with us. I would have appreciated his help on the steep sections (and it freaked me out that my son was always ahead of me with nobody spotting him from a fall from below.)

Crawling through one of the tighter sections of the cave

Final Recommendation

We had a great day, and ended our tour exhausted and starving (usually a sign of a day well spent in the mountains.) I was also very sore the next day, which for me, means I got my workout and that this wasn't some cute little "tourist tour."

Our tour definitely felt like the "real deal" for caving, and I'd recommend it to other families or groups looking for an adventurous way to spend a day in Canmore.

The tour was also the perfect activity for a rainy overcast day, and made for an enjoyable way to spend a chilly day in the mountains - especially since it's always the same temperature in the cave year round.

The Rat's Nest Cave Tour is fabulous for families with older youth or teens

Please visit the Canmore Cave Tours website for full information on the tours they offer, cost of each tour, and minimum age requirements.

Our tour was offered to us in exchange for this review, but as always, all opinions and words are my own. 

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