The Grouse Grind is a brutally steep trail that climbs the tree-covered slopes of Grouse Mountain, just north of Vancouver, ascending 853m in just 2.9 km. Yet, despite its extreme gradient, the path is perennially popular, attracting more than 100,000 people in a summer season, many of whom use a Grind Timer Card fitted with a radio frequency chip to accurately log their performance (FKT: 23:48, set by Sebastian Salas in 2010).
When snow arrives on Grouse Mountain, the summer trail is closed off, and aspiring grinders put their running vests into hibernation and take an aerial tramway to the mountain’s top station, where a small ski area offers spectacular views over Vancouver. Here, unbeknownst to many, the Grind has a winter alternative.
Conceived in 2011, the Snowshoe Grind is a 4.3-km out-and-back dash from the top station of the tramway to the summit of Dam Mountain, a 1,342m peak just north of Grouse. Designed to simulate the summer grind in difficulty, it logs significantly less cumulative ascent (a mere 240m) but offers a more slippery set of challenges to trail runners more accustomed to roots, rocks, and mud.
The first dilemma is footwear. While some well-trodden snow trails are passable in high traction running shoes, the Snowshoe Grind, which harbours steep, unstable sections on its higher slopes, is best tackled with snowshoes or – if you’re a speedster after a competitive time – microspikes (light chains with attached spikes that fit over your runners).
On the day I first navigated the route in January 2021, freezing overnight temperatures had left the trail in a particularly icy state. Electing to wear rented snowshoes, I managed to clumsily jog for the first 1,500m, following a gently ascending track that ran parallel to a ski run. But as the trail narrowed and became progressively steeper, I was forced to slow to an ungainly stumble, swinging the metal teeth on my snowshoes aggressively into flaky ice, every step feeling like a burpee jump. It was hard work. By the time I neared the top of Dam Mountain, the grind’s turnaround point, I was sweating, despite the frigid temperature, and cursing myself for not having invested in microspikes and ski poles.
Nevertheless, the views from the small dome-shaped summit were worth the energy expenditure. Adding minutes to my overall time, I paused to admire the glass towers of Vancouver, with the U.S. distant on the horizon. Coming down required a whole different set of skills, sliding inelegantly on my backside over the steeper sections and springing deftly to my feet to take the flatter portions at a flailing run.
Before I knew it, I had been deposited back at the start in front of the attractive Grouse Mountain Lodge, where a digital recorder invites regular runners to swipe their radio frequency cards and note their times. As with the summer grind, best daily performances and all-time course records are displayed on a TV screen inside the lodge next to a cozy café and restaurant. I can only imagine the FKT of 26:05 was achieved wearing über-grip microspikes on a day of unusually sticky snow.
If you go
Less infamous and far less crowded than Grouse’s summer trail, the Snowshoe Grind is a tough but fun scramble through frost-coated trees that will challenge your balance and rudely awaken your quads. The route is clearly marked with orange-tipped poles and well trodden by other hikers. But first-timers beware – inclement weather can close in quickly, and slippery snow can make descending tricky. Take your time and, if you’re serious about lighting up the leader board, invest in some microspikes (good pairs cost around C$60) and/or bring poles to bolster your balance. Good quality snowshoes can be rented from the mountain lodge for $20 while an on-site café offers carb-rich snacks and spirit-reviving coffee.
Aerial tramway tickets cost $47 on weekdays and $59 on weekends. Book online (grousemountain.com) in advance during Covid-19. Masks are required on the aerial tramway and in all indoor spaces. Tramway numbers are limited, so you must pre-book your up and down times online.
Grouse Mountain is 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver.
Brendan Sainsbury is a freelance writer based in White Rock, B.C. who has authored numerous guidebooks for Lonely Planet and written for the BBC, The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post. A lifelong runner, he has competed at every distance from 800m to 100 miles.