Johnston Canyon is one of the most scenic and popular hikes in Banff National Park. It features a boardwalk that takes you inside a gorgeous canyon full of rushing water and seven stunning frozen waterfalls. It’s so popular because it’s accessible to just about anybody.
Here’s everything you need to know before you go
Where is Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is located about 20 minutes from the town of Banff, along the Bow Valley Parkway. The Bow Valley Parkway is Canada’s old highway, and is very much the scenic route.
If it’s recently snowed, I generally prefer to drive all the way to Castle Junction and access the Bow Valley Parkway from the West end, as usually the road conditions on the main Trans Canada are much better.
You need to drive yourself to Johnston Canyon, or take a tour. It’s far too far away to walk from the town of Banff.
Johnston Canyon Lower Falls Hike
- Distance: 2.4km round trip
- Elevation: 122m
- Approx Time: 1hr round trip
The Johnston Canyon Lower Falls hike is the first part of the Johnston Canyon walk. It’s the easiest part of the route, and most of the walk is along a paved trail with a metal handrail.
the route starts in the forest, and quickly enters the canyon along a suspended walkway. Depending on the time of year, the river may be completely frozen over, or you may catch glimpses of the turquoise water as it rushes by.
Look out for several beautiful waterfalls along the way, and make sure you check out some of the interpretive signs to get a good background into the history of the area.
The trail gradually undulates up and down, and pretty quickly you’ll be glad you decided to rent ice spikes. The trail starts to steeply slope downwards until you can finally see a green bridge across the river and a cave. This is the end of the lower falls trail.
The waterfall through the cave
The highlight of the lower falls trail is the waterfall on the other side of the cave. Crouch through the cave and climb a couple of steps to reach the small viewpoint on the other side.
Tips for enjoying Johnston Canyon Lower Falls:
- The steps are EXTREMELY ICY from the waterfall spray. Expect to slip on this if you’re not wearing ice spikes. Sometimes I just slide down on my butt. Last time we were there, someone slipped and tossed the chihuahua they were holding. It wasn’t pretty. Be very careful
- If you want to take photos of this, you’ll need a really wide lens. You’re right up close and personal with the waterfall, and most camera lenses aren’t really wide enough to get a good picture.
- The viewpoint is very dark, so having a tripod is a good idea, and using a wide aperture or higher iso will help you get decent pictures.
- The viewpoint, really has space for about 3 people. Sometimes you’ll see a line of people waiting to go through and look. Rather than crowding your way in, you’ll enjoy it more if you just wait your turn.
Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Hike
- Distance: 5km round trip
- Elevation: 246m
- Approx Time: 2-3hr round trip
This is part two of the Johnston Canyon hike, and the hike to the upper falls is arguably the prettier half. It does, however, turn the hike into a 2-3 hour round trip, and this half is particularly treacherous.
Immediately before the lower falls stop, you’ll see the trail fork. The left fork will take you onwards and upwards to the upper falls. This part of the trail is virtually impossible if you don’t have ice cleats or spikes.
The last time I was here to shoot a proposal and forgot my spikes. I literally had to pull myself up the hill with my arms. Again, the ice here is no joke.
Once you’re up the hill, the trail gradually winds through the forest, before returning to the canyon just before the upper falls.
Once you get to the upper falls, it’ll be very obvious as the trail comes to an abrupt stop on a viewing deck.
From the viewing deck, you can see the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls, and towering sheets of deep blue ice cascading down the frozen canyon walls. This area is enormously popular with ice climbers; in fact this was the first place I ever tried ice climbing!
If you want to get up close and personal with the Upper Falls, it is possible to hop the fence and walk along the frozen ground, but be very careful. The ice isn’t always thick and it’s a bit of a drop down to the ice below. You’ll have to vault the fence and lower yourself onto a slippery rock below. Do this at your own risk.
Also, don’t go too close to the frozen ice columns on the right. They frequently break and being stood underneath them as a huge chunk of ice cracks off would be a deadly mistake. The high risk area should be obvious from the piles of smashed ice already visible on the ground.
The Secret Cave at Johnston Canyon
This is a contentious spot in the parks now, as the secret cave is now officially closed in the summer due to nesting swifts. I believe it’s open in winter though as the swifts migrate during the winter.
Visiting in Winter, is quite risky however, as you have to navigate a fairly steep descent which gets quite slippery in winter.
The entrance to the hidden cave is just before you reach the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls on the right hand side, just before the last river bend. It’s not really very easy to describe how to find it, but in winter it’s easy because people generally leave footprints in the snow.
I would recommend only trying to see this if you have ice spikes and don’t try to do this if you’re alone!
The Ink Pots
- Distance to the Ink Pots: Around 12km round trip
- Elevation Gain: Approximately 600m
- Approx Time: 4-6 hours
- Wow factor: meh
Is the hike to the Johnston Canyon Ink Pots worth it?
If you ask me? No I don’t think they’re worth the effort, especially in winter. The Ink Pots hike is a lot further than the upper falls, and eventually you’ll emerge into an alpine meadow. Interestingly, the ink pots tend to stay unfrozen during winter, as they’re fed by a warm spring (definitely not warm enough to swim in).
In summer, they’re nothing more than small blue-ish pools of water. If you’re trying to make the most of your trip, I’d say that there’s very little bang for your buck with this hike. I’d personally recommend trying to squeeze in another short lake hike like Grassi Lakes in Canmore instead.
What to bring for the Johnston Canyon Winter Walk
The most important thing to know about the Johnston Canyon walk in winter is that it is absolutely lethal without ice spikes or cleats. Believe me, if it hasn’t snowed recently, the entire thing turns into a skating rink.
Some sections have no handrails and without spikes you will almost definitely fall over. I’ve been there, and have fallen over many times. It’s not worth it.
Go to Banff and rent spikes from Snow Tips Bactrax for around $15 per day
It also goes without saying that you’ll be out in the cold for an extended period, so bringing plenty of warm clothes like hats, gloves, warm boots etc is a good idea.
Finally, this hike takes you uphill, so expect to get warm as you hike. Wearing lots of layers that you can remove as you heat up is a really good idea.
How long does the Johnston Canyon hike take?
In winter, things tend to slow down a bit. Generally the lower falls takes approximately an hour round trip, and the upper falls can take between 2 and 3 hours, depending on how many times you stop.
Parking for Johnston Canyon
Last year, Parks Canada made some huge changes to the Johnston Canyon Parking lot and extended it significantly. Ideally though, the best place to park is in the main parking lot which is well signposted along the Bow Valley Parkway.
Facilities at Johnston Canyon
In the summer, there is a hotel and cafe at the entrance to Johnston Canyon, but in Winter there’s nothing more than a public toilet at the entrance. On the plus side, these toilets have running water and aren’t your typical outhouses.
There are no toilets once you’re on the trail.
When is the best time to do Johnston Canyon winter walk
Hiking Johnston Canyon is generally possible all year round, but my preference in Winter is to do it just after a recent snowfall. Fresh snow tends to give you a little more grip on the ground and if you go when it hasn’t snowed for a while, it gets very slippery indeed.
I’d also recommend going on a milder day, because the canyon doesn’t get much sunlight, so it’s usually significantly colder than say, Banff, on any given day. It’s also a long winter walk, so cold fingers and hands will ruin your day.