Banff National Park is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Canada if not the world. It’s nature at its finest and when planning your trip to Banff it can be hard to know where to start because there are just so many things to do and see in Banff. That’s where this post comes in. One of the absolute must dos on your trip to the Canadian Rockies and Banff is hiking Johnston Canyon. It’s probably one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park and this is partially because of how stunning the hike is and partially because of how easy the hike is. While some of the activities in the Rockies are season specific, Johnston Canyon is actually one of those activities that you can do both in the summer and in the winter so no matter when you’re visiting read on for how everything you could possibly need to know before hiking Johnston Canyon.
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What is Johnston Canyon?
Located in Banff National Park, along the Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon is formed by the erosion from the Johnston Creek as it flows towards the Bow River. The big highlights in the Johnston Canyon are the Lower and Upper Falls which you can hike to. If you’re up for a longer hike you can also hike to the Ink Pots.
The trail has 3 distinctive stops – Lower Johnston Falls (1.1 km from the entrance), Upper Johnston Falls (2.7 km from the entrance) and the Ink Pots (5.7 km from the entrance or about 3 km from the Upper Falls). The Lower Johnston Falls and Upper Johnston Falls are, not surprisingly, waterfalls! They’re beautiful falls that run with quite a force so they’re great to take in. The Ink Pots are 5 aquamarine coloured natural pools! We haven’t made it this far because honestly, I’m not super into giant hikes haha but the pictures do look absolutely stunning!
A round trip to the Upper Falls is doable in about 2 hours, if you’re planning on doing the Ink Pots I’d set aside majority of the day just to be on the safe side but obviously you know your fitness level best. Once you get past the Lower Falls you’re dealing with more of an incline and if you go all the way to the Ink Pots you’ll have gained 335 meters in elevation which may cause you to slow down a bit.
Getting to Johnston Canyon
From Banff, you’ll be heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway towards Lake Louise. Johnston Canyon is located along the Bow Valley Parkway which is super scenic but a bit of a slower drive so you have two options for getting here. If you want to enjoy more of the drive, you’d exit the Trans-Canada Highway at the Bow Valley Parkway exit which is exit #1A and drive just under 20kms to Johnston Canyon. For a shorter drive on the Bow Valley Parkway you can exist on Castle Mountain Junction and drive backwards along the Bow Valley Parkway for about 5 km until you reach Johnston Canyon. The benefit of exiting on exit #1A and driving along the Bow Valley Parkway is that you’ll have a great chance to see wild life! From Banff to Johnston Canyon is about 25-30 minutes depending on where you’re staying so plan accordingly based on when you want to arrive.
One of the reasons I recommend getting here early in the day (or late in the day) below is because of the parking lots. There are two parking lots that fill up fairly quickly just because of how popular the hike is. Even on our visit in the winter when we returned from the hike around 10.30 am the parking lot was full! And this was in fairly bad weather!
There is the option to take a shuttle to Johnston Canyon from Banff town in the summer time (specifically between May 18th and October 8th). The shuttle departs from Banff Train Station and takes about 45 minutes to arrive at Johnston Canyon. The round trip costs $5/person and people under 17 travel for free. You can check the timetable for the shuttle here.
Hiking Johnston Canyon
Once you arrive at Johnston Canyon you’ll cross a little pedestrian bridge above the creek which will take you to the start of the trail head just past the Johnston Lodge (you’ll see the trail sign above). As mentioned above, the 3 stops along the trail are Lower Johnston Falls (1.1 km from the entrance), Upper Johnston Falls (2.7 km from the entrance) and the Ink Pots (5.7 km from the entrance or about 3 km from the Upper Falls. They do all go in a row so if you’re for example hiking to the Ink Pots you will have to pass both the Lower and Upper Falls to do so.
The trail to the Lower Johnston Falls starts hiking through the Canyon itself but quickly opens up into more of a forest. While you’re hiking along the canyon, you’re walking on boardwalks attached to the rock so it’s important to make space for both directions in the tight space. The boardwalk is fenced on the side facing the canyon so that part is safe enough. The part facing the rock has rails along some of the portion and just the bare rock along some of the other portions.
Once you reach the Lower Falls you’ll see a fork in the road like above and you’ll steer right to get in a view of the Lower Falls. There are three perspectives to it. You can stay at the top of the boardwalk for a sweeping view of the falls, you can stand on the bridge crossing over to the cave area to see the falls or you can walk into the cave itself and get an up close and personal view of the Lower Falls!
After this you can go back to the fork in the road and go upwards towards the Upper Falls. The crowds thin a little bit here since it’s more elevated and slightly harder than the walk towards the Lower Falls. It’s a further hike in general but the nature is beautiful and it’s 100% worth it! We only did this portion in the winter and not in the summer which I slightly regret but there’s always next time right? The hike towards the Upper Falls looks absolutely magical and I took a ton of pictures because just everything was so stunning!
Once you arrive at the Upper Falls you’ll probably come across some climbers climbing the fall which is a beautiful view! It’s pretty cool to take in the falls and the climbers and it’s such a reward at the end of the hike!
Once you’ve come back from the trail to the Upper Falls you have the option to detour up to a viewing platform where you’ll get a view like below. After that you’re just heading back to the parking lot! It’s worth detouring back into the Lower Falls in case you wanted to experience it once again!
Hiking Johnston Canyon in the Winter
There are a number of benefits to hiking Johnston Canyon in the winter. The first one is of course that it is absolutely stunning in the winter. It’s a winter wonderland post card type of scene and you will want to stop and take pictures of pretty much every turn. The other benefit of hiking in the winter is that it is a little less crowded. You will of course see lots of people on the trail, especially in the middle of the day, but it’s nothing compared to how crowded it gets in the summer!
The big difference in hiking in the winter versus the summer is obviously how slippery it can be in the winter. The slippery areas are particularly the fork in the road between the Upper and Lower Falls, any inclined area and the portions that are supposed to be stairs but are so covered in snow that they’re just kind of hills now.
The only negative in my opinion is having to hike in thick boots and a jacket. The incline is still an incline so you get hot! I took my jacket off halfway through and everyone looked at me like I was insane but it was just waaaay too hot!
To Book a Tour or Not To Book a Tour
Unlike in the summer, booking a tour in the winter does have value. If you’re not comfortable driving on the Bow Valley Parkway in the snow then the tour is worth it just for the ride to and from the canyon. We drove ourselves (I typically don’t do tours unless it’s mandatory) and the Bow Valley Parkway does have a lot of snow so you will need to be careful. Unfortunately the shuttle doesn’t work in the summer so if you’re not comfortable driving yourself then a tour is a valuable option. They will drive you to and from the Canyon, provide ice grips for your shoes and provide valuable information on the Canyon itself during your walk. The negative to a tour in my opinion is that if you’re not as fast as everyone then you’re the person holding them back which may make the hike less enjoyable for you. We passed two different tour groups that started way before us and we’re definitely not fit so it’s a choice you make. I dislike tours because of the need to stay with the group so I don’t recommend them too often but do what’s best for you here!
Hiking Johnston Canyon in the Summer
The big difference in hiking Johnston Canyon in the summer versus the winter is the water. In the summer the water is more turquoise while in the summer you lose that colour because of the ice and snow. You’ll also get to see the running falls which is beautiful! When you hit the Lower Johnston Falls and enter the platform inside the cave, you’ll actually get a bit splashed. This isn’t the case in the winter when the falls are frozen over.
Another benefit to hiking the canyon in the summer is that you don’t have to wear a thick jacket and boots so you’re not very restricted! We did the canyon in regular walking shoes (like Keds) and not even running shoes and we were totally fine. The paths are completely paved and there’s no problem walking.
The downside to visiting in the summer is of course the crowds. It’s way more crowded in the summer and that’ll reflect in the parking, the pictures etc. We came at the end of the day (around 4 pm) and it was still really crowded so I think it’ll be difficult to try to get that serenity while visiting in the summer.
To Book a Tour or Not To Book a Tour
To me, there’s no point in booking a tour in the summer. At All. This may not be a popular opinion and that’s fine but like I’ve mentioned above, the trails are incredibly easy to navigate. It’s paved the entire way. There are fences and hand rails and lots of signage. In the summer the crowds are huge so if you for any reason need help or direction (which I don’t see why), you’ll have plenty of people around to ask. If the reason you’re looking at tours is because you don’t have a car, then you can take the shuttle! So conclusion is, do not book a tour in the summer!
The “Secret Cave” At Johnston Canyon
Here’s the thing. There’s a cave in Johnston Canyon that you have guaranteed seen an Instagram picture of because it’s beautiful. And of course the adventurer/explorer/instagrammer in you wants to get to that location. And based on the number of pictures it’s obviously doable to get to said location. The Cave isn’t part of the trail and none of the official sings on the trail will direct you towards the cave. You’d have to know ahead of time that the cave exists and how to get to it.
The Cave is off trail so you are stepping through nature and you’re taking a risk in going off trail because if something were to happen you’re less likely to have people around to help you. There’s also more of a chance of you damaging the nature around you in addition to perhaps hurting yourself.
So no, we didn’t go to the Cave and looking back on it I don’t really regret it. I think respecting Parks Canada’s trails are important because of the impact it has on nature and the conservation of it. I don’t like to write about things I haven’t done because how can I speak to the experience if I never had it? So in addition to my feelings of straying off trail, my never having gone to the cave means I don’t feel comfortable sharing the directions but that being said, you can find dozens of blog posts online that will do so and if you opt to go check it out do keep in mind that the cave is occasionally shut down to control water flow.
Tips for Hiking Johnston Canyon
Hiking Johnston Canyon is fairly similar to hiking other trails but there are some things to keep in mind that will help you:
Stay on the Trail
The Secret Cave that I discuss above, is only one of the things you can find while going off trail but this is a personal choice you’ll have to make. Personally, I’m of the belief that trails are trails for a reason. I’m not super fit nor super adventurous and going off trail to fall into the canyon and break a rib is just not for me (and yes, that happened according to a review online).
Visit at less peak times
Visiting Johnston Canyon at times of the day like bright and early or at the end of the day (like 5ish) is the best way to see the falls and to hike the trail to avoid the crowds. The trail is super popular because it’s accessible and therefore it gets incredibly crowded.
Keep Track of Your Time
This is particularly important if you’re heading out on the hike towards the end of the day. In the summer you have longer days and the trail is less risky but in the winter it gets dark a lot faster and the trail is very slippery so make sure you give yourself enough time for the round trip so you’re not having to navigate down slippery portions in the dark.
There are well maintained proper washrooms at the parking lot (with plenty of stalls) but once you get hiking there aren’t any! And given the rushing water you should probably make sure it isn’t a need while hiking!
General Hiking Tips
Besides the above tips that are specific to Johnston Canyon do make sure to bring yourself some water to drink, wear shoes that you’re comfortable hiking in, take breaks as needed, wear comfortable clothing etc. The nature is absolutely stunning so I highly recommend bringing a camera!
Have you hiked Johnston Canyon? Did you do it in the summer, winter or maybe both? What was your preference? Let me know in the comments and pin this post for your own upcoming visit to Johnston Canyon!