The Johnston Canyon hike is one of the most popular in Banff National Park. However, with the Bow Valley Parkway closed to vehicle traffic due to the pandemic, the iconic Johnston Canyon trail has become much quieter. So I couldn’t resist this unique opportunity to experience the canyon without the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
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About Johnston Canyon
Location: Banff National Park, Alberta
Distance: 26 km out and back (14 km without Bow Valley Parkway)
Difficulty: Moderate (due to length)
Elevation: 530 m gain
Time: 5 – 6 hours
Dog-friendly: Yes, but dogs must be kept on a leash.
Features: The family-friendly Johnston Canyon hike includes lookouts at the Lower Falls and Upper Falls. The trail ends with several small, turquoise pools called the Ink Pots. During the pandemic, Bow Valley Parkway was closed to vehicle traffic to limit crowds on this very popular trail. Nevertheless, the extra 6 km (12 km out and back) along the Bow Valley Parkway added to a long and enjoyable winter hike.
Bow Valley Parkway: Know Before You Go
Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) is closed due to the pandemic to limit the amount of activity on the Johnston Canyon trail. To arrive at the Johnston Canyon parking area, I walked an additional 6 kilometres (12 km out and back) along the flat parkway. Parking is available in the Rockbound Lake trailhead parking area. Without vehicle access, the options for reaching the trailhead include walking, biking, or cross-country skiing in the wintertime.
2022 UPDATE: The stretch of the Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon reopened in July 2021 to vehicle traffic.
Finding the Johnston Canyon Trailhead
After arriving at the Johnston Canyon parking area, I found an almost apocalyptic scene. If you’ve visited in the summer, you’ll remember how packed the parking lot tends to be. However, this time the parked tour bus looked very lonely….
Throughout the winter, the indoor washrooms remain open at the Johnston Canyon trailhead. The canyon trail is well-maintained with distance markers and information posted about the area. Did you know that nearly one million people pass through every year?
Read more: XC Skiing Moraine Lake Road in Banff National Park (Perfect For Beginners!)
Johnston Canyon Winter Hike
The Johnston Canyon hike offers different options for any visitor. If you’re looking for a relatively easy stroll with a view, hike to Lower Falls about 2.5 km from the trailhead. I’d recommend continuing to the Upper Falls at 5 km one way. Do you want a longer hike with few people? Continue to the famous ink pots for a round trip of about 14 km (according to my GPS). I was the only person on the snow-covered trail until the end—and it was splendid.
If you’re new to Johnston Canyon, you’ll quickly find that it’s spectacular all year round. In the wintertime, patterns formed by frozen waterfalls create wondrous winter scenes. In the summer months, roaring waterfalls capture the attention of the crowds. The highly-maintained trail includes metal “catwalks” adding stability and safety along the canyon. If you’re new to the Rockies or just looking for a family-friendly trail, I’d highly recommend Johnston Canyon.
Johnston Canyon Lower Falls
The Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is typically bursting with activity. But not this winter. Just an empty bridge waiting to be crossed—and cross it I did. The view of the falls from inside the cave is always worth it. After a short stop, I continued on to the Upper Falls.
Read more: Tunnel Mountain Trail: Winter Hiking in Banff, Alberta
Johnston Canyon Upper Falls
I loved the Upper Falls frozen icicles along the canyon walls. It’s not possible to get too close, as the last extension of the catwalk is closed. According to the sign, the structure has been deemed unsafe after the obvious barricade. Even so, I could still see a nice view.
In the dead of winter, when the water is frozen solid, the Johnston Canyon ice walk offers a unique perspective of the canyon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore the ice route this time. Though I thoroughly enjoyed a similar experience at Maligne Canyon in Jasper!
Read more: Maligne Canyon Hike in Jasper National Park
Johnston Canyon Ink Pots
Hiking to the Johnston Canyon Ink Pots took about 13 kilometres. Typically, the hike from the trailhead is around 7 km one way. Knee-deep snow made it hard to explore too much, but the five pools were all in view. I’d recommend bringing trekking poles. Snowshoes would have also been useful. The ink pots is the only place on the trail with mountain views. Lovely spot to visit if you have time and energy!
I highly recommend Johnston Canyon in the wintertime. While the road closure limits accessibility for some, I’m hoping this popular place gains some rest and rejuvenation.
Read more: The Chester Lake Hike in Winter Is Better Than Most
Winter Hiking Gear I Use Every Time
When exploring outside in the winter months, it’s important to bring the right gear with you. I always dress in layers to keep warm (and shed when I’m too hot). That means I wear a baselayer (I use this Patagonia baselayer), a midlayer (I use this Patagonia down sweater or a fleece), and an outer layer (I use this Arc’teryx shell). I’d also recommend bringing trail crampons (I use these) and hiking poles. And of course, always carry your essential hiking gear, like a water reservoir and first aid kit. In the winter time, I tend to carry my Jetboil stove as well, in case I need to boil snow or just want some hot tea.
Read more: The Best Winter Hiking Gear—Stay Warm and Happy
More Winter Hikes Near Banff
Here are a few other winter hikes you might want to check out:
- Tunnel Mountain Trail: Winter Hiking in Banff, Alberta
- The Lake Minnewanka Hike in Banff, Alberta
- The Chester Lake Hike in Winter Is Better Than Most
Johnston Canyon Trail Map
Have you experienced the Johnston Canyon winter hiker? How about the Johnston Canyon ice walk? Leave a comment below.
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