The Johnston Canyon hike is one of the most popular in Banff National Park, due to its relative ease and evident beauty. However, this year, with the Bow Valley Parkway closed to vehicle traffic, Johnston Canyon has become a much quieter winter trail. So I couldn’t resist the unique opportunity to experience the canyon without the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
About Johnston Canyon
Location: Banff National Park
Distance: 14 kilometres out and back (plus 12 on Bow Valley Parkway)
Difficulty: Moderate (due to length)
Elevation: 500 metre gain
Time: 5 – 6 hours
Dog-friendly: Yes, but dogs must be kept on-leash.
Features: The Johnston Canyon hike features the lower and upper falls, and several small pools resembling ink pots at the end of the trail.
Know Before You Go: Bow Valley Parkway is Closed
This winter, the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) is closed due to the pandemic to limit the amount of activity in the area. So to get to the Johnston Canyon trailhead, I decided to walk 6 kilometres along the parkway, beginning at the Rockbound Lake trailhead parking area. Without vehicle access, the options for reaching the trailhead include cross-country skiing, biking, or walking.
If you have the time, the trek along the Bow Valley Parkway is quite peaceful and very flat. This adds some significant distance to the day, but it’s not a bad place to spend time outside.
Reaching the Johnston Canyon Trailhead
After walking the 6 kilometres along Highway 1A, I arrived at the Johnston Canyon parking lot to find an almost apocalyptic scene. If you’ve been to Johnston Canyon in the summer, or even anytime B.C. (Before Covid), this desolate picture is a stark contrast. The tour bus looks very lonely….
At the beginning of Johnston Canyon, there are indoor washrooms (they’re open!) and trail information that’s helpful to read. Johnston Canyon is extremely popular and very well-marked with distance info and facts about the area. Did you know that nearly 1 million people pass through every year?
The Johnston Canyon Winter Hike
The Johnston Canyon hike provides different options for different adventurers. Want to see some cool frozen waterfalls? Hike in to the Lower Falls or Upper Falls… or both! Want a longer hike with fewer people? Make the journey to the famous Ink Pots! This time, I decided to go to the Ink Pots to enjoy the fullness of this winter trail. And once I passed the Upper Falls, I was the only person on the snow-covered trail—and that was fine by me!
If you’ve never been, you’ll quickly find that Johnston Canyon is a spectacular sight all year round. In the colder months, the frozen waterfalls create winter scenes that delight the eyes. Those seeking an extra bit of adrenaline ice climb at the Upper Falls (I’ve never done it). And not to worry: The trail is highly maintained with metal “catwalks” adding stability and safety throughout the canyon. If you’re new to hiking, or bringing children along, Johnston Canyon is a great option.
The Lower and Upper Falls
The bridge and the cave at the Lower Falls are usually bursting with activity. But not this winter. I arrived to find this empty bridge and no lines before entering the cave. The sight of the frozen Lower Falls awaited on the other side. After a short stop, I continued on to the Upper Falls.
When I was there, the last extension of the Upper Falls catwalk was closed due to the structure being deemed unsafe. I walked as far as the barricade, and then snapped a photo of the beautifully frozen scenery. It’s still possible to gawk at the Upper Falls, but respect the closure and don’t risk injury on the unstable catwalk.
When the weather is freezing and the ice is thick, the ice walk at Johnston Canyon offers a different kind of experience. While I haven’t done it, I thoroughly enjoyed the ice walk at Maligne Canyon in Jasper. I’ve heard this one is a tonne of fun!
The Ink Pots—The End of the Journey
After 13 kilometres of hiking, along Highway 1A and through the Johnston Canyon trail, I finally made it to the Ink Pots. I prefer visiting in the summer, but there is a certain winter charm in this place. There are five different pools, but the deep snow makes it difficult to venture off the packed trail. I was glad for my trail crampons and poles. There were no other hikers in sight.
The colourful ink-like pools are worth the winter journey. And there were no other hikers in sight. This is also the only place on the trail with mountain views, so I’d recommend it if you have time and energy.
Preparing for a Winter Hike
I would highly recommend Johnston Canyon in the wintertime. Someday I hope to go back for the ice walk—it looks awesome! This year, this unusually quiet trail with stunning frozen scenery made for a unique experience in Banff National Park.
As always, when exploring outside in the winter months, remember to bring the right gear with you, including winter layers, trail crampons or micro-spikes, and other useful gear to keep you warm and safe.
Other Banff activities that might interest you:
- XC Skiing Moraine Lake Road in Banff National Park (Perfect For Beginners!)
- The Lake Minnewanka Hike in Alberta Will Surprise You
- My Banff Ski Trip: Thrilling Time at Sunshine Village
- Banff’s Tunnel Mountain Hike is Wonderful in Winter
Have you visited Johnston Canyon in the winter? Did I miss anything important about the experience? Leave a comment below.