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Catching The Ice Climbers In Action In Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk, Banff National Park

The Johnston Canyon ice walk in Banff National Park ticks off all the boxes when it comes to a fun, half-day adventure. It’s one of the most popular winter activities in Banff but don’t let that put you off.

To avoid the crowds, plan to start the Johnston Canyon ice walk either early or late in the day, appreciating that the sun sets by 4:45 PM in late December.

Sometimes you will literally slip-slide your way up Johnston Canyon in winter due to the fluctuating temperatures and freeze-thaw cycles while at other times it will be an easy winter walk.

I have done the hike under all conditions so I go prepared with my ice cleats…just in case.

Cowboys in the canyon - no ice cleats to be seen
Cowboys in the canyon – no ice cleats to be seen

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Johnston Canyon ice walk – how it unfolds

From the parking lot (where there are washrooms) cross a bridge and hike up through the forest on a mostly level trail passing a number of signs describing the history of the area. In no time at all you start to get a taste of the beauty of spectacular Johnston Canyon in winter.

Hiking through the forest
Hiking through the forest
It's great fun walking along the cantilevered boardwalks
The ice walk is great fun fun especially on the cantilevered boardwalks

Reach the first catwalk in short order. Continue through Johnston Canyon climbing gradually  – with stops to marvel at the multi-coloured canyon walls.

Take the right branch of the trail at the intersection to reach the Lower Falls at the 1.1 km mark. Cross the bridge and duck through the tunnel to get an intimate view of the lower falls.

There may be times that you feel like you're holding on for dear life
There may be times on the ice walk that you feel like you’re holding on for dear life
At the first set of falls
Pretty views at the Lower Falls
A close-up view of the Lower Falls
A close-up view of the Lower Falls

Return to the main trail and continue towards the Upper Falls. This section of trail requires more effort as you switchback gaining some elevation.

I love this part as it offers airy outlooks along with plenty of places to stop and take photos.

Stay right at the next intersection to reach the Upper Falls at the 2.7 km mark. You’ll have gained 120 m by the time you reach the Upper Falls. The icefalls can dazzle as will the iceclimbers if you catch them in action.

Be dazzled by the frozen waterfalls
Be dazzled by the frozen waterfalls at the end of the ice walk
Its so much fun watching the ice climbers in Johnston Canyon
Its so much fun watching the ice climbers in Johnston Canyon
Catching the ice climbers in action at the Upper Falls
Catching the ice climbers in action at the Upper Falls

There is the option to continue to the top of the Upper Falls though few people do it in winter. It does provide a different perspective – and if you’re up for more of a workout you can even continue all the way to the Ink Pots via this trail.

(Note: If there’s a lot of snow you’ll probably need snowshoes, perhaps a set of poles and at least two more hours from the top of the Upper Falls to do the return trip to the Ink Pots.)

Read: The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon

The not-so-secret cave in Johnston Canyon

There’s a cave that I have looked for on many occasions but didn’t find until I was with a group last March. In theory it’s out of bounds but in practical terms, it’s visited a lot for the photo ops.

Note: Just heard on my FB page that the cave is “officially out of bounds”. Then I got a comment which explains why. There are rare swifts that had nested in the caves but because of visitors – myself included – the numbers have dropped.

What is unfortunate is that there hasn’t been information anywhere, anytime I have visited Johnston Canyon. With a little education, people will change their behaviour. As much as it’s a great photo op – please don’t visit now.

The secret cave
The secret cave

Directions to Johnston Canyon

From Banff head west on the Trans-Canada Highway. Take the exit signed Highway 1A – the Bow Valley Parkway. Continue for 18 km to reach the Johnston Canyon parking lot on the right hand side. It’s very well-signed and easy to find.

There is the option to take the Trans-Canada west to the Castle Junction/Highway 93 exit. Get off and head east over the Bow River to reach Highway 1A. Turn right (south) and follow it for 6.4 km to reach the Johnston Canyon parking lot on the left.

Location map for the Ice Walk
Location map for the Ice Walk
The trail is well-traveled so you won't have to worry about getting lost
The trail is well-traveled so you won’t have to worry about getting lost

What to wear

Banff National Park can be very cold in winter. Be sure to bring warm clothes that you can layer. Essentials include a warm jacket, mitts and a hat. I’d also recommend a neck warmer – and of course a pair of warm boots.

While lots of people don’t bother with ice cleats, it can make a real difference, especially after you pass the first set of falls. I don’t think you need poles as there is a railing along the catwalk that you can grab onto for balance. But if you have bad knees or awful balance that’s another thing altogether.

Glare ice - but the ice cleats keep you upright
Glare ice – but the ice cleats keep you upright

Before you go

Check the trail conditions in Banff National Park.

Check the weather in Banff. 

Good to know in 2021: The Ice Walk isn’t the easiest place to access in 2021. Highway 1A  is closed to the trailhead but you can access it on foot or by snowshoes. And if you sign up with a guided tour, they will be able to shuttle you to the trailhead. There’s a silver lining. You’ll probably have Johnston Canyon to yourself. Also note that infrastructure is in the process of being upgraded at the second set of falls. Obey any posted signs.

Buy ice cleats you can easily strap on your boots. If you live in a winter climate, they’re great for walking in the city too. These are my preferred ones. 

It’s possible to do a tour though I still think it’s a snap to hike on your own. However, if don’t have a car, you’re the least bit uneasy or if you actually want to learn something, a tour would be a great idea. I actually like the sound of the night tour described by Jody Robbins in the post Exploring the Night Sky at Johnston Canyon. She did that tour with Discover Banff.

Get Your Guide also offers tours of the Johnston Canyon through this link

Further reading on Banff National Park in winter

If you’re looking for more ideas if what to do in Banff be sure to read 10 Reasons to Visit Banff in Winter by Calgary bloggers Sue and Dave at Travel Tales of Life.

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk, Banff National Park, Alberta







Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Hey Leigh,

    The secret cave might be open again now. It was out of bounds because there are some rare swifts that nest in the caves, but all the human activity there has reduced their numbers. They went from 14 pairs, down to only a couple of pairs, and one single fledgling this year. It’s the only place that they nest in Alberta…and it sounds like humans have ruined it.

    When we went there were loads of signs saying don’t go down there, it’ll kill off this rare bird. But people were still climbing over the barriers to get that photo. 🙁

    It might be good to update your post to discourage people from visiting the cave.

    1. @Josy Thanks for that info. I think communication/education about the rare birds rather than just roping off the area would be the way to go. Anytime I have gone there have been no signs explaining anything. As a bird lover I’d definitely give them their space but if you don’t know then you question the reasoning behind the closure. I’ll add your notes to the photo so people know.

      1. Thanks Leigh, you’re a star!

        They had put up some signs in English and French (maybe they took them down again for the winter!?) The photos on my blog are a bit small to read it all, but I can send you bigger versions if you like. 🙂

        1. @Josy I think I’m okay but if people read my blog – and I expect a lot will – they now will at least understand the reasoning behind it all. Trust me I love birds. My husband is a big birder so I take this stuff seriously. Having a Parks Canada person on weekends answering questions and informing the public would be super helpful.

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