The Nootka Trail now ranks as my favourite coastal trail in BC. It stretches for…
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- What to Do in Winter in Lake Louise
- A Winter Visit to Skoki Lodge in Banff National Park
- Where to Go Snowshoeing in Banff National Park
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