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 and for good reason. It’s super fun and something the whole family can do. Enjoy frozen waterfalls, a cantilevered cat walk, a snowy forest – and a canyon filled with snow and ice. Duck through a small tunnel to see a small waterfall close-up and head for the upper falls to catch ice climbers in action.
To avoid the crowds, plan to start the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk either early or late in the day if its a weekend, appreciating that the sun sets by 4:45 PM in late December. If you go midday, expect to jockey for space in parking lots and stop on the trail to let people pass. You can take your dog on this hike BUT please keep them leashed and clean up after them. I would only suggest taking a dog at less busy times.
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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Highlights of the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
A walk along the cantilevered catwalk high above Johnston Creek.
Going through the tunnel to the Lower Falls.
Watching ice climbers in action at the Upper Falls.
Johnston Canyon Ice Walk summary
Distance: 1.1 km (0.7 mi) one way to the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls and 2.7 km (1.7 mi) one way to the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls.
Elevation gain: 135 m or 445 feet.
Level of difficulty: The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is easy, especially to the Lower Falls but it can be very icy so ice cleats are strongly recommended. It is suitable for people of all ages including young children, but leave the strollers behind.
Time needed: 1 – 2.5 hours
Facilities: Washrooms at the parking lot at the Johnston Canyon Day-Use Area. In winter the nearest place for gas, snacks and drinks is at Castle Mountain Chalets at the intersection of Highway 1A (Bow Valley Parkway) and the Banff Windermere Highway, about 6 km away.
Permits: You need a Parks Canada pass to visit Banff National Park. If you’re planning to spend more than a few days in any national park in Canada, the Discovery Passis your best option. Purchase online, at the eastern gate to Banff National Park, or at the park office on Banff’s’ main street.
Safety considerations on the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
Before you head to Johnston Canyon, I recommend that you check the trail reports put out by Banff National Park. If there is an unexpected closure, they let you know.
The biggest safety issue in Johnston Canyon is a fall on the ice. That’s why it’s so important that you wear ice cleats. It goes without saying that you’ll also need to keep a close eye on kids where there’s any sort of drop-off. Some people might like hiking poles, though there is often a railing you can hold onto.
If it’s a bitterly cold day, then frostbite could be an issue. Be sure to pack extra layers, throw in some hand warmers like these ones that provide instant heat, and consider packing a thermos with something hot to drink.
Renting equipment for the ice walk
If you don’t want to buy ice walk crampons or hiking poles, you can rent them from Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff. If you book a tour, they are provided.
Parking for the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
There are now two parking lots on either side of Highway 1A at the Johnston Canyon Day-use Area, and if it’s a sunny weekend, count on both being full at midday. If you sign up with a guided tour, they will be able to shuttle you to the trailhead and you’ll avoid any parking headaches.
Are there Johnston Canyon Ice Walk Tours?
Tours of Johnston Canyon are great if don’t have a car, ice cleats, you’re the least bit uneasy about an icy walk, you don’t know how to get to the starting point – or if you actually want to learn something – which you will with a guide. I actually like the sound of the night tour described by Jody Robbins in the post Exploring the Night Sky at Johnston Canyon.
Reserve a spoton the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk online. If you’re planning to do it over the holidays or on a weekend, book well in advance.
Best time to do the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
You can do the beautiful walk up Johnston Canyon every day of the year. But Mother Nature decides when Johnston Canyon becomes an ice walk – and not a regular walk. Because much of Johnston Canyon is shaded, you can usually count on snow and ice from sometime in November until mid to late April. The changes along the ice walk vary considerably over the winter. To be sure it’s a snowy ice walk, I’d recommend early December until early April.
If you want to avoid parking issues, go early in the day – before 9 AM or after 3 PM.
Johnston Canyon Ice Walk description
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. You’ll find frequent mileage markers so you never have to worry about getting lost on this trail.
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 in Johnston Canyon.
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 of the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk as it offers airy outlooks along with plenty of places to stop and take photos.
The top of the upper falls at Johnston Canyon
There are two viewing platforms at the Upper Falls. They can get busy so go with the flow and pick spots as they open up looking down into Johnston Canyon. What a perspective! Watch ice climbers practice on giant-looking icicles – some of which look fragile. Some of the climbers are very graceful and make the whole exercise look easy.
Looking for a longer hike? Continue all the way to the Ink Pots via a trail from the Upper Falls. It’s 0.3 km to reach the intersection of the trail coming up from the Moose Meadows trailhead. From there it’s another 2.7 km to reach the Ink Pots, so another 3.0 km one way in total.
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.
There’s a cave that I have looked for on many occasions but didn’t find until I was with a group one March. In theory it’s out of bounds but in practical terms, it’s visited a lot for the photo ops and in 2022 it still was, but I saw cameras to capture the activity.
Note: Via my FB page I learned that the cave is “officially out of bounds”. Then I got a comment which explains why. There are rare black swifts that had nested in the caves but because of visitors, myself included – their numbers have dropped. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t 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.
How to get to the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
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 of the road. There is spillover parking on the left. Don’t even think of parking along Highway 1A or you’ll be ticketed. Johnston Canyon is 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 or the spillover lot on the right.
What to wear on the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
Banff National Park can be very cold in winter. Be sure to bring warm clothes that you can layer. Essentials include a warm jacket (I like Patagonia’s down sweater with a hood), mitts and a hat. I’d also recommend a neck warmer – and of course a pair of warm winter boots(Sorels, Kodiaks and Salomons have been good choices for me) .
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. If you buy hiking poles, I’d suggest collapsible, lightweight ones.
Location map of Johnston Canyon
Where to stay in the Banff area
The closest accommodation to the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is the Castle Mountain Chalets. In winter their location is great as you can cross-country ski just across the street from where they are – and they are a great base for exploring the Bow Valley Parkway.
In Banff itself, check out Canalta Lodge, especially if you’re traveling with your family.
One of my perennial favourites is the Moose Hotel – with its excellent location on Main Street.
Basecamp Suites Banffopened in late 2022. Their location is great, just off Main Street and rooms look upscale. Come spring 2023, two hot tubs on the rooftop will open.
Interested in visiting Banff National Park in winter?