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Looking down at ice climbers in Johnstone Canyon from above the upper falls
Looking down at ice climbers in Johnstone Canyon from above the upper falls

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk, Banff National Park

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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 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.

The start of the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
The start of the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk

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The cantilevered catwalk is quite airy in places
The cantilevered catwalk is quite airy in places
Cowboys in the canyon - no ice cleats to be seen
Cowboys in the canyon (this photo was taken when the walk to the second viewpoint was open)

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. You’ll find frequent mileage markers so you never have to worry about getting lost on this trail.

Hiking through the forest
Hiking through the forest
On weekends this section would be jammed!
On weekends this section would be jammed!

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.

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
Ephemeral handprints near the lower falls thanks to a coating of frost
Ephemeral handprints near the lower falls thanks to a coating of frost
Sometimes you're very close to the water level on the Johnston Canyon ice walk
Sometimes you’re very close to the water level on the Johnston Canyon ice walk
The catwalk above the lower falls
The catwalk above the lower falls

2022 UPDATE 

Normally you would stay right at the next intersection to reach the upper falls at the 2.7 km mark. But there is work being done on the walkway so it is out of bounds until further notice – and there are hefty fines in place if you disregard the order. Fortunately there is a great alternative if you continue hiking for just another 155 metres. Reach a viewpoint above the upper falls. Not nearly as many people continue this far.

The top of the upper falls at Johnston Canyon

At the high point look down into Johnston Canyon and enjoy quite a different perspective. If you have horseshoes, you’ll see some ice climbers too. I love watching them climb fragile-looking pieces of ice.

If you’re up for more of a workout you can even continue all the way to the Ink Pots via this trail. 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.

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 (summer version on the trail)

Admiring the frozen waterfalls from above
Admiring the frozen waterfalls from above
Be dazzled by the frozen waterfalls
Be dazzled by the frozen waterfalls at the end of the Johnston Canyon ice walk (you can’t see the falls from this angle in 2022)
Its so much fun watching the ice climbers in Johnston Canyon
It’s 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

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 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.

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 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, 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 on the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk

Before you go on the Johnston Canyon ice walk

Check the trail conditions in Banff National Park.

Check the weather in Banff. 

Good to know in 2022: There are now two parking lots on either side of Highway 1A but 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.

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.

Look for dramatic boulders along the ice walk
Look for dramatic boulders along the Johnston Canyon ice walk

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk in Banff - the must do adventure that is fun for all ages

 

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