The hike to Johnston Canyon in winter 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 National Park but don’t let that put you off. To avoid the crowds, plan to start 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.
Here’s how the hike to Johnston Canyon in winter 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 climbing gently, stopping 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 kilometre mark. Cross the bridge and duck through the tunnel to get an intimate view of the 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 kilometre mark. You’ll have gained 120 metres 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 kilometres 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 kilometres to reach the Johnston Canyon parking lot on the left.
What to Wear on the Johnston Canyon Icewalk
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.
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.
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Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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