Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon

A beautiful hike in Banff National Park

The Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park
The Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park

Five pristine aquamarine coloured pools named the Ink Pots are a great destination for a picnic in Banff National Park. The trail to the Ink Pots is well marked, though moderately difficult with an elevation gain of 330 metres over 5.7 kilometres. On a summer weekend the Ink Pots can be a very busy place but if you go early or late in the day you might get lucky and have the place to yourself. The prettiest way to hike it is via Johnston Canyon but you can still get to it via the Moose Meadows trailhead. It’s just not as interesting a hike.

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Ink Pots hike via Johnston Canyon summary

Distance: 5.7 km (3.5 miles) one way

Elevation gain: 330 m or 1,083 feet

Time needed: 2.5 – 4 hours to do the return hike

Difficulty: Easy

Dogs allowed: Yes, on a leash but I’d recommend not doing the Johnston Canyon route because of the number of people on the trail unless you go first thing in the morning.

Best time to hike: The Ink pots hike vis Johnston Canyon can be done year round but avoid in spring when it’s wet and muddy.

Go prepared: Despite the fact the hike is a busy one, it still pays to go prepared with the right gear. Always take water and food as well as the other hiking essentials.

Where to buy food: If you’ve forgotten food and drinks you can purchase them at the bistro at the start of the Johnston Canyon Trail. 

Before you go: Check trail reports in the park before you head out.

Map needed: The map for this hike is Gem Trek Banff & Mt. Assiniboine.

Hiking options: The Ink Pots can be hiked via Johnston Canyon (the scenic but busy route) or from the quieter Moose Meadows trailhead.

Swimming: There is no swimming in the Ink Pots. Please don’t throw anything into the water either.

Elevation: The Ink Pots are at an elevation of 1,645 metres.

Bears: You probably won’t see any bears on this hike as its popular, especially the Johnston Canyon section, but it’s always a good idea to carry bear spray in the Rocky Mountains and keep it in a bear spray holster. You can rent bear spray from Snowtips-Bactrax or Ultimate Sports in Banff.

Why are their different colours? The Ink Pots are gorgeous blue and green pools of water that differ in colour because of their fill rate.

The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
Plan on a picnic once you reach the Ink Pots

Hike to the Ink Pots description

Do the Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park with a start at either the Johnston Canyon parking lot or at the Moose Meadows Trailhead (just a kilometre or two further to the west) for a less scenic but quieter alternative.

Certainly I prefer the Johnston Canyon route for its captivating beauty, though on a weekend it’s incredibly crowded and parking is at a premium. Cars were parked down the highway for some distance on a recent spring weekend. The Johnston Canyon hike is considered to be one of the busiest hikes in Banff National Park. Try to go very early in the day.

Notable mileages along the route are:

  • 1.1 km – Lower Falls
  • 2.7 km – Upper Falls
  • 3.2 km – intersection with the Moose Meadows Trail
  • 4.5 km – high point on the trail
  • 5.7 km – Ink Pots 
The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
Head up Johnston Canyon by 9 – 9:30 AM and there aren’t many people around

Johnston Canyon, named for a prospector who staked a claim here back in the 1880’s, is truly beautiful and it’s easy to understand why so many people visit. Catwalks suspended from the canyon wall allow you to get close – in a safe way to the flowing water. It’s also an easy, family friendly kind of hike.

The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
It’s always a thrill being right beside a roaring river

The Lower Falls in Johnston Canyon

Reach the Lower Falls in Johnston Canyon at the 1.1 km mark – after a mostly easy hike on a fairly flat trail. At the Lower Falls take the time to cross the creek and walk through a natural tunnel for an up-close view of the falls. Be prepared to get a little wet from the spray. You may have to wait to get into the tunnel as it can get a tad backed up with people.

The Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon
The Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon

Hike to the Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon

Continue hiking, gaining elevation to reach the Upper Falls at the 2.7 km mark. You start to lose the crowds once the hiking gets tougher but it’s worth it. The view of the Upper Falls is wonderful. You can see these falls via a catwalk to their base but you’ll get covered in fine spray.

If you continue up the trail for just another five minutes you can look at the falls from above – and get a real sense of the power of the water. (You’ll have to do this anyway if you’re hiking to the Ink Pots.)

The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
Sometimes the trail can get a little jammed

The largest travertine drape in the Rockies

The Upper Falls are covered by what is called a travertine drape – powdery limestone formed with the help of algae removing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis with calcium carbonate (limestone) as a waste product.

According to Graeme Pole, author of Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, “25 species of algae have been identified here and this may be the largest travertine drape in the Rockies.” In the winter this wall is popular with ice climbers.

The hike to the ink Pots via Johnston Canyon
Hike to the end of this catwalk to admire the Upper Falls and the travertine drape

The hike to the Ink Pots

From the Upper Falls take a short 0.2 km spur trail to meet the trail coming up from Moose Meadows. From that intersection, it’s another 2.7 km hike to reach the Ink Pots. This part of the trail winds through the trees, gaining elevation before it descends to the Ink Pots and the meadows.

You can see the trail continuing from the Ink Pots northwest along Johnston Creek.

Two backpacking trips can be done from here. One takes you to Mystic Pass and Mystic Lake though it’s mostly in the trees. The other one goes via the Johnston Creek Valley to Pulsatilla Pass and Baker Lake – though it is challenging and requires three to four days.

The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
The junction to Mystic Lake is another 2.2 km ahead

What are the Ink Pots?

The Ink Pots are mineral springs that differ in colour because each pool fills at a different rate. According to a sign the milky-green pools fill more slowly and have a heavier suspension of fine materials than the clear, deep-blue pools.

Year round the water temperature of these pools is about 4°C.

The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
People are asked not to throw ANYTHING into the Ink Pots
The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
The Ink Pots can get very busy but of you go early you may almost have the place to yourself
The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
You’ll be entranced with the views and the colour
The Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
Swirling circles in the sandy bottoms of the pools indicate the outlets of both air and water bubbles

Where to stay in Banff National Park

There are plenty of choices across all price points. One of the closest accommodation options to the Inkpots hike is Baker Creek by Basecamp

Solid choices in Banff include the Moose Hotel & Suites, Buffalo Mountain Lodge and the Mount Royal Hotel.

The closest accommodation option is Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows.  They are open from May till October only.

You can also camp at Johnston Canyon Campground from May 23 – September 22, 2024. You can make online reservations.

Baker Creek - one of the Charming Inns of Alberta
Lots of red chairs and fire pits on the property of Baker Creek by Basecamp
Beautiful backdrop of Cascade Mountain
Beautiful backdrop of Cascade Mountain from Buffalo Mountain Lodge

More hikes in Banff National Park you might enjoy

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The fabulous Ink Pots hike via Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park, Alberta

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