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The Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park

Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon

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 335 metres over 5.9 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 Ink Pots Hike via Johnston Canyon
Plan on a picnic once you reach the Ink Pots

The Hike to the Ink Pots

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.

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

First Stop: The Lower Falls in Johnston Canyon

Reach the Lower Falls at the 1.1 km mark – after a mostly easy hike on a fairly flat trail. At the 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 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
Looking down at the crowds at the lower falls on my return from 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 trail 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 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 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

The details

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

Allow 2.5 – 4 hours to do the return hike. There is a total elevation gain of 215 m.

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.

Check trail reports in the park before you head out.

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 Mountain Resort

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

Baker Creek - one of the Charmin Inns of Alberta
Lots of red chairs and fire pits on the property of Baker Creek Mountain Resort

More hikes in Banff National Park you might enjoy

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

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


Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Hi Leigh,

    I’ve been following your blog for some time now.

    We visited Canada (BC, Yukon and a bit of Alberta) last year, and I wish I had discovered your blog before our trip because I could have gotten a bit more info on various hikes! 🙂 Turns out we hiked up to the upper falls at Johnston Canyon but didn’t go on to the Inkpots. I didn’t expect much and it was already very late in the day when we started up Johnston Canyon. How wrong I was!! They look divine (that photo with the mountain backdrop – WOW!) and I wish we’d had the time to see them! Maybe next time… 🙂

    1. @Kati Thanks for the nice comment. It’s definitely worth the hike to the Ink Pots. And please if you have questions on future trips, fire away.

      1. We’re thinking about returning to Canada next year so I’m sure I’ll be digging around your blog a bit more in future! 🙂

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