Winter hiking in Johnston Canyon
January 6, 2019
Winter hiking in Johnston Canyon is a treat. The waterfalls are ice falls shaded with blue. The crowds are minimal which gives you time to enjoy the scenery and take photos.
Parking is located along Bow Valley Parkway, about mid-way between the town of Banff and Lake Louise. There were two parking lots available. If you plan to hike during prime season, check the official park website for information on public shuttles to the trail head.
Allow for additional time for the Bow Valley Parkway drive. The parkway has a lower speed limit than the Trans Canada highway. Expect the possibility of wildlife directly along the road as there is no barrier or fence. During the winter, the parkway will be snow-covered. There are pull-offs along the way that are prime photo spots. Do check the official park website for timelines on seasonal driving restrictions.
If hiking during the winter, plan on having some type of ‘winter grippers’ for your boots. We brought our own but you can rent some in either Banff or Lake Louise. If renting, allow for an hour round-trip drive to fetch and return the rentals.
Contrary to what some hikers wore, safe footwear does not mean high-heeled fashion boots, flip-flops, and regular running shoes. If you are questioning the need for winter grippers, consider that the park has signs advising grippers yet does not rent them at the trail-head. This suggests that the advice is for safety reasons, not profitability reasons.
Trekking poles may be useful but were not a must for our hike.
Carry a small day-pack with extra layers, water, and a snack. The canyon sits an altitude of around 4700 feet. Hydration and core body temperature control are important even for a front-country day-hike.
Check the weather forecast before heading out. We hiked on a day that the locals defined as ‘quite warm’ which was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. That is not the December norm. Temperatures a week before our hike and week after our hike were 20 to 30 degrees colder.
When to go
We hiked late afternoon and found the crowds to be bearable during December. The upside to winter hiking is the waterfalls are primarily ice falls and the trails are not crowded.
Locals suggested summer midday is the most crowded hiking time.
If photography is your gig, do some research. While we understand ‘golden hour’ for peak lighting, we are not sure what time that translated to in the canyon.
Johnston Canyon Trail
The trail has three main features: Lower Falls, Upper Falls, and the Ink Pots.
During our winter hike, there were more ice falls than waterfalls. However, we could see the water flowing in some spots.
The Lower Falls viewpoints are about a 1-kilometer hike from the parking lot. The trail runs along the Johnston Creek. Along the trail, photo opportunities abound of mini ice falls and a partially frozen creek.
The trail itself is well-defined and very trampled. Portions of it are on a metal grate tied into the canyon walls. For the most part, the lower falls trail was flat but compressed snow did make some of the elevation changes slippery.
At the lower viewpoint of the Lower Falls, there is a small tunnel leading to a ledge that gives a closer look of the Lower Falls. The tunnel is single-file and the ledge is big enough for about 20 spectators. Plan to wait your turn in line to get through the tunnel. This vantage point allows you to appreciate the height of the Lower Falls – approximately three stories.
Walk a little further up the trail to get to the upper viewing spot for the Lower Falls. Here you can see the source of the falls.
Continue up the trail another 1.5-kilometers to reach the Upper Falls viewing spots. If hiking during the winter, this is when you will appreciate the ‘winter grippers’.
The Upper Falls are impressive as they are approximately ten stories high. There is a large viewing platform at the bottom of the Upper Falls.
We were fortunate during our hike. The light brought out some of the blues of the ice falls. We watched the ice climbers for a while – both the ones climbing as well as the ones prepping their gear.
Continue up the trail a bit for the upper viewing location. At that point, you will be looking down on the Upper Falls.
The Ink Pots are pools of bubbling water colored from different minerals.
Our group was short on energy and daylight hours so we did not attempt the ink pots. The Ink Pots would have been an additional 6-kilometers round-trip from the Upper Falls.
There were rumors that the trail to the Ink Pots might include an encounter with bison or a 600-pound bear. I can not vouch for those rumors but it made for some entertaining conversations that day.
Johnston Canyon is a worthwhile winter hike. The ice falls and the blue ice are stunning. Just set your expectations for beautiful. One local set the expectations so high that a member of our group was expecting something akin to the Grand Canyon.
It is a front country hike so there will be people and possibly crowds depending on your hike time. Some locals said that summer hikes mid-day are wall-to-wall people.
- Trip date: December 2018
- Name: Johnston Canyon
- Location: Banff National Park, Bow Valley Pkwy
- Cost: $ (entrance fee to park)