Hiking Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon is a quintessential hike if you’re visiting Banff National Park, and the great news is you can hike it all year round! I thought I’d been there once before in the summer, but after visiting on this trip, I think this was actually the first time. It’s located about halfway between Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, but it can be a bit tricky to get to.


It’s not off the main highway, but instead located on the Bow Valley Parkway, which runs parallel to Highway 1. It’s just a one-lane highway and it’s not in the best shape, so assume a much slower pace than driving on the main highway. You can enter the Parkway from just past Banff, or at the turn for Highway 93 that runs down towards the Kootneys. I’m not sure what the deal with the road is, but the exit outside of Banff isn’t always open, so even though you have to do a bit a backtracking, sometimes you have to go all the way to the second turn off to get on the Parkway (as was the case when we visited). It was disappointing because it results in a longer journey, though with the speed you can try on Highway 1 I’m not convinced it’s shorter on the Parkway. But I’ve heard the Parkway is incredibly scenic, so I’m sad we didn’t get to drive the whole thing.


In any case, Johnston Canyon is a pretty popular place to visit and it’s nice that you can hike it all year round. There will be snow in the winter, and though it’s all packed down from the frequent traffic, microspikes or cleats are definitely required, especially on some of the uphill and downhill sections. We brought our own spikes with us, but if you’re just visiting, you can rent them from any of the outdoor equipment stores in Banff. There were a few people without them, but actually most people had some kind of traction and they were all very similar, so I assume most people were using the rented cleats.


In the summer, I think you may need to get there early to secure parking, but it wasn’t a problem in the winter. Since it’s a shorter trail, there should also be a lot of turnover in the lot. The trail hikes through the forest and then along the side of the steep walls of the canyon. In many cases you go right through the canyon on grated walkways that are bolted to the side of the canyon wall. It’s a little scary in winter because the snow elevates the trail, meaning the rails only come up to about mid-thigh, so use caution when navigating some of the narrower parts of the canyon. A few times we waited for people to pass coming in the opposite direction so as not to crowd the trail.


There’s lots to see along the way and we really enjoyed all the frozen waterfalls and ice structures that form along the side of the canyon. The first big attraction is the lower falls, which you descend down to and cross a bridge before walking through a short tunnel to get an even better view of the river and the lower falls. It’s quite unique, which is how I knew I hadn’t been there before. The tunnel is cool and we hung around for a bit watching the falls. The surface of the falls looks frozen, but the river is still running underneath, so it creates this cool, half frozen pool at the base.


Some people just go as far as the lower falls and then turn back, but we decided to continue on to the upper falls. You go past several more waterfalls along the way and before you get to the upper falls, there is a path through the woods to go down to the river. At the right time of year, you can walk on the river to the upper falls. We opted not to because we could see a lot of dicey sections from the moving water along the river, but lots of people were walking on the ice, so I assume it was relatively safe. It’s a gentle uphill most of the walk to the falls and then when you finally reach the upper falls, there’s a big viewpoint looking down on them.


The upper falls were completely frozen this time of year, but we had the added benefit of getting to watch ice climbers! Turns out it’s a popular location for ice climbing and there were several groups climbing along different sides of the multiple ice faces. Ice climbing is definitely a sport that is too intense for me, but it’s really interesting to watch other people do it, so we settled down for our lunch and enjoyed watching the climbers while we ate. The trail was relatively busy, but manageable. We were able to see what we wanted to see and while there was a good number of people, it wasn’t crazy crowded. It was a weekday though, so it might be worse on the weekends and I’m sure it’s a lot busier in the summer.

All in all, the hike was approximately 5km to the upper falls and back, with about 130m in elevation. So it’s definitely a great hike for beginners and had a really interesting topography. But as always, exercise caution when going on any hike, especially in the cold season. We had a good time and I’m glad I got to cross this popular hike off my list.


Ski Resort Series: Lake Louise

Lake Louise was undoubtedly the most popular of the Banff resorts when we visited. I suspect it draws the most tourists because of its association with the famous lake, as well as it also attracts a lot of locals to its open alpine skiing and back bowls. Plus, the awesome views of the surrounding mountains don’t hurt!

Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from Banff, so it is the furthest, though I regularly drive 2 hours to Whistler each way in a single day, so I didn’t find the drive too bad. There are some accommodations in Lake Louise if you’re just there to ski and want to stay nearby, but then I think your restaurant choices would be a lot more limited than if you stayed in Banff.


Of the three resorts, I found Lake Louise had the most confusing parking. Norquay and Sunshine have straightforward massive lots, but Lake Louise has several smaller lots and several sections of the lot are allocated specifically for VIPs or pay parking. Clearly we weren’t VIPs and we didn’t want to pay, so we ended up parking in the road parking – it wasn’t a long walk to the resort, but the longest of the 3 resorts and we were annoyed to walk past the huge empty VIP lot right next to the lodge.

Lake Louise had a pretty different set-up than Sunshine. At Sunshine, I found a lot of the lifts went to the same locations but had different bases from which to board at the bottom. Whereas at Lake Louise, a lot of the lifts left from the same central area at the bottom and went to different parts of the mountain, which I think is a bit preferable. The main difference is that the Lake Louise base is at the same elevation as the highway, whereas at Sunshine you take a gondola up to the base and at Norquay you drive several switchbacks up the mountain. As a result, I found the ski conditions at Lake Louise were unfortunately, the worst of the 3 mountains.


It’s partially because of the weather and timing of when we visited that we didn’t get any powder, but overall, I found Louise to be icier because it’s a lower elevation mountain. I also found the runs to be more confusing because it’s a lot of alpine, so there’s not really any discernible runs in a lot of locations. In some ways I really liked that because you could really ski wherever you wanted, but it also made it hard to figure out where you were and we ended up going down a few more advanced runs because we got lost. Not that big a deal, but since it was an icy day, it wasn’t the best conditions for challenging yourself.

So it was a bit of a rough start as we figured out the mountain, but we did still have a good time. We started off on Glacier chair and did a few runs on the Top of the World chair before going up Summit chair once to see the view from the highest point. I liked this area, but it’s where we kept making mistakes and ended up down a gully a few times. One of the biggest attractions at Lake Louise is the back bowls, which is pretty much just all free black run skiing. My biggest regret is that we didn’t ski the back bowl in the morning when we had fresh legs and decent visibility. We were a little bit intimidated by it and there’s so much to explore, so we decided to save it for later.


After a few runs up at the top we switched over to the Grizzly gondola and explored around some of the bottom part of the mountain. Lake Louise is deceivingly large. Sunshine Village felt large because the lifts are spread out and there’s so many different areas, whereas Lake Louise is more concentrated, but still has a lot of runs, many of which I think are longer than at Sunshine. We didn’t do as many runs in the morning, mostly because it was just taking us longer to do each run.

We had decided to buy lunch at Lake Louise, which was a good decision because packed lunches aren’t allowed in the Lodge of Ten Peaks (though you can eat them at Whiskeyjack Lodge). The nice thing about Louise was that there were several lodges, I don’t know how busy it was over at Temple Lodge, but we found Lodge of Ten Peaks to be a lot less crowded than at Sunshine.


In the afternoon we made our way over towards the backside of the mountain to get the areas we hadn’t yet explored. We did a few runs on Ptarmigan chair and a few on Larch chair. I ended up really liking the Larch area, likely because it had some easier runs, or maybe because they are more well defined. I think I would really like Lake Louise if I got to ski it more often, but because I only had one day, I wanted to get a lot a variety and in the alpine, I guess I felt like I was just skiing the same thing run after run. It’s why it’s nice to have more than one day at a ski resort, because you get to try everything on the first day, and then return to areas you liked or try things you missed on the second day.

Emily wasn’t really keen to do the back bowls at all, but like Goat Mountain at Sunshine, I still really wanted to tackle every part of the mountain, so I convinced her to do one run with me. We got to scope it out a bit more on the Paradise chair, which runs up the back of the mountain, and I think on a good powder day I would be pretty comfortable skiing in the back bowl (at least in the area under Paradise chair, which is black diamonds as opposed to double blacks). Unfortunately, our mistake was waiting too late in the day. We took the one easy run down the back bowl, but it had really bad flat light when we did it and we felt like we were skiing blind, so we weren’t inclined to try a second run, hence why I say I wish we’d done it in the morning.


Anyways, sometimes you live and learn. We still ended up having a great time at Lake Louise and surprisingly Emily liked it more than me. I can’t really pinpoint why, but of the three, Lake Louise was probably my least favourite. I may get slammed for that because not a lot of people seem to like Norquay, so I’m inclined to blame the weather on this occasion (we got some great powder at Norquay). In any case, I won’t be too quick to judge it and I would definitely return to try it again and properly ski the back bowl. Overall I think it might just be the vibe that I got from Lake Louise. It was more crowded and seemed a bit more elitist than the others, so I’d be just as happy to ski at Sunshine or Norquay as well. Either way, it’s definitely an iconic resort.


Skating in Banff

As much as I loved skiing in Banff National Park, I can’t deny that one of the real highlights of the trip for me was when we went skating on Lake Minnewanka. Lake skating is such an iconic Canadian activity, yet I get so few opportunities to do it living in Vancouver. I was super keen to go skating while we were in the Rockies, so I crammed my skates into my checked luggage.

While you do have a lot more freedom to set your own schedule when you bring your own skates, it’s definitely not necessary. Emily didn’t bring it any, so we still had to rent them while we were there. We assumed we’d get the opportunity to skate on Lake Louise, but I was still keen to find a less commercial skating experience. The hardest part about free skating on natural ice is timing. You want the ice to be thick enough, but if you wait to late in the season, the ice will likely be covered in snow, resulting in a lot of work to shovel the skating surface. How the ice freezes will also play a large role in how easy the skating will be.


Since we were visiting in March, I figured our odds of getting to go lake skating were pretty slim. But it had been really cold and sunny the week before we visited, so I was hoping some lakes might be clear. It was calling for snow most of the week we visited, so the first thing we did was search for some ice before it got covered again in the following days.

There are several places to rent adventure equipment in Banff – we rented from Banff Adventures for $15. I was told Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake were good places to try, but the rental place told Emily the surface wouldn’t be good, so we decided to try the outdoor rinks first (I think the rentals are hesitant to recommend lake skating for liability reasons, so do your own research).


If you’re nervous about lake skating, there are a few options in Banff, there’s a small natural rink by the train station and a bigger one behind the curling arena. Driving by the train station rink first (and seeing how small it was), we opted for the arena. I’m glad we went here first because it had been several years since either of us had been on skates and it was a comfortable place to get used to it again. There were a few people around with hockey sticks, but it wasn’t overly busy, so we had a good time doing laps.

But I was still really keen to at least check out the lakes while we had the rentals, so we decided to go to Minnewanka anyways, figuring if we couldn’t skate we could at least go for a little hike. You have to drive by Two Jack Lake on the way to Minnewanka, so we scoped it out, but it was a mix of very bumpy ice and snow, so we kept going to Minnewanka. Likewise, Minnewanka was a bit of a mix of ice and snow, but there were much larger ice patches and lots of people out exploring around on the ice, so we figured it was worth a try.


Minnewanka is a huge lake, extending 28km up through the mountains. It’s absolutely wild to me that such a large lake is able to completely freeze in the winter. The shallow part of the lake was completely covered in snow, so you have to walk about 500-1000m to get to the parts where you can skate. Always be cautious if you are going out of the ice. It had been -20 degrees the entire week before we got there and we’d read up that people had been out skating all the previous week before visiting. It is somewhat risky going out on the snow to get to the ice because it provides a relative feeling of safety, but you can’t see the ice quality until you’re further out.

It was jarring when we did finally reach the ice. The ice in Newfoundland generally doesn’t freeze very evenly and is usually completely opaque, but the ice in Minnewanka is clear and we could quickly see that we weren’t going to have any concerns about ice depth. From the ridges in the ice, you can easily see that it’s at least 1.5-2 feet thick. 6 inches is the safe depth for skating, so we weren’t worried about ice depth at all, just freaked out by how scary it is to be able to see right down through the ice!


It was very cool though. When we got to the edge of the snow we laced up our skates and put our boots in our backpack to go for a skate. The ice was bumpy in places, but it was a much smoother surface than I was expecting and there was tons of room to skate all over the lake. You can see all the air bubbles frozen in the ice as they tried to rise to the surface and we kept skating around looking for interesting features. It was pretty windy skating on the lake, but I think that’s why more of the snow was gone. Pretty much every other lake we saw was snow covered, but I think the wind blows it off Minnewanka since it’s so large. It’s such a fun experience and frankly, I’ve never felt more Canadian then when ice skating on a frozen lake.

Fortunately, if you’re still a bit nervous about the idea of finding your own ice, you can skate on Lake Louise. It’s still not a totally risk free activity as the ice isn’t managed by anyone, but so many people skate there and it’s very close to shore, so I think it’s more manageable risk. Lake Louise does get covered in snow though, so you can’t skate on the entire lake, just the section at the end near the chateau where people keep in shoveled.


Later in the week we wanted to make a go for Lake Louise as well. It’s such an iconic place, so we figured it was worth skating there too. Unfortunately the day we visited was the worst weather we had on the trip. It was overcast most days, but on the day we went to Lake Louise it snowed pretty heavily and the clouds and visibility were really low. The rink wasn’t shoveled when we got there, so we decided to snowshoe across the lake instead. Cross country skiers traverse across the lake and walkers go up and down the edge to the back of the lake where there are some ice climbing opportunities.

Unfortunately we didn’t catch much of the views with the poor visibility, but we have been there in the summer, so we just tried to enjoy the snow on the trees instead. There were some people starting to clear the ice when we got back, but it was a relatively small surface and a lot of people, so we decided to skip it since we’d had so much success at Minnewanka already.

So that’s my advice on skating in Banff National Park. Definitely go for it because it is a super fun activity, but stick to your comfort level and always make sure the ice is safe before going out onto it!