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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hiking Sentinel Pass

It’s been almost a year now since I visited the Rockies, but I never found time to post about the 2 hikes I did last August, so it’s time to feature them now! Hopefully it will be helpful if you’re planning to visit Banff this year. Sentinel Pass was my first hike in Banff National Park and I really feel like I started at the absolute best that Banff has to offer. Seriously, this hike was unreal! It’s not too challenging and it has the most amazing views – I loved every second of the day hike.

So first things first, let’s talk about how you get to the trailhead because it’s definitely worth talking about. Two of the most popular sights in Banff National Park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Lake Louise tends to get most of the press attention, but for those in the know, Moraine Lake, located just up from Lake Louise, is the real shining jewel of the park. But if you want to experience it, you have to get there early. Lake Louise has a huge parking lot and on summer weekends it usually fills up by 8am. On week days you can probably get away with showing up by 10am, but likely it depends on the weather. I believe you can usually shuttle up to Lake Louise from the village or overflow parking lots, but the shuttles are currently not running because of Covid.

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Moraine Lake is located 14km away from Lake Louise on a direct access road up to the lake. The parking lot for Moraine Lake is much much smaller and once it’s full for the morning, park staff will block off the access road to limit traffic up there. So you can’t bank on showing up late and just circling the parking lot – you won’t even be able to get up there. Same as Lake Louise, there is a shuttle bus that runs to the lake, but it’s not running this year. So if you want to visit the lake, your best bet is to come really early or really late. I read online that you need to be at the road by 6am to get a parking spot, which is probably true on a weekend, but we got in around 8am on a weekday. They will periodically open the road up again later in the day, but lucky timing is really everything if you decide to wait.

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Once you make it to Moraine Lake, the world is your oyster! This is seriously one of the most beautiful alpine lakes that you can drive to. Canoeing is really popular on the lake – it’s first come first serve for bookings, but I suspect it’s probably not too difficult to rent this year with the limited traffic and shuttles not running. I would love to canoe up around the lake, but on our visit we had other priorities.

From the lake, there are tons of hikes to explore! The most popular trails seem to be the Rockpile Trail and the Moraine Lake Trail. Rockpile is located right at the parking lot and I regret not doing it because it’s pretty short and I imagine it gives you a great view of the lake. Moraine Lake Trail is about 3km long and goes up to the end of the lake. We had planned to do this trail at the end of our hike up Sentinel Pass, but ended up skipping it because Sadie was really tired. There’s several other trails leaving from the lake, but the other two main trails are Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake/Wenkchemna Pass. I’ve heard Wenkchemna Pass is also amazing because it hikes into the continental divide, but it’s a bit longer, so we opted for Sentinel, of which I have no regrets.

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Sentinel Pass starts off with a climb up the mountain to get into the alpine. It’s steep, but nothing too crazy and the trail just switchbacks up and away from the lake. The advantage of starting early was that the temperature was still chill, so it wasn’t too bad climbing up there. After about an hour, you pop out of the woods into the alpine meadows, and from there the rest of the hike is super scenic. There’s some more climbing through the meadows before you come to a large meadow with two lakes, known as the Minnestimma Lakes, and the most amazing view looking back at the ten peaks surrounding Moraine Lake. It was especially beautiful when we visited in early August because the meadows were filled with wildflowers! I have a real weakness for meadows and wildflowers, they’re pretty much my favourite alpine scenery, so I was in hiking heaven.

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From the meadow, you can see that the trail continues up the side of the mountain and then switchbacks through the pass between Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple. This is where the hike gets a little more challenging. If you’re afraid of heights you might find this part a little scary, but I never felt unsafe on the trail at any point. There was still a little bit of snow left in one section, but it was easy enough to pass across. Watch for wildlife as you make your way through the meadows and up the final climb because we saw so much wildlife on this trail! The first meadows earlier on are filled with ground squirrels, and the higher meadows have tons of marmots! We could also hear lots of pika, which are harder to spot than the marmots, but we did spot one later in the day thanks to Seth’s determination.

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The view from the top of the pass is incredible, but honestly, so was the view from the meadow. It is worth pushing to the top of the pass to see down the other side, but if it’s too much, don’t sweat it, the views from the lakes are honestly just as good. It was pretty hot when we hiked the pass, but it gets chilly and windy at the top, so be prepared. It is possible to seek shelter while you eat lunch at the top, but we opted to just brave the wind so we could enjoy the views.

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While we were on top, there were some other hikers coming up the pass from the other side. I could see a map for this trail on my GPS, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re experienced. It’s hard to discern any path from the other side and you mostly just create your own path up the boulder field. The trail officially ends at the top of the pass, but we decided to explore a little bit further. There is an unofficial path up Mount Temple, but again, it’s more of a climbing path – it’s misleading how long it is to get up to the top of Mount Temple and I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a helmet. We just went about 100-200m further, snapped some photos, and then started to make our way back down the pass.

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It was an early morning, but the trail was pretty empty, which made for a great hiking experience. There were definitely more people coming up when we were on our way down, but it never felt overly crowded. We took our time on the way down, enjoying all the beautiful views, taking pictures of the wildflowers, and looking for marmots. Sadie did well on the hike and had a great time, especially on the snow section, but after Banff we decided it was probably a bit too much for her, so we’ll probably wait a few more months before taking her on any more large hikes. Like I said, we wanted to do the Moraine Lake trail, but eventually abandoned the idea to give Sadie a rest.

So in conclusion, this was really an excellent hike. I would absolutely recommend taking the time to do it and know I’ll have to return again some day to do the Wenkchemna Pass hike and the rest of the trail around the lake!

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