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.