Hiking the Johnston Canyon Icewalk in Banff National Park, Alberta is one of the best things you can do in Banff in winter!
This popular and easy summer day hike is extra picturesque in winter time (December to April), when snow lingers on the tops of trees, the waterfalls freeze over, and blue ice overhangs decorate so much of the limestone cliffs.
Johnston Canyon is a perfect winter outing for families and people of all ages and fitness levels. And for those days that the avalanche warning forecast is too high for a winter hike, this is a perfectly safe destination to choose where you can still get outside, get some exercise and see some truly beautiful frozen waterfalls.
Humans have made this gorgeous canyon accessible to everyone – not just climbers. A series of man-made, railed catwalks snake their way up, over and through the depths of Johnston Canyon and above the crystal clear creek waters below.
#1 TIP for Johnston Canyon Icewalk: Wear ice cleats or crampons!
During the winter, the trail and catwalks can have extremely icy sections. The ever-fluxuating temperatures of spring and fall can create even more ice, creating a treacherous situation. However, this can easily be solved by wearing foot traction devices, such as ice cleats or crampons. You can rent them from sporting goods stores in Banff (such as Banff Adventures). I also include a recommendation to an affordable pair you can purchase at the bottom of this blog post.
The Johnston Canyon Icewalk: Lower Falls Trail
The ice walk to Lower Falls (1.1km one-way) starts out as a fairly level trail that meanders through the forest. Keep an eye out, as it won’t take long before you will be able to notice ice clinging to the canyon walls.
After twenty or so minutes, you will arrive at a fork in the trail, with a choice to go to the Lower Falls or the Upper Falls. Keep to your right and continue to the bottom of the canyon to see the Lower Falls first (you’re pretty much there already!)
Don’t just stop at the viewing platform, however. At the “end” of the Lower Falls viewing platform, you’ll notice an opening in the side of the canyon that you can duck through for a close-up view of the falls!
Lower Falls Photo Tips:
Photo Tip #1: Stay patient to get your shot of the Lower waterfall. The viewing platform is small and there can be a lineup to go through the cave and out the other end for that perfect waterfall view. However, I’ve noticed that people often seem to come and go in groups. Sometimes just staying patient and waiting a few extra minutes can give you a small window with more room to get your shot.
Photo Tip #2: Use a wide angle lens if possible. The viewing platform is extremely close to the waterfall and it can be tricky to capture the entire scene in one shot without the use of a wide angle lens.
After you’ve spent time enjoying the Lower Falls, continue back the way you came until you reemerge at the fork in the road. This time, turn left and take the trail up to the Upper Falls.
The Upper Falls Trail
The trail to the Upper Falls (2.6km total one-way) covers more elevation, climbing its way through the forest and out of the Lower canyon.
It works its way back towards the creek and offers several scenic viewpoints you’ll want to stop and check out.
There are more slippery and steep sections on this trail, so make sure to put on your cleats/crampons and hang onto the railing as needed.
Tip: Some people (especially those in tennis shoes or sneakers) “slide” down the steep parts, packing down the snow and creating an even more icy pathway, so keep an eye out for areas of trail that have more snow that is not so packed down to make walking easier.
Upper Falls Photo Tips:
Photo Tip #1: Again, stay patient to get your shot. This spot is even more busy than the Lower Falls.
Photo Tip #2: Again, you’ll appreciate a wide angle lens at this location. Though the viewing platform is further back than Lower Falls, a wide angle lens is still nice to be able to capture all of the canyon walls in one shot.
Photo Tip #3: Keep an eye out for ice climbers! At 1565 metres above sea level, the Upper Falls freeze during the winter and make for excellent ice climbing. Often, you’ll be able to see ice climbers to the right of the viewing platform scaling the icy canyon walls.
Hiking Time, Distances And Elevation Gain:
Lower Falls – 20 to 30 minutes, 1.1 km each way, elevation gain 30m.
Upper Falls – 1 hour, 2.6 km each way, elevation gain 120m.
To visit both Upper and Lower Falls, allow 2 to 2.5 hours.
HIKING TRAIL TO THE INK POTS
If you are looking for some more solitude than the Upper and Lower Falls and wish to continue on, you can try the trail beyond the Upper Falls to the Ink Pots (seven pools of green mineral springs located in an open meadow about 3km past the Upper Falls).
Note: I have no photos of the Ink Pots in this blog post, as I haven’t done this yet – next time!
Directions to Johnston Canyon:
- From Banff: Drive west on the Trans Canada Hwy for about 5 kms. Take Bow Valley Parkway exit and continue west for 18kms. You will see a sign for Johnston Canyon on your right.
- From Lake Louise: Follow the Trans Canada Hwy to the Castle Junction exit. At the exit, turn left and follow the signs to Castle Junction until you come to an intersection with the Bow Valley Parkway. Turn right and follow the signs about 6kms to Johnston Canyon.
- Alternative route from Lake Louise: You can also choose to take the Bow Valley Parkway the entire way. It is a slower route and will add about 15 min to the drive, but the drive is beautiful and offers a chance of wildlife sighting. From Lake Louise Village, take the overpass crossing the Trans Canada Highway. Take the first right onto Bow Valley Parkwayand follow it until you see signs for Johnston Canyon on the left.
Amenities at Johnston Canyon
There are washrooms at the parking lot. There is a gift shop and restaurant (only open during the summer) at the Johnston Canyon Resort.
The trail to the Lower Falls is stroller and wheelchair accessible – after that there are a few steps. Note that the entire trail is often covered in snow in the winter.
Doesn’t it look like I’ve stepped right into the land of Narnia?
Johnston’s Canyon is a different kind of beautiful in the summer, so make sure you check it out in both seasons if possible!
Avoiding the Crowds at Johnston Canyon
- This is a very, very popular trail. One of the most popular trails in Banff and area, as it is extremely accessible and picturesque. The winter traffic is somewhat better, but in the summer months, it can be ridiculously congested.
- As with most popular hiking trails, come early in the morning or late afternoon if you want a good chance at avoiding the heavy crowds.
- If you see cars parked on the side of the road for long distances down the Bow Valley Parkway near the canyon entrance, it is a good indicator that the large parking lot at the trailhead is full and that the trail will be packed.
- Large tour bus groups come here, but they often don’t have time to go beyond the Lower Falls, so the Upper Falls might be somewhat more quiet. (But definitely don’t expect solitude on this hike!)
Looking for even more ideas of what to do in winter in Banff? Check out my blog posts:
- 12 Memorable Things to Do in Banff in Winter
- Where to Go Ice Skating in Banff National Park
- What is the Best Time to Visit Banff National Park?
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Products I Recommend
If you are coming to Banff National Park and planning to spend a lot of time exploring outdoors (and of course you are!), a good pair of ice cleats, warm jacket and boots are so important so you can enjoy the outdoors comfortably.
Korkers Apex Ice Cleat: $39.99 / backcountry.com
Don’t let winter conditions stop you from getting on the trail when you have the Korkers Apex Ice Cleat securely on your boot. The slip-over design makes them easy to throw on when you’re at the trailhead, while the pliable upper material stretches securely over most shoes and boots so you don’t have to worry about them coming off. Multi-direction saw-tooth cleats offer solid grip on firm snow and ice so you can efficiently power up steep trails and come back down without feeling like a human sled.
Women’s Cerium LT Hoody: arcteryx.com
Efficient and versatile, and providing exceptional warmth for its weight, the Cerium LT down hoody functions as a mid layer or standalone piece in cool, dry conditions. Premium 850 fill-power down is resilient and warm, the Arato™ 10 shell provides lightweight durability, and Down Composite Mapping™ strategically places Coreloft™ synthetic insulation in moisture-prone areas. Articulated construction moves with the body, and the insulated StormHood™ provides coverage without compromising range of vision.
Cerium LT Men’s Jacket: arcteryx.com
Worn as a mid layer or standalone piece in cool, dry conditions, the Cerium LT Jacket delivers exceptional warmth for little weight. Premium 850 fill down is resilient, lofty and warm. The Arato™ 10 shell provides lightweight durability, and Down Composite Mapping™ strategically places Coreloft™ synthetic insulation in moisture-prone areas. Articulated construction moves with the body, and sewn-through construction is used to further reduce weight and increase packability.
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