When you think about Banff, most people think about skiing or visiting the famous Lake Louise nearby. But there is so much more to see and do in Banff during the winter months. Nestled in the beautiful Banff National Park, Johnston Canyon is one place that promises to blow your mind. This winter hike is like no other, the sub-zero temperatures have their own way of transforming the many powerful waterfalls into giant pillars of ice.
Dreamers will be dreamers
It was late February and we came to Banff to experience the skiing but we also wanted to explore more off of the beaten path of touristy things to do. We decided to venture outside of Banff’s village and head out to Johnston Canyon for a winter hike.
The quickest way to get to Johnston Canyon Park is to follow the Trans Canada Hwy #1 towards Lake Louise and take the exit for Castle Junction (see photo). It’s about halfway between Banff and Lake Louise. Johnston Canyon is approximately 6 km down the road.
Now here’s the thing, if you enter Johnston Canyon in your Google Maps from Banff, it will take you to the old Highway 1A – a windy road with no cellphone reception. Don’t get me wrong, the drive is beautiful, but the road can get slippery when covered in snow.
Don’t forget that you need a Parks Canada pass to drive in Banff National Park! Need help understanding the National Parks’ passes? Here‘s all you need to know.
Johnston Canyon Hike
Hiking the scenic Johnston Canyon trail in the winter has got to be one of the most unique experiences out there. The trail is rather quiet in the winter months partly because there isn’t any public transportation that can get you there. This also means that not many people visit this place making it a perfect adventure away from the crowds.
It’s not every day that you get to go chasing frozen waterfalls in a canyon!
Of course, if you don’t have transportation or if you don’t feel comfortable hiking on your own, there are several companies offering guided tours. One of them is Banff Ice Walk Tours. They offer guided walks through Johnston Canyon with a detailed narrative of the area’s history and landscapes.
The trailhead for this hike starts right behind the Johnston Canyon Lodge adjacent to the parking lot. You will also find a big wooden sign with a trail map on it.
Hot tip: Always take a picture of the map before you head out on your hike!
There are 3 main viewpoints along the Johnston Canyon trail:
Lower Falls: 2.2km return + 30m elevation gain
Upper Falls: 5.2km return + 120m elevation gain
Ink Pots: 11.2km return from the trailhead
You will want to give yourself at least 1.5 hours roundtrip for the lower falls and around 2.5 hours for the full loop to the upper falls. The spectacular upper falls rise up to 30 metres above your head and it’s definitely worth the extra effort and the time.
Please remember to be careful if you decide to do this hike in the winter! The trail is likely to be covered in snow and the catwalks may have icy sections. From personal experience, I can tell you that wearing traction devices like crampons will make your experience a lot more enjoyable and safe. We also saw a few people using walking sticks.
What to wear
You should be dressed as if you were going skiing. Wear warm clothing like your ski jacket and snow pants, winter boots, hat, and mittens. It’s a good idea to have a look at the weather before you go and layer up for the conditions. I don’t know about you but I love to layer up and I always bring a small backpack with me to carry a water bottle and some snacks. Here is a great little hiking checklist to help you prepare for day hikes.
It’s also a great idea to check the trail conditions before you go. You can find the most up to date trail conditions for this area right here.
Looking for crampon rentals in Banff? Head over to Snowtips Bactrax Rentals and make sure to rent crampons that are designed for walking – rentals are approximately $14 for the day. Looking at buying crampons? Here’s how to choose the right crampons for you.
Until next time
I was lucky enough to have been able to visit Banff National Park before COVID-19 started spreading in Canada. It’s crazy to think how quickly things can change, without having any control over it. This is a nice reminder to always cherish the moments you experience, especially the ones that make you smile.
Now is not the time to explore the unknown, it’s time to prepare your next adventure. Johnston Canyon’s many waterfalls are frozen time, just like us right now. But one day, things will be back to a new normal and adventures are going to be lived and loved just like before.