Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park is a moderate 12km hike through the finest landscapes of the Canadian Rockies you can do all year round. Deep canyon filled with countless waterfalls and even magical turquoise bubble pools at the end makes for a great half-day trip from Banff.
It’s been one of my earliest memories when we moved to Banff National Park years ago. We both worked for a travel company who provided their employees with free transport to the most picturesque places around Banff. We didn’t have a car and the public transport was nonexistent. So we jumped on an opportunity to visit Johnston Canyon on a guided tour. Unfortunately, that only allowed us to visit the Lower Falls, what a shame.
I’ve read that the hike through Johnston Canyon all the way to the Ink Pots is one of the most popular and beautiful hikes in Banff. So next time, we hopped on our bikes and rode 25 km to the Johnston Canyon trailhead so we can hike the whole trail. And it was worth every sore muscle on my body.
Maybe that’s why we returned 6 years later to the Johnston Canyon to spend my birthday in the Canadian Rockies. The beauty of the Ink Pots and Johnston Canyon didn’t fade, although the popularity and consequently the rules on the trail changed dramatically.
After our numerous visits to the canyon, including the frozen wonderland during winter, it’s about time I tell you all about it, how you can visit and all the tips I’ve gathered so you can enjoy Johnston Canyon and Ink Pots yourself!
Johnston Canyon map & how to get there
Johnston Canyon is located in Banff National Park, just 25 km west from the town of Banff. You will need to take Trans-Canada Highway and then take the exit to Bow Valley Parkway. There is usually a bunch of mountain sheep snacking on grass or salt from the highway.
This road is frequented by wildlife and therefore the speed limit is 60km/h. If you drive early in the morning or later in the evening, there is a good chance to see an elk and maybe even a bear along the road.
This is the right time to also tell you about wildlife watching rules in Banff National Park. If you want to stop & watch, please be aware of other cars and signal that you’ve stopped. You should never approach wildlife and only observe from the distance. If you’re outside the car, you have to be at least 100 meters from a bear and 30 meters from elk (otherwise you face very high fines).
Remember this: If you approach an animal, it gets scared and charges you, you will be responsible for its death. Parks Canada has to put down any animal that charges people.
You can read more info on the official Parks Canada website.
The trailhead to Johnston Canyon is clearly marked along the highway. There is a main parking lot (with public washroom) but because it gets full very quickly, there is also one overflow parking lot just before you reach Johnston Canyon.
Johnston Canyon hike: Lower & Upper falls
During the high season in summer, there are Parks Canada rangers offering information about the hike and area. Passing the washroom, you will see a trail leading through a bridge across the Johnston Creek. You will see Johnston Canyon Lodge and a small café, the trailhead will be on your right.
Although it’s marked as a moderate hike, if you’re not a couch potato, I would say it’s easy (but not flat).
1,2 km one way; 30 m elevation gain
You will be hiking on a paved path and later on a well-troden wide dirt path to the Ink Pots. Lower Falls are only 1,2 km one way from the lodge. Most of the trail is flat and follows Johnston Creek all the way to the falls.
In a few sections, you will walk right above the turbulent turquoise waters of Johnston Canyon on catwalks. The final bridge at the Lower Falls will take you through a short rock tunnel to see the falls up close.
2,5 km one way; 120 m elevation gain
The main trail continues uphill along the creek with views of more waterfalls. Just 1,5km further you will arrive at Upper Falls (favourite place for ice climbers during winter). There are two viewpoints:
- one is at the bottom accessed through a catwalk
- the other one offers a viewing platform from the top of the waterfall and you can find it along the main trail
Only a few people continue further to the Ink Pots and I don’t know why. They are missing out on a lot and I highly suggest that you continue.
Johnston Canyon Ink Pots
6 km one way; 335 m elevation gain, 4-5 hours round trip
The last 3km to the Ink Pots are uphill with the last short section totally flat. Once you arrive at a meadow surrounded by mountain peaks, you are at the Ink Pots. They consist of 5 blue-green pools that are cold mineral springs.
What you should know about Ink Pots:
- sandy bottom of the pools release air and water through little holes so they are constantly bubbling
- every pool has a different colour, blue pools are filled faster than green pools
- year round temperature of the pools is 4C and they never freeze
On the way back, you can reward yourself with an ice cream from a little wooden shack near the lodge.
Johnston Canyon campground
If you’d like to stay in the Johnston Canyon area, you have two options:
- Campground: you can reserve it through this website
The campground is located just across the start of the trailhead to Johnston Canyon. It’s available from May 25 to September 25 and has picnic shelters, hot showers and flush toilets. The fee is 27,40CAD + 8,80CAD for a fire pit. It’s an ideal place if you’re planning a multi-day hike which starts from the Ink Pots or if you want to be closer to the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
- Lodge & Bungalows: you can reserve through this website.
The cabins are more luxurious option with barbecue area, dining room and some also have a fireplace (from 250CAD).
Tips for visiting Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is a free hike but when you enter Banff National Park, you will need to buy a park pass, see more info here.
If you’re visiting outside summer (especially in winter), check the trail condition report before you go.
Access to the cave (close to the Upper Falls) is no longer permitted. The trail is closed off due to the restoration of the area.
Due to an extreme popularity of the hike and limited parking spots, Parks Canada provides a shuttle bus from Banff to Johnston Canyon for a 5CAD round trip fee, available daily from May 18 to October 6. See the schedule here.
I’m reminding you to visit Parks Canada website to learn about yours and wildlife’s safety. It’s not allowed to feed any wildlife, even squirrels which you will see plenty.
What to pack
Bear in mind that you’re deep in the canyon so the temperature is always lower than elsewhere. And since you’re hiking in a bear country, it’s always useful to carry a bear spray. Information Center in Banff provide these for a reasonable price (the lowest price I’m aware of).
If you haven’t come prepared or are craving a morning coffee, there is a small café at the beginning of the trail where you can buy some food, and a little shack with refreshments.
What do you think about Johnston Canyon? Worth a visit? Let us know your experience if you’ve been.
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