Hiking through the land of ice, that is Johnston Canyon Ice Walk. Activity popular in Banff National Park all year round, but winter makes it unique as you end up admiring several frozen waterfalls.
During one of our lazy winter weekends, we didn’t feel like doing anything very active. So we drove to Banff National Park and chose to hike the Johnston Canyon.
We‘ve visited Johnston Canyon before, during summer, and now was the time to see it covered in snow and ice.
Visiting Banff soon? Read our comprehensive travel guides:
- An epic travel guide to the Canadian Rockies
- Adventure travel guide to Banff National Park
- Best time to visit Banff National Park
- Banff itinerary for 3 days
- 20 best hikes in Banff National Park
Ice walk in Johnston Canyon
It’s a very popular hike and can have crowds. Since we went there in -15C, it was more quiet and enjoyable than during summer.
It’s located only half an hour drive from the town of Banff. Driving through the Bow Valley Parkway can be a treat by itself. This road between Banff and Lake Louise is a good place for wildlife spotting.
Shortly after leaving Banff, at the beginning of the Bow Valley Parkway, there are usually mountain sheep feeding of the remaining grass. And sometimes blocking the road, as they like to lick the salt from the road. If you look carefully into the forest during the drive, you might even spot a deer.
The parking lot along the Bow Valley Parkway is well marked, and you may see cars parked along the road when it’s busy. After you pass the public toilets, the short walk through the forest will lead you to the start of the trail.
Johnston Canyon trail in winter
The stream feeding Johnston Canyon starts at 2,500 m in a valley north of Castle Mountain and empties into Bow River at 1,440 m. The most beautiful part of the water’s journey can be seen from a series of trails and steel catwalks.
Ice covers canyon walls, and the clear blue stream is flowing right next to you. The stream usually freezes only on top, therefore it’s not recommended to walk on it. You might even need to wear ice cleats or microspikes on your shoes; it can get very icy and slippery.
Johnston Canyon Ice walk has 3 sections:
1| Lower Falls
1.2 km one way, 30 m elevation gain
The first part of the Johnston Canyon Ice walk is almost flat and the easiest part of the trail. It doesn’t take longer than half an hour to reach the Lower Falls.
In the end, the bridge will take you through a rock wall tunnel so you can admire the big frozen waterfall up close. The sound of the cracking ice on top of the waterfall with just a little bit of water going through is mesmerizing.
2| Upper Falls
2.7 km one way, 120 m elevation gain
From Lower Falls, it gets just a bit steeper as you gain 120 meters and arrive at Upper Falls.
In summer, you can only see the Upper Falls from the catwalk, but winter gives you another option – you can walk on ice (only if you’re wearing spikes) and get to the base of the falls. It’s a popular spot for ice climbers. The frozen water on the walls can sometimes create ice tunnels.
You only need a few hours for this hike, and probably a half a day or more if you decide to continue.
3| Ink Pots
6 km one way, 335 m elevation gain
If you hike around 2 km further from Upper Falls, you reach Ink Pots. Through the forest and over the ridge, you find yourself next to five blue-green pools in the valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. During winter, this is the only sunny spot during the hike.
Ink Pots are cold mineral springs consisting of five blue-green pools with interesting features:
- water comes from the spring and through the bottom of the sandy pool, which makes it constantly bubbling
- depending on the speed the pool is fed, it is either green or blue (green pools fill more slowly than blue pools)
- they never freeze, year-round temperature of the water is 4C
I can imagine the Ink Pots being quiet with no people during winter. Continuing past the Upper Falls will most likely require snowshoes or cross-country skis.
We’ve hiked to Ink Pots during the summer and couldn’t continue hiking during our winter visit. Because of the heavy snowfall the week before, the trail was covered in deep snow, and we would need snowshoes or skis.
I just recently found out that the trail to Ink Pots is a cross-country ski trail. It means there should be tracks made. Although it would take quite an effort to reach Ink Pots on skis, being surrounded by frozen waterfalls and mountains at the end sounds rewarding. The Canadian Rockies dominating the snow-covered valley is a true winter wonderland.
If you’d like to hike Johnston Canyon in summer or see pictures of Ink Pots, check out our post Johnston Canyon hike to Ink Pots.
If you’re visiting Banff National Park, don’t forget to drive the Bow Valley Parkway and stop at Johnston Canyon. No matter the season of the year, it’s always gorgeous!
Tips for visiting Johnston Canyon in winter
Johnston Canyon winter hike tips
Johnston Canyon trail is free year-round.
A small cafe is at the beginning of the trail with refreshments, such as hot drinks and soup during winter, but packing a thermos with tea is always a good idea. Washrooms are available at the parking lot.
The trail is usually covered in snow and ice. Before you head out, check current trail conditions on Trail Report from Parks Canada.
What to wear in Johnston Canyon in winter
While it’s easy to walk on with snow boots, I’d recommend wearing microspikes. You can buy them in outdoor stores or rent crampons in Backtrax in Banff (15CAD/day).
Wear warm clothes as it can get around -15C and lower. You’re hiking in the canyon, after all, so don’t count on the sun to warm you up. A warm jacket, hat and gloves are a necessity.
The climate is very dry, so more bearable than a wet environment but still cold. In winter, I suggest visiting in the middle of the day when temperatures are highest.
Johnston Canyon guided tour
A guided tour in Johnston Canyon is available, departing from Banff. However, you don’t need a guide for this hike. Maybe if you don’t have a car and crampons, this might be a good option.
Johnston Canyon cave
It’s a beautiful spot to explore in winter located before you reach the Upper Falls.
Beware that it’s forbidden to enter the cave during summer when the signs indicate the closure. It is due to the restoration of the area and protection of nesting black swifts. Parks Canada is regularly on patrol giving fines to disrespectful visitors.
How to get from Banff to Johnston Canyon
Driving & road closure
Johnston Canyon is 25 km north-west of Banff. From Banff, take Trans-Canada Highway heading west and 6 km later exit towards Bow Valley Parkway/1A.
Bow Valley Parkway (from Banff’s direction to Johnston Canyon) has a seasonal closure for all traffic March 1 to June 25 from 8 pm to 8 am to give wildlife enough space and not disturb them.
If for any other reason, this section of the road is closed, you can still get to Johnston Canyon. You would take Trans-Canada Highway to Castle Junction and access Johnston Canyon from the west side.
Accurate road conditions can be checked here.
Johnston Canyon parking
Johnston Canyon has a big parking lot which is hardly ever full in winter. In summer, the situation is very different when the parking lot gets full in the morning and Parks Canada directs cars to park along the road.
In summer, from late June to mid-September, when the parking situation is the worst, you can take a shuttle bus from Banff to Johnston Canyon, check out the Roam schedule here. Otherwise, you need to drive there yourself.
Accommodation near Johnston Canyon
- Camping – Johnston Canyon Campground operates seasonally June 25 to September 21. It’s located directly across the entrance to Johnston Canyon; has showers and flush toilets.
If you’re visiting in summer, I highly recommend staying in the campgrounds, so you have the most freedom and enjoy nature to the fullest while staying on a budget. Read our comprehensive guide about camping in Banff National Park for all camping info and lots of pictures of the campgrounds.
- Lodge – the closest and best rated are: Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows if you’re looking for a romantic getaway; Castle Mountain Chalets right by the Bow River & Baker Creek Mountain Resort in Lake Louise
- Banff – during winter, Banff is the closest town with plenty of hostels and hotels to choose from
National park entrance
When you enter Banff National Park, you’re required to pay an entrance fee. You have a choice of either a daily pass or a yearly pass.
- 10 CAD per person for a daily pass, 20 CAD for a group/family
- 69.19 CAD per person for a yearly pass, 139.40 CAD for a group/family
The yearly Discovery Pass is valid for all National Parks in Canada. You can purchase it at the gate when you enter the national park, in the Visitor’s Centre or online here.
As always in the Canadian Rockies, you are in bear habitat. You should always carry a bear spray (can be purchased at Visitor’s Centre or outdoor stores), know when and how to use it and make noise while hiking, so you don’ surprise any bears! Carefully read these instructions on how to behave around them.
Even though you’re unlikely to see a bear in winter, it’s better be safe than sorry. Bears have been seen to walk around as late as January and some waking up in March already.
More winter activities in Banff & Canadian Rockies
Banff winter hikes
- Sulphur Mountain – you can hike up the hill and take the gondola down for free
- Tunnel Mountain – an easy and year-round family-friendly hike
- Ha Ling Peak in Canmore – newly opened after major construction it can be hiked in winter as well, check conditions beforehand
- Grassi Lakes in Canmore – an easy and gorgeous hike, check for seasonal closures beforehand
Ice skating on frozen lakes
Our favourite activity at the beginning of winter when it’s cold for lakes to freeze and before they’re covered with snow. Check out our blog post about ice skating for all lake options in Banff & beyond.
Cross country skiing
Many summer hikes turn into cross country ski trails in winter. Our favourite is Moraine Lake Road to Ten Peaks viewpoint. For more options, read our post 12 cross country ski trails in Banff & beyond.
Other activities in national parks
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