Hiking through the land of ice, that is Ice walk in Johnston Canyon. Activity popular in Banff National Park all year round but winter makes it special 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 in Johnston Canyon.
We‘ve visited Johnston Canyon before, during summer, and now was the time to see it covered in snow and ice.
Ice walk in Johnston Canyon
It is 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 taste the salt from the road. Look carefully to the forest during the drive and you may spot deer.
Be aware that approaching or feeding wildlife is illegal and might get you a huge fine. Read the wildlife rules on Parks Canada website.
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
Stream feeding Johnston Canyon starts at 2500m in a valley north of Castle Mountain and empties into Bow River at 1440m. 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 basically 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.
At the end, the bridge will take your through a 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
2,5 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 2km more, you reach Ink Pots. Through the forest and over the ridge, you find yourself next to 5 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 5 blue-green pools.
What you should know about Ink Pots:
- 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 totally quiet with no people. While people hike all the way here during summer, however continuing pass the Upper Falls will most likely require snowshoes or cross county skis.
We’ve hiked the part to Ink Pots during the summer and couldn’t carry on 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 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.
Tips for visiting Johnston Canyon in winter
- entering Johnston Canyon is free, you only need to purchase a park pass for national parks, more info on Parks Canada website
- the trail might be snow covered and easy to walk on with snow boots but I’d recommend wearing microspikes. Better be safe than sorry. You can rent them at Snowtips in Banff.
- the campground nearby is open year-round, frequented by RVs only in winter. Or you can stay at Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows if you’re looking for a romantic getaway
- shuttle bus from Banff to Johnston Canyon only operates May 18 to October 6 so the only option in winter is by car
- the small cafe at the beginning of the trail have refreshments such as hot drinks and soup during winter but packing a thermos with tea is always a good idea, Johnston Canyon is very cold
- there is a guided tour in Johnston Canyon departing from Banff. Although you wouldn’t need a guide for this hike, if you don’t have a car, this is a good option for you.
- wear warm clothes as it can get around -15C. It’s very dry so more bearable than wet environment but still cold.
If you ever visit 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!
If you want to visit during summer or see how the Ink Pots look like, check out this post from our summer hike (click on the picture):
Would you like to hike in Johnston Canyon? Do you have any other winter tips for us?
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