BANFF — I’m in awe at the majesty of the thundering waterfall as it tumbles down the limestone cliff face and into a swirling turquoise pool below. For an even closer look, I head through a small tunnel of bedrock that leads to a viewing platform suspended over the ravine. Cold mist sprays my face and the roar of the crashing water echoes throughout the canyon. This is a truly epic sight to behold.
Johnston Canyon, located about 30 minutes from the town of Banff or two hours from Calgary, is proudly known as the “most popular hike in Canada” and it’s no surprise why, as hundreds of visitors each day come to enjoy the gorgeous views this historic canyon has to offer. For thousands of years, the Johnston Creek has carved into the limestone bedrock to create a stunning canyon and an ideal hiker’s paradise that is the perfect year-round experience.
The wonder of Johnston Canyon can be experienced by almost everyone, no matter a person’s age or fitness ability. The first part of the trail to the Lower Falls is even accessible to strollers and wheelchairs, offering wide, gently ascending trails and an iron catwalk suspended over the roiling river that provides picturesque views of the canyon.
The Canyon hike is divided into three sections — the Lower Falls (2.2km return) is quite easy and takes about an hour round trip; the Upper Falls (5.2km return) is a bit of a sweat because this part of the trail is a bit steeper, but worth the effort; and Ink Pots (just under 12km), which will take about two hours each way. You may want to pack a lunch to complete the latter.
Above: No matter the season, Johnston Canyon can be enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.
Ink Pots rewards visitors with alpine meadow views that are especially beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers put on a dazzling show. We like to enjoy our lunch next to one of the pools of green-coloured mineral springs that slowly bubble to the surface.
Johnston Canyon was named after a gold seeking prospector who discovered this remarkable valley during an 1885 expedition. Later, around 1926, the canyon was settled by Walter Camp who, along with his wife, created a nature retreat of cozy bungalows after visitors to the area found that they couldn’t afford to stay in the nearby resort “castles” known as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel or the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Back then, the bungalows were referred to as “motor camps” as vehicles could drive right up to them.
I spoke with Tim Nokes, the grandson of Walter Camp, who shares some fascinating insider information about the canyon.
“Johnston Canyon offers a getaway unlike any other that connects you with nature,” Nokes explains. “Our cabins and bungalows purposefully don’t have TVs or wi-fi. Most people are surprised by this at first — and not in a good way. But once they get used to being without a screen or social media for a while, they find themselves becoming friends with the family in the cabin beside them, or gain more of an appreciation for nature. By the end of their stay, the visitors tell me that they’re grateful to have been ‘unplugged.’
“It’s always rewarding to see even the most sceptical of people come around,” he smiled.
The main lodge does offer free wi-fi to keep guests connected with friends and family during their visit. In spring, when the melting snowpack from the surrounding peaks provides a deeper roar of the waterfalls, the rare Black Swift birds can be seen building nests on the creekside walls of the canyon. The black swift migrate to South America and the Caribbean from these cliffs every fall and return in the spring. They gather moss and mud to make their nests in dark, inaccessible cracks in the steep limestone, including behind waterfalls. A single egg is laid in May, but it’ll take a few months for the young to grow the feathers they will need for flying southbound.
June is the peak for water volume with its turquoise water running strong through to September. Then the winds become a bit chillier and the leaves of the trees in the area begin to change to red and gold.
Although Johnston Canyon is best known for its gorgeous and fast-flowing waterfalls in the summer, the trail is the perfect winter wonderland experience. The calm and stillness of winter comes with fewer people, offering an ideal retreat to recharge the body, mind and soul as you walk along the canyon side and soak in stunning views of seven frozen falls along the way.
Nokes says “visiting the canyon during the colder months doesn’t come to most people’s minds. However, Johnston Canyon is a prime winter attraction that has incredible beauty. The waterfalls are outstanding during the summer, but they transform into breathtaking frozen cathedrals in the winter season.”
Above: Johnston Canyon is regularly ranked as Canada's most popular hike and its paths are well worn.
They look like sculptures made by Mother Nature herself, and the sound of water making its way underneath the ice is a tranquil scene.
Headlamps are recommended if you plan to visit the canyon in the late afternoon, in addition to cleats and walking poles, since the mist leaves a layer of ice throughout the path.
If you’re the adventurous type, you can make your way over to the Upper Falls to watch professionals climb the frozen falls. Even watching from afar gives me a rush of adrenaline.
It’s one thing to hear about Johnston Canyon being the best hike in Canada, and it’s another to experience it for yourself. This gem in Banff National Park is a must-see.
JUST THE FACTS
• Access to Johnston Canyon is free with your Banff National Park admission. https://www.banfflakelouise.com/johnston-canyon
• Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows is open seasonally from May to October http://www.johnstoncanyon.com/
• It's recommended to use public transit from the town of Banff because parking at the canyon is limited. https://roamtransit.com/