Visiting Johnston Canyon is a must for any visit to Banff. It’s accessible year-round, and the frozen hanging icicles, stopping time in their tracks is a worthy winter destination. Another bonus about visiting this destination is that it’s an easy to moderate hike with multiple features— Lower Falls, Upper Falls, Ink-pots, and the Secret Cave.
The trail starts towards the Lower Falls, just about 3/4 of a mile from the start (about 30 minutes in). There is a mix of easy trail and catwalks which are simply a winter wonderland when covered in snow and ice.
We enjoyed the peace of going in the morning with almost no one around to disturb us. On our way out, it was quite busy and all the solitude was replaced with groups of friends and families making the trek into the canyon.
When you arrive at the viewpoint, make sure you enter the short tunnel (below) into the rock to a small platform up close to the falls. It was quite icy and we were happy to have poles and traction to not slip on the icy portions.
After viewing the Lower Falls, the views only get better on the way to the Upper Falls. The slightly steeper trail climbs through a forest. To get to the Upper Falls, the elevation gain is just about 400 feet in 1.6 miles from the trailhead to the Upper Falls.
The falls plunges down 130 feet to the pool below. This is also a popular spot to ice climb in the winter. Brighton is not cool with that idea, so we didn’t try it. Maybe next time?
Since we were there early enough in the day, there were only us and another couple that we took turns taking photos of each other.
I love the way waterfalls look when they are frozen. It’s like looking into a moment in time.
(Not-So) Secret Cave
When researching the canyon/hike, I discovered this large boulder/cave looking place that seemed to be in the same place as Johnston Canyon. Upon some light digging, I found out that it’s the “secret” cave that’s not-so-secret anymore thanks to publicity on social media.
I had general instructions on how to find the cave, but the issue was that with us being one of the first on the trail, there were no footsteps to follow with the fresh snow. On our way back from the Upper Falls, we passed a guide and asked her. She said it was “sketchy at best” to go down there during the winter, so we thought twice about going. When we found the spot, we happened to run into our friends (a couple from Montana) from earlier (who we traded photos with) and let them know we had gotten more information. They shrugged and said, it’s worth a shot to check it out!
Brighton and I exchanged looks and decided that it was a sign we should follow them to see this place. With our spikes, we felt a little more confident about our footing. I felt that the embankment was not as sketchy as the guide had implied, and of course, we only proceeded in the path left by others.
It was worth the side trip! No one else was down there, and we took lots of photos down there. It was a fun find and felt like our own little (not-so) secret place.
Bonus: Ink Pots
Since we opted for the cave, we did not visit the Ink Pots, but they are another option if you were to continue past the Upper Falls. There are 7 green colored springs in an open meadow. It’s an additional 1.8 miles to the Ink Pots past the Upper Falls.
Johnston Canyon is located about 15 miles (around 30 minutes’ drive) from Banff (the town) and 20 miles from Lake Louise on the Bow Valley Highway.
The trailhead is at the northern end of the parking lot, right behind Johnston Canyon Lodge.
Tips to Be Prepared
- If you’re visiting in the winter, make sure to bring the appropriate winter attire — Hat, gloves, layers, ice cleats or snowshoes (depending on the conditions)
- We brought our own spikes which were not necessary for most of the trip, but we were happy to have them for extra traction on the icy bits
- Go early in the morning to beat the crowds and spot some wildlife! We were the second car in the lot, and we even got to see a baby red fox along the road to the trailhead
- Use common sense and err on the side of caution