Want to hike through a wonderland of frozen waterfalls and ice pinnacles? Then a trip to Johnston Canyon in winter is for you! Most people travel to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies for summer. The iconic blue lakes that dominate Instagram feeds are a huge draw. So you may think a trip to Banff in winter is nuts, but this summer hot spot is filled with mind-blowing winter delights.
We went to Banff in January to see the rare trapped ice bubbles in Abraham Lake. If you’ve never heard about them, you have to check it out. They occur in very few places in the world and Alberta, Canada is one of them. After we made our plans, we started to look for other cool things to do in Banff in winter. That’s when we found out that the wildly popular Johnston Canyon trail. Here is everything you need to know about the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk so you are prepared with gear and know all your options.
5 Things to Know Before Hiking Johnston Canyon in Winter
1. Bring Ice Cleats or You Will Be Slipping Around Like Crazy.
The #1 most important thing I can tell you about a Johnston Canyon Winter hike is that you need crampons or ice cleats. I could have put together a hilarious video of people sliding around the Johnston Canyon trail. I understood how it happened to them. We just got lucky that we asked a bunch of questions at our hotel, Fairmont Lake Louise, ahead of time and they loaned us crampons for free.
Even if the weather looks fine, it is really slippery and ice cleats will be the difference between being happy and miserable. I was even wearing hunter boots (a ridiculous choice for a hike) and the ice cleats went on right over them making the walk up the trail a breeze.
I highly recommend buying your own ice cleats for the trip because you will use them over and over and they’re inexpensive. How do you choose between crampons or ice cleats? Crampons are like metal coils that give you extra traction and ice cleats actually dig into the ice or snow. The ice cleats will give you more stability than crampons, which you need if you visit Abraham Lake or any frozen lake.
2. A Johnston Canyon Ice Walk Tour is Not Required. You Can Go On Your Own for Free.
We were on the fence about whether to take a Johnston Canyon Ice Walk Tour and were so glad we opted to go on our own. If you are the independent type, the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is easy to navigate. And free! All visitors to Banff National Park need to pay a daily fee (or have a Parks Canada Discovery Pass) whether you do a tour or not. There is no separate cost for Johnston Canyon.
We really don’t like doing tours unless we have to. It’s always a bummer when you are stuck waiting for other people and spending money on something that’s unnecessary. Also, not doing the tour also allowed us to stop in multiple spots close to Johnston Canyon. See our post about things to do in Banff in Winter for your options.
If you’re more comfortable with tours, people say great things about having a knowledgeable guide that gives them more info about Johnston Canyon. They also like the convenience of being driven and having gear provided. There’s a 4 Hour Johnston Canyon Icewalk Tour, that goes up to the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls. The tours depart twice daily, at 8:30am and the early afternoon. Or you can take the 5 Hour Hike to the Johnston Canyon Ink Pots Tour.
3. Don’t Miss the Upper Falls
The Johnston Canyon hike takes you to 3 viewpoints, Lower Falls (1.2 km), Upper Falls (2.5 km) and the Ink Pots (5.8km). Most people who hike Johnston Canyon in winter will visit the Lower and Upper Falls, which takes about 2 hours. A portion of those will continue on to visit the Ink Pots making the round trip 4 hours. You might get to the Lower Falls and Wonder if the Upper Falls are worth it. Yes they are!
The beginning part of the trail to the Lower Falls is an easy, slight incline partially on metal catwalks overlooking the canyon and Johnston Creek below. There’s a bridge to view the falls and a narrow cave you can walk through to get a better view. In addition to the Lower Falls you’ll see other smaller waterfalls along the trail. You can see and hear the water moving underneath the ice. It’s so cool!
The round trip hike to the Upper Falls is 3 miles with an elevation gain 774 feet. The best part about getting to the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls the ice climbers. Watching them climb up a curtain of ice pinnacles that looks like it could break off any minute is nerve racking and exhilarating at the same time. It almost makes you forget you are here to see the Upper Falls. Just look to the left and you’ll probably see a climber making their way to the top of the 100 foot falls too. Walk 10 minutes to the upper platform to get a bird’s eye view of this area..
Hiking to the Ink Pots is more of a commitment. We opted not to make the trek because it adds another few hours onto the hike and in winter you need snowshoes. In total, the hike from the Johnston Canon parking lot to the Ink Pots is 7.3 miles round trip and will take 4-5 hours. I’ve heard it’s really pretty if you are up for the challenge.
4. Don’t Miss the Secret Cave
We’ve talked about the 3 main sites but one of the most exciting things to see at Johnston Canyon is a stunning not so secret “secret cave.” You won’t see it unless you know to look for it. About 150 meters before you get to the Upper falls is a unmarked trail on the right that goes to the secret cave. It looks like a little path into the woods. Keep walking about 5 minutes downhill towards the creek until it comes into view.
The secret cave is closed when Black swift birds nest here from April-June.
5. Avoid Crowds – Best Time of Day for a Johnston Canyon Winter hike is mid to late morning.
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk tour groups are at 8:30am and again in the afternoon. The perfect time to visit is between the two groups. Check the weather and trail conditions ahead of time to know if the trail is closed for excessive snow. The best months for hiking Johnston Canyon in winter are December to April. The daylight hours are 7am to 6pm.
This hike is amazing in every season. The peak water volume is in June when the waterfalls and creek will be roaring. July to September has the prettiest turquoise water. You can see fall foliage from October through November.
What to Wear For the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
The weather in Banff National Park varies during the winter from the low 30s to below 0º. It’s best to dress in layers for this hike. I’m probably not the only one that takes off layers going uphill and puts them back on going downhill. Start with a base layer and warm socks. If it’s in the 30s like it was for us, you can skip the base layer. We were actually able to wear jeans, a long sleeve tee and parka.
Snow boots or shoes that will protect you from getting snow in your shoes is helpful. Don’t forget the ice cleats or crampons for extra traction.
Directions to Johnston Canyon
The Johnston Canyon parking lot is on Bow Valley Parkway. On your way there, stop at the Castle Mountain viewpoint for a few minutes to take in the beauty of the area. You can pull over right before the bridge and park on the side of the road. It’s a short walk down to the water.
To get to Johnston Canyon from Banff: Head west towards Lake Louise on AB 91 approximately 30km. Take AB-93 S exit to the Banff Windemere Highway. Make a right on Bow Valley Parkway, in 7 km, the parking lot entrance will be on your left.
To get to Johnston Canyon from Lake Louise: Head east towards Banff on AB 91 approximately 25km. Take AB-93 S exit to the Banff Windemere Highway. Make a right on Bow Valley Parkway, in 7 km, the parking lot entrance will be on your left.
Other Great Things to do in Banff in Winter
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is only one of the many fun activities in this area. Definitely check out our post with the Top Things to do in Banff in Winter. Also, don’t miss the post about Visiting Abraham Lake and seeing the trapped methane gas bubbles. It was the main reason we traveled to Banff in January. You can also watch a highlight video of the fun things you can do on this trip. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.