Situated in the heart of the Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon is a trail that is beautiful and easily done in all seasons. In the spring and summer, the canyon is tantalizing with its numerous waterfalls that you encounter along the catwalk and trail. They almost serve as a tease as you make your way to the thundering Lower and Upper Falls. The hike includes interpretive signs along the way for those who want some light shed on the geology and nature of the canyon. It is a popular trail that never gets tiresome and always provides stunning scenery and a wonderful getaway from the city for a day. The hike alone should not take more than a couple hours to the Upper Falls and back.
Many have come to take in the beauty of Johnston Canyon including the renowned painter Walter Phillips who was so enraptured by its beauty that he returned again and again to paint the waterfalls in many different seasons and light.
The creek that flows through Johnston Canyon originates from a glacial valley north of Castle Mountain. The glacial valley lies between Badger Pass and Pulsatilla Pass. Over thousands of years, Johnston's Creek has carved the gorges within the canyon's limestone walls creating waterfalls, tunnels, pools and sheer canyon walls. One may think that the Johnston's Canyon name came from Johnston Creek but in fact, the name originates from prospector whose name was Johnston who originally discovered the canyon in the 1880's. The story goes that he was following the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in the west and was hoping to find fortune when he discovered the canyon. When he couldn't find any, he moved on.
For anyone wanting to experience Johnston Canyon and the surrounding area longer, the Johnston Canyon Resort Banff cabins are open in the summer from May to October and provide a stunning scenery amongst an enriching history of the discovery of Johnston Canyon and construction of the cabins. The cabins were originally built in 1927 by Marguerite and Walter Camp when they first purchased a log teahouse.
There are a few interesting tales that surround Johnston Canyon. Have you heard of the tale of fool's gold and the canyon? In the years between 1883 and 1885, there were a group of men composed of railway workers, miners and mountain men who were all in search of discovering fortune. On a chilly night, they found themselves standing beneath Castle Mountain, some 25 km west of Banff, in a town called Silver City.
In the town there was a local bar that the men visited frequently and on this particular night as the drinks and conversations were flowing, a man came in and tripped across the floor. Being a small but lively bar, many heard the clinking and clanging and the sound of rolling gold as he fell. Of course this piqued the interest of the group of men who were in search of such great fortune themselves. Naturally, they asked the rich man to sit with them and ordered him a drink. They could not hide their curiosity and starting asking questions of where the man had become so lucky with his riches.
As the drinks and music started flowing again the rich man started sharing tales of how this gold was found on his claim just a few kilometres away up the canyon. The group of men proposed a deal with the fella and for a generous amount of money, they could all stake a piece of this claim with the gold. The man agreed and the night ended well for everyone.
As they woke the next morning, things had drastically changed. The rich man was gone so the group of men went searching for this gold in the canyon. However, all they came across was exquisite rock formations, majestic waterfalls but not a single ounce of gold. They had been taken for fools and went tearing through the town in rage looking for the rich man that had sent them on a wild goose chase. They did not find him but no one was surprised for everyone knew that the men were simply just in high hopes of getting rich quickly and that the canyon could never hold any precious gold.
You can hear tales as such on tours with a guide if you choose to take one through Johnston Canyon. It is also a really easy hike to do on your own or with friends and family. It is an extremely popular hike during the summer months so be prepared to find traffic along the catwalks and at the end of the falls. We recommend going early in the morning or later towards the evening to avoid a huge crowd.
Johnston Canyon (Summer) Trip Log
If you park in the parking lot that is marked as Johnston Canyon from the road, you will want to find the path leading from the north-west corner of the lot. This path will take you across a river and meet up with the other paths. Johnston Canyon gets very, very busy. It is not uncommon to have to park on the side of the parkway in the warmer months. The trail head is on the west side of the river. There are also bathrooms and a ice cream stand that is open in summer.
The trail itself is short walk that is great to check out year round. In winter time when the surface of the water is frozen, there are guided interpretive ice walks that are offered which take you along the length of the canyon and allow you to see the ice climbers which frequent the falls up close. In summer time it is a bee hive. The best time to visit would in the morning. Usually around 11am it starts to get very busy and by mid afternoon your are bouncing amongst everyone trying to get a good view of all the waterfalls.
The trailhead itself starts at the sign with the map on it just past the bathrooms. It is on the west side of the river. The pathway is easily done in street shoes as the catwalks are concrete and the dirt path is very compacted. If it's raining or winter time, watch out for slipping and dress accordingly.
Once you reach the 1.1km mark they trail splits in two. If you head right you will reach the lower falls in a 50 meters or so. You get a great view as the waterfalls and pounds into a small pool before cascading again to the river bottom.
If you cross the bridge you will also be greeted by a low tunnel (watch your head) in which you can actually be up close and personal to the lower falls. There is lots of water spray which can feel very refreshing on a hot summers day. In winter time when the falls ice up, you can still hear the sound of the water rushing below.
Once you have gotten a little wet it is time to continue to the upper falls. The trail heads uphill gradually and still pops onto the river now and then.
When you reach another T intersection you will want to head right to see the bottom of the upper falls. For those who had enough of heading uphill this is still a great place to finish off and turn around. You are greeted with the 40 meter high Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon which can be seen perfectly from a platform that stretches to the center of the river.
If you still have it in you, the rest of the trail is pretty much uphill and is the steepest section of the whole hike. Hardly a challenge for anyone who frequents outdoors but since this trail offers gorgeous sights in such a small distance; the physical experience does vary quite a bit for all ages. When you get to the top, you can walk onto the platform that juts out a bit above the river below which allows you to see the entire Upper Falls. You can also follow it along further to see more of the river.
This is the end of the interpretive portion of Johnston Canyon. The trail continues past this to the Ink Pots but it is a another 3km uphill on rougher ground. Good boots with ankle support are recommended.
GPS Plotted Route
The elevation profile here is actually reveresed. I forgot to turn the GPS on so this is actually the route going down. Normally if you started at the bottom you will be going up. It does show how hilly the trail is though.
What were your experiences hiking Johnston Canyon (Summer)?
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