No matter how many times we drive through Banff National Park, the scenery is always stunning especially in the winter. The snow covered pine trees of the forest with a hint of sparkle in the light and the majestic mountain peaks that only get taller the further you drive into the Rockies add to the enchantment of the area.
Situated in the heart of the Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon is a trail that is beautiful and easily done in all seasons. The winter temperatures emphasize the beauty of the many waterfalls found among the canyon as well as slowly build natural ice sculptures that cling to the canyon walls. This trail is perfect for families in the winter as well and is well worth bundling up for!
Traction devices such as cleats or YakTrax's are strongly recommended as there are plenty of slippery sections and the catwalks that you will encounter are generally iced up. As you follow the trail, you come across all the beautiful frozen waterfalls and trees that are entirely covered by large amounts of snow. The canyon is beautiful all year round but there is something almost enlightening about the frozen covered canyon in the winter. You can still hear the rushing of the water under the frozen ice. When you reach the Upper Falls, the scenery is absolutely stunning with what looks like ice curtains encompassing the area and gorgeous blue ice. As you travel along through the canyon, you may see ice climbers climbing the upper falls at the end of the interpretive trail.
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 safe and easy enough to do the ice walk solo or with a friend whether on the ice or along the catwalk. For those who may have never been on an ice walk before, it is recommended you go with someone experienced or as mentioned before, take a guided tour.
Johnston Canyon (Winter) Trip Log
Parking is available in two locations. A small lot directly beside the Johnston Canyon Lodge holds a handful of cars. The majority of parking is found in the parking lot on the east side of the river. From this lot the trailhead can be found heading north east, past the outhouses, down the short trail and over the bridge. The trail officially starts by a couple large signs that show a map of the canyon. In winter a sandwich board is erected to remind you that the trail is not maintained in the winter and care should be taken.
The trail starts off nice and wide allowing you to walk side by side with your friends or family with minimal elevation gain or loss, welcoming you with its magnificent views of the canyon and the nature surrounding it. Beautiful natural ice sculptures cling to the canyon walls and rise up from the bottom as the trail begins to take you through the snow sprinkled forest.
As you continue along path the trail takes you to your first catwalk. It starts to head uphill which can be difficult without traction devices on your feet. Be sure to take caution when crossing these as the snow base on the stone raises your center of gravity a bit higher over the railing then in the summer time.
After losing a little elevation the trail drops you down to the canyon floor, face to face with one of the many waterfalls in Johnston Canyon. Another catwalk takes you further up through the limestone canyon. Again, please watch your step as the catwalk can be very slippery.
The trail comes to a fork with the right leading down to the Lower Falls and the left leading up to the Upper falls. The Lower Falls are immediately to the right and can be seen in a few meters. We recommend you head to the right first and see the magic the Lower Falls have to show.
The path descends down a little for an up close view of the falls. For an even more intimate view of the Lower Falls a bridge takes you to a small tunnel that allows you to emerge directly in front of the Lower Falls with nothing but a railing holding you back from the surging water running through the canyon as a fine mist constantly sprays you.
Once you are finished up at the Lower Falls, the next course of action is to go back to the junction and head uphill to the Upper Falls. A couple short but relatively steep switchbacks raise you back up off the canyon floor and take you through the forest briefly. The trail then meets back up with the river and it is once again at your feet before more catwalks bring you upwards.
As you pass along the canyons edge you will pass a couple more waterfalls before reaching the final junction. From the Junction your two choices are both greatly rewarded. Going right takes you to the bottom of the Upper Falls, while going left takes you to the very top of the Falls.
The path to the bottom of the Upper Falls quickly turns into a catwalk that slowly descends to just above the frozen river below. A large sign explains the history of the canyon and the Upper Falls shows off its winter transformation with its immense wall of blue and green ice and the magnificent ice curtains that surround it.
The trail to the Upper Falls takes you away from the sound of moving water as short switchbacks take you up the final steep section and lead you through the forest.
Once you emerge from the forest you come to the final viewing platform, staring down at the beautifully frozen Upper Falls.
Return the same way.
GPS Plotted Route
The trail is pretty straightforward with not many places to lose the trail besides in the river. Interpretive signs found along the way add insight to the history and geological birth of the canyon.
There is only about 170m of elevation gain which makes the elevation profile look a bit scarier than it should be. In general Johnston Canyon offers smooth inclines and declines as it takes you through the historical canyon.
What were your experiences hiking Johnston Canyon (Winter)?
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