My mother and I woke up early on our second day staying in Canmore, Alberta in order to hopefully beat the crowds and enjoy some solitude on the popular hike to Johnston Canyon, located in Banff National Park. It was a crisp and cool morning and it was very dark when we left our hostel and began driving to the canyon hike.
We drove from Canmore to the large parking lot for Johnston Canyon. The scenery along the narrow Bow Valley Parkway was absolutely beautiful and the pine trees came right up to the sides of the highway. We only passed a few cars on the way to the hike and were pretty optimistic about having the trail to ourselves. When we arrived to the parking lot, there were a few other vehicles there but not many. It was still quite dim outside as the sun continued to slowly rise above the tall mountains. There were modern washroom facilities at the trailhead.
The Johnston Canyon trail is one of the most popular hikes in Banff Park. It is easily accessible and is almost guaranteed to be busy, especially during the summer months. A good way to avoid the crowds and enjoy the trail in almost complete solitude and tranquility, is to arrive early in the morning (between 7 am and 7:30 am).
We began hiking along the wide and well-maintained pathway. It was dark in along the shaded trail and the sun still hadn’t fully rose yet, so the photos from the first section of the trail unfortunately didn’t turn out as great as I would have liked. The trail passed through pine-tree forests in the beginning before we approached a catwalk which was fixed to the side of a vertical rock cliff. The sturdy catwalk followed alongside the deep and beautiful Johnston Canyon while also passing through forested sections on the way to the Lower Falls. It was a very scenic walk with plenty of photo opportunities.
My mom and I were the only people on the trail at this time and it was so calm and peaceful around us and amazing to be surrounded by such incredible natural beauty. Walking along the catwalks made me slightly nervous as some of them were creaky and there were a few wooden boards that were loose along the way, however, the views of the canyon were spectacular! Crystal clear water flowed through the narrow and deep rock canyon and there were a variety of small waterfalls along the walk to the Lower Falls.
After approximately 1.2 kilometres, we arrived at the Lower Falls. The hike to the falls was relatively flat with some gradual inclines and very easy to walk. A pathway led downhill to a bridge which crossed over the canyon and creek. I discovered one of the best views of these fast-moving waterfalls while standing on the bridge. They were beautiful to watch and photograph! The waterfalls were slightly hidden behind a few tall rock cliffs, but they sure were gorgeous once you were able to get a full view of them. After crossing the bridge, I had to duck my head in order to walk through a narrow tunnel through a portion of the rocky cliff before getting up close and personal with this amazing waterfall. At the end of the tunnel, there was a small area where you could stand with a metal railing overlooking the waterfalls. The powerful rushing waterfalls were directly in front of me and it felt incredible to be so close! The sound of the falls was loud and I got sprayed with water while standing there and admiring them. I was glad that I had worn a rain jacket! After admiring the falls and taking photos, we continued back on the main trail through the pine tree forest on our way to see the Upper Falls.
This second section of the trail continued alongside the beautiful canyon as it passed through thick and beautiful forests and then along more catwalks. There were a few smaller waterfalls in the canyon along the way to the Upper Falls which were pretty and the trail was very scenic. This portion of the path was slightly steeper than the trail to the Lower Falls and it had some inclines. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous and there were several areas along the trail which opened up to offer fantastic views of the canyon along the trail, which provided amazing photo opportunities.
Soon enough, we reached the Upper Falls. A sign on the trail pointed us in the right direction. Although the waterfalls were not visible from the trail, I could definitely hear them! I walked across a sturdy metal catwalk overtop of the river in the canyon and there a was a small area for standing at the end of the catwalk, which was suspended overtop of the water. The beautiful Upper Falls were situated directly in front of this viewing area and they were spectacular! The waterfalls were pretty tall and they flowed over the edge of a rocky cliff and into the river below. Also along the catwalk, there was a really interesting rock wall that was super smooth (I assume from water running over it) and featured a variety of designs and colours.
After taking photos and taking the time to appreciate our surroundings and the beautiful natural landscapes, we headed back along the catwalk towards the trail. At the junction with the trail and the catwalk, there was a sign for another trail which would lead to a viewing platform at the top of the waterfalls and overlooking the deep canyon. It appeared to be quite steep and even though I am sure that the views would have been unique and fantastic, we decided to begin walking back to the parking lot at that time, as the trail was starting to get busier. We passed quite a few groups of people on the hike back to the trailhead, but thankfully, we got lucky and only ended up encountering a few people along the way to the Upper Falls. The rest of the time, we enjoyed the entire trail and both waterfalls in complete solitude which was wonderful.
If you are feeling ambitious, the trail continues from the Upper Falls to a unique phenomenon and destination called the Ink Pots, which is an additional 3.4 km from the Upper Falls. Although I didn’t have time to hike that far during this visit, I have definitely added it to my list for next time as it sounds like a really interesting and worthwhile place to check out.
With beautiful waterfalls, gorgeous natural scenery, dense forests and the deep canyon, Johnston Canyon is an amazing and rewarding place to go for a hike in Banff. It is worth a visit and I would highly recommend exploring here!
Tips for Hiking Johnston Canyon
- Arrive to the trailhead early in the morning (around 7:30 am or so) in order to avoid a large chunk of the crowds and have the opportunity to enjoy the trail while being almost completely alone. The first section of the trail to the Lower Falls will be the most congested area if you do go later in the morning/afternoon, but the crowds will become much thinner as you hike onwards to the Upper Falls and there will be even less people if you decide to go all the way to the Ink Pots.
- Dress in layers and wear some warmer clothing, as it can get quite chilly in Banff in the mornings. I wore a t-shirt, thicker sweater, vest and then a rain jacket to complete the ensemble.
- Wear sturdy, supportive and comfortable hiking shoes. There are tree roots protruding out of the ground at certain parts along the trail and there are some steeper sections where you will be thankful for good shoes!
Location – The parking lot for Johnston Canyon is located along the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), which runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) through Banff National Park.
How To Get There – You will need a car in order to reach the trailhead for Johnston Canyon as there is no shuttle or public transportation that services that area, to my knowledge.
Distance/Time – It is 1.2 km (one-way) from the parking lot to reach the Lower Falls (approximately 30-40 minutes) and an additional 1.2 km from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. In total, the round trip trail from the parking lot to the Upper Falls and back would be 4.8 km with a total time of around 1.5 hours to complete.
Rating – The first section of the trail from the parking lot to Lower Falls is very easy along a flat and well-maintained pathway with minimal elevation gain. The second section to the Upper Falls is moderate and has some elevation gain and inclines to climb along the trail, although it is not difficult at all for someone of average fitness.
Remember to read the trail condition report here before heading out on your hike!
Planning Your Next Adventure?
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Have you hiked Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park? How did you enjoy this trail and the waterfalls?
Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!