Johnston Canyon Winter Hike & Ink Pots

The Johnston Canyon hike is one of the most iconic trails in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It is relatively short, family friendly and stunningly beautiful. For locals, one of the occasional negatives for this hike can be the crowds that can make it difficult to navigate the trail. A great way to avoid some of the crowds and enjoy the beauty this hike has to offer is to experience Johnston Canyon in winter. If you continue past the lower and upper falls on the ink pots hike, you may get the ink pots all to yourselves like we did!

Related: Check out our post about hiking Grotto Canyon in winter.

Watch this quick video about the Johnston Canyon winter hike including the Ink Pots hike.

Getting to the Trailhead

The Johnston Canyon winter hike including the ink pots hike is about 12 kilometers round-trip and has a net elevation gain of around 600 meters. There are loads of parking spots at the trailhead and even an overflow lot. There are also great bathrooms with running water at the start of the hike. The trailhead is just off of the Bow Valley Parkway (HW 1-A) in between Banff and Lake Louise. If you follow the signs it should be easy to find!

Follow the Map      

An image of a map to the Johnston Canyon Trailhead in  Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
The trailhead for the Ink Pots hike is the same trailhead as the Johnston Canyon hike – just a short distance west of Banff, off of highway 1A.

 Helpful Equipment

The Johnston Canyon winter hike is best done with ice cleats in the winter. The walkways are well traveled and that often results in a buildup of packed snow and ice that can be quite slippery. After the upper falls, it gets a little less slick, but we would advise picking up an inexpensive pair of ice cleats to provide better stability. You don’t need heavy duty ice spikes, but some inexpensive microspikes like the ones below will really help.

Getting Started – Johnston Canyon Winter

The trail starts out wide and well-traveled. Make sure to get a picture at the trailhead! Just a few minutes into the hike there is a boardwalk that has rails on both sides that will take you right to the lower falls. This makes the hike very friendly for families as children will not be at risk of falling into the canyon. The handrails can also be helpful when the trail gets slippery. Take some time to admire the way the snow and ice freezes in the canyon and on the river as you complete the short hike to the lower falls.

An image of a group of people at the Johnston Canyon trailhead in  Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
The Johnston Canyon hike trailhead is well marked and even has bathrooms with running water!

At the lower falls on the Johnston Canyon winter hike, there is a small cave that you can enter to get a really good look at the lower falls. Unfortunately, this first part of the hike is the busy part and you will probably have to brave some crowds (especially if the weather is good)! As you keep going, there will be fewer people on the trail.

An image of the frozen lower falls in Johnston Canyon in  Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
The lower falls are spectacular in winter!

Pro Tip

Just before the lower falls, there is a place where you can climb down into the canyon on the right. It can be a little steep, but there should be some tracked down paths. Once in the canyon you can walk right up to a small frozen waterfall and even get behind it! Be careful not to walk on unstable ice. It is safest to stay off the creek and walk along the shore.

An image of a a frozen creek and waterfall in Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
When you get down to the creek bed there are some really cool views!
An image of a couple standing behind a frozen waterfall in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
You can even climb behind a frozen waterfall down in the creek bottom!

Continuing to the Upper Falls – Johnston Canyon Winter Hike

After the lower falls, continue following the signs to the upper falls of the Johnston Canyon winter hike. It is not too much farther and is often less busy than the pathway to the lower falls. The upper falls are a great sight to see and spend a few minutes to enjoy. If you aren’t planning on continuing to the ink pots hike, make sure you still hike up above the upper falls as there is a viewing platform and another set of falls just a few minutes past the upper falls!

An image of a couple looking at ice formations in Johnston Canyon above the upper falls in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
Just above the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls on the way to the ink pots there is another viewing platform with some beautiful ice! Many travelers miss seeing this.

Johnston Canyon Winter – Continuing to the Ink Pots Hike

If you don’t have much experience winter hiking and are concerned about the cold, don’t worry too much. Layer your clothing, so you can add or remove layers when you get too hot. Though it was quite cold the day we did the ink pots hike, we removed our coats and hiked in our winter sweaters. The physical activity kept us surprisingly warm. After the upper falls, the hike winds through some trees gaining elevation for quite some time. This part can be a little less exciting than the rest of the hike but you can enjoy looking at the fluffy snow on the trees and the interesting shapes it can make! Eventually, the view will open up to your right and that is when the climb is almost over! You will have a short descent into the valley where the ink pots are located!             

An image of a man looking up at snow covered trees on the ink pots hike in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
Walking through the snow-covered trees is a cool experience in winter.
An image of a couple walking through a forest of snow covered trees on the ink pots hike in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
Make sure to get some great pictures while you’re in the trees!

The Ink Pots Hike

Even in the middle of winter, the ink pots stay open and unfrozen due to the warm (4 degrees Celsius) spring water bubbling up from the bottom of the ponds. It is hypnotic watching the mud at the bottom of the ink pot ponds bubble and gurgle as the fresh spring water rushes in from underground. We relaxed and had some lunch on some of the benches and enjoyed the beautiful view in the valley. This was the only point in the hike that we got cold! After stopping for a while, the cold air started to get to us so we started the hike back.

An image of a couple standing above the ink pots in winter in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
The ink pots are a beautiful and mesmerizing sight in winter!
An image of the ink pots in winter in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
The water gurgling up through the sandy bottom of the ink pots is fun to watch and the views in the valley are worth the walk to get there!
An image of the ink pots in winter in Banff National Park, Alberta - Johnston Canyon Winter Hike and ink pots hike
Have a snack on a bench and enjoy the view before heading back!

Summary – Johnston Canyon winter hike and Ink Pots hike

The Johnston Canyon winter hike and the ink pots hike can be combined in one day. It is a wonderful winter hike that can be done in 3-4 hours depending on your hiking speed and how often you stop for pictures. We had a blast and you will too! Let us know what your favourite thing is about the ink pots hike in a comment below!

-The Wild Wanderers                                                                                  

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