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.
Getting to the Johnston Canyon 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
Helpful Equipment for Hiking Johnston Canyon in Winter
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.
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.
Just before the upper 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. It should be noted that for a time, Parks Canada restricted access to this site. If access is restricted, we don’t recommend you visit the secret cave.
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!
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!
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.
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