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One of the most pleasant and beautiful times to hike Johnston Canyon is winter when the canyon is blanketed with sparkling snow and towering icicles.
Compared to summer, the Johnston Canyon hike has a whole different atmosphere in winter. The scenery is frosty, the trail is quiet, and the two main highlights along Johnston Canyon Trail- the Upper and Lower Falls- are transformed into spectacular glittering walls of ice.
Not only will you see some gorgeous icy scenery when hiking Johnston Canyon in winter, but you may also get to watch some ice climbers adventuring at the Upper Falls, a popular ice-climbing spot.
Johnston Canyon Hike (in Winter)
Distance: 6.3 km round trip to the viewpoint above the Upper Falls
Elevation Gain: 159 m
Surface: Snow-covered trail (usually packed down) with icy patches, several catwalks
Trail Type: Out and back
Time: 2- 2.5 hrs
Trailhead: Johnston Canyon parking lot (P1) across from the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows, just off the Bow Valley Parkway.
Johnston Canyon Trail Description
The Johnston Canyon hike starts from the north corner of the main parking lot (P1). The trailhead is marked with a large wooden sign creating a gateway to the trail. There also is a board with some brief information about the Johnston Canyon hike and a simple map of Johnston Canyon Trail.
You’ll see plenty of directional signs along Johnston Canyon Trail listing distances to the points of interest- Lower Falls, Upper Falls, and the Ink Pots. When hiking Johnston Canyon in winter, most people only go as far as the Upper Falls, so that’s the route described below.
Departing from the trailhead, you’ll soon cross a bridge over Johnston Creek. The trail then turns right and passes by the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows. Up ahead you’ll see a large sign and map welcoming you to Johnston Canyon.
Not far beyond this sign, you’ll come to another one that has a little bit of information about the history of Johnston Canyon Trail. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, it’s worth reading.
Now that you’ve passed all the signs it’s time to hike! Heading into the forest, the trail is bordered by a slope on one side and the canyon and creek on the other. The path is fenced for safety.
As the trail starts to gradually gain some elevation, you’ll have some opportunities to look down at the creek and rock formations in the canyon. It’s pretty neat to see how trees can grow on these rocks even when there’s not much soil.
Through gaps in the trees, you’ll also get to see some areas where the canyon’s walls are covered in ice. As pretty as it is, there will be way more impressive ice falls further ahead.
Continuing on, you’ll soon come to the first of several catwalks along Johnston Canyon Trail. Hugging the edge of the canyon, these catwalks get you up close to the rocks while providing a great view of the canyon below.
Next, the catwalk passes through the trees before arriving at a rest area with some benches and a sign telling how Johnston Canyon and its seven waterfalls have been a source of inspiration for painters.
A few steps away you’ll come to another catwalk. This section can be a good spot to see more icicles in the snowy canyon.
Now the trail descends close to the bottom of the canyon for one of the most scenic stretches of the Johnston Canyon hike. Here the catwalk zigzags around towering walls of rock, even going under some overhangs in places.
After a bit of time hiking close to the creek, the catwalk ascends higher up along the canyon wall.
Next up you’ll arrive at a signed fork in the trail. Keep right to head down to the Lower Falls a short distance away.
Soon you’ll see a bridge crossing the creek and entering into a hole in the rock. Inside this small “cave” is a tiny viewing area to get an up-close look at the icy falls. Even after several months of winter, Johnston Canyon’s Lower Falls don’t usually fully freeze so you can still hear water flowing behind the ice.
If you’re not keen on small spaces, you can enjoy a view of the falls from the bridge over Johnston Creek.
Once you’re done admiring the Lower Falls, head back up to the main trail. At the junction, follow the signage and turn right to make your way to the Upper Falls (1.37 km away according to the sign). Don’t forget to look down from the main trail for another glimpse of the Lower Falls through the trees.
Now on route to the Upper Falls, the trail will go up a few steps and switchback around some rock before later descending again to the canyon floor.
The catwalk ahead enters into another exquisite part of Johnston Canyon as it climbs along the rock wall, under overhangs, and through a narrow gap between the sides of the canyon.
Once the canyon widens, you’ll get a nice view of the creek from the catwalk.
Back on natural ground, the trail continues alongside the canyon and through the forest. Keep watch for a series of small waterfalls and pools in the creek. You’ll even get a few views of mountain peaks.
As you get closer to the Upper Falls the trail will get a little steeper. Eventually you’ll come to a signed intersection.
To the right is a side trail that will take you down to the Upper Falls catwalk and viewpoint. This viewpoint gets you a lower, closer view of the ice-covered canyon walls.
Keeping left on the main trail takes you to a higher viewpoint at the Upper Falls. Here you can look down into the canyon at the impressively long icicles.
The higher viewpoint is a great place to sit and watch the climbers scale the massive walls of ice formed by the Upper Falls. It looks like a daunting task, especially when you see how tiny the climbers are compared to the frozen falls.
Once you’re done admiring the icy Upper Falls, you can either continue hiking Johnston Canyon Trail to the Ink Pots (about 3 km away) or turn around and head back on the same trail to the parking lot.
Review of the Johnston Canyon Winter Hike
The Johnston Canyon hike is popular year-round, but it truly is one of the most enjoyable winter hikes in Alberta. From ice-covered canyon walls and frozen waterfalls to snow-covered rocks and a frosty forest, the trail has all the elements of a winter wonderland.
Another nice thing about this hike is that it isn’t difficult. There are a lot of ups and downs on the trail elevation-wise, but there are no long climbs or really steep hills. However, you do need to worry about slipping when going downhill because the trail does get icy.
The fantastic scenery, lookout points, and easy to follow trail make hiking Johnston Canyon Trail one of the best winter activities in Alberta.
Tours and Guided Hikes of Johnston Canyon in Winter
There are local tour companies that offer guided hikes of Johnston Canyon in winter. You can choose from morning, afternoon, or evening hikes. Tours include transportation from Banff and the use of ice cleats (and sometimes hiking poles). Some tours even include a hot drink and snack.
You can book a Johnston Canyon ice walk tour here.
Pictures of the Johnston Canyon Hike in Winter
Here are a few more pictures of the Johnston Canyon winter hike.
Tips for Hiking Johnston Canyon Trail in Winter
Location: Johnston Canyon Trail is located in Banff National Park along the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A). It’s approximately 25 km west of the town of Banff and 34 km southeast of the village of Lake Louise.
Getting to the Johnston Canyon Trailhead: From Banff, take Highway 1 west to the Highway 1A exit. Follow Hwy 1A/Bow Valley Parkway until you reach Johnston Canyon.
- From Lake Louise, take Highway 1A/Bow Valley Parkway directly to Johnston Canyon. You could also take Highway 1 east to Highway 93, turn left onto 93 then right onto Hwy 1A at Castle Junction.
- Roam Transit operates a bus from Banff to Johnston Canyon in winter but service is only on the weekends. Check the Route 9 bus schedule and fares here.
Best Time for the Johnston Canyon Ice Hike: The best time to do a winter hike at Johnston Canyon is typically from December to April after it has snowed and been cold enough to freeze (or partially freeze) the waterfalls. The ice falls should be nice and thick by late January (the photos in this post were taken the second week of February).
- The trail is very quiet on weekdays and busier on weekends, but there won’t be busloads of people like in the summer.
- Before hiking Johnston Canyon in the winter, take note of the sunrise and sunset hours. Alberta has short daylight hours in the winter and it’s risky to be hiking in the dark. Starting between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm will give you plenty of time to hike the trail before dark, and it will be a warmer part of the day.
Johnston Canyon Ice Walk Tours: If you prefer to take a tour of Johnson Canyon in winter, you can book a guided hike here.
Facilities: At the main parking lot by the trailhead, there’s a heated building with running water and flushing toilets.
Visitor Guidelines and Safety: Stay on the trail and use the railings if you need help going up and down the icy hills.
- Leave no trace by packing out all your garbage.
Gear and What to Bring: Ice cleats and hiking poles are recommended because Johnston Canyon Trail gets very slippery in the winter. Ice hidden under packed snow makes the hills/slopes quite treacherous and it’s not unusual to see people slip.
More Winter Guides
You may also enjoy these other Alberta winter activity guides:
- Abraham Lake Bubbles- How to See the Frozen Bubbles in Abraham Lake
- Alberta Ski Resorts- The Best Ski Areas in the Rockies
- Things to Do in Edmonton in Winter- The Best Edmonton Winter Activities
- Cross Country Skiing in Edmonton- A Guide to Edmonton’s Cross Country Ski Trails
- Ice Skating in Edmonton- The Best Edmonton Outdoor Skating Rinks
- Cline River Falls Hike in Winter- David Thompson Country
Accommodations in Banff National Park
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