Johnston Canyon Hike: How to Visit (Updated August 2021)

Update (July 2021): The road is back open! After stating all along that they were quite happy with the results of keeping the road closed for the past year, suddenly Parks Canada completely changed their minds and reopened. While this does make the Johnston Canyon hike much more accessible, it is kind of a shame because it is going to lead to the same overcrowded trails and long photo queues that plagued it previously. There are rumours that this may be a temporary change, however, so these alternative methods of visiting may still end up being necessary in the future.

Update (August 2021): Now Parks Canada is considering a hybrid system for the Bow Valley Parkway to the Johnston Canyon hike for 2022. They will be accepting public feedback until September 9, 2021 on a proposal to either a) close the road to vehicles for all of May, June, September and October, or b) close it just on weekends during those months. You can have your say by emailing them at opinion@canada.ca.

The Johnston Canyon hike is well-known as one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies. The river has carved this amazing canyon out of the limestone over the course of many millennia and now, with wonderful rapids, spectacular waterfalls, narrow rock walls and terrific pools, Johnston Canyon is a true delight.

Oh yeah, did I mention the whole thing takes place in a lush, green forest? There is a reason it was one of the choices on our favourite 15 Easy Hikes Near Canmore. To top it all off, you can actually visit Johnston Canyon year-round – the frozen winter waterfalls offer an entirely different and memorable experience.

Is Johnston Canyon open in 2021?

Yes, it is. In fact, nothing has changed within the canyon itself (other than the usual social distancing protocols). But there is a lot of confusion and many people are wondering – is Johnston Canyon closed? Is Johnston Canyon open during COVID? Is the road to Johnston Canyon closed? Can you still visit even with the Johnston Canyon road closure? We will answer all these questions but the main takeway is that Johnston Canyon hike is open.

Walkway with railings on a narrow part of the Johnston Canyon hike with a river below and rock walls

Is the Bow Valley Parkway closed in 2021?

As of July 1st, 2021, it is only partially closed. You can now drive in from Castle Junction but the eastern route between the canyon and Banff is still closed to cars. So if you are looking for a peaceful bike ride, there is still this option.

The Bow Valley Parkway had been completely closed to vehicles due to COVID-19 and earlier this spring they had said it was going to remain that way all summer. But plans changed for some reason.

However, considering the response to the road closure was mostly positive from tourists who were thrilled at the chance to enjoy a quieter, less crowded visit, it is still quite possible the parkway will end up closing again. So even though for now you can simply drive there if you like, here are the 4 options you have to visit Johnston Canyon if the road does close again.

How to get to the Johnston Canyon hike in 2021 with the road closed

1. Bike or Hike

You can park at Castle Junction and ride along the smooth, empty highway for 6 kilometres to the canyon trailhead. It is mostly downhill from Castle Junction and uphill on the way back but the slope is not very strenuous.

On a bike it will probably only take about 20 minutes to get there, maybe 30 to get back. You can also rent an e-bike in Banff to make the trip a bit easier, or sign up for an e-bike tour that includes a guided hike. There is also a bike rack that you can lock your bike on at the Johnston Canyon restaurant.

If you do not have a bike and would rather not rent one, it is perfectly possible to hike the same route, although expect it to take about 1.5 hours each way. And that is in addition to the 5-kilometre round-trip hike to Upper Falls. So allow yourself 4-5 hours in total and be sure to take plenty of water on hot summer days.

You can also start from Banff instead of Castle Junction. It is probably too far to walk, but you could bike the 25 kilometres in around 2 hours (each way). This alternative might be even more feasible on an ebike. Now that the Castle Junction section of the road is open again, this is the only part of the road that you can still enjoy vehicle-free.

2. Stay overnight at the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows

Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows, family-owned since 1927, are located right beside Johnston Canyon and will be open starting May 21st. Staying here allows you to drive in and also gives you a chance to see the canyon without the crowds. If you hike up the canyon early in the morning or late in the afternoon you may just have the place to yourself.

The bungalows range from a studio to two-bedrooms. The bungalows are charming and comfortable but not luxurious, have a porch to enjoy the natural surroundings and some have a wood-burning fireplace. Staying here in 2021 is a unique opportunity to truly experience solitude in the canyon.

3. Book lunch at Johnston Canyon Restaurant

An interesting loophole is that you are also allowed to drive on Bow Valley Parkway just to have lunch Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows. You have to make a reservation and leave a deposit. The bonus is that the Black Swift Bistro has a reputation for good food at reasonable prices and you get a view of the mountains.

Having lunch on the patio on a nice day is a great way to relax before your hike. And for chilly days, there is a working fireplace inside the bistro. Call (403) 762-2971 to make your reservation.

4. Take the Johnston Canyon Shuttle (2021)

Another option for getting to Johnston Canyon this year is to take a Roam Transit shuttle from Banff. Route 9 goes direct to the canyon and will depart daily from the Banff High School transit hub. Route 9 did not run in 2020 because of COVID-19 but is running from May 21st to September 19th in 2021. There are 7 shuttles per day starting at 9 am.

Route 8S is the scenic route between Banff and Lake Louise. It runs 3 times per day and stops at Castle Mountain and Protection Campgrounds as well as Johnston Canyon.

Johnston Canyon Shuttle Prices (Route 9)

Adult $5

Youth/Senior $2.50

Child (under 13) free

Banff-Lake Louise Shuttle Prices (Route 8S)

Adult $10

Youth/Senior $5

Child (under 13) free

5. Book the HopOnBanff

These fun, comfortable hop-on, hop-off bus tours run from June 15th to September 19th in 2021. There will be 4 departures per day arriving at the canyon at 8:25 am, 10:10 am, 12:45 pm or 3:35 pm. The bus also goes to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Tours will need to be booked online and in advance.

HopOnBanff Prices

Adult $60 + tax

Child (5-15) $45 + tax

Infant (under 5) free

Johnston Canyon Q&A

How do I get to Johnston Canyon?

If you are driving, Johnston Canyon is 25 kilometres from Banff and 33 kilometres from Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway. When the road is not open to the general public you will need to choose one of the above options in order to visit.

Can you drive to Johnston Canyon?

Yes, but only from the Castle Mountain side of the Bow Valley Parkway. Even when the road is closed you can drive in if you reserve a meal or an overnight stay at Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows.

Do you need a park pass for Johnston Canyon?

Yes, the canyon is located within Banff National Park so you will need a national park pass to visit.

How hard is the Johnston Canyon hike?

I have heard it described as moderate but we’d call it easy. Yes, it is 5 km round-trip to the Upper Falls and there is some uphill involved but anyone with reasonable mobility should have no problem. It isn’t completely flat but the trail is smooth and well-marked.Two people walking on the trail to the lower falls on the Johnston Canyon hike

How long is the Johnston Canyon hike?

Lower Falls 1.2 km one-way (1 hr return)
Upper Falls 2.5 km one-way (2 hrs return)
Ink Pots 6 km one-way (4 hrs return)

Are there bears in Johnston Canyon?

It has been quite a while since any bears have been spotted in the Johnston Canyon area so it is very unlikely that you will run into any bears on your hike.

Can you camp at Johnston Canyon?

No, both Johnston Canyon Campground and Castle Junction Campground are closed until further notice.

How far is Johnston Canyon from Banff or Johnston Canyon to Banff?

The Johnston Canyon is located 25 km from Banff town.

How busy is Johnston Canyon?

In normal years – very busy. While the road was closed it was significantly quieter, so we’ll see if Parks Canada decides to restrict access again later this summer.

What time does Johnston Canyon open?

The Johnston Canyon is open 24 hours a day so you can visit at any time.

Is Johnston Canyon free?

Yes, Johnston Canyon is free. But you will need to have a National Park pass to visit.

When does the Johnston Canyon freeze?

It will start to freeze in the late fall and stay frozen until the early spring but the exact dates will change every year.

The Johnston Canyon Hike

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls Trail

2.4 km / 1 hr / 105 m elevation gain

Johnston Canyon – Lower Falls AllTrails

Head out of the parking lot past the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows into the forest where you will follow Johnston Creek along a fairly flat trail.

Soon you will enter Johnston Canyon and reach the boardwalks, narrow walkways designed to keep you on the right track without falling into the creek between the narrow canyon walls.

People on the Walkway with railings on a narrow part of the Johnston Canyon hike with a river below and rock walls

You will make it to the Lower Falls after 20-30 minutes and can enjoy great views from the bridge. Head on into the tunnel for a closer look but keep in mind that A) you may need to wait in line since there is only room for a few people at a time, and B) you’ll probably get a bit wet. The photos are worth it, though.

Side view of the Johnston Canyon hike lower waterfall surrounded by rock walls

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Trail

5 km / 1.5-2 hrs / 235 m elevation gain

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls – AllTrails

If you decide to continue on to the Upper Falls (and you definitely should), the trail gets a bit steeper from this point forward. It continues alongside the canyon and you will pass a number of nice viewpoints as you make your way up.

The Upper Falls are probably about a half an hour walk from the Lower Falls. Then you will reach a fork in the trail because these impressive 30-metre falls can be seen from two unique viewpoints. The first is to the right and gives a good look at the bottom of the falls.

In the winter, ice climbers use this platform as a base to climb the falls (if that sounds interesting we recommend giving it a go with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures). Then retrace your steps to the fork and head up the steeper path to the second viewpoint, a bird’s eye view from above the falls.

Johnston Canyon Ink Pots Trail

12 km / 4 hrs / 600 m elevation gain

Johnston Canyon – Ink Pots AllTrails

If you still haven’t had your fill of outstanding canyon scenery, the trail continues on past the Upper Falls for another 3 km or so to the Ink Pots, a series of colourful mineral springs found in a beautiful alpine meadow.

Remember, though, these are not hot springs (in fact they are particularly cold) so there is probably no need to pack your swimsuit (although maybe there is, we don’t know what you’re into). While it is certainly a unique spot and can be quite atmospheric when filled with summer wildflowers, the scenery isn’t really as dramatic as the canyon and falls. However, the hike is nice and relatively easy.

Tips for Hiking the Johnston Canyon Trail

It is technically possible to make it to the Lower Falls with a stroller but it could get crowded and awkward on the boardwalks so you are probably better off using a baby backpack if you have one.

Walkway with railings on a narrow part of the Johnston Canyon hike with a river below and rock walls
The narrow Johnston Canyon hike walkways

Dogs are allowed in Johnston Canyon but must remain leashed at all times, a rule everywhere in Banff National Park.

If conditions are perfect and dry this trail can be done in trainers as the path is smooth and wide. However, it is often muddy so you may want hikers anyway.

Outside of the summer months and early fall, Johnston Canyon usually has at least some snow and ice. Check with the visitor centre for the latest conditions and consider using hiking poles, microspikes (ice cleats) or snowshoes depending on the situation. These can be rented in Banff if you don’t have your own.

Dress in layers. This is always a good idea when packing for a day hike but especially on a hike like this that takes place mainly in a cool, shaded canyon. You can be sweating on the hills and freezing after sitting at a viewpoint for a few minutes.

Summary

The Johnston Canyon hike to Lower and Upper Falls is popular for a reason – tremendous scenery and superb waterfalls on a relatively easy trail. The new rules restricting vehicle access to Johnston Canyon may be slightly inconvenient for some but opens up a real opportunity for others.

Being able to explore this fascinating canyon without massive crowds of tourists completely changes the experience and makes for a much more enjoyable visit. When we did the bike trip on a perfect, sunny day in September we had the highway completely to ourselves (I think one car passed us the whole time) and only saw a handful of other hikers in the canyon.

Of course, with shuttles restarting this year it may be a little bit busier so we would recommend timing your visit to avoid the shuttle arrival times if possible. Enjoy!

Other Hikes in Banff and Kananaskis

We could probably go on for days describing all the excellent trails in the Banff, Canmore and Kananaskis area but you can read about our favourites in our Best Hikes Near Canmore post. Smutwood Peak, Tent Ridge and Big Beehive are three that should be at the top of every hiker’s Banff hiking list.

View from Devil’s Thumb of the Big Beehive viewpoint, Lake Agnes and Lake Louise

Or, if those seem a little too much like work, we have also put together a list of 15 Easy Hikes Near Canmore that allow you enjoy the wonderful Rocky Mountain scenery without committing an entire day to the task. And if you are lucky enough to visit in September you should definitely check out the best larch hikes in the area.

Some more posts you might be interested in:

10 Best Things to Do in Canmore

10 Best Canmore Photo Spots

Lake O’Hara: Your Complete Hiking and Camping Guide

Elbow Lake and Rae Glacier Hike

Drumheller: The Ultimate Guide to Alberta’s Dinosaur Capital

The Best and Worst of Drumheller Camping

7 Reason to Visit Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum