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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, Banff in winter is an amazing experience as well, and you can actually visit Johnston Canyon year-round – the frozen winter waterfalls offer an entirely different and memorable.
This famously beautiful canyon is located 25 km west of Banff and 33 km east of Lake Louise. You can drive there, although there are restrictions which we’ll discuss in more detail below. Johnston Canyon is open 24 hours per day and there is no entrance fee but you will need a valid national park pass.
Normally, Johnston Canyon is one of the busiest places in Banff National Park. When the Bow Valley Parkway is closed, however, it is possible to see the canyon without the crowds. It is well worth making the extra effort to visit during one of these times.
Is the Johnston Canyon hike difficult?
The Johnston Canyon hike has been called moderate by some but we’d call it easy. It is just 2.5 km (return) to the Lower Falls and 5 km (return) to Upper Falls. Yes, there is some uphill involved but anyone with reasonable mobility should have no problem.
The Johnston Canyon hike isn’t completely flat but it is smooth and well-marked. If you want to continue to Ink Pots you’re looking at about 12 km return so this is a much bigger undertaking.
Johnston Canyon 2023 Update
After closing the Bow Valley Parkway through the summer of 2020 and the early part of 2021, Parks Canada reopened the road in July 2021. After stating all along that they were quite happy with the results of keeping the road closed, suddenly they completely changed their minds and opened it to cars again.
While this did make the Johnston Canyon hike much more accessible, it was kind of a shame because it quickly led to the same overcrowded trails and long photo queues that plagued it previously. This ended up being a temporary change, however, so these alternative methods of visiting are still necessary during certain time periods.
After accepting public feedback last fall, Parks Canada finally announced they would be implementing a hybrid road closure system for the next three years, to be reassessed at that time. From 2022 to 2024, the Bow Valley Parkway will be closed to most vehicles from May 1 to June 25 and the entire month of September. It will be fully open to vehicles in July and August.
So if you visit in July or August you can drive in (along with everyone else) but if you want to see the canyon without the crowds you should choose May, June or September.
To help you make your decision, here are the 4 options you have for visiting Johnston Canyon during those times.
How to get to the Johnston Canyon hike in May, June and September 2023
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). One of the best options can be to book an ebike tour of Johnston Canyon and Vermilion Lakes. On an ebike you can cover a lot more ground with a lot less effort than on a regular mountain bike, allowing you to enjoy a lot of the best scenery in the area in just 4 hours.
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 do the Johnston Canyon hike 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 2023 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 Johnston Canyon 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
Another option for getting to Johnston Canyon 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. It has been fully operational again since 2022. 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)
Youth (13-18) /Seniors (65+) $2.50
Child (under 13) free
Banff-Lake Louise Shuttle Prices (Route 8S)
Child (under 13) free
5. Book the HopOnBanff
These fun, comfortable hop-on, hop-off bus tours run from June 9th to September 24th in 2023. There are 3 departures per day leaving Banff at 7:45 am, 9:30 am and 12:15 pm. The bus also goes to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
Adult $71 + tax
Child (5-15) $62 + tax
Infant (under 5) free
The Johnston Canyon Hike
Johnston Canyon Lower Falls Trail
2.4 km / 1 hr / 105 m elevation gain
The Johnston Canyon hike starts at the parking lot next to the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows and heads 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.
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.
Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Trail
5 km / 1.5-2 hrs / 235 m elevation gain
If you decide to continue your Johnston Canyon hike 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, you can try a very different Johnston Canyon hike by signing up for an adventurous guided ice walk. Or if you’re still looking for a bigger adrenalin rush, 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).
From the first Johnston Canyon Upper Falls viewpoint, 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
If you still haven’t had your fill of outstanding canyon scenery, the Johnston Canyon hike 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.
Can you camp at Johnston Canyon?
Yes, both Johnston Canyon Campground and Castle Junction Campground are nice campgrounds close to the canyon. Johnston Canyon Campground is particularly handy since you can just walk across the road and right into the good stuff.
Tips for Hiking the Johnston Canyon Trail
It is technically possible to do the Johnston Canyon hike as far as 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.
Dogs are allowed in Johnston Canyon but must remain leashed at all times, a rule everywhere in Banff National Park.
Bears are occasionally spotted in or near Johnston Canyon but very rarely due to the large number of people around.
If conditions are perfect and dry the Johnston Canyon hike can be done in trainers as the path is smooth and wide. However, it is often muddy so you may want hikers anyway.
By late September the falls usually begin to freeze and stay that way until late spring. This also can mean some snow and ice on the trails. 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 or you can join a guided ice walk and they will provide all the gear.
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.
Other Great 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.
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.
Then if you have time to add an extra night or two, Lake O’Hara is one of the most beautiful hiking areas in all of Canada, let alone Banff National Park. It is hard to get a camping or day trip reservation but sometimes there are last-minute cancellations. Sometimes it is worth showing up at the bus parking lot in the morning in case somebody doesn’t show up for their day trip.
Johnston Canyon 2023 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. 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, Johnston Canyon does get a little busier when the shuttles show up so we would recommend timing your visit to avoid the arrival times if possible. Enjoy!
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