When you live as close as I do to one of the world’s most spectacular national parks, you often think you’ve done it all, which is a dangerous attitude to take. Take Johnston Canyon, for example. We locals often take out of town visitors to this heavily trafficked spot in summer. Yet in winter, it’s eerily quite. If you’ve never done Banff’s Johnston Canyon ice walk, you’re missing out. Here’s a look at what this winter hike is like.
Updated June 2020. Travels with Baggage sometimes receives compensation and/or hosted travel and sample products related to blog posts. This story may include affiliate links for which we receive a small commission at no extra cost to consumers.
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Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
While you can do the Johnston Canyon ice walk on your own, it’s best if you go on a tour. I mean, if you have all the gear – headlamps, crampons for your boots, etc… have at ‘er. But if you don’t, it’s wise to get advice from the pros.
My daughter Eve and I went on Discover Banff Tours for a nighttime hike along Johnston Canyon. I expected it to be invigorating. I didn’t expect it to be so magical.
From the trailhead to the lower falls viewpoint is about 1 km or a little over half a mile. It takes about 20-30 minutes to get to this first viewpoint. The trail starts off flat, but there’s a gentle incline. It’s not strenuous, but with pathway and steel catwalks you walk along will likely be slick with ice. You’ll definitely want those spikes on your soles.
Burrowing deeper into the canyon, we made it to the lower falls and settled in for a hot chocolate and cookie break. I didn’t expect Eve to be so into it, but she truly was. There was a bit of grumbling before starting out, as she didn’t want to wear the required strap-on cleats.
Naturally, wanted to slide along the icy trail. Which admittedly, would’ve been hella fun, but also dangerous. Luckily the headlamps we all donned were enough of a draw to keep her and the other kids quiet.
But what really captivated the kids (and everyone, really) were the sheets of ice clinging to imposing canon walls. Viewed during the daytime is impressive, at night, it’s ethereal.
At the lower falls viewing point, you’ll find a tunnel carved into the rock that offers another viewing platform of the falls and, depending on the weather, a deep pool of water that’s not yet been frozen over.
Back on the trail, you can turn around and head back to the parking lot, or continue on to access the upper falls. If you keep going, expect a steeper incline and plenty of switchbacks.
From the trailhead to the lower falls is an elevation gain of 30 m, but to the upper falls the gain is 120 m. Here, there’s another viewing platform, but personally, I think the lower falls are the most impressive.
It’ll take you approximately an hour to do a return trip to the lower falls in winter and 2-2.5 hours for the return trip to the upper falls at this time of year.
Banff at Night
Traipsing along the trail under the cover of night is a surreal experience and one best done with your headlamp turned off. It’s amazing how the eye can adapt to darkness.
Even though the moon kept slipping behind the clouds, it was still bright enough to find our way. What I discovered on this nighttime excursion is that an invigorating winter walk is one of the best ways to explore the night sky.
Johnston Canyon Directions
From Calgary, Canmore or Banff, take the TransCanada Highway West. About 10-minutes driving from Banff townsite, you’ll take the turnoff for Highway 1A. Johnston Canyon is along this road – about a 30-minute drive from Banff. It’s well signed and is before Castle Junction.
From Lake Louise you can take either the TransCanada Highway East or Highway 1A East to get to Johnston Canyon. The TransCanada will be faster as the 1A only has one lane in each direction, though it is a much prettier route. From Lake Louise expect a 30-minute drive.
Know Before you Go
Always check trail conditions before you venture out. Here’s where to find trail updates for Banff National Park.
Weather can be unpredictable in the Rockies. Wear warm, waterproof layers and for sure tote warm gloves or mitts and a hat. Ski pants, waterproof winter boots and thick hiking sox are recommended. In addition to ice cleats (easily rented in Banff), you may also want to bring hiking poles.
Stay at a Hotel With a Grotto Pool!
I’d always wondered what it was like inside The Fox hotel. The outside looked quite nice and alpine-y and I can confirm this hotel on Banff’s main drag did not disappoint.
Our loft room was large, with plenty of storage and a sweet little kitchen area. Restaurants in Banff can be pricy, so I like to take any chance I can get to make my own meals.
Best is The Fox’s grotto-like pool. Modelled after the original cave and basin hot springs, a soak here (it’s a hot tub) feels like you’re floating in a cave or on a movie set. If you love pools and can’t afford a stay at Fairmont Banff Springs, you’ll want to consider The Fox.
Now if you truly want to get away from it all, you need to get yourself to a backcountry lodge. Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park comes highly recommended from my outdoor adventure guru Leigh McAdam.
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Have you ever gone on an ice walk?