Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park: Hiking Guide

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“Yooooooooooooo Bear” I yelled out every 500 m or so. I mean really, it’s 6am and we’re the only ones on the trail.  After an hour of hiking, we were still the only ones. The ” Yo Bears” continued. After two hours we saw one other hiker.  Although we saw a herd of elk on the Bow Valley Parkway driving in, we didn’t see any bears.  Yet. And I was pretty comfortable in making enough noise on the trail to keep it that way. This was a 5km plus hike past the lower and upper falls of Johnston Canyon and through the lush forest until we reached the ink pots in the valley.

No bears, some rain, and all the views.

Johnston Canyon

The Low Down

  • Directions: 17.8 kms on the Bow Valley Parkway (west).
  • Cell Reception: Spotty throughout the trail.
  • Trail Distance: 2.5km to the upper falls and another 3.1kms to the ink pots (one way).
  • Max Elevation: 1645m
  • Elevation Gain: 608m
  • Duration: 4-6 hrs to the lookout and return dependent on fitness level.
  • Dogs: Permitted on leash.
  • Crowds: Extremely busy during peak hours (after 9am) and during good weather days.
  • Washrooms: Onsite at the parking lot.
  • Entrance Fee: Free.
  • More Information: Visit the Parks Canada and AllTrails for info and trail map.

In Good Company

Unbelievably, it was the last day of ‘Victoria and Marlena’s Epic Rocky Adventure’. Six days and five wonderfully diverse and memorable hikes completed.  Johnston Canyon is popular on a bad day. And by popular I mean so crowed that Parks Canada will set themselves up on the road to control entrance.  Lucky for us, a) it was raining and b) we set out at 6am while the rest of tourists were still sleeping… This worked! We had the trail to ourselves for over 2hrs, which is incredible! Even on the return around 9am, it wasn’t too crowded.  Thank goodness for great rain gear and hikers that can take on the muddiest of trails.

Ink Pots

What to bring

Besides the 10 essentials and what I would normally suggest for hikes, here are the highlights for this particular hike:

  • Footwear: Runners are great if only hiking up to Upper Falls. Highly recommend hikers if going all the way to Ink Pots, especially during the spring/early summer when trails are muddy.
Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon Parking and Trailhead

It’s a short 25km drive from Banff.  Once on the Bow Valley Parkway, abide speed limits and keep an eye out for wildlife. This time around we saw a herd of elk and I’ve seen bears on previous trips. Parks Canada were out at 10am helping direct traffic and parking, we arrived at 6am avoiding the crowds and any access issues. The tour buses usually arrive around 9am.

Elk

Lower Falls and Upper Falls Trail Description

The trail itself is well maintained and can be broken down into three sections. First section up to Lower Falls is a mix of wide dirt path and concrete trail with mild elevation gains. Continuing on to Upper Falls is much of the same with slightly more elevation. It is worth it to keep going the 100m past the Upper Falls lookout to see the falls from the top view.

At this point is the junction to head towards the Ink Pots. The majority of the crowding on busy days ends here, with the majority of the visitors only coming to seen the canyon and falls. The Ink Pots however are housed in a breathtaking valley, an absolutely gem to behold so keep hiking!

Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon

Lower Falls and Upper Falls View

It’s easy to see why this is such a popular tourist attraction – it is a very accessible hike for incredible scenery. Only 1.1 kms to Lower Falls on a well established hard packed pathway and then another 1.4kms to Upper Falls. The cave and lookout at Lower Falls is a lot of fun for kids…and adults. 😉

Lower Falls Johnston Canyon

Lower Falls Johnston Canyon
Upper Falls Johnston Canyon

Ink Pots Trail Description

Admittedly I’ve never been to the Ink Pots! Only ever to Upper Falls. The trail to the Ink Pots feels never ending, mostly because there are no trail markers once you turn on this section. The first half of this portion is uphill followed by a significant descent into the valley. This means you’re hiking uphill both ways, ha ha, like those “when I was a kid we walked to school in 10 feet of snow, uphill, both ways” stories your parents tell. We heard a lot of “how much further?” and “is it worth it?” from hikers coming in as we were hiking out. Yes, it is worth it. In my opinion anyways, take a look for yourself.

Ink Pots
Ink Pots

Ink Pots and Valley View

It started to rain pretty good by the time we reached the Ink Pots but it didn’t damped the view or our spirits. All the posts I’ve read previously on Johnston Canyon were right, the Ink Pots are neat but really valley view as a backdrop is really what makes it a spectacular spot!

Ink Pots
Ink Pots

Nourish thy self

Time with timings, we rushed out of Johnston Canyon and straight to Rocky Mountain Bagel in Canmore to fuel up properly before heading to the airport. Ugh, this place is good. And now they have a second location in Canmore! Actually the growth in Canmore year to year blow my mind. I don’t think everyone’s fave little mountain town is going to ever be small again. Condos sprouted up, the Grizzly Paw Brewery, Beamers Coffee, and Rocky Mountain Bagel opened multiple locations…growth baby. Thankfully it still has a small town vibe.

Rocky Mountain Bagel

Wrapping it up

What a trip, now it’s time to relax the next few days with beers by the bonfire and a few spa treatments before returning to big city life in Ottawa.  If I could, I’d stay out here permanently but for now coming out for extended vacations works too! Hhhhmmm, maybe we’ll squeeze in one more hike. Too bad Ha Ling Peak is closed this year, maybe Lady Mac? We’ll see.

Victoria xo