A mid-January day that isn’t blistering cold in Banff is uncommon, so when milder weather arrived, it was time to head outdoors!
After having avoided hiking Johnston Canyon all summer as it’s one of the most popular – and busiest – hikes in Banff – I figured a colder day would offer lighter crowds.
Before starting the half-hour drive from Banff to Johnston Canyon, I made a pit stop at Snowtips-Bactrax to make sure I was properly equipped for the journey. Here, the knowledgeable staff recommended renting a pair of ice-cleats, which they fitted and showed me how to wear. Although we weren’t expecting to see a lot of ice on the trail, the snow tends to get packed down by hikers, making things quite slippery.
We also checked the chalkboard at the front of the store for the day’s hiking conditions at the canyon, because although we’d been tracking the weather and knew it was calling for clear skies, a second opinion is always a good idea.
With everything in order, the drive went quickly. Taking a minute to adjust our cleats – even with our recent tutorial, there was still some trial and error in our application – it was time to hit the trail.
Passing behind Johnston Canyon Lodge, we followed the gradually rising path which, while not challenging did have us shedding a few layers. As we climbed through the forest we admired all the moss-covered trees before descending alongside Johnston Creek to the Lower Falls.
Iron catwalks led the way as the river rushed by below us until we arrived at a bridge. Leading to what looked like the entrance to a cave – I ducked and walked through the dark to the light at the end, which broke open to reveal a stunning waterfall. Frozen ice covered the top layer of the fall, as water rushed beneath it, leaving the nook filled with the roar of rushing water. Multiple ice formations covered the canyon walls, and fallen trees froze over.
Being this close to the falls was truly breathtaking!
Returning to the trail, we followed it up the canyon, taking advantage of several smaller lookout points along the way – admiring insane icicles with dazzling colours, appreciating the nature surrounding us, and watching the water barrel down the river, hopping over rocks and low hanging branches.
Reaching the upper falls, we checked out its two viewpoints. The first, at the bottom of the falls, we reached using the side-trail and catwalk leading to the viewing platform offering a unique vantage point of the falls. With the canyon walls completely lined with ice, this is an ice climber’s paradise! A short, steep climb from the main trail led to the second lookout, hanging over the gorge above the waterfall, leaving a stunning view.
We opted out of the 3-kilometre hike to the Ink Pots, leaving that adventure for another day.
On our way back we saw a woodpecker and knowing the best way to admire nature is from afar, we stood back and watched him work. While I’d seen plenty of woodpeckers before, I’d never seen one so close! His wood chippings fell below and showered the trail, as he continued to peck away.
This winter journey offered an intimate experience of Johnston Canyon. Although we saw fellow hikers along the way, it was only a fraction of what we might see in the summer. And while changing seasons drastically transform the landscape of the canyon, I’m grateful we chose to visit during a chilly winter day. It was an incredibly peaceful hike, courtesy of the ice and snow that blanketed everything, offering a serene quietness.
If you do visit in the warmer weather, try to arrive very early in the morning or in the evening to avoid tour groups and hordes of day visitors.
Please note that current Provincial Health Protocols advise against travelling outside your region to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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