Johnston Canyon Hike – Best Banff Waterfalls – Plus Ink Pots

Johnston Canyon hike is one of the easy trails in Banff and it’s one of the most popular. It’s nicely shaded in the canyon with two beautiful waterfalls plus a more difficult trail up to the ink pots. Located 25 km (16 miles) from the town of Banff, this hike follows along the Johnston Creek. It is suitable for all ages. You will see lots of families (some with baby strollers) or groups hiking this trail. It’s one of my favorite day hikes around Banff and I think it’s the best waterfall hike in the area.

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Johnston Creek along the Johnston Canyon hiking trail at Banff National Park in Alberta Canada

Walking along the Johnston Creek in Banff National Park

 

Johnston Canyon hike description

Johnston Canyon trail is one of the most popular attractions in Canada’s most visited national park. It follows a narrow canyon carved from years of erosion from the Johnston Creek. Parts of the trail have metal or stone walkways with hand railings alongside the canyon. And the rest is hard packed dirt trail with occasional tree roots.

There are actually three hikes along one pathway, each one a continuation from the original trailhead.

Hiking to the Lower Falls and Upper Falls are two key attractions of Johnston Creek hike. The Ink Pots further up the trail are another feature, but fewer people go to the ink pots compared to the waterfalls. Ink Pots is a longer hike but it’s a beautiful scenic location for a picnic before hiking back down the canyon. I highly recommend taking the time to check out the ink pots.

 

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Hiking Johnston Canyon Banff waterfalls and ink pots trail

 

Hiking distances

All distances and times given are for round-trip.

Lower Falls

  • 2.2 km (1.4 miles)
  • Allow about 1 hour

Upper Falls

  • 5.2 km (3 miles)
  • Allow about 2 hours

Ink Pots

  • 11.2 km (7 miles)
  • Allow about 4 – 5 hours

 

Johnston Canyon in winter

Johnston Canyon hiking trails to the waterfalls are open during winter months. The trail is a whole lot different covered in ice and snow and it’s a popular winter hike. It’s advisable to wear crampons (ice cleats) on your footwear in the winter. A lot of people go to Johnston Canyon in winter to climb the frozen waterfalls.

It’s best to wear layers of clothing in winter to maximize warmth but you can remove a layer if you get too warm. Remember to check the weather forecast in Banff before you set out hiking, the temperatures are often much colder than in Calgary.

 

Winter hike at Johnston Canyon and ice climbing the frozen waterfall

 

Johnston Canyon in summer

Note that this hike is very busy in the summer. You want to get there early in the morning to avoid the biggest crowds or go early evening when most people have dinnertime.

I first did this trail as a school kid in Calgary. Many schools have camping field trips out to Banff and Kananaskis Country because it’s only around 125 km (75 miles) from Calgary.

 

Aquamarine waters of Johnston Creek at Johnston Canyon Banff

Aquamarine waters of Johnston Creek at Johnston Canyon trail in Canada’s busiest national park

 

Whenever friends or fellow travelers ask where to hike around Banff I always recommend Johnston Canyon because it’s still one of my favorite hiking trails in the Rockies. While on my solo road trip around the USA and Canada I made sure to book a few days in Banff and Lake Louise so I could go hiking in the mountains as well as visit the gorgeous glacier lakes. The tea house hike at Lake Louise is pretty cool. put that one on your list!

 

Johnston Canyon hike along the Johnston Creek includes small waterfalls leading to the lower and upper falls

Waterfalls along Johnston Creek

 

What I LOVE about this hike is the color of the water and listening to the water flowing in the creek. I don’t know about you but when I look at aquamarine water I feel my mood lift to a happy and peaceful place.

 

Johnston Creek at Johnston Canyon hiking area in Banff National Park - Alberta Canada

Johnston Creek at Johnston Canyon, the most popular hike in Banff National Park

 

Lower Falls hike description

Hiking to the Lower Falls takes little time and the trail is relatively flat. It’s only 1.1 km (.7 miles) and the elevation gain is around 30 m (100 ft) to the Lower Falls. Allow about 30 minutes to get there.

A bridge across the creek leads to a tiny cave that you walk through to witness the pounding water of the Lower Falls. This area gets very congested because the tiny viewing area through the cave only fits around 8 – 10 people.

Of course this is the busiest section of the hike because the tour bus folks only do the lower falls and move on to the next attraction. It reminds me of visiting Yellowstone because it’s so busy.

 

Tourists visiting Lower Falls at Johnston Canyon Banff, one of the most popular hikes

Tourists viewing Lower Falls at Johnston Canyon

 

Much of the hike to the lower falls is along elevated walkways with railings. These are quite narrow and get crowded with tourists posing for photos or trying to maneuver baby strollers around the tourists posing for photos. Be prepared for big crowds in the summer months.

 

People hike on elevated walkway at Johnston Canyon Banff

Scenic hike along Johnston Creek in the beautiful Canadian Rockies

 

Upper Falls hike overview

Hiking to the Upper Falls will be less crowded than the Lower Falls section of the hike. This part of the hike is steeper. Total elevation gain to the Upper Falls is 235 m (774 ft).

 

Banff National Park waterfalls - Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon create a pool at at the bottom - Banff AB Canada

Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon create a pool at the bottom

 

There are two viewing points for the Upper Falls. First there is a small metal viewing platform over the creek. Hike further up the trail to see the falls from above and the pool formed by the waterfall.

 

Johnston Canyon hike to Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon - best of Banff hiking trails

Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon hiking trails

 

Secret trail to cave and waterfall

One big surprise for me this year is the hidden cave and waterfall. Although I saw the waterfall before, only from above, I didn’t know about the cave. There is a kind of secret trail to get to the waterfall and hidden cave. Though it’s easy to find when you know where to look.

Before you get to the Upper Falls there is a steep trail to the right. Watch for it and you will be able to find the hidden cave and have a front row seat to a waterfall that others only view from above.

Note: This portion of the hiking area was CLOSED to the public from August to November 15, 2018 because it’s a nesting area for black swifts. Read  more at this CBC article about the nesting black swifts. It may close again during the 2019 nesting season.

 

Secret hiking trail leads to scenic waterfall and hidden cave in Johnston Canyon Banff

Take the secret trail to this scenic spot

 

Hidden cave hike at Johnston Canyon Banff

Hidden cave hike at Johnston Canyon

 

This cave can't be seen from the regular trail at Johnston Canyon

This cave can’t be seen from the regular trail at Johnston Canyon

 

 

Ink Pots hike info

Least crowded of all the hiking areas is the trail to the Ink Pots. The tour bus crowd often goes to the first set of falls and moves along so your best bet for fewer crowds is to keep hiking up the trail all the way to the Ink Pots. Pack your picnic lunch and enjoy a serene space in the mountains with mesmerizing crystal clear pools in shades of aquamarine and turquoise.

What are the ink pots?

The ink pots are five beautiful spring fed crystal clear pools in a gorgeous meadow at the top of the Johnston Canyon hiking trail. Mineral spring water gently bubbles up into the ink pots giving them jewel like shades of aquamarine to turquoise color pools.

The ink pots hike is mostly through the forest with some gorgeous views along the way.

Allow about 2 to 2.5 hours to get to the ink pots. Distance from the trailhead is 5.5 km (3.5 miles with an elevation gain of 335 meters (1,100 ft) to a beautiful meadow with Rocky Mountain views.

 

Johnston Canyon Ink Pots hike Banff National Park Alberta Canada with crystal clear aquamarine spring fed pools

Crystal clear water at Johnston Canyon Ink Pots hike is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic

 

 

Map of hiking distance to Lower Falls, Upper Falls, and Ink Pots and Johnston Canyon Banff National Park

Map of hiking distance to falls and Ink Pots

 

Johnston Canyon campground

Johnston Canyon campground closed in 2019

UPDATE: January 2019 Due to ongoing construction to replace and upgrade underground services, Johnston Canyon campground is not expected to open in 2019.


Here is the info for when the campground at Johnston Canyon opens again.

Lucky you if you get a campsite at the campground just across from the trailhead. There are 132 sites at the campground located at Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A)

  • Fee is $27.40
  • Sites are available from May 25 to September 25
  • Limited mobility/disabled access
  • Online reservation available here
  • Latitude: 51.24234
  • Longitude: -115.83630

Campground facilities

  • Hot and cold showers
  • Hot and cold running water in bathrooms
  • Flush toilets
  • Food lockers available for walk-in campers
  • Picnic shelters on-site

Campground RV maximum length

Maximum RV length at the campground is 27 feet (8 meters) and only 1 RV per site

Can I smoke pot at campsites in Canada?

Yes it’s okay to smoke pot at campgrounds in Canada. As of October 17, 2018 cannabis became legal across Canada. That brings up questions about where can one smoke marijuana in Canada. According to this CBC article, Parks Canada says yes you can smoke pot at campsites in Canada because Parks Canada treats the campsites as temporary domiciles. You cannot smoke pot at the common areas or playgrounds.

 

Hike info and directions

Address

 Bow Valley Pkwy, Improvement District No. 9, Alberta Canada

Getting to the trailhead

Whether you are visiting Banff on vacation or doing a road trip through Alberta you will want to stop and do this hike. You can even make it a stop on your way to the famous Icefields Parkway. Be sure to allow some time to enjoy the most popular hike in Banff. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

From Calgary

Head West on Trans-Canada Hwy 1 for approximately 120 km (75 miles) to the Bow Valley Parkway exit. Continue for 18 km (11 miles) and watch for signs on the right. The drive takes approximately 1 hour 45 minutes.

From Banff

Head West on Trans-Canada Hwy 1 for approximately 5 km (3 miles) to the Bow Valley Parkway exit. Continue for 18 km (11 miles) and watch for signs on the right. The drive takes approximately 30 minutes.

From Lake Louise

Head East on Trans-Canada Hwy 1 towards Banff for 25 km (15 miles) and take exit 50 towards Banff/Windemere and turn left onto Hwy 93 N. Continue for 1.2 km (.75 mile) and turn right onto Bow Valley Parkway. Continue for about 6 km (3.75 miles) and watch for signs on the right. The drive takes approximately 30 minutes.

 

Waterfall and hidden cave at Johnston Canyon can be found along secret trail

Secret trail leads to this beautiful waterfall at Johnston Canyon

 

Distances for each hike

  • Lower Falls 1.1 km (.7 miles) easy hike
  • Upper Falls 2.6 km (1.5 miles) easy hike
  • Ink Pots 5.6 km (3.5 miles) moderate hike

Trailhead elevation

1,477 m (4,845 ft)

Elevation gain

335 m (1100 ft)

Tips for visiting the hiking trails

  • Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, running shoes/sneakers are okay for this hike in summer but advisable to wear crampons on your footwear in winter
  • Remember to bring a refillable water bottle and snacks especially if you are hiking to the Ink Pots, it’s a beautiful place for a picnic lunch
  • Dogs must be on a leash
  • Parking gets full so be prepared to wait or consider taking a shuttle from Banff
  • Shuttle bus from Banff runs from May 18 to October 8 and costs $5 round trip – check schedule here

 

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Johnston Canyon hike is the best waterfall hike in Banff National Park

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About the Author

Susan Moore spent 7 months traveling around Southeast Asia back in the 90's. Returning to Canada she found a job working on rotation in Siberia Russia. She later moved to Austin Texas where she started a bookkeeping business, allowing her to work remotely. Currently Susan is in year 4 of living a nomadic life, roadtripping around the USA and Canada and writing about her experiences. Read all about Susan » You can reach Susan Moore at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram

2 Replies

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  1. Olivia says:

    Johnston Canyon is a stunning area of Banff. I love the classic turquoise colour of the glacial water. And those waterfalls are out of this world. It’s no wonder why Banff NP sees almost 4 million visitors annually.

    • Susan Moore says:

      Thanks for your comment Olivia! Yes the turquoise water is beautiful. Johnston Canyon is still one of my favorite hikes even though there are tons of tourists there. I just keep hiking up to the ink pots and there’s only a few other hikers up there whenever I go. Love the waterfalls too!

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