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Hike to the Ink Pots in Banff National Park

Each time we hike to the Ink Pots we are reminded of what a special place this is in Banff National Park. The blue-green color of the ponds never ceases to amaze and the mountain scenery surrounding is nothing short of spectacular.

Even after decades of hiking around Banff, Canmore and Kananaskis places like this are still able to take our breath away and leave us simply saying “Wow!”.

Summer hike in Banff to ink Pots

So what are the Ink Pots? The Ink Pots are a series of 5 cool springs where spring water percolates up through the sand and gravel.

You can see circles in the deep blue-green pools where the water and air bubbles up.

Bridge and trail around Ink Pots in Banff National Park

Please be respectful of this area and help preserve it for generations to come. A nearby Parks Canada sign comments about the amount of abuse that happened in 1996 and requests that everyone stay on trails and bridges at all times. There is no swimming in the Ink Pots.

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Ink Pots Hike Highlights

The hike to the Ink Pots is a relatively easy hike with a moderate distance of approximately 12 km return. There are two separate trailheads that will meet at a junction at which point there is only one trail to continue on to the Ink Pots.

The Ink Pots can be reached by hiking past the Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon and joining the trail at the junction. We’ve always enjoyed the alternate Moose Meadows starting point. It avoids the crowds at Johnston Canyon and offers a peaceful walk through the forest.

In 2021, the only way to reach either of the trailheads (Moose Meadows or Johnston Canyon) is by biking or walking the Bow Valley Parkway or using Roam Transit Route 9 from Banff starting May 21. Cycling the Bow Valley Parkway is a fun experience in itself, even for kids but it does add extra kilometers to the days adventure.

Cycling Bow Valley Parkway in Banff to Johnston Canyon with kids

If cycling the Bow Valley Parkway, bikes are not allowed on either of the trails. There are places to lock up bikes at Johnston Canyon. At Johnston Creek / Moose Meadows, the horse hitching post or a tree is the only place to lock up bikes.

Hiking to the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon

For hiking to the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon, please read our detailed post on hiking Johnston Canyon.

The Johnston Canyon trail leads visitors up into the belly of a dramatic canyon created by the flow of Johnston Creek. The Johnston Canyon trail alternates between being in a lush pine forest and on elevated walkways above the flowing water.

Hiking Johnston Canyon in June

The elevated walkways are one of the big highlights of the Johnston Canyon hike. The Johnston Canyon Lower Falls are well-hidden in a narrow part of the canyon. Your first glimpse of these falls is crossing Johnston Creek on a solid metal bridge, but the best place to enjoy the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is by walking into the small cave on the far side of the bridge. Chances are you will get wet, but it’s so worth it to feel the raw power of nature up close.

Lower Falls at Johnston Canyon - Hiking to Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon

The Johnston Canyon Upper Falls are much higher than the Lower Falls. There are two viewing platforms for the Upper Falls, although the lower catwalk is currently closed due to safety concerns. The other viewing platform is much larger and allows you to see the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls from above.

Hiking Johnston Canyon is truly a unique experience, so we recommend doing this at least one. You can also expect it to take longer as you’ll want to take plenty of pictures, enter the cave to see the Lower Falls and check out both Upper Falls viewpoints.

Trail sign at Junction to Ink Pots Trail

Once at the Upper Falls, continue past the top viewpoint and connect at the junction to continue to the Ink Pots.

Hiking to the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows

Hiking to the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows begins by entering an evergreen forest, with a smattering of aspen trees. The mossy forest isn’t very dense, allowing hikers to see deep into the forest.

Hiking forested Moose Meadows to Ink Pots

You’ll be walking slightly uphill as you wind your way along this peaceful forested trail. With the Johnston Creek so close by, the sound of birdsong is a constant hiking companion on the Moose Meadows trail.

After approximately 1 km of hiking, you’ll reach the first of several forks in the trail. Each of these trail junctions has a hiking sign pointing you in the correct direction.

Marker along Moose Meadows to Ink Pots

As you approach 2.3 km, take a look to the right and you’ll see a canyon forming below you. This is the famous Johnston Canyon and the hiking trail to the Upper falls is just below you.

The Moose Meadows trail transitions into a long straightaway up the side of a hill. We’ve long talked about this being an excellent stretch of trail to sled back down when we snowshoe Moose Meadows (but we always forget!)

The final section of the Ink Pots hike via Moose Meadows comes when you enter a small clearing. The forested mountain peeking through the trees to the right is Hillsdale Ridge.

There are a few fallen trees and tree stumps to sit on if you’d like a break before continuing the hike to the Ink Pots

At the far end of the clearing you’ll arrive at a trail junction. A short 200m to the right is the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls.

Trail marker hiking Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon

If you’ve never seen the upper falls, it’s worth the short detour. It’s an impressive waterfall in spring and summer, but it’s especially beautiful as a towering frozen waterfall in winter.

Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon

The trail junction to the left goes to the Ink Pots (2.7 km further), Mystic pass (11.4 km) and Luellen lake (14.5 km).

Junction from Upper Falls to Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon

Once you start hiking past this junction on the Ink Pots trail you’ll notice it gets busier as you join up with hikers who are hiking to the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon. It’s not too bad though, as the vast majority of Johnston Canyon hikers turn back at the Lower Falls, then most of the remainder turn back at the Upper Falls. Which is a shame, as the short hike to the Ink Pots is very enjoyable.

At the 3.7km mark you’ll cross a charming little creek, followed by a noticeably steeper section of hiking trail. This section doesn’t last long and you’ll soon be back to a more moderate incline.

The Ink Pots hiking trail is mostly through the trees, but at times you’ll be treated to occasional views of the Rocky Mountain peaks beyond.

Views through the trees along Ink Pots Hike

At around 4.5 km from the start of the trail, you’ll reach the highest point of the hike. Take the time to enjoy the final downhill leg to the Ink Pots, as you’ll be grumbling about starting the way back on an uphill leg. If you look through the trees on the right, you’ll see the land fall downwards into the Johnston Canyon below.

As you near the Ink Pots, you’ll be treated to a few nice breaks in the trees where you’ll get amazing views of Mount Ishbel and Mystic Peak. Mt. Ishbel is especially majestic looming straight overhead with its pointy triangle peak.

As you approach the end of the hike, the trees start to thin and you’ll see a massive clearing up ahead. Johnston Creek flows down into the canyon on your right, while beyond is an impressive collection of rugged Rocky Mountain peaks.

Mountain scenery from Ink Pots in Banff National Park

There’s a series of short trails around the incredible Ink Pots, with many benches to stop, sit and soak in the majesty of this unique and beautiful Banff landscape.

Ink Pots - hike in Banff

Ink Pots Hike Directions

The Ink Pots hike is along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park. The Bow Valley Parkway, also known as Highway 1A, starts just 6 km west of Banff and connects at Lake Louise. A third access point is at Castle Junction at the Highway 93 exit between Banff and Lake Louise.

Ink Pots in early Spring with snow

As mentioned previously, hiking to the Ink Pots is via Johnston Canyon or via Moose Meadows. The Johnston Canyon trailhead is quite obvious, while Moose Meadows is 2 km west of Johnston Canyon (on the same side of the highway). This is not to be confused with the similarly named Moose Meadows roadside turnout on the south side of the highway.

In 2021, the eastern section of the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to public vehicle traffic. To access one of the two trailheads for the Ink Pots hike, hikers have the following options:

  • Take Roam Transit from Banff (Route 9) to Johnston Canyon. Please check the Roam Route #9 Bus to Johnston Canyon – Schedule and Route before heading out to make sure there haven’t been any changes.

  • Park at Castle Junction and cycle the Bow Valley Parkway to either Moose Meadows or Johnston Canyon.

  • Park at Castle Junction and walk the additional 4 km (each way) on the Bow Valley Parkway to Moose Meadows

Ink Pots Trail Statistics

How Long is the Hike to the Ink Pots?

Regardless if you hike the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon or via Moose Meadows, it’s 11-12 km return. From Johnston Canyon to the Ink Pots, it’s 11.4 km return compared to hiking from Moose Meadows which we tracked to be 11.84 km return.

Blue-green color of Ink Pots in Banff

While it’s entirely possible to hike the Ink Pots as a loop, starting at one trail head and finishing up on the other, it’s important to know that Johnston Canyon is 2 km away from Moose Meadows along the highway. There’s no other way to connect the two parking lots, making this a fairly unenjoyable way to finish up an otherwise beautiful hike.

NOTE FOR 2021: With the closure of this section of the Bow Valley Parkway in 2021, you need to finish up on the highway regardless. For anyone walking the 6 km along the Bow Valley Parkway to reach Johnston Canyon, we highly recommend doing this as a loop. Walk the 6 km along Highway 1A to Johnston Canyon, hike through the canyon up to the Ink Pots and return on Moose Meadows. This will eliminate 2 km of highway walking on the way back!

How Steep is the Ink Pots Trail?

The Johnston Canyon / Ink Pots hike will result in 608 m elevation gain compared to 555 m elevation gain when hiking the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows.

How Hard is the Ink Pots Hiking Trail?

In all honesty, the Ink Pots is an easy hike but given its distance of almost 12 km we would probably classify it as more of a moderate hike in Banff.

When hiking to the Ink Pots from the Moose Meadows trailhead, the trail is a gradual uphill with some steeper sections, but very manageable. Past the junction to the Upper Falls, the trail widens but continues to be a gradual uphill then descends to the Ink Pots.

Hiking Ink Pots Trail with kids in Banff National Park

Johnston Canyon is also an easy hike with some very short steep sections to reach the viewpoint up above the Upper Falls. Shortly after that point, it comes to the junction where it connects to the Ink Pots trail.

How Long Does is the Ink Pots Hike?

It should take a typical adult roughly 3-4 hours to complete the out-and-back Ink Pots Trail from either trailhead. We expect it would take longer from Johnston Canyon as there are plenty more photo opportunities and places to stop along the way.

kids looking at Ink Pots Pools in Banff

This only includes the hiking portion from the trailhead, add any time for biking or walking along the Bow Valley Parkway to this. Plan on 20-30 minutes for biking from Castle Junction to either trailhead.

Ink Pots Trail Map

The trail to the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows is well marked and easy to follow. There are a couple trail junctions along this Ink Pots hiking trail, but they are well marked.

Similarly from Johnston Canyon, the trail is easy to follow and well marked the entire way.

Johnston Canyon Hike

We used the AllTrails app while hiking to the Ink Pots, but as we’ve done this trail so many times we really only use it to track our hiking stats (distance, elevation gain, etc). If you are unsure, it’s always helpful to find the hiking map for the Ink Pots on AllTrails and download it before venturing out.

You’ll have some cell service along the way, but not up at the Ink Pots. It’s always a good idea to download the trail map onto your phone ahead of time just in case.

Hiking to the Ink Pots with Kids

We’ve hiked to the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows with kids, but only with the support of hiking backpack carriers. Our kids weren’t capable of handling this full distance at the time.

Hiking to Ink Pots via Moose Meadows with kid in backpack carrier

Especially now with the addition of biking or walking the Bow Valley Parkway, this would be a long hike for younger kids. Our kids are 5 & 7 years old and we will likely attempt this hike with them this year. With them both on bigger bikes with gears, the biking part isn’t as much as a factor.

The hike itself isn’t overly difficult, though long, we feel it’s something they can manage with the appropriate amount of snacks and breaks along the way.

Hiking to Ink Pots in Banff with Kids

With kids, we’d likely hike the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon because the kids will enjoy the platforms and waterfalls much more than a walk through the forest. That being said, we do have one kid who loves to run down hills so finishing on Moose Meadows would be fun too…

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The Ink Pots is the perfect place to stop for lunch. This area is not only stunning, but there are benches that make a perfect picnic spot.

Bridge and trail on Ink pots hike

If the timing doesn’t work out then Johnston Canyon has plenty of benches and places to stop along the way. Alternatively, the main junction between the Upper Falls, Moose Meadows and the final portion to the Ink Pots is a nice meadow that has a fallen log that makes a good place to stop.

wildflowers in meadow at junction to Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon

If the benches are all taken, you can plop down a picnic blanket in the open meadow and enjoy the scenery.

Ink Pots Hiking Safety Tips

The Bow Valley Parkway and surrounding area is prime wildlife habitat. Please take the time to educate yourself about Bear Safety and Cougar Safety in Banff National Park.

Bear on Bow Valley Parkway in Banff NP

Don’t let this scare you off. Chances of a dangerous wildlife encounter in Banff are low, but you never know what will happen with wildlife, so be educated and prepared.

We recommend you check the latest trail reports for trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures before you head out.

There is also a seasonal travel restriction on the eastern 17 km section (Johnston Canyon Campground to Fireside day use) of the Bow Valley Parkway from March 1 to June 25 from 8 pm to 8 am. This applies to ALL TRAVEL (walking, hiking, cycling, vehicles, etc) and is in place to give the animals space.

Ink Pots Trail Logistics

There is a water fountain and washrooms at the Johnston Canyon P1 Parking lot. There’s also a restaurant at Johnston Canyon.

There are no amenities at the Moose Meadows / Johnston Creek trailhead.

Moose Meadows Trailhead to Ink Pots

On-leash dogs are allowed on the Ink Pots hike but make sure dogs are on-leash at all times and on paths around the Ink Pots.

What to Bring for Hiking to the Ink Pots

Check out our list of essential hiking gear with everything we recommend to enjoy your hike, regardless of the variable Banff weather and trail conditions.

For the Ink Pots hike, we recommend packing layers as it will be cooler in the canyon and the wind can get quite chilly up near the Ink Pots in the open meadow.

Always bring bear spray and carry your bear spray in an easily accessible place.

Hiking to Ink Pots via Moose Meadows with kids

Ink Pots Footwear Recommendation

The Ink Pots trail is well groomed all the way to the Ink Pots. Unless you are doing the Ink Pots hike in winter, you won’t need any special hiking shoes for this hike.

If you plan to do a lot of Kananaskis or Banff hiking during your visit, you’ll need a proper pair of hiking shoes.

Ink Pots Hike in Winter

We’ve been known to visit Johnston Canyon more in the winter than in the summer. The frozen waterfalls are magnificent and so worth the effort to see. The snow-covered meadow up at the Ink Pots won’t disappoint either. If you’d like to visit the Ink Pots in winter, you can enjoy it as a winter hike or snowshoe trail.

Ink Pots Winter Hike

Doing the Ink Pots as a winter hike, we’d recommend going the Johnston Canyon route. The frozen waterfalls are worth every step.

ice climber at Johnston Canyon - winter hike banff

Wearing proper foot traction devices on the Johnston Canyon winter hike allow you to enjoy the experience more fully, as you won’t be focusing on your feet the whole time. We love our Kahtoola MicroSpikes, but Yaktrax are also a popular alternative.

Going past the Upper Falls, we recommend bringing snowshoes to make it to the Ink Pots. While it’s possible that the trail will continue to be packed down past the Upper Falls, it’s much less likely. The trail to the Ink Pots isn’t nearly as popular as Johnston Canyon.

Ink Pots Snowshoe Trail

For a real snowshoe, Moose Meadows to the Ink Pots is always a good bet. This trail is used far less in the winter than the popular Johnston Canyon. You likely will need snowshoes to manage any deep snow on the trail, and the crampons underneath snowshoes are very useful for traction on the hills.

johnston canyon ink pots winter

Snowshoeing to the Ink Pots is something we’ve done several times and always enjoyed the snow-covered forested trail followed by the meadow blanketed in snow. What’s even more beautiful is the deep blue-green pools with a snowy backdrop!

Avalanche Risk

We are not avalanche experts, so please educate yourself and make smart, informed decisions while safely enjoying the beauty of the Ink Pots in winter. You are responsible for your own safety.

We recommend consulting the Banff Avalanche Danger Report published by Avalanche Canada before you go.

We hope you love the Ink Pots in Banff as much as we do!

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Hiking to the Ink Pots in Banff. Get all the details for hiking to the Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon or for a quieter alternative, hiking to the Ink Pots via Moose Meadows. This is a hike in Banff you don't want to miss!

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