I’ve been enjoying the Johnston Canyon hike in Banff for over 40 years now and I gotta say, I never get tired of it. Sure, people say it’s too touristy, but it’s so popular for a reason… it’s short, easy, beautiful and fun.
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I still have clear memories of the excitement I felt walking up the Johnston Canyon trail as a kid. Walking directly above the river on catwalks bolted to the side of the canyon was such a thrill. Equally exciting was entering a dark cave to get so close to the Lower Falls that you get soaked.
My first time on Johnston Canyon was as a kid, but I still feel this excitement to this day, and I’m not alone; I see big smiles on visitors of all ages each time I walk this trail. It’s a scenic, fun and unique place and in my opinion is one of the best things to do in Banff.
Johnston Canyon Hike Highlights
The Johnston Canyon trail leads visitors up into the belly of the canyon created by the flow of Johnston Creek. The trail alternates between being in a lush pine forest and on elevated walkways above the flowing water.
The humidity from the river creates a lush forest with dense green moss blanketing the forest floor. Old Man’s Beard Lichen hangs from the branches giving the forest a kinda spooky feel.
The forest is alive with the sounds and sights of many little creatures, including Townsend’s Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos and Red Squirrels. Be sure to take the time to stop and listen for them.
The elevated walkways are one of the big highlights of this hike. Without the benefit of these pathways being bolted to the side of the canyon wall, much of Johnston Canyon would be impassible, robbing visitors the opportunity to enjoy the intimate beauty of this mountain river canyon.
There are many waterfalls along the hiking trail, but two stand out above the crowd:
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 Lower Falls is by walking into the small cave on the far side of the bridge.
There is a small viewing area within this cave which is extremely close to the water – chances are you will get wet, but it’s so worth it to feel the raw power of nature up close.
The much larger Johnston Canyon Upper Falls have two viewing platforms. The lower one is a small viewing area at the end of a long, elevated boardwalk. The second has a much larger platform from which you can see the Upper Falls.
Each viewing platform is a short distance from the junction (roughly 100-150m) and are both well-worth a look.
On a more personal basis, the Johnston Canyon trail is always wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. This isn’t always the case while hiking in the mountains, so it makes Johnston’s Canyon a great hike for families or larger groups who wish to socialize along the way.
Johnston Canyon Hiking Trail Stats
Distance: The one-way distance from the main parking lot to the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is 1.2km. It’s an additional 1.3km to reach the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls (for a total of 2.5km one-way).
Elevation Gain: Johnston Canyon is a relatively easy hike. The elevation gain you’ll encounter to the Lower Falls is a mere 30m, while it’s 120m to the Upper Falls.
There are virtually no steep parts along the path to the Lower Falls, but you will encounter a few very short steep parts on your way to the Upper Falls.
Difficulty: Johnston Canyon is a hike that almost everyone can enjoy. I occasionally see people struggling to get up the trail, but the vast majority of people will be able to reach the Upper Falls without issue. As such, we rate the Johnston Canyon hike as “easy”.
Duration: It should take a typical adult about 1 hour to hike to the Upper Falls and back.
I recently took my four year old on this hike and it took us about 2 hours to complete the full hike.
How to Get from Banff to Johnston Canyon: The Johnston Canyon trailhead leaves from the main Johnston Canyon parking lot in Banff National Park (P1).
The fastest way to get to the Johnston Canyon parking lot from Banff is to drive west along the TransCanada Highway and then turn onto the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A). This very scenic drive should take you approximately 30 minutes.
Drive with caution along the Bow Valley Parkway as this is a prime area to see Banff wildlife. Cars taking pictures can be parked on the side of the road at any point, so don’t drive faster than the posted speed limits and be prepared to stop.
We’ve seen more bears along this stretch than anywhere else in Banff. There’s also a good likelihood of seeing a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
Johnston Canyon is so popular that they had to build a second parking lot (P2). Try the main lot first which is the first right turn at the traffic circle. If this lot is full, turn back towards Banff and you’ll find P2 a short distance away on the right.
If you don’t have a rental car, you can still get to Johnston Canyon by bus. During the summer months, you can take local transit. Roam Route 9 goes from the Banff Townsite directly to Johnston Canyon. For $8 per person return, this is a steal!
Another option is a Banff Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus day-pass. The advantage of this option is that you can also stop at several Lake Louise locations, allowing you to see several top Banff attractions in a single day.
Johnston Canyon Map
Due to a lifelong habit of taking wrong turns on hikes, I’ve turned to using hiking apps to ensure that I stay on the proper hiking trails.
In this instance though, it’s virtually impossible to get lost on this hike – simply enter the canyon and follow the crowds along the single trail.
If you’d still like a digital map of the hike and the ability to track your stats (distance, elevation gain, etc), I’m currently using the GAIA GPS trail maps app. Within the hiking app, search for “Upper Falls via Johnston Canyon Trail”.
If paper maps are more your style, I highly recommend Gem Trek hiking maps. They are the gold standard for Banff & Kananaskis hiking trails maps and we own the entire set. They are exceptional 3D topographic maps which I love looking at for hiking inspiration.
The Johnston Canyon Trail appears on the map entitled, “Banff & Mount Assiniboine Map”. You can order one off Amazon before your trip, or you can pick one up while here as they are widely available.
Hiking Johnston Canyon with Kids
As mentioned in the intro, this hike made such a profound impact on me as a kid, I still have strong memories of the fun I had. With many exciting elevated catwalks and a wet cave to explore, your kids will have an equally amazing experience.
If you are considering hiking Johnston Canyon Lake with a baby, we would not recommend a large stroller. The trail is paved, but the catwalks are so busy and narrow that you would not be very popular. If possible, a bring one of these great baby carriers, as a better option for hiking with a baby.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
There are benches at regular intervals all the way up to the Upper Falls. Keep an eye open for the benches which have good views of the waterfalls.
If you stop at any one of these benches and pull out some food, there’s a very good chance you’ll be greeted by ultra-cute Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels and/or Red Squirrels. These little guys make a good living mooching human food off visitors.
I know it’s hard, as they are so cute, but avoid feeding them – low-nutrient human food is really bad for them and does not prepare them for the cold winter ahead.
Johnston Canyon Trail Safety
Banff National Park is bear country. We love bears and would hate for any harm to come to them or you, so please take the time to educate yourself by reading Safe Travel in Bear Country.
Don’t be fooled that this is too busy to see any bears – we recently had a black bear cross the path right in front of us not far from the parking lot!
This is one of the rare hikes in the area where you will see dogs on leash, likely as it’s so popular that people feel social pressure to comply with the law.
If you continue your hike past the Upper Falls to the Ink Pots, the crowds will thin out. You may be tempted to take your dog off-leash here, but keep in mind off-leash dogs can very easily draw a bear or cougar back to your group. This happens far too often and puts your life and the life of the animal in danger. It’s just not worth it. Here’s a very recent example of a person who was lucky to walk away from a grizzly attack.
We recommend checking the Banff National Park Trail Conditions report before you head out.
Johnston Canyon Winter Activities
If you visit Banff in winter, you must see the frozen wonderland of Johnston Canyon. There are two ways to see it:
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is a popular way to see this icy wonderland. Simply strap on your provided ice cleats and head on up the canyon with your guide.
The massive pillars of ice at the Upper Falls are an incredible sight. Johnston Canyon Icewalks are easily booked through GetYourGuide. If you’d like to try something a little more adventurous, nighttime ice walk tours are also available.
An alternate way to enjoy this Banff winter activity is to snowshoe from the Moose Meadows parking lot to the Upper Falls. This solitary walk through snow covered pine trees is magical in winter.
Johnston Canyon Logistics
- There are heated washroom facilities in the main parking lot near the trailhead. This will be your only chance to go, so take advantage. The trail is very busy and there are very few spots where you can duck into the trees for some privacy.
- There are no drinking water facilities, so fill your hydration packs before you leave.
- Dogs are allowed on-leash.
- There is a café and bistro in the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows, located right at the trail head. There is also a little coffee shack at the trail head, but it is often closed.
- Try to visit early in the day on a weekday if at all possible to avoid the crowds.
- Bikes are not allowed on Johnston Canyon trail.
What to Bring
- Bear spray is a must. Note, you may NOT bring bear spray on a plane, either in your carry-on or checked luggage. You can order some off Amazon Canada and have it shipped to your hotel, or you can buy a canister in town.
- Water – a hydration pack is an effective way to bring enough water for a long hike.
- A hat and sunscreen – even in a canyon you’ll be exposed to the open sun.
- Mosquito spray if hiking Johnston Canyon in the summer.
The Johnston Canyon trail is mostly paved the whole way to the Upper Falls. Unless you are doing this hike in winter, you won’t need any special hiking shoes for this hike.
If you plan to do a lot of hiking during your visit, you’ll need a proper pair of hiking shoes.
Johnston Canyon Accommodations
Johnston Canyon is halfway between the Banff Townsite and Lake Louise, making it a fun and convenient place to stay.
Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows was named the 2019 Resort of the Year by the Travel & Hospitality Awards. You can choose from 42 heritage bungalow/cabins nestled in the woods near the trailhead.
We spent a weekend at these Johnston Canyon cabins a few years ago and we loved it. Getting up and enjoying the hike before the crowds arrived was a rare and special experience.
If camping is more your style, Parks Canada operates the Johnston Canyon Campground right across the highway from the trailhead. You can make reservations for the this seasonal campground starting in January every year.
Help Protect the Endangered Black Swift Bird
Johnston Canyon is a breeding ground for the endangered Black Swift bird. To protect this special resident, it is prohibited to hike off the main trail between April 1 – November 15. Parks Canada is actively enforcing this regulation and fines can reach $25,000.
There are very few nesting pairs left here – please help protect these birds by staying on the trail.