Johnston Canyon, Alberta: A spectacle in every season

Article by Global Guide Tamara Elliot


The great thing about Alberta is that there are amazing things to see and do year round, including a number of spots that are spectacular no matter what season it is. One of those special places is Johnston Canyon, which is nestled in the Rocky Mountains just past Banff.


Johnston Canyon is famous for its roaring waterfalls, which burst out of the cliffside and stream down the canyon, delighting visitors every step of the way. There are a few spots to see them, including Lower Falls which is a 20 minute walk from the trailhead, and Upper Falls which takes an hour to get to. Those with energy to burn can continue past the Upper Falls for a birds-eye view of the waterfall, or head to the Ink Pots where two serene ponds lie in wait.


In warmer months (May through October) visitors walk under a shady canopy of thick fir trees, navigating the pathways and catwalks which traverse over Johnston Creek’s crystal clear waters. While the waterfalls are the area’s main attraction, the sandstone cliffs that wind beside the trail complete the gorgeous scene. Incredibly, the canyon continues to deepen into the chasm below as sand particles and stones sandblast the rock walls, so it continues to change over time.


Unless they veer off to explore the Ink Pots, the first stop for most people is Lower Falls. After crossing a narrow wooden bridge, you’ll duck into a tunnel that goes straight through a cave, before emerging onto a tiny platform overlooking a small waterfall that plunges into a tranquil pool. It’s interesting to note how the colour of the water changes with the seasons, giving off an aqua-marine tint in the summer and more of a teal hue in winter.


Continuing along the pathway, the trail winds through the forest, up and down hills and around bends affording breathtaking views of the creek before arriving at the crown jewel: Upper Falls.


It’s here that you’ll find a 30 metre high gushing waterfall—unless of course, you’re visiting during winter. Instead, you’ll be greeted with the spectacular sight of the falls frozen over, creating a winter wonderland of icy shards. If you listen closely as you stand on the wooden viewing platform surrounded by drifts of pristine, fluffy snow, you can actually hear water rumbling under the icicles.


During warm months most visitors are content to simply soak in the scene, but winter affords an opportunity to get up close and personal with the falls by climbing them. Some tour operators offer ice climbing excursions, where you’ll be paired up with an expert to help you scale the frozen falls, ice pick and all.

Exploring Johnston Canyon is a fantastic way to enjoy Alberta’s Rocky Mountains in all seasons, and is an easy excursion suitable for all ages. Just don’t forget to bring your camera!

How to get there: Johnston Canyon is about 20 kilometres from Banff, along the scenic Bow Valley Parkway. It’s about a two hour drive from Calgary.

When to go: Johnston Canyon is understandably popular, and can be full of day trippers and tourists. Go early in the morning or on a weekday if you want to avoid the crowds.

Where to stay: If you’d like to spend more time in the area, book a room in Banff, Canmore or Lake Louise. You can also camp at the Johnston Canyon Campground in warmer months, or stay at the Johnston Canyon Resort which is conveniently located at the beginning of the trail head.

Need to know: The pathway to the lower and upper falls is mostly flat, making it easy to navigate. However, it’s a different story in winter when the trail can get very icy. While one can get by wearing boots with a good grip, bringing along a pair of ice cleats is a big help.

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