Johnston’s Canyon is a family friendly, accessible hike about 20-25 minutes down the Bow Valley Parkway. It is a 5.1 km out-and-back hike to the Upper Falls, or you can continue on an extra 3 km to the Ink Pots (an extra 6 km total) if you want to hike a little more and escape the busier sections of the path.

During the summer months the canyon is packed with visitors, so we were not surprised to see the trail was busy on a mild Saturday in January. We didn’t rush out to the mountains, as we knew the hike was short and we were stopping to pick up micro-spikes. We had read mixed reviews on whether these hiking crampons were necessary, but decided to bring them in case. The spikes proved useful upon reaching the Lower Falls, where elevation changes began and the packed-down snow became a slide.

Catching up to traffic on the way to the Lower Falls.
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The parking lot was nearly full by the time we arrived, just after noon. If you’d prefer to miss the busyness of the path, I would recommend coming earlier, or on a weekday if you are able. Despite the number of people on the trail, however, we found everyone to be respectful of one another’s space. If you are concerned about close contacts on the trail, Parks Canada recommends wearing a mask when you cannot social distance.

We found ourselves following a line of other hikers through the first part of the canyon. All of the rocks on the canyon walls were covered in a thick layer of frost, glinting in the sun and generally giving a very different look to the canyon from the summer months.

A photo I took in June 2018, the last time I visited the Canyon.

The hike stays quite level until the fork between Lower Falls and the continuing route to Upper Falls. Lower Falls is approximately 1 km into the hike. There are many signs along the route that will let you know where you are and how far you have to go. At the top of the slope to the Lower Falls lookout, we decided to put on our micro-spikes. The snow hadn’t bothered us on level ground, but now that the trail had an incline, we opted for the extra grip. The spikes made a world of difference. We waited in line for the cave lookout at Lower Falls. This definitely added a significant amount of time to our hike, but the weather was warm so we didn’t mind waiting. If you prefer not to wait or have a time limit for your excursion, the view from the bridge is great as well.

The view of Lower Falls from the bridge.
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The path to Upper Falls follows some short switchbacks up the canyon wall following the split to Lower Falls. This section was easy with the micro-spikes, though we did see some people struggle without them. The lower catwalk to Upper Falls was roped off, so we continued up the hill to see the falls from above. The lookout was full of people watching the ice climbers below. The frozen waterfall hung over the edge of the canyon in deadly icicles. This is what our group of climbers was practicing on. As someone who would consider herself to have a moderate fear of heights, I couldn’t imagine attempting to scale these monstrous icicles. It was exhilarating to witness though!

An ice climber preparing a belay on the Upper Falls.

If you haven’t made it out to Johnston’s Canyon before, or you’ve only been in the summer, I recommend coming to see this frozen wonder for yourself. The hike is accessible, especially with crampons or micro-spikes, and suitable for families or dogs. It is a great way to get out into nature during the winter.

Share your thoughts in a comment below, or recommend other winter hikes you love!

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Published by immersivetraveller

I am a recent graduate with a BA in Honours English. I enjoy creative writing and language learning as well as travelling and exploring.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your Johnston Canyon hike experience. Most accounts on hikes talk about the way up. You have mentioned that you have a “moderate fear of heights”. Me too. It would be helpful to know about the challenges on the way down. Whether there is an alternate way down, or more reliance on poles/spikes …. So far, I’ve had many not so graceful descents but managed to get home safe.

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    1. That is definitely a good point! I think I fall into the habit of focusing on the way up as well. For Johnston’s Canyon the spikes help with all the slopes, both inclines and declines. I always bring poles just in case! They can be a great help even if they just add some assurance through a placebo effect

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