Johnston Canyon hike is one of the most popular walks in Banff National Park, Canada. I am normally not a big fan of hiking in a large crowd, but we had booked a cabin to stay the night in Johnston Canyon, and wandering up to the higher waterfalls only takes about an hour, so I thought this would be a good walk to stretch our legs after the 8.5 hour drive from Vancouver! We started quite late in the afternoon (after 4pm) so the crowds were not too bad.
I can see why so many people include the Johnston Canyon Hike on their Banff National Park plans! It is basically an easy stroll to the lower waterfalls. It’s then a little steeper to make it up to all the other waterfalls, but the path is well made, easy to follow and not hard at all. The reward for this relaxing walk, is pretty impressive. You wander through gorgeous, steep-sided canyons, looking down at bright blue water and so many waterfalls!
Johnston Canyon hike map
Johnston Canyon hike – the Basics
Distance: 5.4km to the Upper Falls (and only 2.4km return to the lower falls)
Elevation gain: Pretty minimal – 30m to the lower falls, 120m to the Upper Falls
Time: It took us 1.5 hours
What to bring:
Nothing in particular! We had walking boots, but they are not really needed.
If you continue to hike up to ink pots, you should bring the ten essentials
There are loos in the car park. There is also a cafe, a restaurant and a mini food stand near the start.
Yes, but keep them on a lead.
How hard is it?
Very easy. You can bring your granny and toddler along with you. It may take a little longer, but they’ll be able to manage it.
Go very early, or very late. This walk must be a bit of a slow-moving nightmare if you go in the middle of the day.
Johnston Canyon hike – getting started
The start of the Johnston Canyon hike winds through a forest. We were going against the tide of people, as after 4pm, most people were heading home just as we started our walk. This meant by the time we’d reached the Canyon, there were only a few other tourists around. It’s really lovely that you hear the gushing waters rush along the bottom right from the start of the hike. When you look at the water, it is either a cloudy white colour, or greeny-blue. There must be plenty of ground-up rock and minerals in these waters!
Super steep canyon walls
As so many people hike along this trail every day, the park has done a fantastic job of making it safe and easy to walk along. There is a concrete walkway with a green fence lining the path the whole way along the canyon. This means you can’t get lost, and also must help prevent erosion of this delicate ecosystem. This all means the Johnston Canyon Hike doesn’t feel like you’ve entered the wilderness of the Rockies. However the waterfalls and awesome rock formations are fun to see in any case.
After around 15 minutes you’ll find yourself at the Lower Falls. My photos are not amazing, but hopefully you can get the idea. The water really rushes through this section, plunging straight into a deep pool of bright blue water.
Mini Cave behind the falls
Right behind the Lower falls is a man-made cave, that allows you to get splashed up close to the waterfall! Somehow we timed it so that we had the cave space to ourselves, so we had a fantastic view before the next camera-clutching crowd arrived.
I love getting up close to waterfalls like this!
After you’ve been splashed to your heart’s content, you climb up some steps and get another really good view from above.
Most people seemed content with just visiting this lovely first waterfall. However, if you keep going, there is sooo much more to see on the Johnston Canyon hike!
The next waterfall-filled view is of the Twin Falls.
Keep ascending up the canyon and next you’ll reach Stella Falls,. You also get a fantastic view of Camps Head towering above the Canyon.
Johnston Canyon “Secret” Cave – Don’t visit it!
So, this may turn into a rant, I’m sorry, but this kind of thing makes me really mad!
You may have seen images of the Johnston Canyon Cave on instagram. It looks like a pretty extra “secret” place to explore near the end of this walk. However, the increase in human hikers and photographers has had a really negative impact on some rare black swifts that make their nests in the roof of the cave. There use to be 14-15 pairs of nesting birdy couples in Johnston Canyon each year. Now they are down to 1-2 (with just a single fledgling that survived this year.) This is the only known nesting site for black swifts in Alberta, and it’s down to one fledgling.
The staff have done a good job letting the media know about this issue. I found articles here, here and here. They have also put up signs and huge barriers near the unofficial path down to the secret cave. BUT there are total cockwombles that ignore the signs, climb over the barricades and still go down to the cave for their photos. It seems some people think “doing it for the gram” is more important than the lives of rare birds. We were only in this area for less than 10 minutes, but I saw three people sneaking down to the cave (another bloke and I shouted at them to go back, but they were pretending not to understand us.) I then saw a different person climbing back out of the area when we were on our descent. Why are people such dicks!?
Anyway, if you’re reading this and planning to visit the area, please don’t do this. Update: They have started charging people $1,250 fines for ignoring this closure. So save the birds and your wallet by staying on the main trail!
There is a looovely waterfall right by the secret cave. This one fans out and reaches across the whole Canyon, it is really lovely to see from above.
This is looking down in the other direction from Marguerite Falls. This is also where you can spot if there are any evil folks trying to ignore the signs and head down to the cave below. The Canyon is shaped in a huge U-shape here. It is hard to tell from my photo, but the rocks for a vertical drop and the river has worn the bottom of the cliff down to make it look a bit like the hull of a (bumpy and moss-covered) ship!
Just a little further up the path and you start to see cliffs that have been worn down by the mineral water. They are all stripy and colorful from algae, moss and mineral deposits.
Upper falls -Mistarry Falls
This is your reward for walking up to the top of the falls! You get to see a pretty inspiring 30m drop for the highest waterfall in Johnston Canyon. You need to stand as far as possible to the right of the platform to get the best view of the waterfall.
Keep climbing up one more set of stairs behind the top waterfall to reach the end of the Johnston Canyon hike. The walk finishes above Mistarry Falls. So you get to peer down into this lovely blue water.
If you keep going just a teeny bit further, there is one more pretty waterfall just beyond the upper falls.
Johnston Canyon in Spring
We went back the following spring to see the Canyon covered in ice. It was truly gorgeous, so I’ll add some photos of our second visit.
Johnston Canyon Ink Pots
If you have a little more time, another 3.1km further up the trail will bring you to some ‘ink pots’. These are cold mineral springs (built on quicksand!) I would have loved to keep going on our walk, but we started so late that we just didn’t have enough day light left. I’m sure I’ll pop up to them on my next visit!
Other easy hikes near Johnston Canyon:
The next day when we woke up, it had snowed. So we only really did easy hikes in this area. Here are some other ideas for easy-ish hikes that you can do near here: