Johnston Canyon Hike – Banff National Park
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:
- Plain of Six Glaciers hike (Lake Louise)
- Highline Trail to Lake Agnes and the Big Beehive (also Lake Louise)
- Moraine Lake shoreline trail
- Exploring Banff in the snow
- Hoodoos trail along the Bow river
- Emerald Lake Loop
- General post about Banff in the springtime (if you visit in April)
51 thoughts on “Johnston Canyon Hike – Banff National Park”
Great pictures! I can believe people ingoring warning protecting the wildlife – I drove through Richmond Park the other day and it’s rutting season. There was a massive stag calling (what is the noise they make?) and foolish joe public walking far too close to it. I also witnessed other people walking close to groups of rutting stags. It’s so dangerous, but they don’t care!
That is so infuriating! Although with the stags, the stupid people are putting themselves in danger…with these poor swifts, people are putting the whole species in danger. Grr!!
I love Banff and this wonderful hike into Johnson Canyon. We were there a couple years ago and made sure to arrive early to avoid the worst of the crowds. We didn’t go as far as you did but it was still awesome! Like you, I hate to see (extremely selfish) people ignoring signs that are there to protect either the landscape or wildlife. I will often say something but these days you never know how people will react. So unfortunate. 🙁
Make that Johnston Canyon!! 😉
Oooh I am impressed that you turned around! I was so excited to see all the waterfalls so I found it hard to turn around and not keep going up to the ink pots!!
I think Marc was embarrassed that I shouted at people that had crossed the barrier. I couldn’t help it though!!
I love your hikes! I almost feel like I was there with you.
Thanks Michelle!! This one was sooo fun!
I can’t wait to write about the next one too…we even saw grizzly bears!!
Thank you <3
Beautiful. I love the signs — I also deplore the fact that people will intrude where they do not belong at great cost to the little beings who DO belong. In my mind, nature is all for the birds. I try very hard to tread carefully because I want them there, I want to see them, to know they’re safe and will be for a long time. Forever, ideally. <3
It’s really sad isn’t it!
We did get to see soooo many birds and critters on this trip. Most of the time, people were behaving well around them…this was the only place where I got mad at people.
We saw grizzly bears the next day…unsurprisingly people gave *them* plenty of distance!!
I like that you mention that grandparents and toddlers can do this hike! It’s important to get everyone outside – young and old. Another wonderful post, Josy – beautiful photos as always!
Thank you lovely!
Yeah, some of the walks we do are less family friendly, so I’m always keen to mention it when it’s suitable for everyone! 😀
Gorgeous, Josy! I love the pics of you and Marc. And I’m yelling obscenities now at those twat-nuggets now!
Riiight! I am still a bit in shock that people can be that stupid/mean! I am sure they weren’t trying to kill of the black swifts…but if they stopped to read the signs before climbing the barriers, they would have seen the reason for the closure of that path.
This looks so gorgeous. And the poor black swift! It’s something I pondered in Iceland when we visited recently–it’s wonderful that more people are getting back to nature and want to marvel at its wonders. But it comes at a cost.
Eep! I just spotted this comment Angela. I am sorry I did not reply sooner!
I heard that iceland is having similar problems with people trampling on their rare moss. It’ll all be okay if only people will learn to stay on the paths!
You are right though. It is awesome that so many people love getting outside and enjoying nature. I just hope the more they enjoy it, the more they will want to protect it.
I’m a big fan of any hike that can be considered “baby or granny” friendly! The water falls are gorgeous. They remind me alot of Hana, Maui Hawaii! Reminds me I wanted to do some family hiking this fall, better get on that before it gets too cold here in NY!
Oooh I have a feeling I would love Hawaii. I have never been, but I keep seeing photos of the amazing waterfalls!
I hope you find some gorgeous autumnal hikes this weekend! I’m planning to do the same!
I love hikes/walks that can be done in a short time frame! And nice you can take kids, etc. Canada really is a beautiful country!
Yeah sometimes it’s nice to have a little wander (rather than a massive trek!) And OhMyGoodness Canada really is lovely!
I found it mad that we could do this hike from the front door of our cabin!!
I love that hike! We’ve done it early enough to beat the crowds last time, and were on the way out by the time most people were coming in. It’s such a great place to be and an easy hike, no wonder it’s so popular! Love your photos!
Oooh do you have a blog post about it too Emese? I love seeing different perspectives on the same walks.
Good work on going early! That is my favourite way to beat the crowds normally.
I just pinned this because I’m hoping to visit Banff with my kids (3 and 5) next year. This looks like an excellent and family-friendly hike!
Oooh this would be perfect for kids!
In fact, there was so much snow while we were in Banff, that we did quite a few child friendly activities. There were lots of families at the Bow waterfall, and hiking along Moraine Lake would also be great for little legs. Lastly (I didn’t write about it yet,) but the Banff Cave and Basin was great too!
I hope you have an amaaazing trip! 😀
This was the first hike I did when I moved from Italy to Canada! I’ll always have good memories of this place – and the Ink Pots are worth a return visit for sure!
Oooh what a good idea for a first walk! I would have loved to keep going to the ink pots! Ah well…next time!
This looks like an amazing hike! Your photos are beautiful .
Loved your pictures. They are so inspiring. I personally not a great fan of hiking but this looks so amazing.
Thanks Anwesha. Don’t worry…if you make it to Banff, there are quite a few walks like this that are super easy (even if you’re not into hiking) Maybe Canada’s prettiness would convert you. 😉
What an amazing place. I can’t believe how much there is to see on just one day of hikin! I love waterfalls and usually end up a little transfixed so I don’t know if I’d make it all the way up to the ink pots. I’d love to see the Marguerite Falls and call out the naughty instagrammers too!
You can totally make it the whole way up! It’s not even a full day hike to see all this. It’ll take less than 2 hours, even if you go slowly and take loooads of photos! 😀
p.s. I’m glad I’m not the only one wanting to call out the insta-bird-haters!
I’ve been wanting to go to Banff in a long time. Looking forward to seeing amazing scenery. Beautiful photos!
Thanks Jennifer! I’d been planning to go for yeeeears too. I hope you make it there…it’s totally worth the wait!
Beautiful! I have been to the Banff area three times, and each time I have missed out on seeing Johnston Canyon. I have heard that it is so cool to visit in the Winter, when the waterfalls are frozen over!!!
Oooh I think I would love that too. Although, I have a feeling that path would be *very* slippy! If you go, bring micro-spikes!
Banff has been on my bucket list forever, but I want to do it properly, so saving up my money first. Such a great post, definitely filing this away for later!
Yay! Thanks Nerissa. I hope you have a blast when you make it there!
We were only there for a few days, so I am keen to go back and explore more too!
It is almost as if you read my mind! I may be wrong but Banff is one of the most beautiful places I have seen photos of. You photos has done further justice and I cant wait to visit! I get so worked up as well when people refuse to follow simple conservation instructions!
Thanks Bonita! Do you have plans to visit soon? There are sooo many places nearby that are pretty! I hope you love it as much as we did!
Ugh! I am dying to go to Banff! Gorgeous pictures!
You will love it soooo much! I wish we could find jobs closer to there so we could spend more time in the Rockies!
Im planning to visit banff in april 20th. Is the johnston canyon open by then?
We were there in April 2019 (on the 23rd) It was open, but very icy, so bring microspikes.
If you like, you can see photos of it covered in ice on my other post here: https://www.awalkandalark.com/banff-springtime/
Thanks much gor the info Josy. I’ll make sure to get those microspikes. Can you suggest of other beAutiful hikes in banff and jasper that you have gone too?
Oooh there are so many good ones! I was worried it would be too snowy in April, but we found quite a few.
The easiest way is probably for you to zoom into the map at the top of this page: https://www.awalkandalark.com/oh-canada/ Click on the icons to find links to descriptions of each walk. We have only visited Banff/Jasper in the shoulder season so far, so you’ll be able to do everything we did. Just check the avalanche forecast before each walk.
I hope you have an amaaaazing time.
Very cool website! Visiting Banff is on our bucket list. Can’t wait to go someday. Saving your website to plan our next trip. Love the way you have everything organized!