Johnston Canyon Hike: Banff National Park Trail Guide

With multiple waterfalls, four-season access, and suitability for kids and pets alike, it’s no surprise that the Johnston Canyon hike is one of the most popular in Banff National Park. This guide goes over everything you need to know to hike the Johnston Canyon Trail. 

Johnston Canyon hike Banff Canada

The Johnston Canyon trail is high on many Banff bucket lists, and for good reason. It’s easy (and easily accessible!), it’s gorgeous, you can hike it year-around, and there’s camping nearby. Beginner hikers and families can also hike an even easier route.

Plus, frozen waterfalls in the winter and catwalks bolted to the canyon walls right above the water make it especially unique!

Unsurprisingly, Johnston Canyon Banff is nearly always busy. Very, very busy. You’ll need to pack some patience, but luckily, we have several tips and tricks to help you make the most of this unforgettable family-friendly Banff hike.

Johnston Canyon Trail Guide

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Johnston Canyon trail stats

Johnston Canyon Banff National Park Canada
  • Location: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
  • Distance: 3.4 miles (5.47 kilometers) out and back
  • Elevation gain: 898 feet (270 meters)
  • Difficulty rating: Easy to moderate
  • Timing: 2-3 hours to Johnston Canyon Upper Falls, about 1 hour to the Lower Falls
  • Pets: Leashed dogs welcome
  • Permits: None required, but you’ll still need to pay park admission or have a Parks Canada Discovery Pass 
  • View the trail notes

Johnston Canyon hike overview

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Banff National Park Canada-3

Johnston Canyon is impressive in all four seasons. In the summer, the waterfalls thunder down the canyon walls and in the winter, they freeze in place, vivid blue ice sculptures cascading down those same walls. 

Of course, that’s one of the reasons this hike is perpetually crowded — many hikes in Banff are accessible only in the summer and fall. 

On this trail, even in the dead of winter, you can make it up to the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls. If you’d prefer to keep it more of a leisurely stroll, as most of the crowds do, simply turn around after viewing the Lower Falls. 

Either way, your entire family, including the four-legged members, are guaranteed to love this stunning adventure.

Johnston Canyon Banff National Park Canada

Important note: Starting in 2022, Parks Canada approved a 3-year program intermittently restricting vehicle access during the summer

Between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. from May 1 to June 25, and September 1 to October 1, vehicles cannot travel a 17-kilometer stretch between Johnston Canyon and the Fireside Day-use Area. You can still access the trailhead via the Trans-Canada Highway, using the Castle Junction exit.

Another option is to bike in, which we discuss more later in this post. 

Things to know before you go

The Johnston Canyon hike is pretty straightforward, but there are still several things to keep in mind as you plan your outing. 

Best time of year for the Johnston Canyon hike

Johnston Canyon Banff National Park Canada

The Johnston Canyon trail is accessible year-round and consistently busy, even in the winter. With that in mind, the “best” time for this hike is subjective, based on your personal preferences.

Summer offers the best weather and lush green scenery, but it’s extremely, extremely busy. 

Winter is absolutely magical, when the waterfalls freeze and fewer hikers are on the trail. However, the trail gets quite slippery and you may be trudging through lots of snow. At the very least, microspikes are necessary, and snowshoes may also be a good idea. 

If we had to pinpoint specific months to hike Johnston Canyon Banff, we’d say September, April, or May.

In September, most hikers in Banff are searching out larch trees, so Johnston Canyon is actually somewhat quiet. And while there are no larches on this trail, the fall foliage is beautiful.

During April and into May, the falls will likely still be frozen and ice on the creek will start to break up. The trail is quietest in these months, but the scenery is spectacular.  

Johnston Canyon Banff National Park Canada

How long does it take to hike Johnston Canyon?

Expect the round-trip hike to the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls to take about one hour. If you’re hiking to the Upper Falls, plan on 2-3 hours. The round-trip distance to the Upper Falls is more than double that of the Lower Falls. 

If snow or ice is present, factor in a bit more time for a slower pace. Heavy crowds on the trail can also slow down your total time, and be sure to factor in a bit longer if you want to go into the cave. 

How difficult is the Johnston Canyon hike?

Johnston Canyon hike Banff Canada

The hike to Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is very easy, while the hike to Johnston Canyon Upper Falls is moderate. 

From the start of the hike to the Lower Falls, the trail is mostly flat and there’s minimal elevation gain. When you get to the bridges, there are even railings to help you across. 

This first stretch of the trail is also accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, although we highly recommend leaving the stroller at home, if possible. This trail gets so crowded, we can’t imagine navigating a stroller on the path is enjoyable for anyone!

Beyond the Lower Falls, the trail to Johnston Canyon Upper Falls gets noticeably steeper. Still, it’s not at all technical and is very manageable for most people, including children. 

If you’re looking for a truly easy hike, you can simply turn around at the Lower Falls. 

In ice or snow, the steeper Upper Falls hike is more challenging—but again, still doable. We recommend bringing microspikes or similar traction devices for your shoes. 

Psst! Check out these other easy hikes at Banff to get the most bang for your buck!

The route

We broke down the route for hiking the Johnston Canyon trail into parts to give you an idea of what to expect on the route.

Hiking to Johnston Canyon Lower Falls

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls Banff Canada

The Johnston Canyon hike starts directly behind the Johnston Canyon Lodge. There are heated restrooms in the parking lot, as well as a cafe and cute gift shop just before the trailhead. 

This first part of the trail is pretty flat, running parallel to Johnston Creek and meandering through the forest. Before you know it, you’ll be in Johnston Canyon itself, surrounded by towering limestone walls. 

A series of catwalk-type walkways leads you to the Lower Falls, which are just .7 miles (1.1 kilometers) into the hike

Johnston Canyon hike to lower falls Banff Canada

These catwalks are one of the trail’s highlights, because they hug the canyon walls and run directly over the water. You’ll see the bright blue water under your feet as you walk!

When you come to the bridge over the creek, take a moment to soak up the great views of the 32-foot-tall Lower Falls. 

Johnston Canyon hike tunnel Banff Canada
Coming through the tunnel at Johnston Canyon Lower Falls

Just a bit further up the trail is the iconic tunnel (some people call it a cave). You can’t miss it—if you’re visiting Johnston Canyon Banff in the summer or on a weekend, there will likely be a long line of people waiting to go in. 

Restrictions have changed each summer for the past few years, but in summer 2023, only five people were allowed in at a time.  

You can go through the tunnel to get a close-up view of the Lower Falls, but know that there’s a very good chance you’ll get wet!

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls Banff Canada
Johnston Canyon Lower Falls views from “inside” the cave

Insider tip: The view from inside the tunnel is closer, but truthfully, the one from the bridge is better from a photography standpoint. It’s a fun experience, especially if you’re doing the Johnston Canyon hike with kids, but feel free to skip it if there’s a particularly long line. 

If you’re not continuing on to the Upper Falls, turn around and retrace your steps after taking in the views of the Lower Falls. The trail does get a bit steeper from this point on, so if you’re hiking with young kids or you’re a newbie hiker, this is the perfect turnaround point. 

Hiking to Johnston Canyon Upper Falls

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Banff Canada

To get to the Upper Falls, go back across the bridge, then head up the stairs on the right. Although this leg of the trail is steeper, it’s still fairly easy-going and very straightforward. 

The trail continues for 0.8 miles (1.28 km), alternating between hugging the canyon walls and passing through a lush forest for a short stretch. At one point when you’re in the forest, you’ll pass a few other gorgeous, unnamed waterfalls.

Johnston Canyon hike Banff Canada

When you reach the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls, you can see them from two viewing platforms. Both are worth a quick visit, as they offer two very different perspectives. 

The lower viewpoint is another catwalk along the canyon wall, much like the path to the Lower Falls. You’ll get fairly close to the falls from this platform, getting a unique perspective. 

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls viewpoint Banff National Park Canada

To get to the upper viewpoint, go back across the catwalk, then continue up (away from the Lower Falls). This viewing platform is especially impressive, jutting out over the canyon and letting you see the Upper Falls’ full 100-foot length, including the very top, where they begin.

Ink Pots

Johnston Canyon Ink Pots Banff (Dallas Sleeman)
Image by Dallas Sleeman via Alltrails

Still up for more of an adventure after seeing both the upper and Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon Banff? Continue to the very end of the trail, known as Ink Pots. The “pots” are actually five colorful mineral spring pools.

To reach them, continue past Johnston Canyon Upper Falls. Pass the trail fork to your left, which leads to Moose Meadows (another great Banff hike, but not your destination today).

Bear right and stick with the trail as it gently climbs alongside Johnston Creek for another 1.7 miles. 3.5 miles from the Johnston Canyon trailhead, you’ll reach Ink Pots. Simply retrace your steps to get back to the parking lot. 

If you’re on the fence about hiking to Ink Pots, here’s something to consider: The pools are interesting and pretty, but to be honest, other hikes in Banff offer far better scenery

It certainly isn’t a “bad” hike by any means (is there such a thing?!), but if you’re pressed for time or deciding between this and other hikes, we’d spend those extra few hours on another trail or exploring the Bow Valley Parkway. 

Tips for hiking Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls viewpoint Banff National Park Canada
  • Hike at off-peak times. This is truly one of the busiest trails in Banff, and even tour buses come here (police frequently have to block off the parking lot until others leave!), so to avoid the heaviest crowds, start as early as possible or wait until late in the day.
  • Pack lots of patience. With that said, go into it expecting other people. Be kind and allow plenty of time, especially near the tunnel and on the narrow catwalk sections, where things sometimes slow down enough to form a line. 
  • Be aware of summer vehicle restrictions on Bow Valley Parkway. From May 1 to June 25 and September 1 to October 1, vehicles cannot travel along a 17-km stretch between 8am-8pm. Bicycle travel is permitted. See more details here
  • Ditch your vehicle. To avoid the stress of parking and working around the seasonal vehicle restrictions, consider taking the Roam Transit Route 9 shuttle from downtown Banff. It runs daily in the summer and on winter weekends, plus holidays.
    • Biking is another popular option in the summer. You can rent bikes in downtown Banff, then pedal to the Johnston Canyon trail via the Legacy Trail and Bow Valley Parkway.
  • Bring traction devices. If there’s even the possibility of snow or ice on the trail, pack microspikes or trekking poles. There are places in Banff to rent a pair if you don’t own them, such as Snowtips Bactrax
  • Dogs must be leashed. Seeing dogs roaming free is, unfortunately, common in Banff. Because of the water and narrow catwalks on the Johnston Canyon trail, dogs absolutely must remain on a leash. 

Where to camp near Johnston Canyon

If you’re into camping, there’s a fantastic campground right across from the trailhead for the Johnston Canyon hike. Bonus: you can get an extra-early start on the trail!

Johnston Canyon Campground sits right on Bow Valley Parkway, and has 132 sites for tents and smaller RVs or campervans (up to 27 feet long). The campground is open from late May to late September, and advance reservations are highly recommended.  

What to pack for hiking Johnston Canyon Banff 

Johnston Canyon hike Banff Canada

There are a few items we take on every hike with us, no matter how far or challenging the trail we plan to tackle.

Be sure to download our FREE hiking packing list before your next trip and never leave another essential behind again!

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We want to hear from you!

Have you ever done the Johnston Canyon hike in Banff National Park? What was your experience like? Do you have more questions about doing the hike? Comment below and let us know!

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