Canadian Rockies: Hiking to Johnston Canyon Falls


Banff National Park: Johnston Canyon Falls Trail

Date Hiked: August 10, 2009
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: Banff National Park (403) 522-3833
  • Distance: 1.7 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 510 feet
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Dirt and pavement
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Feeling cheated from our hike to the Hoodoos, and aware of how much longer daylight lasts in Canada during the summer (than back home in California), Jeff and I decided to squeeze one more short hike into our first full day in the Canadian Rockies.  After all, it was only 6:00pm.

During our visit to the Friends of Banff visitor center earlier than day, a friendly ranger had told us that, despite its massive crowds, we absolultely had to visit beautiful Johnston Canyon Falls. Jeff and I gambled on a hunch that the big mobs of tourists, especially families, would be eating dinner right about this time, so we might actually avoid the crowds at this late time.  The hike was a short one, which left us plenty of time to make the drive along Bow Valley Parkway, hike the longer distance to the upper falls, and get back to our car before nightfall.  Bow Valley Parkway did not disappoint!  It’s a beautiful stretch of 2-lane highway connecting Lake Louise to Banff.  And just before we reached Johnston Canyon, we were treated to our very first real wildlife sighting of the honeymoon — a family of elk alongside the road (dining on vegetation right in front of a rest stop).  We snapped a bunch of pictures, worried we might not see much more elk, when in fact, we would run into this same family of elk almost every day of our honeymoon.


One of the elk we spotted along Bow Valley Parkway.

Our gamble paid off!  By the time we started out on the hike up Johnston Canyon at 7:00pm, the tourist crowds were pretty much gone.  The easy well-paved trail — particularly to the lower falls — makes it possible for even the most out -of-shape tourist to do this hike.  We definitely struck gold by arriving so late.


The deceptively flat easy entrance to Johnston Canyon.

Johnston Canyon is a narrow gorge, with a full crystal clear stream running its full length and width, and a shady steep fern grotto-like walls along either side.  There is absolutely no way to hike along the canyon itself.  Instead, visitors traverse much of the canyon floor via a series of spectactular man-made catwalks.  The trail is mostly paved all the way to the lower falls, then starts to resemble a real hiking trail for the harder climb to the upper falls.  Visitors who opt for the longer stretch to the upper fall are treated to a series of seven beautiful waterfalls.


Catwalks leading deep into Johnston Canyon.

After a short stretch of the legs along the catwalks, visitors are greeted by the beautiful Lower Falls.  Although not as tall as the Upper Falls, the Lower Falls are definitely the more beautiful and full of the two main sets of waterfalls.


Lower Johnston Canyon Falls plunge into a spectacular pool.

Most people seem to make the Lower Falls their final hiking destination. Access is almost wheelchair-accessible the entire way, which certainly explains the larger crowds here versus the Upper Falls (although the “crowd” we saw is a mere fraction of the mobs that normally make their way to the waterfalls during peak hours).


Making our way higher up the limestone-walled canyon to the Upper Falls.

Jeff and I continued back into the canyon for another half-hour or so, until we made our way to the taller Upper Falls.


The majestic Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon.

Not as full and hard-flowing as the Lower Falls, the taller Johnston Canyon Upper Falls are still quite spectacular.  We must have spent a good 15 minutes here just taking in the sheer beauty and sound of the falls.


Water funneling down into the sheer Upper Falls drop.

Although the Upper Falls marked the end of our official trail, Jeff and I, ever our curious selves, proceeded a bit further (along the trail to the Ink Pots) to see the “source” of the Upper Falls.


Jeff and I at the "source" of the Upper Falls.

We made the hike back down to our car well before dark, so very happy that we’d gambled (and won) by making an evening trek out to Johnston Canyon.

Despite being the easiest hike of our honeymoon, it remains one of our most memorable due to the beautiful succession of grotto-lined waterfalls climbing back into the canyon. We would never want to attempt tackling this in the peak of tourist hours, but we do recommend hitting it early morning or late in the evening to avoid crowds.

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls.

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