17 Apr Hiking the Johnston Canyon Trail in Banff National Park, Canada
We were nearly finished with the Johnston Canyon hike when we encountered a line of people blocking the path in front of us. No one seemed to know what was happening—the only thing we knew was that we were stuck for the time being. Because the trail was a narrow catwalk attached to a cliff and hanging over the river, there were no alternate routes to take. After 20 minutes or so, the line started to move at a glacial pace. Once we made it to the front of the bottleneck we gasped with horror. The trail and metal guardrail were twisted into a pretzel. We were rushed over the damaged trail, and it wasn’t until we crossed to safety that we found out what had happened.
Sadly, a tree had dislodged from the cliff above and it fell onto the trail, knocking out a young boy in the process. The boy had to be airlifted out of the park in critical condition, and we never did find out what happened to him. We sure do hope he recovered from his injuries. It was a terrifying situation and it shut down the trail for several days.
Thankfully, the Johnston Canyon Trail has reopened and is now safe to traverse once again. We were happy to see it reopen as it is one of the most popular day hikes in Canada’s Banff National Park—with good reason, too. Despite the unfortunate accident the day of our hike, the Johnston Canyon Trail is a relatively easy hike. And because the catwalk is affixed to the cliff and deep inside the canyon, it allows access to an area that would otherwise be extremely difficult to reach.
The trail is perched above the Johnston Canyon Creek and attached to the limestone cliffs that twist their way along the river. You will find yourself walking under overhanging cliffs, through caves, and over the river when exploring all the waterfall viewpoints. In addition to the catwalk portion of the trail, there are small sections of the hike that travels through the woods. The trail is easy to follow, and the elevation gain to the upper falls is only around 393 feet.
There are several different trails combined into one here—Lower Johnston Falls (1 mile roundtrip) and Upper Johnston Falls (3 miles roundtrip) being the most popular. If you would like to hike a longer distance, you can continue on and make your way to the Ink Pots, which clocks in at around 6.7 miles roundtrip.
When we arrived mid-afternoon, the parking lot was overflowing and people were everywhere. We decided to return to the trail later once the traffic cleared out and the light was better for photography, but we made our way down to the trailhead for a quick look around. Well, before we knew it, we were well on our way and had unintentionally started the hike.
Our initial plans were to hike all the way to the Ink Pots, but we didn’t bring any water since we were originally planning on returning the trail later in the evening. And, because we heard fresh flowing river water throughout the entire hike, we started to get extremely thirsty before we even made it to Upper Johnston Falls! Once we reached the upper falls, we took a break, soaked our feet in the chilly water and decided to head back to the car so we could guzzle all the water in sight.
The seven sets of cascading waterfalls were beautiful, and it had an aqua hue to it just like the waters at several of the lakes throughout the park. We thoroughly enjoyed the Johnston Canyon Trail, but it was a bittersweet afternoon when it ended on such an unfortunate note. It just goes to show that you never know what to expect when it comes to nature!
Trail Information & Tips:
Elevation Gain: Lower Falls: 98 feet; Upper Falls: 393 feet
Distance: Lower Falls: 0.5 miles one way, 1 mile roundtrip; Upper Falls: 1.5 miles one way, 3 miles roundtrip
Starting Point: Johnston Canyon Parking Lot on the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A), 22 km west of the town of Banff
- The hike to the Lower Johnston Falls is around 30 minutes and the hike to reach Upper Johnston Falls is around one hour. Allow 2-2.5 hours return trip if you are planning on hiking all the way to Upper Johnston Falls.
- Don’t forget your water! It can be a long hike and the rushing water will definitely make you thirsty.
- Dress in layers—the trail is sunny in some parts and shaded in others. You will likely encounter a variety of temperatures throughout the hike.
- If you decide to head all the way to the Ink Pots, allow around four hours to get there and back. The trail is 6.7 miles roundtrip and has an elevation gain of just over 1,080 feet.