Johnston Canyon

Highlights: Seven waterfalls, trail inside a deep canyon, easy walking.
Activities: Walking, hiking, photography, sightseeing, backpacking.
Location: On Bow Valley Parkway, one half-hour west of Banff and one half-hour east of Lake Louise.
Time: One hour return to Lower Falls, two hour return to the Upper Falls.

Your journey up Johnston Canyon begins in the shelter of towering lodgepole pine trees along the edge of Johnston Creek. As you saunter by the small chalets and lodge you begin a gentle climb on a wide and smooth path away from the Bow Valley Parkway.

This first section of the walk along the creek’s edge takes you through a typical montane forest in Banff National Park. Aspen trees, with smooth white bark and green leaves, contrast with the lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees that have rougher brown bark and needles instead of leaves.

A glimpse to the left a minute up the trail reveals an aspen tree scarred by the claws of a black bear years ago; surprised by people walking nearby, the bear’s first reaction was to climb to safety.

After ten minutes of easy strolling, the trail leads you into a young canyon, formed less than ten thousand years ago when the glaciers began to retreat from the park. The rushing water of the creek has carved down into the limestone on the valley bottom, creating a spectacular and deep canyon in a short period of time.

Throughout the canyon, intermittent layers of a harder rock called dolomite have caused a series of waterfalls, and the first one, the Lower Falls, is encountered just twenty minutes into the walk at 1.1 kilometres (0.7 miles). A spectacular cascade twenty metres in height, this stop features a viewing platform literally underneath the falls on the other side of a natural tunnel carved into the hillside by the rushing waters of an abandoned channel.

Continuing on from the Lower Falls, the trail climbs slowly out of the canyon and follows the canyon’s edge through a forest of spruce and fir trees for another kilometre, passing by five smaller waterfalls and pools you can see below.

For the final descent to the Upper Falls, watch the white limestone cliffs across the canyon for bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The all-white goats in particular frequent these cliffs in spring and fall when the canyon is a little quieter.

At 2.7 kilometres (1.7 miles), the trail reaches the Upper Falls, where a viewing platform has been built out over the creek so you can get a good look at the forty metre cascade of water. Surprisingly, these falls are also an attraction in the winter when they freeze over; both climbers and a local walking company take advantage of the natural beauty of the frozen ice flows glistening under the winter’s sun.

If you’re looking for a little more and want to extend your walk, continue on beyond the Upper Falls to the natural mineral springs at the Ink Pots in an open forest meadow. The trail involves a moderate climb through the forest for another 3.2 kilometres (2.0 miles).