Johnston Canyon & Ink Pots Hike - Banff: how to avoid the crowds

Johnston Canyon is justifiably one of the most popular places to visit near Banff. It’s an easy walk on a paved path that follows a stunning blue river to several waterfalls with beautiful canyon views along the way. At 0.5 - 1.5 miles long (depending on how many falls you visit), the Johnston Canyon hike is suitable for everyone. Most people stick to the Lower and Upper Falls, with very few going onwards on the Ink Pots Trail, a special place that is well worth the extra time.

Here’s what to expect at Johnston Canyon and why we think you should add the hike to the Ink Pots to your trip.

The Ink Pots - 3.7 miles along the Johnston Canyon Trail


Johnston Canyon & Ink Pots Hike - Banff

Johnston Canyon

Famed for its deep cliffs, electric blue river, waterfalls and a little wildlife along the way, Johnston Canyon is the perfect day trip for anyone visiting Banff.

The Johnston Canyon Hike

Johnston Canyon is a return hike, on an easy paved path. It’s well signposted the whole way and it’s fair to say it’s incredibly popular. If you want any kind of serenity on this section of track you’re going to have to come very early or very late. Even at 7pm there were a fair few people on the trail, although a lot less than when we arrived at 3.30pm (incidentally past 3pm is when the Johnston Canyon website says it gets quieter so we’d hate to see it earlier!).

There are three options for your hike: the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls and the Ink Pots. If you don’t mind a bit of uphill walking then we highly recommend visiting all three which can be done in around three hours very comfortably.



Stop 1: Johnston Canyon Lower Falls

Distance: 0.5 miles each way

Steepness: Very little, but some gentle undulation

Difficulty: Easy

The trail to the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is by far the easiest part to explore and most people will find this a short and leisurely stroll along the concrete path.

The trail starts from the car park and immediately meets the river - which is stunningly clear and an electric blue. Along the way you may see a Dipper, but you’re almost guaranteed to see Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels (that are very cute) and maybe a chipmunk or two (they look very similar to the golden squirrels but are much smaller) .

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls

The trail weaves through the deep walls of the canyon, as well as showcasing the stunning pine forest. In summer you’ll see a few wildflowers along the way. Occasionally the path turns into a walkway that is attached to one of the canyon walls, offering views from high up as you hear the roar of the river and the echo of the falls below.

Soon you’ll arrive at the Lower Falls, a fitting end to this section. You can admire the falls from the path or queue up (yes, there’s a queue virtually all day) for a close up view from the cave. At best you’ll have to wait 15 minutes, but the queues can really back up so it could be longer.

The Lower Falls at Johnston Canyon

Stop 2: Johnston Canyon Upper Falls - 1.5 miles in

Distance: 1.5 miles each way (1 mile beyond Lower Falls)

Steepness: Uphill hike most of the way

Difficulty: Moderate because it’s uphill but excellent trail condition

If you fancy seeing more waterfalls, backtrack very slightly and look for the sign for the Upper Falls. The trail is then mainly uphill through forest and only paved along the sections following the canyon wall. This will be fine for the majority of people, but there are a few tree roots to navigate.

Less than half the people visiting the canyon seemed to go up to the Upper Falls, so it gets quieter and you’ll have more room on the trail. You can no longer walk off the path as both sides are undergoing regeneration work as it is a nesting site for rare black swifts (you used to be able to visit Johnston Cave which became a popular Instagram spot).

From time to time you’ll be able to peek out of the forest and take a look at the river and a few smaller falls.

It doesn’t take long to get to the wide platform for a view of one of the upper falls. This is the easiest to take in, but not quite as impressive as the final falls you get to (which are technically “the Upper Falls”).

Sadly, the Upper Falls are on a narrow walkway with - you guessed it - a queue. Everyone wants the shot in the very corner where you can get the whole view. The queue here was around 10 minutes but bear in mind this was 4.30pm on a weekday, it would be worse earlier in the day or on a weekend - still it’s not as bad as the lower falls but still a bit annoying!

Queues at Upper Falls Johnston Canyon

Stop 3: The Ink Pots Trail - 3.7 miles in

Distance: 3.7 miles each way (2.2 miles beyond Upper Falls)

Steepness: Steep uphill

Difficulty: Moderate because it’s uphill but trail conditions are good

We’ll warn you: the walk itself isn’t the reason you do the Ink Pots Trail. The track goes through a beautiful forest, but nothing that you haven’t already seen, albeit much quieter which is nice.

However, the persistence will pay off as the final spot is stunning and we think it’s well worth the additional 4.4 miles hiking.

The Ink Pots Hike - Johnston Canyon Alberta

The trail branches off from the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls and is steep (but not brutally so) for the majority of the 2.2 miles the Ink Pots. There are no breaks in the uphill climb until the final 0.5 miles when you descend towards the Ink Pots.

In wet weather, the trail can get pretty muddy, but you can easily skirt round the worst parts as it’s nice and wide. The continuous uphill hike can feel like an unrewarding slog until the end!

But what an end. Soon you’ll see the trees disappear and your hard work will be rewarded with epic mountain views through gaps in the trees.

It then won’t be long before you’ll be surrounded by grand mountains that dominate the skyline and seem to go on forever into the distance.

Moments later you’ll come to the blue river that feeds Johnston Canyon and the iconic Ink Pots. These small pools really do look like their namesake, with several different shades of blue and green. It truly does look like someone has created huge ink pots.

The pools are mesmerising by themselves, but when combined with the mountains and river backdrop it makes for an unforgettable view.

It was so much more beautiful than we were imagining and with six pools and plenty of bench seating you could spend a long time here soaking it up. The light was beautiful in the late afternoon but we’re sure it looks amazing at any time of day.

The Ink Pots

We were so surprised that no one really talks about the Ink Pots online, as we found it to be a fantastic extension to the Johnston Canyon hike. The entire trip will take half a day or less, and is time very well spent.

Read next: Ha Ling Peak Trail - a leg burning hike above Canmore


Essential information about Johnston Canyon & the Ink Pots

Best time to go to Johnston Canyon

Sadly, as Johnston Canyon is incredibly popular if you want to experience it without too many crowds then you need to go very early or much later in the day (later might mean you don’t have time to see the Ink Pots though).

Despite having a huge car park, the cars spill out for miles along the highway. If you don’t want a very early start and can tolerate heavy crowds in the first part of the canyon then we’d recommend going after 3.30pm. We saw cars lined up for almost two miles up the road leading to the car park yet we drove in and immediately got a car parking space right by the entrance as lots of people were leaving at this time.

Read next: The Stanley Glacier hike - an epic hike near Banff

Whilst the early afternoon is a great time for light, seeing the river light up and the canyon at its best, the crowds are awful so we’d still recommend coming a 3.30pm or later.

The Ink Pots will be quiet at all times of day, so you can escape the madness by hiking a little longer.

Parking becomes very easy if you arrive in the late afternoon/early evening, but then you’ll be seeing the canyon in shadow. We looked at the Lower Falls viewpoint at 7pm and there was still a 15 minute queue to go into the caves, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever be completely alone.


Johnston Canyon Entrance Fee

Johnston Canyon falls under Banff National Park and requires purchasing a permit before you visit. You can buy it on Highway 1, but the queues here can be awful.

You can buy it online by clicking here to go to the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism website. It costs $9.80 CAD per person per day ($7 USD). You won’t need to pay any additional fees to hike up to the Ink Pots.

If you plan on visiting multiple National Parks in Canada, you could look at the annual pass. It costs $136.40 CAD ($102 USD) for a whole car and will get you entry to 80 parks in Canada.

Read next: One of Jasper’s best hikes - the Sulphur Skyline Trail

Facilities at Johnston Canyon

There are flush toilets at the car park as well as a cafe onsite. We didn’t try the cafe but our family did and said the coffee was great but very expensive!!

Bears at Johnston Canyon

On our visit in August there was a sign saying that berry season meant that bear encounters were likely. We don’t want to disagree when we are far from experts but the trail felt way too busy for a bear encounter during the day at least, certainly as far as Upper Falls anyway.

Even on the Ink Pots trail we felt there were enough people around it too would be unlikely.

Outside the busy summer season or late in the evening when the crowds have all gone it could be another story though so it’s always best to heed warnings and be aware and prepared.

Both black bears and grizzly bears are a possibility in the area.

Getting to Johnston Canyon, Banff

Johnston Canyon is about 40km from Banff and should take about 30 minutes by car. If you are coming from Canmore, it will be take about 45 minutes.

 

Johnston Canyon Map

If you want to see our Johnston Canyon Map (courtesy of our Apple Watch) see below. The trail to the Ink Pots starts from the Johnston Canyon Upper Falls and is where the majority of the elevation lies.

Johnston Canyon Map

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