To see nature and explore wilderness without fear of getting lost in the woods, visit the beautiful Banff area, an ideal location offering a stunning, natural setting highlighted by a babbling brook, the sound of seven waterfalls and a gorge for safe exploration. A hike up Johnston Canyon presents nature's magic and splendour without getting turned around on a backcountry trail.
One of the most impressive natural settings in the Canadian Rockies, Johnston Canyon was named after a prospector who struck gold while panning in the creek. The Lower Falls are the most famous in Banff National Park, a must see. Rushing creek water and fascinating rock formations along an upgraded hiking trail offer hikers either an exhilarating experience or simple relaxation with a leisurely stroll. A series of catwalks anchored to the canyon walls offer viewpoints above the river and falls. Most of the trail is paved and provides hand rails.
Next, explore the breath-taking Upper Falls as well as the natural mineral springs at the Ink Pots. The beauty, serenity and splendour of this wilderness retreat attracts photographers, nature lovers, birdwatchers and sightseers.
Johnston Canyon is located 25 kilometres north of Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway. The trail starts from the washrooms in a large parking lot on the east side of Johnston Creek, and quickly crosses the creek within the first hundred metres. On the north side, there is a gift shop, snack shop and rental cabins across the bridge. From here, the trail begins to gradually ascend the valley. Quickly, you feel you have left civilization behind, surrounded by mature, mossy forest with a gurgling stream. Soon, you enter the canyon, cut into 350 million year old limestone; your world seems now to consist only of rock and rushing water. In some places the canyon walls are more than 30 metres (98 ft) high and less than 6 metres (20 ft) across. The trail is a suspended walkway bolted to the side of the canyon wall.
A gradual ascent along the paved walkway for 1.1 km (0.7 miles) takes you to the Lower Falls, water plunging 10 m (33 ft) into a deeply carved pothole below. The trail leads to a bridge suspended over the stream and provides an excellent lookout. Across the bridge, you can enter a short rock tunnel that leads to a viewing ledge at the base of the falls. Be careful, as the tunnel ceiling is low and the rock wet with mist. For many, the Lower Falls is the farthest extent of their hike; that's a pity, as the best scenery is encountered on the Upper Falls trail.
The path becomes more rugged as the hike continues to Upper Falls (2.7 km/ 1.7 miles). There are smaller falls visible along the trail as it winds its way through the forest, gradually ascending another 90 metres. Just before the Upper Falls, the walkway becomes a catwalk leading down to a viewing platform suspended over the creek. From here, you enjoy a magnificent view of the Upper Falls, water cascading downward more than 30 m (almost 100 ft), and most choose to end their hikes here.
Just before the catwalk, the trail branches off to climb out of the canyon, leading another 3.5 km to the Ink Pots. This trail is well worn and signed. The first 3 kilometres are in the forest; then, the trail opens into the Johnston Valley with impressive views of the surrounding mountains and the Ink Pots, greenish blue pools filled with spring water, seven cold mineral springs bubbling to the surface in the open meadow beside Johnston Creek.
Hiking to the Lower Falls, you may wear street shoes. However, hiking shoes are recommended beyond that point. The canyon is shaded and moist, so an extra layer of clothing may be needed, especially on cool or windy days. Don't forget a water bottle and snack, as stops are important when it's hot, especially if not used to higher elevations.
The trail is heavily traveled with bus tours arriving daily; you may want to arrive early to avoid the crowds. One item that I found peculiar was people in the parking lot buckling on bear bells. With so many hikers on the trail, no bear would come anywhere near! And, a personal pet peeve - dog owners, please don't bring Fido. The narrow trail and crowds aren't conducive to four-legged moving obstacles, especially for older walkers!
If you are in the beautiful Banff area and want to experience nature at its finest, Johnston Canyon is a must-go, safe experience.
Gene Chambers is author of three secondary school textbooks on computer studies in data processing.
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