While in Banff, we signed up for a ice walk tour of Johnston Canyon. This is one of most popular trails in Banff National Park. We would not normally sign up for a tour to go hiking but for this experience we wanted to be part of a group and really learn about the area from a guide. We arranged the tour through Discover Banff Tours that offer ice walks, snowshoeing, dogsledding, tubing, and other winter activities to immerse yourself in the park.
The bus picked us up at the Banff train station and we joined our group of 6 other people. The group was lively and fun and we were immediately glad that we had wanted to do this with other people. And we could not have asked for a more knowledgeable guide than ours who had grown up in this area and worked in land management for many years before putting his experience into tours. We arrived at the canyon and were given ice spikes to strap around our shoes
We began the hike up through the canyon where we would be following the stream carved between the rocks of the canyon. This hike is a moderately easy hike. The green fence lining the trail was a recent addition within the last couple of weeks to make the trail more safe.
We loved being able to see the water rushing underneath the ice and snow as we walked up the canyon and the deep pools that had not been frozen. I love hiking in the snow and seeing the beautiful contrast that the snow gives to the rocks and trees.
Banff National Park and the surrounding parks of Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, and including some provincial parks are all listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Rocky Mountain parks joined the UNESCO list in 1984 for the natural beauty and the biological diversity and rich history of indigenous people who have called this area home for thousands of years.
The national park has had a long history of tension and conflict between those who want to conserve and protect the area and those that want to develop and expand the area. But these days, there seems to be a greater trend to finding a balance between the two and committees are made up of those of differing experiences including developers to indigenous leaders to find the best path forward to share the beauty of the park while also protecting the biodiversity of it.
As we continued down the path, our guide pointed out a fossil there in the rock next to the trail. It is believed that this fossil is that of an equator area water creature before the land masses split apart, similar to the present day squid or octopus.
We reached the lower falls of the trail where the path cut off to take visitors through a small cave to see the falls up close. The space only holds a few people at a time so we took turns going in to see the falls. The falls were incredible- all the more so from being frozen and covered in ice. Even with a frozen exterior, we could still see the movement of the falls underneath in what is called peekaboo ice.
We didn’t see any wildlife on our hike, including not one sighting of a squirrel. Our guide said that at one point this area was full of squirrels like any other forest. But they were eating all of the cones off of the trees until the trees stopped producing cones at all. With that all of the squirrels left the area to find food elsewhere. Just recently cones have started appearing again on some of the trees after many years of none.
We reached the top of the trail at the upper falls. We were delighted to see that we had happened upon a few ice climbers making their way up the ice. What an incredible feat that must be to scale up the ice. We watched mesmerized as they reached the top and then began to repel down to the bottom. Our guide handed out cups of hot chocolate and maple cream cookies. It seemed like such a juxtaposition of the moment to munch on cookies while watching people climb up a mountain of ice.
The falls covered in ice were absolutely stunning. Seeing them from the top really gave a sense of the length and depth of the falls. I loved the layers of ice pillars falling down the mountain side to the pool below. Can you spot the ice climbers at the top and the bottom?
With a few final pictures of the ice falls, we started back down the trail. The canyon was so beautiful covered in snow and seeing the pools of water pop up here and there. No wonder why this is such a popular trail in the park. Banff is the first and oldest of Canada’s national parks. But even with its popularity it still gives each visitor still moments of incredible beauty and peace.
Hiking up Johnston Canyon in the winter is now one of my all time favorite hikes. From frozen waterfalls, to rock caves, to fossils- this trail had all the best things to enjoy a cold day out in the park. I may have left part of my heart in Banff National Park.
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Thanks for coming along on this ice walk through Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park. May your feet be warm and the skies be blue as you take a walk in the snow.