Hiking Banff National Park – Johnston Canyon to Inkpots

With only a few days left in our Spring Break, we’ve been closely watching the weather. Plans to get in our second hike of 2012 were put on hold earlier in the week due to a “winter storm warning” followed by a “snowfall warning”. Fortunately, we woke up Friday morning to reasonably clear skies and a decent forecast for the day. After a leisurely breakfast of home made cinnamon buns, we threw some snacks into our already well-equipped packs and headed into Banff National Park.

Our destination was Johnston Canyon, a popular day hike about 25 minutes west of Banff along the Bow Valley Parkway. When we arrived around lunch time, the main parking lot was full and several vehicles were parked in the adjacent overflow lot. We were a bit surprised at the number of visitors given that the cantilevered walkways are very icy (Parks Canada’s trail report currently recommends cleats), but had decided on this hike for a few reasons:

  • The last time Mr. GeoK hiked Johnston Canyon was decades ago;
  • Mrs. GeoK and the GeoKids have never been to Johnston Canyon;
  • It’s less busy now than it is in the summer months AND the frozen falls give it a completely different appearance compared to summer;
  • Hiking to the Ink Pots would add about 50% to the distance of our first hike of the season and would increase the total elevation gain from less than 100 m to a little over 400 m, both reasonable steps up in difficulty; and
  • There were three geocaches waiting for us along the trail.

The hike is well-described in Tony Daffern’s Popular Day Hikes 2 – Canadian Rockies published by Rocky Mountain Books. In general terms, it’s a little over 12 km (return) with a 300 m net elevation gain (455 total gain). There are cantilevered cat walks, bridges, waterfalls, birds and other small creatures along the way. As a result, the section to the Lower Falls is pretty family-friendly and families with slightly older children can certainly manage the Upper Falls. Overall, we’d rate this as a pretty easy hike.

Johnston Canyon Lower Falls
Johnston Canyon is at high enough elevation that winter still has a fairly firm grip. The lower falls appear as a wall of ice, with one opening at the bottom where water is flowing.
Johnstone Canyon Lower Falls
Close-up of the bottom of the lower falls, where flowing water generates the distinctive sound of a waterfall.

We spotted close to a hundred people between the trail head and Lower Falls. Many were slipping and sliding and clinging to the hand rails where they existed and trees where they didn’t! We felt very comfortable in our crampons or Kahtoola Microspikes. One fellow wore snowshoes up the canyon trail…perhaps better suited to the Moose Meadows trail one valley over, but he had no trouble with slipping.

One of themiddle falls
There are four or five smaller falls between the lower and upper falls, including this section with adjacent icicles.
Ice climbers at the Upper Falls
It seemed to us that one group of ice climbers at the Upper Falls was there for a lesson, paying close attention to the instructor explaining safety procedures.

The ice climbers were gone by the time we came back down from the Ink Pots around 2:30 in the afternoon. By that time, the sun angle is such that it hits the Upper Falls, weakening the ice. Mr. GeoK and Youngest GeoKid watched a large section of ice plunge to the ground when they stopped at the Upper Falls viewpoint on their return.

Mrs. GeoK stepped on just the wrong spot and went in well past mid-thigh near the intersection of the Moose Meadows and Ink Pot trails. It look a minute or two to get back onto firmer snow.
Unnamed peak
About 900 m from the Ink Pots we started to catch an occasional glimpse of this unnamed peak in the Sawback Range, almost directly east of the Ink Pots.
Ink Pots Trail
Approaching within 500 m of the Ink Pots, K was starting to tire. We took advantage of this snow-covered root ball to have a little photography fun along the trail.

One of three geocaches was located at the Ink Pots. GC1XQCJ Inkpots Earthcache – Johnston Canyon was created by mrcanoehead224 and approved by Parks Canada in accordance with Canada’s National Parks geocaching policy.

Ink Pot
Our first glimpse of the Ink Pots was a bit of a surprise. Since the temperature of the water bubbling out of the ground is steady around 4 C, we didn't expect to see even a skiff of ice covering them. Once the sun broke through the clouds, the ice disappeared in about 5 minutes flat!
Ink Pots Meadw
The Ink Pots are nestled in a large meadow and hiking trails carry on beyond the Ink Pots, to back country campgrounds including Mystic Junction, Mystic Valley, Larry's Camp Johnston Creek and more. The surrounding mountains include Helena Ridge (farthest left), Block Mountain and an unnamed peak (farthest right).

After gathering the necessary answers, making best use of varying light conditions to take lots of photographs and pausing long enough for a quick snack, we started retracing our steps.

Underground spring feeding an Ink Pot
We managed to spot several areas where sand was bubbling up on the bottom of one Ink Pot as the underground spring continued to seep into the Pot.
Mr. GeoK had to cover a section of the trail 4 times! Two- or three-hundred meters from the Ink Pots, he discovered he was missing his FSR (walkie-talkie).
Clear water
Despite the very fine silt giving the Ink Pots their distinctive colour, the water was clear enough to see every stone and log on the bottom.

He was growing increasingly concerned about whether he’d be able to find it when the snow started talking to him! It was Oldest GeoKid calling back and his good timing meant that Mr. GeoK soon had the missing FSR in hand. After that, it was a quick trip down to the Lower Falls, where two more caches awaited our geocaching pleasure.

Johnston Creek Valley
Looking north west up the valley drained by Johnston Creek. Mr. GeoK is on the other side of the Ink Pot.

We earned our last two smileys for the day at GC1BAPY – Johnston Canyon – Lower Falls (another earthcache) and GCKG1W – CanyonCache. CanyonCache is a physical cache placed in 2004, prior to Canada Parks bringing in it’s geocaching policy.

Between taking photos, hunting for caches, dodging other hikers, stopping for a snack and covering 12.6 km, we were about 3.5 hours from start to finish.

6 thoughts on “Hiking Banff National Park – Johnston Canyon to Inkpots

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    1. It was a good choice for the end of Spring Break. We got lucky that about a dozen folks on snowshoes went to the Ink Pots a little earlier in the day, or the section from the Upper Falls to the meadow would have been very difficult for us.

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