Location: Banff National Park
Park here: Johnston Canyon parking lot
Public Transport: Roam Transit Service provides access from Banff to Johnston Canyon, departing daily from the Banff High School Transit Hub from May to October. Reserve here.
Hike Distance: 11.7 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 608 m
Hike Duration: 4 hours
Level of difficulty: Easy to moderate
What makes it easy/moderate? Well maintained catwalk and trail with a moderate climb and descent just before the Ink Pots
Banff is teeming with unique nature, diverse landscapes and hidden gems imploring to be explored. Now, the masses of tourists that flock to the Rocky Mountains every year have definitely caught onto the Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots trail, but the meandering canyon and astonishing treat at the end still have a secluded feel that makes you feel at one with nature, especially if you time it right.
Finding the Trailhead
This is one of the most popular hikes in the area for good reason: you will pass by captivating waterfalls, rushing rivers, limestone bedrock canyon walls and an invigorating pine forest, leading up to a unique water display with the iconic blue-green waters that your Instagram feed has been craving. It's all tucked in amongst those spectacular, jaw-dropping, towering Rocky Mountains that make Banff National Park one of the most sought-after hiking areas in the world.
My main tip for this hike is the same tip that goes for basically every activity in the Rockies, whether it's hiking, driving or sightseeing: go early! The crowds start to pour in from mid-morning until evening and setting your alarm just an hour earlier may be the difference between waiting in line for a viewpoint and getting to experience serene nature with no one around.
I arrived at the Johnston Canyon parking lot around 8 am on a weekday in July and easily snagged a spot in the first parking lot, which, after seeing the absolute madness of cars circling the lot and lining up into overflow upon my completion of the hike, made me extremely grateful for my timing.
The Hike Itself
I reached the first viewpoint of the Lower Falls after 1.2 kilometres, passing only a handful of other explorers along the way. This part is easy. The paved walkway follows a crystal-clear creek, passing various other small waterfalls. You already feel engrossed in nature as you weave through the natural curvature of the canyon, a highly impressive rock formation. The thundering of the Lower Falls reached my ears before my eyes and this 10-metre-high cascade was as picturesque as I had imagined. As it was early, I was able to sneak through the cave without any crowds, ducking through the tiny tunnel to reach the closest vantage point and get a massive mist shower while I was at it. Nature at its finest, saying good morning!
From there, it was another 1.3 kilometres to the Upper Falls and this sight truly made my jaw drop. I tentatively teetered out to the viewing deck to take in the sheer magnitude of the 40-metre drop into the deep pool below, getting a fresh shower before gingerly stepping backwards to view from behind the wooden fence. That drop is steep.
Next, it was time to break free from the growing crowds as I headed to my true destination: the Ink Pots. This part of the trail is detached from the river and waterfalls, making it a slightly less scenic three kilometres, but I soaked in the smell of the woods as the morning light beamed through the trees. There are some hilly parts and a final ascent up and down to the pools, but no strenuous climbs. The path is extremely well-defined and maintained.
Emerging from the forest, I knew I was close. I was treated to a panoramic view of the valley surrounded by mountains with a blue river running past clusters of purple wildflowers.
Approaching the Ink Pots, I was excited to see if the real thing lived up to the idea in my head—and it did! Blue-green pools glistened in the morning light, reflecting the surrounding evergreens, mountains and blue sky and creating a postcard-perfect scene that is quintessential Rocky Mountains. The whole setting is so peaceful and includes small wooden bridges and a few benches on which to enjoy and take it all in.
The Ink Pots are five aquamarine pools where cool spring water percolates up through the sand and river gravel, creating swirling circles in the sand and bubbling up to create gentle ripples on the surface. The pools' varying shades are attributed to the different rates at which they fill, as the milky-green pools fill at a slower pace and so have a heavier suspension of fine materials than the clear, deep-blue pools.
Please note that there has been abuse with the Ink Pots in the past and Parks Canada is looking to restore the fragile area, so we must all do our part to respect our beautiful surroundings. A sign at the entry asks visitors to "Please help us protect the site by staying on the trails and bridges provided."
I was delightedly fulfilled with both my dose of nature therapy and the content I'd captured, so I headed back to where I started, picking up some speed on the downhills as I passed the masses of tourists who had missed the early alarm memo (hey, it worked in my benefit so I’m not complaining). There is truly nothing better than a morning spent in nature, especially in Banff National Park.
Before You Go:
- Bring layers, as temperature can vary in the canyon and in the mountains
- Bring sunscreen and make sure to re-apply as you emerge into the open setting of the Ink Pots
- The trail is very popular and encountering bears is unlikely, but it is always recommended to bring bears spray in the Park
- Be careful bringing camera gear into the cave at the Lower Falls, as mist is in the forecast
- The path is wheelchair accessible up to the Lower Falls, but go early as crowds will make it difficult to manoeuvre
- As always, respect trail guidelines, stay on the marked path and leave no trace