Part of planning my Banff itinerary was planning it in a way that flowed well, AND minimized crowds. One of the things I hate about traveling are crowds, and I do my level best to avoid them. That might mean visiting a place in the off season, which I was heading toward with visiting Banff in mid to late September. Granted, if I wanted even fewer crowds, I could go later in the year, but I run the risk of snow closing trails and roads, and fewer services. So the other way to avoid crowds is to go early in the day, and that was definitely the advice given to visit Johnston Canyon.
Johnston Canyon is about 20 minute drive from Banff off the Bow Valley Parkway (or the Trans Canada Highway 1, since both roads parallel each other from Banff to Lake Louise). Because it is so close to Banff, so accessible to many people, and so pretty, as you can imagine, hordes of crowds flock here, and everything I read said if I wanted a good parking spot (and not one a mile down the road), I needed to be there before 0900. Which of course I did, and even earlier, not that long after the sun fully rose. As it was, I still wasn’t the first one there, but still an amazing parking spot.
After reviewing the information at the trail head, I headed out, just getting ahead of most of the tour buses that were on the way. There are two main viewpoints along the Johnston Canyon- the Lower Falls and the Upper Falls. Both of them are along a mostly paved trail, though there is a bit more elevation gain on the trail to the Upper Falls (120 meters). The walk to the Lower Falls takes around 30 minutes, while the walk to the Upper Falls, takes about 30-40 minutes more. That is, not counting how much time you take to enjoy the view along the way and at the viewpoints.
The path is paved and parallels the river, which makes for a better viewing as you walk toward the falls, rather than on your return walk, since you will be on the canyon wall side. Plus there are a fair amount of people who visit these falls, and the path is narrow, so jockeying for space to take pictures can be annoying (another reason to go early).
The Lower Falls are pretty and offer some nice views, though the Upper Falls are worth it is as well. Both viewpoints offer a decent amount of space for enjoying the view and taking photos, though of course later in the day, the crowds can prove cumbersome. Once past the Lower Falls en route to the Upper Falls, the trail ascends more, but not too steeply, and the paved trail ends with a nice view of the 40 meters long falls from both the bottom and the top of the falls (both worth your time).
It is at the end of the paved path where you have a choice. Depending on your available time, fitness level, and interest, you could turn back here, go back to your car, and have plenty of nice memories and photos. OR you could continue on for another few miles to the Ink Pots, for some different, but equally beautiful views. Plus one hell of a workout.
The trail to the Ink Pots isn’t paved, and is much steeper than the Johnston Canyon hike. It is considered “moderate”, but you need to consider your own fitness level to interpret if that means moderate for you. By this point, I had been in Banff for a few days and was acclimated to typical hiking in the area. But the Ink Pots are more strenuous (the most strenuous hike I had done in Banff up to that point), so it is something to consider. If uphills are a problem for you, this might not be the hike for you.
Of course I decided to press on. I wasn’t on an external time table, I had planned this hike to be my main activity for the day, and I started early enough in the day to allow me to hike the trail at my own pace. Which is definitely what I needed. You are likely to feel the Ink Pots hike in your body, unless you have a high level of fitness. Just how much you will feel the hike will vary, but you are likely to feel it. The hike to the Ink Pots is nearly uphill the entire way, though there are some flat spots, and once you start descending steeply, you know that you are almost there. It was one of those hikes I didn’t consider turning back from, because I was hiking at my own pace, and taking plenty of water and view breaks. But it was a hike that prompted me to ask a returning couple for a time estimate to the ink pots, just so I could re-calibrate my expectations accordingly.
Once I got to the Ink Pots, the strenuous nature of the hike was nearly forgotten and definitely worth it, just because the views were so gorgeous. Everywhere I looked, there was something that captured my eyes. The ink pots themselves are a series of small, clear, colorful ponds, surrounded by foliage.
The foliage was in the full bloom of fall colors, so that added some nice contrast to the blue of the ponds. There were mountains and rivers to behold, and it was pretty easy to walk around and see whatever you wanted.
I certainly wasn’t alone up there, but since I started early enough, the ink pots weren’t overwhelmed with crowds, and it was pretty easy to find a space to myself to contemplate the nature around me (plus ample benches around the ponds themselves). Since I had completed my main goal for the day, I wasn’t in a hurry to leave. I just wanted to take it all in, while mentally gearing myself up for the hike back.
For the most part, the hike back is easier, since most of it is downhill, though that nice downhill I had welcomed when I was nearing the Ink Pots had now turned into a daunting uphill on the return. But thankfully that was only about 15 minutes of the hike, and rest was all downhill.
Once I connected back up with the Johnston Canyon trail, I was inundated with crowds, as by this point, it was late morning, and the hordes of tourists had arrived to see the canyon. The hike down was easy, because I wasn’t fighting the crowds for picture spots. Once I saw the line of cars that seemed to stretch down the road a half mile or more for a parking spot, I was even more grateful I chose to go early.
This is definitely a hike to recommend, and suitable for a variety of fitness levels. Sure, the hike to the Ink Pots feels strenuous at times, but it can be done at your own pace, taking plenty of breaks to catch your breath and drink some water. And the view is definitely worth it. Though again, I STRONGLY recommend you go early in the day, shortly after sunrise, if you want to get a decent parking space. Why add more miles to your hike if you don’t have to? Plus fighting hordes of crowds for a decent spot to take pictures gets old after a while.