Mount Norquay

Johnston Canyon's breathtaking winter beauty

A group of visitors pause at a viewpoint advantage overlooking the frozen falls during a tour of Johnston Canyon in Banff, Alberta.
Photo courtesy of Banff Lake Louise Tourism


BANFF, ALTA. — It was Walter Phillips, renowned artist and namesake of the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, Alberta, who said, "Water is the most expressive element in nature. It responds to every mood, from tranquility to turbulence."

Born in England, Phillips travelled the world before settling down in Canada, specifically Banff, where he fell in love with Johnston Canyon. After personally visiting the canyon twice now, I'm not surprised that Banff captivated him so.

My first visit was two summers ago when the trees were green and lush, the falls were gushing, and the crowds ... well, let's just say that nobody can ever argue that I'm claustrophobic. A few days ago I revisited the canyon, now stark white, with frozen falls and barely a soul to be found. It was an entirely different experience, and one that I much, much preferred.

Tranquility at its best

In the summer, Johnston Canyon exemplifies the turbulence that Phillips spoke of, its waterfalls eroding the limestone walls seemingly before your eyes. In winter, however, Johnston epitomizes Phillips' tranquility. The entire canyon is still, with only the rushing water and creaking trees breaking the silence.

"Most of our customers come from big cities with one or two million people, where it's crowded all the time," said Anick Cadieux, my personal guide from Discover Banff Tours. "Here, people can experience the silence. I just love it."

The canyon is named after a prospector named Johnston who, it's said, discovered the creek in the 1880s. He is believed to have been seeking his fortunes along the newly-laid tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway. When his dreams didn't pan out, Johnston moved on. 

Knowledgeable guides

Upper Falls Johnstone Canyon, Banff

The upper falls at Johnston Canyon become a 27 metre (90 ft.) sculpture of snow and ice during the winter.
Photo by Rick Macdonnell

The canyon walk is absolutely beautiful from start to finish, but there are really two main attractions that keep visitors coming back every year: the upper and lower falls. During my first visit I was only able to take in the lower falls (due to time constraints), so this time I made sure to experience the entire hike. 

With Cadieux as my guide the tour lasted more than three hours. We often stopped to discuss the history of the canyon, the geography of the land, as well as a few anecdotes that had the both of us in stitches. For anyone looking to take a canyon tour in Banff, I can't recommend Discover Banff Tours more highly. My second visit far exceeded my first, thanks in no small part to Cadieux.

"When people come along on one of our guided tours, they can expect to see beautiful falls, experience mother nature, and understand it a little better. They also get a great guide experience, of course," said Cadieux.

Nature's spectacular art

But the falls ... wow. During the winter, the upper falls are a nearly 27 metre (90 ft.) frozen sculpture. I've never seen anything like it. I can't speak to the falls during the summer (not having seen them), but I find it hard to believe that they're anywhere near as breathtaking as what I saw. 

We did catch glimpses of the rushing water, though, as in certain areas the ice is thin enough that you can actually see the the water falling underneath. 

"The walk is totally relaxing and therapeutic, even for myself, who's been here quite a few times," said Cadieux, a veteran of more than 100 Canyon tours. "Everybody can benefit from listening to the water, seeing the beauty."

Johnston Canyon offers a lot. From the tranquility, to the hiking, and even some wildlife (Pine Martens, American Dippers, and, if you're lucky, a lynx or two). The walk is a great way to experience winter off the hill, and more importantly, experience a signature slice of Banff.

Like Walter Phillips, though, you just might find yourself unable to pull away.

If you're in need of somewhere to dine after your hike, take Cadieux's advice and head to The Bison Restaurant & Lounge. And if you haven't had your fill of hiking yet, read our piece on scaling Mount Rundle.

Check out this video on ice climbing in the area.

For more stories and detail on Banff check out our SnowSeekers' destination page. 

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