Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest and most popular, typically receives over 4 million visitors per year. Arguably, the most beloved spot within the park, is the Johnston Canyon hike. Each year approximately 1 million hikers explore the wonders of this Alberta gem. Accessed from the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A, running parallel to the Trans Canada), a typical summer day sees the giant parking lot overflowing with vehicles, lining the road for kilometres in each direction.
Johnston Canyon, with its accessible and jaw-dropping lower and upper falls, is on the top of the list of Banff hikes. We have avoided the Johnston Canyon trail for decades due to overcrowding.
Experiencing the serenity of nature, elbow to elbow with thousands of others, takes the peacefulness out of the experience, no matter how spectacular.
When COVID-19 came calling in 2020, Parks Canada took action by closing the Bow Valley Parkway to vehicles. Controlling the crowds, on the often narrow bridges and paths, especially heading to the Johnston Canyon lower falls, would prove impossible.
There are few positives to this pandemic. However, if you have a bicycle, or enjoy long walks, you can still hike Johnston Canyon, without the typical mobs.
In 2022, due to the positive feedback about the closure to vehicles on the Bow Valley Parkway, the following three year pilot begins.
Full information on the program can be found here.
- From May 1 to June 25, and September 1st to 30th, the Bow Valley Parkway Cycling Experience restricts public vehicles on the parkway’s 17 km eastern end, from the TransCanada-Highway junction to Johnston Canyon.
- Vehicle access to the west section of the parkway between Johnson Canyon and the Whitehorn Road junction at Lake Louise (31km) remains open.
- From March 1 through June 25, all modes of human travel along the 17 km stretch of the parkway will be restricted overnight from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
We highly suggest checking with Parks Canada for the most recent updates regarding access to the Bow Valley Parkway.
The Bow Valley Parkway remains open to cyclists and is monitored by Parks Canada staff. There are two access points, the shorter approach from Castle Junction for those wanting a shorter bike ride. This portion is now open to vehicles as well.
The second approach is the longer Johnston Canyon from Banff route. From May 1 to June 25, and September 1st to 30th this route is closed to vehicles.
You may also be interested in reading these articles about Banff National Park
How to Access the Johnston Canyon Hike
Accessing Johnston Canyon from Banff – 49 km return
We suggest parking in Banff, in the Fenlands Recreation Centre parking lot. Outdoor toilets are available at the east end of the lot. Parking is also available at the Banff Train Station lots.
Directly across the street, the Legacy bike trail leads past the stunning beauty of Mount Rundle on the Vermilion Lakes road. There can be vehicles on this part of the ride, but in our experience they are infrequent.
At the end of the Vermilion Lakes road follow the bike path. You will need to open two wildlife gates in this section. The gates are spring loaded to close behind you. Please ensure the latch is secure before cycling on.
A small amount of parking is available at the Bow Valley Parkway east entrance. Parks Canada has installed barricade arms across the road. There is room between the arms of the roadblock for cyclists to proceed.
Parks Canada staff are on hand to redirect disappointed occupants of vehicles, who hope to hike Johnston Canyon, not realizing the Bow Valley Parkway is closed.
If you find parking at the east gates of Bow Valley Parkway, rather than in Banff, the return trip is 35km.
Accessing Johnston Canyon from Castle Junction – 13 km return
The more popular way to access the Johnston Canyon hike is from Castle Mountain. The relatively flat 13 km distance round trip, is understandably more appealing than the longer Johnston Canyon approach beginning at Banff.
Please note that this route is open to vehicles.
Park at the Castle Junction parking lot.
Across the road are the Castle Mountain Chalets and general store. Picnic tables are available.
Parking at the Castle Mountain chalets is limited to 30 minutes.
Be aware that there is vehicular traffic if you choose to ride from Castle Mountain to Johnston Canyon.
Let the hiking begin!
Now that you have arrived to the most popular of Banff hiking trails, there are multiple options. The Johnston Canyon lower falls are just over 1 km away, on a mainly flat trail.
The trail gains elevation as you proceed to the upper falls at the 2.7 km mark of the Johnston Canyon trail. The lookout above the falls is superb, especially without the crowds.
If you are feeling ambitious continue another 2.7 km to the Ink Pots where mineral springs leave pools various colours.
For detailed information about the Johnston Canyon hike, including the Johnston Canyon Ink Pots, we encouraged you to read The Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon by Leigh McAdam. Leigh’s blog Hike Bike Travel is a must read for anyone considering hiking in any corner of Canada.
Can I stay overnight at Johnston Canyon?
Although the road to Johnston Canyon is closed, the Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows are open. One of Canada’s top family travel writers. Sarah Pittard, from Solo Mom Takes Flight, recently spent a weekend at the Johnston Canyon cabins. If you are interested in staying overnight, we highly recommend you read her article Johnston Canyon Resort: The Best Cabins in Banff
Tips for cycling the Bow Valley Parkway
Have bear spray accessible and know how to use it. Thankfully we have not seen any bears on our rides on the Bow Valley Parkway. However, we have seen bear scat on the road, as well as evidence of bear digging. For more information on bear safety this is an excellent resource from Parks Canada.
Pack insect repellent, sunscreen, snacks and water.
Even with the Bow Valley Parkway closure, the weekends are busier. If you can’t hike Johnston Canyon on a weekday, arrive early to ensure a parking spot and less people.
If you are cycling bring a bike lock to secure your bike at the racks provided at Johnston Canyon. There is little chance of your bike being stolen due to lack of vehicular access, but better to be safe than sorry.
Pedestrian Access to Johnston Canyon
Daniella Rubeling, visitor experience manager with Parks Canada, has some advice for those wishing to access on Johnston Canyon on foot.
“Starting May 21, in time for the long weekend, public transit to the Johnson Canyon day-use area will resume,” she said. “We like to strongly discourage pedestrian access and encourage people to take transit instead from Banff, hike the canyon trail and then take the bus back to Banff.”
Route 9 on the Banff Roam transit system will begin on the May long weekend.
If you have any questions or comments about cycling to Johnston Canyon we would be happy to answer them. Check out our video below to see the beauty of cycling the Bow Valley Parkway.
This article was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated with the most current information as of April 30, 2022.