(Updated September 2021) 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.

AS OF SEPTEMBER 1, 2021, BOW VALLEY PARKWAY HAS OPENED COMPLETELY TO VEHICLES. WE HOPE PARKS CANADA WILL CONISDER CLOSING THE ROAD AGAIN IN SPRING OF 2022.

cycling Bow Valley parkway to Johnston Canyon

Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon becomes a dream ride for cyclists

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.

Catwalk on Johnston Canyon trail

Narrow passages on Johnston Canyon trail

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 2021, due to the positive feedback about the closure to vehicles on the Bow Valley Parkway, the closure remains for part of 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 at Castle Junction for those considering walking or wanting a shorter bike ride. As of July 1, 2021 this portion is now open to vehicles as well.

The second approach is the longer Johnston Canyon from Banff route. As of July, 2021 this portion remains closed to vehicles.

You may also be interested in reading these articles about Banff National Park

Five Fabulous Things To Do in Banff in Summer

Wildlife Crossings Banff National Park – Why The Grizzly Crossed the Road, Alive!

Overcoming Fear of Heights on Norquay’s Via Ferrata

 

How to Access the Johnston Canyon Hike

Map Bow Valley Parkway route to Johnston Canyon

CLICK TO ENLARGE – Map of Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon

 

Elevation map Bow Valley Parkway

CLICK TO ENLARGE – Elevation chart Banff Johnson Canyon Castle junction return

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.

Banff Fenlands Recreation Centre parking

Banff Fenlands Recreation Centre parking

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.

Mount Rundle and Vermilion lakes

Mount Rundle and Vermilion Lakes – Stunning view from Banff bike trails

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.

Wildlife gates Banff National Park

One of two wildlife gates on Legacy Trail Banff National Park

 

cyclist at East Gate Bow Valley Parkway

East gate of the Bow Valley Parkway in the background. Note the small amount of parking here.

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. 

Wildflowers Banff National Park

Wildflowers Banff National Park

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 as of July 1, 2021.

Cycling from Castle Mountain toward Johnston Canyon

Cycling from Castle Mountain toward Johnston Canyon

Bow Valley Parkway closure west gate at Castle Junction

Bow Valley Parkway closure – West gate at Castle Junction

Park at the Castle Junction parking lot. Parks Canada staff will direct you at the road block to the entrance of the parking lot.

Castle Junction parking lot

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.

Picnic tables at Castle Mountain Chalets

Picnic tables at Castle Mountain Chalets – All day parking is available across the road

Be aware that there will be some vehicular traffic if you choose to ride or walk from Castle Mountain to Johnston Canyon.

Those who are staying at the Johnston Canyon cabins are given special permits to drive from the Castle Mountain junction. Occasionally large trucks carrying supplies to the Johnston Canyon restaurant will also travel from the Castle Mountain junction 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.

Hiking sign for Johnston Canyon

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. 

Upper Falls Johnston Canyon

Upper Falls Johnston Canyon

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

Lower falls Johnston Canyon

Lower falls Johnston Canyon

 

Tips for cycling the Bow Valley Parkway

Cycling Bow Valley Parkway

Alberta’s Bow Valley Parkway becomes cycling paradise

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.

A park pass is required for entry into Banff National Park. The visitor pass can be purchased on line here.

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 May 21, 2021.

Train and turquoise waters Banff National Park

Oh Canada! Scene from our ride back from Johnston Canyon to Banff

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.