To continue the details of our mountain getaway, Johnston Canyon was the reason we stayed at Castle mountain, just being a few kilometers away. We had been there long ago in the summer but didn't have a chance to do much of the trail, just one of the popular attraction, the lower falls. First, we wanted to catch a glimpse of Castle Mountain from the near-by riverside, the shy mountain was hidden in a thick fog since our arrival. After our drive from Lake Louise, it seemed like it was trying to clear up and reveal it's majestic peaks that dominate the surrounding landscape. By the time we had coffee and breakfast, as suspected, most of the cloud had a chance to evaporate into the long awaited sunshine and reveal the rich blue sky of spring we had anticipated.
Shot 1/320 sec. f/9 31 mm, ISO 100
If you are looking for this area to the river access, it's located on the Castle Junction right before the bridge that leads to the Parkway. It appears fenced off but don't be discouraged, it's only to keep the wildlife secure and off the main highway. Go ahead anyway and you will find a chained gate but it's not locked, only wrapped around the gate. There is a parking lot just after the bridge and it's just a matter of crossing the road and walking back to the other side of the bridge to get to the gate. Keep the gate closed after entry, its also the best place to catch a view or a picture of the falcon nest on top of the bridge I mentioned in a previous post. In the spring, before the glaciers and the snowy mountain tops begin to melt the river is much lower and it is possible to take a walk along the river side under the bridge to reach the spectacular view without having to cross the road but you will be on the wrong side of the river for taking pictures.
This river access isn't busy at all, every time we have been here, we were the only ones and easily enjoyed the tranquility. Over the years, it has become one of our roadside tailgate bbq location. It may sound silly but when we travel just about anywhere, we generally have a small portable bbq and a cooler full of burgers and our favorite sausages in the back of the truck so anytime we get hungry, or see a worthy location to enjoy, we just stop and have a bacon cheeseburger or a hotdog wherever we please (it always makes other visitors jealous of our ingenious idea!) Towns are far and few between, so is prepared foods and eating establishments, this way we are not bound to time or have to be hungry at any point, this strategy comes in really handy while traveling thru the Rockies and much cheaper than relying on restaurants for all your meals.
Shot 1/800 sec. f/7.1 78 mm, ISO 200
As intimidating as it may look, there is a trail that goes up on the back of the mountain that leads to 2 lakes and a waterfall. It's a full day hike at over 8 km each way and the trail was too messy for us to go this time of year and with grizzly bears starting to wake up hungry , it was on our list but safety first right, maybe we'll save this hike for the endless summer days and make it all the way to at least the first tier of the Eisenhower Tower for a nice vantage view! The stand alone peak above is the Eisenhower Tower that overlooks the upper Rockbound Lake. There is a rumor that a time capsule was hidden on the trail in an undisclosed location, many have looked for it, clues were found but some of the content is still missing. I wonder if we can find clues of the missing treasure! You can find more information about the time capsule and how the peak inherited it's name in the link below:
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 40 mm, ISO 100
Now that we have our view, it was time to move on, we had a really busy day planned ahead and it was now 10 am, we didn't want to get to the canyon too late in the day as this is one of the most popular hike in Banff National Park and parking is limited in the area. Johnston Canyon can be found about 5 km away on the Bow Valley Parkway from Castle Junction going towards the town of Banff. Turns out the place was already booming, the first parking lot was full and there was a 1km line-up parked on the side of the Parkway, luckily, we were able to get the last parking spot available in the secondary parking lot a little further down the road. If you ever plan to visit this area, keep this in mind and go early in the day, around 8 to 9 am to avoid parking frustrations and a hike to the hike!
The trail head is easy to find in the main parking lot, just follow the crowd, it's really busy. It's right next to the bathrooms as soon as you get on the trail you should see the visitor center/ souvenir shop. There is also a small cafe in the shop where you can grab a coffee and a pastry before or after your hike. The trail begins along the river in a more open area but soon you will find yourself in a narrow path along the cliffs of the canyon. Since it's such a popular hike, much of it is fenced on the deep side to keep anyone from falling into the canyon so this is an easy family friendly hike. One thing to keep in mind, this time of year, this is a very icy and slippery trail, you will need crampons for traction aid and it really helps get thru the icy hills in a flash while everybody is slipping and sliding everywhere. Trail conditions can be found on the Parks Canada website. You can find traction devices in sporting goods stores or can be rented from the town of Banff visitor center, I recommend the ones that slip on to footwear made out of chain and rubber straps with big spikes at the bottom.
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 18 mm, ISO 110
In the winter and spring, the canyon walls are covered in ice and snow columns leaving their unique signature. In the spring, these ice columns break off at the top for a loud splash landing into the river below, if you go at just the right time, you may get to see one break off. Due to the altitude and the shade offers to the landscape, the snow and ice melts much later than the lower areas of the park. By the end of April & Early days of May, snow, ice can still be found and the waterfalls are just starting to thaw and have flow to carve thru the ice towers. In the winter they leave behind frozen cascades of icicles. I have yet to visit in winter, I have only seen pictures but it certainly is on the bucket list!
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 26 mm, ISO 110
Shot 1/200 sec. f/7.1 18 mm, ISO 200
The first popular scenic spot is the lower falls, to get there you will have to walk on a narrow catwalk built into the limestone canyon wall over the river for most of the way. Without this catwalk, the area would be inaccessible. The hike to the lower falls is approximately 1.1 km, you will get at a fork in trail, keep left and it will take you to a catwalk that leads to a natural tunnel to get a closer view from the top of the lower falls. It will take you to small viewing platform close enough that you will get sprayed by the waterfall (just a little bit, I promise!) but it gets crowded really fast and it may take a while to get out as everyone piles in anticipation with blocking those trying to get out.
Shot 1/125 sec. f/5.6 18 mm, ISO 220
To get to a nice vantage point of the waterfall, head back to the main trail towards the Upper Falls and soon you will find a nice and wide viewing platform to take the perfect pictures from above. Even if you have no intentions on continuing to the Upper Falls, I still recommend you at least make it to this viewing platform before you make your journey back. May I remind you, this is a busy trail with 100's of visitors on the trail at any given time with constant traffic, please don't do like the people you see below, congregate and clog the narrow walkway and refuse to let anyone thru while you have a fun conversation...that is just plain rude, be respectful of other visitors, we all need to share the small space to make it enjoyable for ALL. I noticed there was a lot of that happening at many areas where everyone just stops and clogs the whole trail for long periods of time and it really frustrates everyone else trying to get thru, if you want to take a picture, fine go ahead, it's a beautiful angle for a family picture but hug the handrail to leave room for traffic.
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 18 mm, ISO 200
Now this is where I'm going to get tough, maybe borderline mean but it needs to be said. Don't be a dum-dum tourist, if you decided you were smarter than parks official and ignore the crampon requirements and decided to take on an icy hike in the winter or spring with your town shoes and a stroller with a young child and made it this far without breaking your neck, just turn around, don't even bother it will get dangerous if you don't have the proper gear. This is my big complain about this hike. Most of the people visiting ignored the personal protection requirements and fell all over the place or at the very least held up everyone else trying to get thru.
Yes the parks are nice but also very dangerous, after all, I'm sure you don't come to my country to get yourself or your children injured or worst killed, we want to see you go home in one piece with enjoyable memories to share, not with a broken arm. Just days before our trip, 3 foreign hikers died in Banff National Park and they didn't have the proper gear and could not be found by rescue for days so this is serious. Be smart, vacation smart, have the proper PPE for the season. Look on the Parks Canada website, you will find all the trail requirements or closures and precautions to take, don't put your lives at unnecessary risks. Even if they are busy tourist destinations, understand these areas in the Rockies are still very remote dangerous locations and it's hard to get emergency or rescue personnel to many of the locations if you get severely injured and require medical assistance.
Shot 1/200 sec. f/5.3 65 mm, ISO 800
If you decided to make it to the Upper Falls and have your traction devices, this is the best part of the hike. After the trail on solid ground, it turns into a narrow catwalk over the river again to get thru the limestone walls. The Upper falls are at 2.7 km from the beginning of the trail or an additional 1.6 km from the Lower Falls. Along the way there are a few rapids in the river and small waterfalls, this time of year, the river is partially frozen leaving the edges full of ice and water run off, some sections you may get dripped on a little when you nee to pass under rocks but the view is worth it. The beginning to the Lower Falls was mainly flat but for this section, you will encounter a lot of icy hills to climb both before and after the catwalk.
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 40 mm, ISO 160
Shot 1/500 sec. f/5.6 65 mm, ISO 200
Shot 1/320 sec. f/9 22 mm, ISO 100
As we were getting closer to the Upper Falls, the canyon walls were beginning to be covered in ice again, what a sight! The closer we got, we could see long columns of ice that were still intact hanging from the tall cliffs, some had broken off down into the river already. It's hard to get the full magnitude in a picture but they were pretty impressive in size. The waterfall was still partially frozen, I was really hoping it would be. This must be some sight in the middle of winter! I was on a quest to decide which season is my favorite in the Rockies but in all honesty, each of them have unique features worthy of a good hike and photo op, I have to admit , spring is pretty nice but really messy, expect a lot of mud where it's not icy.
Shot 1/400 sec. f/10 18 mm, ISO 100
Shot 1/250 sec. f/8 18 mm, ISO 100
Shot 1/320 sec. f/9 18 mm, ISO 100
We had planned to go to the Inkpots, at a distance of 5.8 km from the beginning of the trail but it was getting late and we had another activity planed for the late afternoon, we didn't have time. It was now 1 pm, meaning with all the insanity and the excessive hold ups mentioned above, it took us 3 hours to do less than 2.7 km when normally, the 5.8 km hike + return (total of 11.6 km could have been done in that time. You may not realize it but when you chose to hold up hikers, there are 100's choosing the same thing so those of us with a real hike in mind, we get to miss out on our itinerary, that is why it is important to be respectful of other visitors instead of participating in bad habits like clogging narrow walkways for a convention or not having proper gear. With all the frustration, we did get a bit of an inside chuckle at those who couldn't make it back down after, once again, ignoring safety requirements but it still took us longer than it should have to get out, making us even more late for our next activity.
Shot 1/160 sec. f/6.3 34 mm, ISO 200
If you come to the Rockies, I highly recommend you add this hike on your itinerary, it's an amazing landscape, this is my second time to the canyon, I will be returning at a later date to complete the hike all the way to the Inkpots, maybe we can go very early in the morning before everyone gets there...3rd time is a charm! Things should go smoother. Keep that in mind, for a more enjoyable hike with less hold ups, the earlier the better (8-9 am), that way you only have to deal with the insanity on the way back. If you chose to go passed the Lower Falls, I suggest bringing hiking poles, your knees will thank you later, some parts are steep. I will save the later activity for another post, there are many pictures for that one too...just a hint, it involves a gondola and Sulfur Mountain in the Town of Banff.
Here is a link to my summer walk and pictures of Johnston Canyon in case you missed it:
This walk was taken in late April, conditions change fast in the mountains when snow begins to melt.
All images taken with Nikon D7000 and Sigma 18-200mm lens.