Johnston Canyon – Winter’s Natural Canvas
Old Man Winter has a bad rep for delivering endless months of bitter cold, icy roads and countless hours of back breaking snow shoveling. However hidden behind these sinister acts, the old man is an artistic genius who has the power to create wintry magic and wonder with just the merest hint of an arctic outflow.
Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park is a fantastic example of winter’s creativity at work. Situated just a 40 minute drive along the scenic Highway 1A from Banff the canyon makes for a relatively easy winter half day hike.
The Hike (5.2 km return, 135m elevation gain)
Starting from the car park you head over the small Johnston Creek bridge past the Johnston Canyon Resort and into the forest. With glimpses of the surrounding snow-clad peaks the trail follows the canyon below to the Lower Falls 1 km away.
The best view of the Lower Falls can be seen by ducking your head and taking a quick trip through the natural cave to a cosy viewing platform!
The trail then involves a few switchbacks before you reach a breathtaking raised iron catwalk set deep in the canyon. Mind your head on the overhanging rocks!
With snaps safely secured head towards Johnston Canyon’s Mona Lisa – the Upper Falls. While views are great from the platform, you can demonstrate your climbing skills and head down onto the snow to get a closer look at the mini icebergs in the plunge pool. You may be competing for space though with ice climbers as this is a popular climbing spot!
- Bring ice cleats as the hike can be very icy! Our Yaktraxs worked well, while snowshoes are another option.
- Wrap up warm -the canyon is cold as it gets very little direct sunlight and remember cold airs sinks!
- Arrive early to get a parking spot as the hike can get pretty busy. If you don’t have your own vehicle Discover Banff Tours offers an “Icewalk” package with Banff hotel pick up and drop off.
Hopefully you will leave Johnston Canyon knowing that despite his dark acts Old Man Winter knows how to create a gallery for all to enjoy.
Top 5 Summer Day Hikes in Banff National Park
1.Lake Agnes Teahouse (10km return, 700m elevation gain)
Lake Louise has a deserved reputation for having the best hiking in the Canadian Rockies. This is due not only to the stunning alpine scenery but also because you can have a fresh cup of tea and a homemade slice of cake in the Lake Agnes Teahouse at the top of your trek! Just remember to bring cash to avoid disappointment. The hike offers fantastic add ons, our favourite being the Little Beehive for iconic Rockies views.
2.Bow Glacier Falls (9km, 155m)
This is an ROI hike –it offers great returns for relatively little effort! Starting from the turquoise waters of Bow Lake on the picturesque Icefields Parkway the hike makes its way through sub-alpine forest, alongside canyons and past glaciers before arriving at the dramatic Bow Glacier Falls, the source of the Bow River which flows all the way to Hudson Bay some 2,500 kms away!
3. Plain of Six Glaciers (14km, 645m)
This hike is perfect for those who want to get close to more glaciers than you can count on one hand. The hike starts by following the Lake Louise shoreline before climbing towards the famous Victoria Glacier. Acoustics are provided by the sound of sun-triggered avalanches, views of which can be safely enjoyed with a refreshment in hand courtesy of the local Teahouse. You can also bring your dog (must be kept on a lead though).
4.Sunshine Meadows (various trails, 150m)
If you want to hike among lush wildflowers and alpine lakes with minimal effort, then a shuttle ride up to Sunshine Meadows situated at 7,300 feet is perfect for you. Finish the day off at Trappers bar which serves hot food and importantly cool refreshments on the sun-baked patio with 360 degree mountain views.
5.The Larch Valley (12km, 725m)
Block off the last 2 weeks of September to enjoy one of the Canadian Rockies’ most treasured hikes – the Larch Valley. Starting at Moraine Lake and climbing through the sub-alpine forest, you will be rewarded with seeing the famous yellow larches against the snow-capped Ten Peaks.
A Hidden Gem – Johnson Lake, Banff
The best places are always the ones that only the locals know about. Those secret spots that allow you to connect with a location at your own pace without a crowded tour bus in sight!
Johnson Lake is one of those local’s spots that is just a 15 minute drive from Downtown Banff. Tucked away down a 3km paved access road, Johnson Lake is often overlooked by its more accessible neighbours – Two Jacks Lake and Lake Minnewanka.
Beyond its 360 degree mountain vistas, Johnson Lake is popular amongst the locals for the diversity of outdoor activities it supports in all seasons!
Winter Snowshoeing & Skating
When the snow settles, the 2.5km circular walk around the lake makes for some ideal snowshoeing.
With a relatively gentle gradient and minimal elevation gain the terrain is family friendly, while the views of Mt Cascade and Mt Rundle are spectacular!
If skating is more your thing, the frozen lake offers some excellent free ice skating! Just check out how thick the ice is first though!
When the snow melts the circular trial makes for an excellent and easy short hike. You can even bring your dog (must be kept on a lead). Note mountain biking is prohibited.
You can show your true local’s knowledge by hunting for the Hermit of Inglismaldieè’s Lodge. Billy Carver built the cabin in 1910, living as a recluse for 27 years! There are no signs so it is a true treasure hunt! Hint: it’s on the south side of the lake!
Of all the lakes in Banff National Park, Johnson is the warmest for swimming, and our favourite “sport” of floating. However, be warned that even the locals turn up in their hundreds on a warm summer’s day so best to arrive early or ride your bike!
The summer also makes for some epic sunsets!
The changing colors of the trees make Johnson Lake an idyllic time to visit with your kayak, canoe or paddleboard in Fall!
Whatever the season, join the locals and plan a trip to Johnson Lake to capture a taste of Banff National Park!
Time Stands Still at Emerald Lake
If you are needing to get away from it all and escape the endless stream of emails, texts, status updates, tweets and WhatsApp messages then Emerald Lake is the perfect place!
Just a 20 minute drive off Highway 1 close to Field on the BC /Alberta border, Emerald Lake is hidden from the outside world by a cauldron of huge peaks.
Summer Day Visit
Emerald Lake is a great spot to visit for the day. You can hire a canoe or head off on one of many signed hiking trails. The most popular is a 5.5km circular hike around the lake which has less than 100m elevation gain.
Winter Lodge Stay
For those wanting to extend their time at this beautiful location you can always book a night or two at the Emerald Lake Lodge.
The rooms are super cosy and come with your own balcony and real fireplace! The good news is that the wood is delivered to your door so all you have to do is put down your glass of red and throw another log on the fire to keep it going! #ToughLife
The food served at the lodge is sensational with game meats being a particular strength. Also the buffet breakfast is something that should not be missed!
The Lake freezes in winter which makes for some fun cross country skiing, while the summer hiking trails become excellent snowshoe tracks.
With all that activity the Lodge offers an outdoor hot tub and fire pit to aid your recovery!
Emerald Lake is a magical destination any time of year – just make sure you remember your camera as you never know who you might meet!
Doing Whistler Like a Local: The Summer Edition
As the leaves turn and our first Whistler summer comes to a close, it’s time for a blog post that summarizes the three months of awesomeness that is summer in the sea to sky corridor. This post isn’t about those spots that involve a helicopter flight followed by a three day bike ride followed by an ambitious feat of mountaineering to find (although many locals live for summer adventures like this.) It’s about those more mellow experiences that might be considered ‘touristy’, are easily accessible to all, but come summer time are on the don’t-miss list of every Whistlerite.
1. Floating, on a lake
You know those fluro-orange and yellow boats that you can pick up at your local Walmart for $20? Little did we know that our inflatable boat would become our most trusty companion this summer. The Explorer 200 is pretty much a Whistler summer icon in its own right.
It’s simple really – escape work, pack your Explorer, a pump (essential), snacks (recommended), a good book or a fascinating floating companion and beers cunningly disguised in water bottles, and you have all the ingredients for a perfect evening in Whistler. Whether you choose Lost Lake, Alta Lake, Nita Lake or Alpha Lake, there’s plenty of options that all offer calm waters on which to float and gorgeous mountain views to admire.
2. Floating, on a river
Looking for some wilder Explorer action? You’re ready to brave the River of Golden Dreams. The nemesis of the Explorer 200, for every inflatable boat that survives this epic journey, another five are torn to pieces by rogue logs or an unexpected beaver dam. Starting from the launch spot at the bottom of Lorimer Road and ending at Meadow Park, this 5 km float takes around three hours to complete, and features stunning views around every corner, fun times, new friends, dubious rowing techniques, some stretches of floating relaxation and much drama as you attempt to avoid getting tangled up in bushes or caught on rocks. Whether your Explorer survives it or not, it’s a Whistler must-do.
A few River of Golden Dreams tips. Leave your Go Pro at home or it is likely to be lost to the Whistler waters forever. Pack your pump and a puncture repair kit for emergencies. Pick your time in the summer wisely – go too early and the spring melt rapids might be more than the Explorer can handle. Go too late and you’ll spend half the journey wading through the shallow waters. And finally – if your Explorer does become a victim of the river, take it home and dispose of it safely. The number of abandoned Explorers on the side of the river this year made us a little sad.
3. Scandinave Spa
I know, I know, we’re more than a little biased (as our regular readers know, one of us works for the Scandinave Spa) but, continuing on the water theme, the Scandinave Spa really is a summer essential. Refreshing cold plunges in which to cool off on a scorching afternoon, hammocks to sway-the-day-away in, terraces with spectacular views where you can sit and contemplate life – the Scandinave Spa is the antidote to action packed summer burn out. Tip – visit on a weekday at the start of the day or in the evening and it can feel like your own private spa.
Given the high population of Aussies here in Whistler, it’s no surprise that come summer time BBQs are a way of life. Indeed visit Alpine Meadows on a sunny July evening and you’ll probably find no end of locals willing to throw a shrimp on the barbie for you. But if you’re looking to treat yourself to something a little higher end, there’s two stand-out options.
Firstly, there’s Whistler Blackcomb’s Mountain Top BBQ – the ultimate summertime dinner with a view. Time it right and you can ride up the Blackcomb chairlift for some bear-spotting, experience the incredible feat of engineering that is the Peak2Peak gondola, have a stroll and enjoy some photo opps on the Whistler mountain trails– and then enjoy a feast. Whether it’s Whole Hog Fridays, Prime Rib Saturdays or Pacific Seafood Sundays, the buffet format has something for everyone. Then it’s just up to you to grab a chilled glass of wine from the bar, pick a patio table and enjoy the 360 degree views. Just one tip – dress warm – a baking hot day in the village does not equal a balmy evening at 6000 ft.
Secondly, (our personal favourite), is the Thursday night BBQ at the Four Seasons hotel. Similarly priced to the Mountain Top BBQ, what it lacks in views, it makes up for in outstanding food quality and selection, with grilled salmon, Korean ribs, roasted suckling pig and a whole host of salads and sides. And yes, you are allowed seconds (and thirds…). Add music from local duo the Hairfarmers and the legendary Four Seasons service standards, and you have the perfect Thursday night.
5. Embrace Events
Wanderlust (yoga). Ironman (crazy dudes and dudettes swimming, cycling and running some intense distances). Crankworx (even crazier dude and dudettes dropping epic moves in the bike park). Whistler Half Marathon (fun and awesome runners). Go Fest (outdoor activities on snow, land and water). Whistler Presents Concert series (great music). Gran Fondo (cyclists in tight lycra). If you live in Whistler, it feels like there is a world class event every weekend.
To be a true Whistler local you must do the following. Complain to anyone who will listen about the traffic and how busy the village is. Then throw yourself into the event, cheering athletes on, dancing to music, having your mind blown at the local and international talent, attending parties and enjoying the energy and buzz that these productions bring to our town. Top tip – buy some cow bells to show you’re a serious supporter!
6. And finally….hit the trails
Biking trails or hiking trails, there’s a plethora of them to choose from in the sea to sky corridor including Joffre Lakes, Garibaldi Lake and the Stawamus Chief. They are free to use, fantastic exercise and for us, what a Whistler summer is really about – so look out for some separate posts on what to do on two feet or two wheels in our hood. And let’s not forget the Valley Trail. A perfectly formed network of easy paved trails that provide the best commute in the world, the Valley Trail is the only way to get around Whistler in summer – for people and sometimes a bear.
So that’s our list of Whistler summer mellow must dos. Whistler locals and weekend warriors, what’s on your list?
Hanes Valley Trail – North Shore Trophy Hiking
The toughest hike of our lives all started in the safe and cosy suburban surroundings of a friend’s BBQ. As the beers disappeared war stories of sporting and physical achievements were traded until one bright spark asked if we had done the Hanes Valley Trail on Vancouver’s North Shore?
We had not, but being young and keen to experience all that Canada has to offer we joyfully accepted the invitation to join our Canadian friends for what we thought was a casual day hike….
Having hiked in the Lynn Valley before, we were aware that there would be no concession stands so decided to make sure we were prepared for what lay ahead and packed the bag with an English survival kit consisting of cans of coke, chips (aka crisps) and some Cadbury’s chocolate!
We dropped the first vehicle off at the base of Grouse Mountain around 9.30am, and struggled to find a spot thanks to the super keen summer Grouse Grinders! Eventually we found an unused bank at the end of the free dirt car park (we had a bad feeling we would regret that extra 500m walk back to the car later on that day!).
Our nice friends met us, and we were soon whisked off to the Lynn Valley Headwaters Car Park to start the walk in the summer sunshine. As soon as we hit the start of trail our phone signal disappeared.
Lynn Valley Trail
The first 6km or so of the hike through rain forest was relatively flat, although you had to keep your eye out for raised roots and large rocks on the trail, and the endless stream of super fit trail runners speeding past.
The main highlight of this first part of the hike came at Novern Falls, a 10 minute detour from the main trail. It’s a good photo spot and an excellent lunch location.
First Steps into the Backcountry
We crossed a metal suspension bridge which is the gateway into the Hanes Valley and marks the start of the ”Backcountry.” The trail steepens through the forest before a narrow descent down to Lynn Canyon Creek which offered a place to get ‘refreshed’ in the summer heat.
Next came the first sign that this hike might be more than a walk in the woods….what should have been a bridge was actually a 20ft fallen log crossing, with a 10ft drop in to the icy water below. Crossing techniques varied from an inch by inch bum slide approach to a more confident quick stroll, don’t-look-down manoeuvre. With that obstacle overcome, there was no turning back and we were now committed to what lay ahead!
The trail then meandered through some pleasant grassland, forest and bushes. With the berries evident we busted out the bear bells, unpacked the bear spray and made as much noise as possible by shouting “hey bear” at any blind corner to ward off any four legged friends.
We eventually made out it out of the bush to a helicopter pad and a strange looking cylinder, which is apparently is where North Shore Rescue keep their equipment. An ominous sign given what we were about to discover….
The first climb was a 500m scramble up a loose scree slope to Crown Pass which took the best part of 2 hours in the summer heat, and converted our hike to minor mountaineering status!
There was no marked trail, it was find your own way and hope the rocks did not give way!
Feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, we soon realised more challenges lay ahead thanks to the snow which had yet to melt despite it being late July and the clouds of bugs which seemed to get thicker with altitude!
We quickly had to make improvised hiking poles out of dead branches in order to maintain our balance on the slippery conditions as we made our way to the summit of Goat Mountain.
The hardest part of the final climb was certainly the 50m chain ladder which felt like it was on a 45 degree pitch!
Finding Grouse Mt
Having conquered Goat Mountain, and nearing the end of the hike we managed to lose the orange markers and so were unable to find the official trail back down to Grouse Mountain which was visible below us. In the end, we followed a creek bed down, which brought our soaked feet out onto a path below the Eye of the Wind.
Exhausted, from 8 hours of solid hiking involving 1300m of climbing, we emerged back in civilisation and we were greeted by the welcome sight of Coola and Grinder, the resident Grouse Mountain Grizzly Bears, bathing in the sunshine.
As we staggered towards the Grouse Mountain Day Lodge, we noticed a large sign saying the Hanes Valley trail was closed due to winter conditions, something we wish we had seen at the start of the hike at the other end. This may explain why we saw no one else all day!
Make sure you bring enough water, we had 5 litres between 2 and it was all gone by the time we reached Grouse Mountain. In addition, gloves and hiking poles would have been great extras!
Do your research first for this “trophy hike” so you know what to expect. Here’s a few articles we probably should have read first:
In summary, a challenging summer day hike with lots of geographic variation which is well suited to experienced hikers who are well prepared and have done their research!
Mt Seymour Bear Dodging
Most Vancouverites only visit Mt Seymour in North Vancouver between the months of December and April to take advantage of the abundant white stuff (snow, to be clear for any employers / children / parents / bored customs officers reading this). However, after 2 years of simply admiring the beauty of the North Shore Mountains in summer we decided to head up to Mt Seymour to check out the hiking trails in Mount Seymour Provincial Park.
The drive up to Mt Seymour which is situated at 1449m above sea level takes about 20-25 minutes, sharing the road with insane cyclists riding up the mountain who at any point look likely to drown in their own perspiration.
The Provincial Park has 14 well marked hiking trails which vary in grading from easy to difficult. Now we just want to take this moment to raise an internationally significant issue (possible with the UN Security Council) regarding Canadians’ ability to accurately grade the difficulty of their hiking terrain. Take note that what your average “I skied my first black run when I was 3” Canadian would grade as “easy” would require a week of intensive Everest style base camp training for a normally fit and active Brit to conquer! Based on this level of grading we decided somewhat foolishly take on a “moderate” hike named Mystery Lake trail because of the promise of a refreshing swim in the lake at the summit of the mountain.
Only a 1.5km hike in length from the starting point in the car park to the finish at Mystery Lake, the walk gains nearly 200m in elevation. While that does not sound too steep a gradient on paper, the reality is that you are basically clambering up rocks. However, this hike offers more dangers than those of a twisted ankle…..hungry black bears!
So everything was going well on the climb until we met “Can Man”. This jolly fellow has nobly spent the last 6 years picking up the beer cans of visitors to the mountain (note that in Canada you receive a monetary refund from the supermarket when you return containers, making beer can collection in prime drinking areas a better career option than a job in PR). He advised us that he had just seen a 700lb bear in the bushes and its young cub on the path. Now we are not natives and we have only picked up a bit of bear knowledge from Les Stroud’s survival programs and once reading a bear smart leaflet in a coffee shop but even we know that getting between a big black bear and its cub is about as good an idea as telling a US border guard that they should smile more. Despite carrying the latest in anti-bear armoury of bear bells (a steel ball with a smaller ball inside which creates Ibiza club levels of noise and is very irritating for fellow hikers) and bear spray (a hand grenade meets a deodorant can that is a useful tool in hand to paw close combat) we were unsure whether to turn back and give up on our dream of swimming in the clear fresh cooling waters of the Mystery Lake oasis…..
Fortunately, we were saved by a couple on the trail behind us. No, they were not locals who had Masters degrees from Dr Doolittle University in Black Bear hostage negotiations, but were just bear ignorant tourists hiking in their flip flops and only carrying a swimming towel for protection, who really wanted to go swimming. So adopting the statistical survival philosophy that you only need to run faster than one other person in the group (and the male tourist clearly did not say no very often when asked if he would like to “supersize”) we proceeded on into the danger zone (cue top gun music). As we came over the ridge we were confronted by a violently shaking bush but fortunately no angry mummy bear. Clearly big bears prefer berries in the bush to naive tourists.
We reached Mystery Lake to be greeted not only by crystal clear fresh water but also by 30 blokes having some kind of weird Chinese hat wearing drinking session!
With the thermometer in the high 20s, Paul eagerly jumped into the Lake……..approximately 1.2 seconds later hypothermia and frostbite kicked in simultaneously, much to the amusement of a smug Helena who had already worked out that a lake made from melted snow in the middle of a ski resort is likely to be cold. Perhaps the Chinese hat wearing guys had the right idea, having primed themselves with copious amounts of beer, and their numerous empty cans could have paid the rent on a Yaletown flat for the previously mentioned Can Man. Overall, not quite the peaceful swimming oasis that we had in mind, but totally worth it for the amazing views of the Lower Mainland, Boundary Bay, Mt Baker and the Georgia Straight.
Thanks for reading.
Paul & Helena