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.
Losing our Backcountry Virginity at Sundance Lodge, Banff
Having skied various hills in BC and Alberta for the past 5 years, we decided that for the 2015/16 winter season we were going to change up our mountain activities. Inspired by watching mountaineering movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and armed with new packs and an unlimited supply of hand warmers we decided we were ready to explore the Canadian Rockies backcountry!
However, with limited avalanche training or experience of the true Canadian winter wilderness, we knew that our first tentative backcountry steps would need to be taken carefully into terrain where the relative risks were low. We did our research and found that the Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park would make for a great first trip given the limited avalanche dangers on the route in.
Getting to Sundance Lodge
There are two starting points to get to the Lodge – either from Banff Trail Riders Stables (16km one way) or from Healy Creek car park (10km). We chose Healy Creek as we had hiked the Sundance Canyon Trail along the banks of the River Bow in the Summer – nothing to do with it being shorter!
We chose snowshoes as the main means of transport for our trip; the tortoise of winter travel methods – slow, steady and safe for unknown routes! Other viable options include cross country skiing with tracks set for the classic technique. Given that the route is packed snow thanks to skidoos ferrying supplies to the Lodge daily, another popular approach is using fat bikes that can be hired from Soul in Banff.
We took about 3.5 hours on snowshoes going at a leisurely pace to reach the Lodge, while those on skis / fat bikes beat us to the best fireside seats at the lodge, taking somewhere been 1.5 and 2 hours.
Starting from Healy Creek Trailhead at the base of the Sunshine Village Access Road, the route starts with a 2.5km flat trek to the junction with Brewster Creek Trail. This initial part of the trail opens up in a couple of sections to provide some great views along the the Bow Valley.
The hard works starts at the junction of Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trails, with a 2km continuous elevation gain of around 175m through the trees. We stopped for a few “rest photos.”
The trail then flattens out, and the winter sunshine starts to hit the route. Anywhere along here is a great time to stop for lunch.
The trail then drops into Brewster Creek, which suffered a lot of damage during the 2013 floods creating a large washout area over which 2 bridges have been built.
With a final 20 minute push, you round the corner to the sight of a warm cozy lodge with smoke bellowing from the chimney against the magnificent backdrop of the Sundance Range.
Our friendly host Steve, greeted us at the door with the welcoming offer of freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate / ice cold beer.
Room selection was on a first come first serve basis. Luckily for us (last to arrive), the 10 rooms in the lodge were only occupied by 3 other groups so we had a good selection of inviting rooms to choose from.
With feet warmed by the fire, a bottle of red purchased and acquaintances made with other guests, we headed to the dinner table for a culinary treat. A creamy mushroom soup, was followed by braised beef finished off with a Lodge made lemon meringue pie. The food was delicious, which was not a surprise when we learned Steve, a gregarious local character, has spent many years working as an executive chief in Canada and the US, and this was now his retirement gig!
The combination of board games, a good book and conversation with the other guests made for an enjoyable evening around the fire, which heats the whole Lodge.
Although the bedrooms had no heating the super thick down duvets kept us very warm in our comfortable beds, while strategically placed lanterns provided assistance to find the washrooms on the bottom level.
For those feeling brave enough to venture out at sunset, the light offers some gorgeous photos of the forest. Given that the Lodge is 16km from the nearest town, the stars on a clear night are also a sight to behold. (nighttime photo credit: @travelswithjonny)
Breakfast was served around 9am – the pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs and the best sausages we have tasted during our 5+ years in Canada, set us up well for the return journey!
- There is no phone signal at the Lodge (or wifi) – the only communication with the outside world is via CV radio (for emergencies only).
- Bring spare camera batteries as there is no way to charge them, and you will take lots of photos!
- The winter hours are short, with the sun disappearing around 5pm during December, so make sure you give yourself enough to get to the Lodge before you are in need of a headlamp!
- Only carry what you need – food and water for the trek in, a toothbrush and some Lodge clothes! A tasty lunch is provided for the journey out!
- Remember to turn the lights off to conserve power as the Lodge is powered by solar power!
- You need a Parks Canada pass for your parked car
- Bring layers and hand/toe warmers as the journey in during winter can be a bit chilly!
Sundance Lodge was a fantastic location for our first backcountry foray combining a moderately challenging trek with the comforts of a comfy warm bed and tasty home cooked food!
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!
Snowshoeing at Louise Creek, Banff National Park
There are two ways to get from Lake Louise Village to Lake Louise itself in winter – the fast way in a car or the better way on snowshoes!
With 30cm of fresh snow on the ground we chose the scenic Louise Creek route (no 14) as that sounded way more fun!
Starting at the Lake Louise Village car park we headed under the railway bridge and across the Bow River Bridge.
The start of the 2.8 km trail (one way) is on your left immediately after the bridge. Within a few meters the road is left behind and a Winter Wonderland awaits!
After a few hundred meters you meet the first of many Louise Creek crossings.
The trail then starts its 200m elevation, which when breaking trail in 30cm of fresh powder is certainly a great workout! Remember snacks!!
However, there are always good spots to take a rest and just capture the magic of a snowy day in the Canadian Rockies!.
Eventually the trail flattens as you reach an intersection with the Tramline cross country skill trail (no 3).
Then it’s time to find a cosy lunch spot by the creek! On a cold day nothing is better than warm soup!!
The trail gradually makes its way up to Lake Louise, a crown jewel in the Canadian Rockies.
The fun part is heading back downhill on your newly-made trail finding new spots you missed on the way up!
Best to be quick though as the sun goes down earlier in winter!
A dog’s review of the Sundance Canyon Trail, Banff
Hi, my name is Molly the Dog and I am a guest blogger on West Coast Discovered. I was inspired by the twitter work of the Banff Squirrel to tell you about one of my favorite hikes in Banff, the Sundance Canyon trail.
As I don’t live in Banff, I am usually reliant on my human family to drive me to the Cave and Basin car park. I don’t mind riding in the trunk as I get more room that way to stretch out. I have heard it’s a good idea due to some complaining at the front of the car to get there reasonably early on a weekend as parking can be a bit harder to find!
- Half-day trip, allow 4 hours (the humans slow me down)
- Distance: 4.2 km one way to the start of the Canyon and then whatever you want to walk in the Sundance Canyon
- Moderate elevation gain: 145 m with a maximum elevation of 1545 m
This is one of my favorite hikes as it has lots of different highlights – many Rocky mountains, lakes, the Bow River, waterfalls and of course the Sundance Canyon!
- 0 km: You have two choices at the start of the hike, follow the pavement from the Cave on Basin centre, or take the more rustic trail from the base of the car park. I prefer the dirt path as it is better shaded and you are more likely to meet some horses from the Warner Stables – I love to track them! There is also a boardwalk for fishing and bird watching, where I have to be very quiet or I get told off! You might also get to meet some local residents, although I found the squirrels to be quite protective of their trees!
- After a 1km or so you end back on the pavement and follow the Bow River. This is my favorite part of the walk, not only for the stunning Rocky mountain scenery but because I can go for a quick dip in the glacially fed water to cool down while the humans take photos of the sharp peak of Mount Edith. Stand back when I get out though, I do like to dry off by soaking everyone within 6 feet of me! #MollyWaterBomb
- After 2.5km you head away from the river and start a gentle climb up to the Sundance Canyon about 1.8kms away. I spend most of this part of the route enjoying the smell of the wildflowers which line the banks! There are also some fancy pit washrooms and a picnic area for the humans.
- After 4.3km you will reach the start of the Sundance Canyon. There is an interesting sign that tells you about how it was formed. There is also a bike rack for those who don’t like putting their feet on the ground. After this the fun starts! You get to clamber up rock steps and explore the waterfalls of the canyon as well as cross a few wooden bridges.
- Sundance Canyon Trail Loop: After you have explored the canyon you can spin 180 degrees and head back the way you came or choose to carry on and complete a more challenging loop (makes the hike 12km all in) which leads to a ridge and then a walk back through the forest to join the main trail 3.3km out from the car park.
- Marsh Trail: To keep things interesting, I like to take this 1.6 km trail on the way back as it runs along the banks of the Bow River to the marsh and then turns right at a junction and crosses a dyke to return to the Cave and Basin parking lot. There is a small beach which is great place to take another dip and bark at passing canoes!
You also get 360 degree views of the Bow Valley from here too!
- Watch out for horse riders – they have their own separate trail but I don’t think they are as well trained as me! Never seen a horse do a high five or a spin for a biscuit!
- As a dog I have to be kept on a lead which is not great but I guess it stops me chasing squirrels or getting myself into trouble with a Grizzly bear!
- The Bow River is pretty cold – I reckon only dogs can handle it!
- There are a few bugs around given the proximity to the wetlands – bring spray but keep it away from me!
- The Cave and Basin had a good café selling ice cream #hint
Happy exploring my canine and non canine friends!
Molly the Dog
The Canadian Rockies – Lake Agnes Teahouse Hike
Lake Louise has a reputation for having some of the best hiking in the Canadian Rockies. This is due not only to the stunning alpine scenery but by the fact you can have a nice fresh cup of tea and a slice of cake served in an historic tea house at the top of your trek!
Things to know before you arrive
The Agnes Teahouse is only open for the summer, so it is worth checking when it opens. This year it opened in early June but timing largely depends on the seasonal snow pack melt.
If undertaking this hike on a warm summer weekend it’s best to get to the Lake Louise car park reasonably early, as it fills up quickly. Alternatively, if you don’t get a spot you can park along the access road but that will add some extra kilometers to your hike!
It’s also worth checking the weather – our top tip is to plan to go on a clear sky day as the views of the Rockies and Bow Valley are nothing short of breathtaking. No point putting all that effort in to see what clouds look like close up!
The Lakes Agnes Hike
The basic Lake Agnes hike is 10km round, with an elevation gain of 700m. The uphill is not strenuous but it is continuous for the 5km climb.
There are a number of spots where you might want to take a “strategic” break at on your way to the Lake Agnes Teahouse:
- First glimpse of Lake Louise – while the lake looks great from shore level its amazing turquoise colors really stand out as you gain altitude.
- View of the Bow Valley – as you gain more elevation stunning views of Bow Valley can be seen between the increasing breaks in the tree line.
- Mirror Lake – this is a beautiful lake that reflects the Big Beehive in its green tinged calm waters.
- Agnes Waterfall – as you climb up towards the Lake Agnes Teahouse, you will hear the sound of roaring water. A large waterfall soon comes into view as you climb the final Teahouse steps.
The Lake Agnes Teahouse
The highlight of the hike is the historic tea house, which sits at the edge of Lake Agnes at an altitude of 2135m. The Teahouse, which first opened in 1905, serves over 100 varieties of loose leaf tea, soups, sandwiches and welcome treats!
On a hot summer day, outside seating can be quite limited so you may have to wait a while. Also, the Teahouse only accepts cash.
Add On Hikes
From the Lake Agnes Teahouse, there are a number of additional hikes you can undertake:
- Big Beehive – follow the Lake Agnes shoreline to the other end of the lake. We were unable to continue up the switchbacks to the Big Beehive summit due to waist deep snow but still enjoyed some great views looking back across Lake Agnes to the Teahouse. Best to check the Parks Canada Trail Report for hiking conditions if going in early summer
- Little Beehive – this is a fantastic 3km round trip that provides quintessential views of the Canadian Rockies looking out over Lake Louise, Mt Victoria and the Victoria Glacier.
- Plain of the 6 Glaciers – although a separate hike in its own right, if you start early and have the legs for it you can add this onto your initial hike. Its worth it given you have worked for a lot of the elevation gain already!
- Bring cash for the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
- Start early to avoid crowds, be able to park and give yourself time to do the add on hikes.
- Pick a sunny day to guarantee amazing views.
- Bring your camera and plenty of space on your memory card – you will need it!
Icefields Parkway – Road Trip
The 75 year old Icefields Parkway is without doubt one of the most spectacular mountain driving roads in the world as it traverses the rugged Canadian Rockies. A trip along Highway 93 in winter (very quiet) or summer (much busier) is an assault on the senses which will leave you breathless and in awe of truly how amazing Mother Nature can be!
The sub-alpine road is filled with so many easily accessible highlights, places to stop and memorable moments that a 3 hour drive can turn into days of adventure. The golden rule on this road is to triple the time you think you need and then add a few more hours just to be safe!
Most travellers will access the Parkway from Highway 1 just outside the village of Lake Louise. The 232 km journey through the pristine mountain environment starts in Banff National Park, and ends in Jasper National Park so make sure you purchase a Parks Canada Parks pass before you hit the tarmac – there are checks!
In the winter months, the road is a frozen wonderland so it is good to ensure you have decent winter tires. The road has no cell phone signal so make sure you pack everything you need, and let someone know where you are venturing to!
The first major highlight of the road trip greets you in a few minutes of your journey. Heading north look left to view Crowfoot Glacier. There is a rest spot at which your camera will make its’ first of many appearances!
Twenty minutes up the road you are in for a real treat. Avoid the temptation to stop on the road pull out and continue on to the left hand turn road which leads to a set of washrooms and the historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.
From here you will be able to appreciate the true wonder of this location. The Bow Glacier which is part of the Wapta Icefield is easily visible from the shore of Bow Lake. This glacier forms the source of the Bow River which flows via Calgary to Hudson Bay! There are also plenty of hiking trails including Bow Glacier Falls.
If you thought Bow Lake was an eye opener, wait until you see Peyto Lake! If heading there in winter you will probably need snowshoes to make the 20 minute walk up the snow covered access road to the viewing platform. You might also be lucky enough to capture the Northern Lights, and even a little snow art!
If arriving in the summer months, it’s a pleasant 15 minute stroll up the hill to view one of the undisputed jewels of the Rocky Mountains. Significant amounts of glacial rock flour flow into the lake, and these suspended rock particles give the lake its unique bright, turquoise colour.
Best to go early or late to avoid the tour buses that stop by to wonder at this true beauty of nature in the summer months. Indeed, the lake is best seen from Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway so don’t forget your hiking boots!
The river crossing is also home to the only services on the highway between Lake Louise and Jasper. If you need gas, be prepared to pay a higher price given the isolation of this location.
For those more interested in the huge Saskatchewan River, there is a view point and picnic area just across the road.
At the highest point on the road lies a confluence of 5 glaciers fed by the largest ice sheet outside of the Arctic Circle, the Columbia Icefield, which is about 325 square kilometers (125 sq mi) and up to 325m thick.
What is unique about this location is that you are able to walk upon the Athabasca Glacier via travel one of Brewster’s monster wheeled ice explorers. Be prepared for an 18% degree road (the 2nd steepest in North America) that drops you onto the glacier! Once on the glacier you are able to sample fresh drinking water and take as many photos as your memory card and the allotted 20 minutes will allow.
A recent addition to the Brewster family of Rockies attractions is the Glacier Skywalk. This cliff hugging pathway extends via a glass path over the valley to leave those with a fear of heights clinging to the railings. The walk offers unrestricted views of the valley and the Columbia Icefield above, and is a nice add on to the “must do” glacier tour if time allows.
You might be also lucky enough to encounter some of the locals. Give them some space and they might give you a smile!
There are many more highlights on the Icefields Parkway which we will leave up to you to discover such as Helen Lake, Parker Ridge and Mistaya Canyon – we don’t want to ruin all the Parkway’s surprises!
Our advice is take your time, bring a tent or even ride your bike if you don’t mind uphill climbs. Whatever happens don’t rush the Icefields Parkway – it’s a magic place to evoke your sense of wonder!