By far, the hardest hike of our Canadian adventure was from Upper Johnston Canyon to the Inkpots. It was a punishingly steep hike, but the beauty of the inkpots and the alpine meadow they’re in more than made up for it.
Johnston Canyon is one of the busiest places in Banff, and it’s evident by how quickly the carpark fills up in the morning. The first time we visited Banff, we thought we’d rock up to Johnston Canyon about 1 pm – ha, no. While we did find parking spaces at an overflow carpark, the place was so busy there’d have been no point trying.
This time, we turned up nice and early and enjoyed the lower and upper falls while it was relatively quiet. If you want to avoid the crowds, arrive for 9 am – especially during the summer. Very few people actually go further to the Inkpots, so that trail being busy isn’t really an issue.
It quickly becomes apparent why Johnston Canyon is so popular. The falls and the canyon are stunning, and walkways allow the whole family to get up close to them, and a little soggy. It’s impressive walking through a canyon and trying to comprehend how water created something so incredible. I mean, we all get how erosion works but standing in somewhere like that and trying to comprehend it frazzles my brain.
Most visitors don’t bother hiking the extra 3km/1.9 miles to the Inkpots, which is simultaneously ridiculous (it’s so beautiful) and understandable (it’s steeeeep). While Johnston Canyon is definitely something special, the Inkpots are even better.
That said, I can understand why so many people don’t go; it’s not a particularly family friendly trail (though we did see a couple of kids on the trail). We both found it the hardest hike of our trip; it was bloody steep, it was definitely leg day, and there isn’t a huge amount to look at because the forest is so thick you only get the occasional glimpse of the mountains around you.
It took us just over an hour to reach the inkpots , and my complaining and leg burn went away as soon as I saw the alpine meadow coming into view. (Don’t let my complaining put you off, plenty of people seemed to storm past us so perhaps I’m just unfit?)
When you reach the meadow, you’re rewarded with a stunning view of a few vibrant-coloured ponds you associate with Canada nestled inside an awe-inspiring alpine meadow. A couple of trails take you around the inkpots and there are a few benches too, making it the perfect place for a picnic.
If you do fancy further hiking in this area, there are a couple of overnight trails into the backcountry along Mystic Pass, and Johnston Creek. If you’re thinking about doing any backcountry trails, make sure you know your safety stuff; we read plenty of information saying bears use both of those trails regularly to get to drinking spots.
Tips for hiking Johnston Canyon & the Inkpots
• Give yourself at least four hours to enjoy the trip there and back
• Return distance: 10.8km/6.7miles
• Be there at 9 am if you want to see Johnston Canyon in relative silence
• Wear good, supportive footwear
• Take layers – you might be hot hiking but it’ll be cool when you stop
• Take plenty of water and snacks
• There are no toilets after the car park
• Enjoy a picnic when you reach the Inkpots
• Know how to behave responsibly in an area that’s home to wild animals; make noise, keep dogs on a leash, never leave any food or food packaging, and keep your distance.