Winter in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies is full of pleasant surprises. My icewalk into Johnston Canyon turns out to be one of the coolest winter experiences in Banff National Park.
The Discover Banff Tours guide gives us special cleats for our boots. As we move forward on the path leading into the canyon, cozy in our winter gear, softly falling snow begins to dust the peaks of our parka hoods and our breath curls in wisps around us.
Johnston Canyon Sparkles in Winter
To start the tour, we take a heated shuttle bus from Banff. I’m with a dozen people from around the world who are looking for a different kind of winter hike. Some are looking for bragging rights. This hike is rated as easy to moderate and the cleats help to provide traction in the snow and on the ice, but you need to have a basic level of fitness for what’s in store. It takes about 90 minutes hiking into the canyon and the same getting back out, so expect around a four-hour tour with the travel time to and from Banff.
Within minutes we’ve left one spectacular world and entered an even more enchanted one. Johnston Canyon is frozen in blue translucent ice. Soon we are making our way along the steel walkways and railings embedded in the rock walls.
Icewalking Back in Time
Years and years of water flowing through the canyon have worn away the soft limestone. There are gouges in the walls and pleated sheets of ice. We can sometimes hear the gurgle of the creek far below, and it echoes as you make your way along the catwalk. The views of the frozen waterfalls are simply amazing. Luminous sheets cling to the walls and spill out over the canyon’s edges.
We’re strolling through the region’s geological history as we come upon fossils as much as 800 million years old. When we near the end of the walkway, we go through a little tunnel to discover remarkable vantage points. It’s camera time.
More Canadian Rockies Icewalks
Other icewalks include Grotto Canyon 10 minutes east of Canmore, which is just outside Banff National Park and less than an hour’s drive from Calgary. Highlights of the two-hour hike include seeing the ancient pictographs and watching ice climbers navigate the towering frozen waterfalls.
Jasper National Park's deepest canyon is less than a half hour from the town of Jasper. Trek Maligne Canyon by day, or take a night walk for stargazing in one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.