Photo Credit:Travel Alberta / Stevin Tuchiwsky
When fall turns to winter and the temperatures drop below freezing, a unique transformation occurs in the canyons – they turn into detailed, Narnia-like ice valleys that create the best icewalks in Banff.
Canyons around the Canadian Rockies have been sculpted over thousands of years with the wind, water, and tectonic movement – exploring these geological time-capsules is not only accessible but diverse in natural and human history.
Discover Banff Tours offers three winter Banff icewalks and each gives a different perspective. Choose from day or night; hiking along suspended catwalks with airy views into the gorge below or on a frozen creek bed along the canyon floor.
Every experience includes ice cleats to keep you steady on your feet and the option of hiking poles for extra stability – and all with the informative, fun, and interactive guides that our guests have come to expect. Although each icewalk is different, they all share common characteristics and the local knowledge each guide represents. Plus every Banff icewalk includes hotel pickup – and hot chocolate and our legendary maple cookies to warm you up!
One of the more popular summer hikes in Banff National Park is Johnston Canyon – summertime visitors come daily in the hundreds, each seeking to discover the many waterfalls and lush green flora and fauna that await. Come winter, this place is a whole different story – the Johnston Canyon Icewalk is close to the Banff townsite and a favourite among visitors. Strap on your ice cleats and head down the ice-covered pathways and suspended walkways as your guide explains the geological formations that created this unique place.
Journeying through the canyon you walk past seven waterfalls, the most photo-worthy of which are visibly seen from the pathways. The first large and definitely noteworthy waterfall is accessed after crossing a bridge. For an even better view, you’ll walk through a small cave that spits you out at a viewpoint overlooking dramatic ice formations and cold mists from the falls. Your guide will explain to you where all of this water comes from, even in the coldest months of the year when no meltwater is percolating into Johnston Creek below.
Ascending further up the pathway it’s quickly realized what makes this an icewalk, and one of the best in Banff as well. Viewpoints along the path are explained in detail by your guide as you find more frozen waterfalls before finishing at the largest one. These falls are frequented by ice climbers and more times than not, you’ll find them pulling themselves up the frozen falls, ice pick by ice pick.
Is this Banff Icewalk for you? The Johnston Canyon Icewalk includes 2 – 2.5 hours of walking with an elevation gain of 135 metres (443 feet) over 5.4kms to reach the upper falls. This icewalk is considered easy/moderate but is also the most difficult as the main elevation gain is done is short climbs (in some cases steep enough for steps). We recommend this icewalk for those with a moderate fitness level to ensure that you enjoy the tour.
“It’s amazing in the morning when no-else is there.”
When visitors want to go for a hike, most don’t think to come out at night for it. The Johnston Canyon Evening Icewalk creates an experience like no other in Banff by removing the ability to have daylight 360-degree views and narrowing it down to what is in front of your headlamp. Not only are you more focused as to what is in front of you at all times, but you are going to be the only ones in the canyon. Feeling like you have a natural setting all to yourself is sometimes hard to find these days, but on the evening icewalk this is the reality of the whole tour.
Light your way through this narrow, water-formed canyon as your small group follows our guide to the Canyon’s lower falls along the suspended catwalks, built into the limestone walls. At one point in the hike, we give you the opportunity to guide yourself through the night without your headlamp turned on, just so you can see for yourself how your senses will be heightened and how much your eyes will surprise you in what they can see under the stars and moonlight.
Is this Banff Icewalk for you? The Johnston Canyon Evening Icewalk Tour includes 1.5 – 2 hours of walking a distance of 2.2km (1.4 miles) to the lower falls with an elevation gain of 65 metres (213 feet). The icewalk is considered easy/moderate, and provides a shorter, easier option in comparison to the Johnston Canyon daytime icewalk.
“Escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy the silence.”
Perhaps the most off-the-beaten-path icewalk we offer is in Grotto Canyon. This location was once within the Banff National Park boundaries back when it was known as ‘Rocky Mountains Park’ upon first being established. Due to the need for resources like coal to run the steam trains, the park changed in size over the years and eventually ending up at what is now known as Banff National Park today, and Grotto Canyon sits just outside its boundaries.
This is the only icewalk that we offer where you hike in the canyon on the frozen creek below. On the Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour we come to the Grotto Canyon pictographs – these drawings were done by native people some 500 – 1,300 years ago. The most visible drawing is the flute player, said to be a symbol of fertility and travelling. The flute player (also named Kokapelli) was a consistent drawing of the Hopitu people as they travelled four different directions upon arriving in North America.
After viewing the pictographs and coming face-to-face with frozen waterfalls, you will also find the hoodoos and a small cave. Hoodoos in the Rocky Mountains are rock formations that were formed thousands of years ago from glaciers allowing soft rock particles to fall into small areas, compacting them into tall rock pillars that remained after the ice age glaciers melted away.
Is this Banff Icewalk for you? The Grotto Canyon Icewalk Tour is a 4.2km (2.6 miles) walk with an elevation gain of 100 metres (328 feet), and a total walking time of 2 – 2.5 hours. This icewalk is considered easy, with a few small inclines.
“Grotto’s a local secret with few crowds and cool human history.”