We are fortunate to have friends who own a stunning home in the town of Canmore, just outside Banff National Park. We arranged a mid-week stay at their mountain retreat and had the most amazing few days. Summer arrived with a vengeance and we enjoyed clear blue skies and temperatures hovering around 30 C for the entire time, not typical weather for Canmore. We had a busy few days planned with hiking and biking on the agenda.
Our first day we got an early start and drove to the Castle Junction on highway 1A, which is closed for the summer to vehicular traffic due to COVID-19, we cycled this road a couple of weeks ago from Banff. This time we cycled 6 km from Castle Junction to the Johnston Canyon trailhead, locked up the bikes and started hiking. Under normal circumstances, Johnston Canyon is overrun with tourists and not a pleasant place to visit, but this year with no foreign visitors and the road closed, it is not easily accessible, meaning there are few people on the trail. We started hiking at 10 am and in 90 minutes reached the Inkpots, seeing at most a dozen other people on the trail. I was not much of a hiker when we lived in Calgary, preferring to mountain bike, and had never been to the Inkpots in the 36 years I lived in Calgary! The Inkpots trail is an out and back 11.7 km hike with an elevation gain of 608 meters/1,994 ft.
The hike up Johnston Canyon is initially in the forest but you soon enter the canyon, an impressive natural chasm shaped by the rushing waters of Johnston Creek. Over many thousands of years, the river has carved out intricate and dazzling shapes from the soft limestone rock, creating a natural spectacle. From a forest walk the path soon turns to catwalks fixed into the sheer limestone cliffs, which allow you to penetrate the canyon as there is no space for a trail. These catwalks brought back memories of our hike on the Caminito del Ray in Spain, which I wrote about in this post from January 2019. The Lower Canyon Falls are just 1.2 km from the trailhead and are a dramatic sight, tumbling down the canyon into a deep turquoise pool. At the falls, cross the creek and walk through a natural tunnel for an up-close view of the falls, we got a little wet from the spray but the view was worth it. This is as far as many people walk which is a shame because there is so much more to see. Here is a short video of the Lower Falls.
Continuing on from the Lower Falls it is another 1.4 km to the Upper Canyon Falls. From the end of the catwalk, the view of the base of the falls is spectacular. The Upper Falls drop 40 meters into a deep plunging pool filling the canyon with mist, the trail continues up to a viewpoint at the top of the falls. Observing the quantity of water rushing over the falls it is hard to imagine that in the winter these falls turn into an epic wall of ice, popular with local ice climbers. Next to the Upper Falls is the largest Travertine Drape in the Rockies. A Travertine Drape is a massive colony of microscopic plants, Travertine Algae, growing and building the cliff face. The cliff face is made out of limestone and is constantly being expanded by these tiny plants fed by water seeping from the top of the cliff. Here is a short video of the Upper Falls.
From the Upper Canyon Falls the trail continues another 3 km to the Inkpots, five pristine aquamarine-coloured pools. The Inkpots are mineral springs that differ in colour because each pool fills at a different rate. The pools are filled by underground springs bubbling to the surface maintaining a year-round water temperature of 4C. Because we were there early in the day there were only a few other people at the Inkpots. There are walking paths and pretty wooden bridges over the water giving the feeling of a peaceful garden tucked away in the mountains. The meadow beyond the Inkpots is the gateway to multi-day hikes further into the Rockies, it was a beautiful place to enjoy our lunch beside the pools before walking back. As we made our way down and got closer to the Upper Falls the trail became noticeably busier with hikers, making us appreciate our early start.
The lack of foreign tourists combined with the highway being closed to vehicles (ie tour buses) has made 2020 the absolute best year to hike this highly popular trail.
Tomorrow’s adventure, Moraine Lake…