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Exploring Johnston Canyon in winter

johnston canyon winter

2016 was a year of many firsts for me, of trying new things and having new experiences.

It was also the year I truly fell in love with winter, making it a specific part of my travel plans. I love nature and being in the mountains, and nothing compares to seeing places like that in the coldest months, when everything is a white winter wonderland. Cold is beautiful.

And nowhere does winter better than Alberta, Canada, especially in January.

2016 was also the year I felt my coldest EVER – a balmy -30° celsius (or -22°F) in Banff. That is NOT something I’m likely soon to forget.

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

To be totally honest here, I fell in love with Alberta even before I arrived. It was an easy sell. I had seen pictures of it over the years on Instagram, and it looked so similar to New Zealand (except 100 times more extreme) that I knew I’d love it.

And oh boy did it live up to expectations.

Its hard for me to pick a favorite moment from my time in Canada in winter, but if I had to chose, it probably was when I went for a sunrise hike in Johnston Canyon near Banff, which also happened to be the coldest morning I had ever felt to date.

Colder than a witch’s tit, as we say in the South.

johnston canyon winter

It had been a clear, still night full of stars, white walker weather as I like to say. Shivers. Literally.

It was so cold when I went to bed that night in Banff at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, the snow outside didn’t look real. It was so still and cold, the snow was so dry it sparkled, like nothing I had ever seen before. It was so dry you couldn’t even form a snowball with it. Perfect, perfect powder.

It was still dark with a few stars twinkling before the dawn light began on the horizon as I layered up in my warm, cozy cabin room and packed my camera gear. Glancing at my phone, I almost couldn’t believe it when it said-30° C. I never felt temperatures that cold before.

Check out my post about traveling in extreme climates and not destroying your things

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

The cold was dry with no wind so it wasn’t so shocking when I went outside to get picked up by Discover Banff Tours. No white walkers or ice spiders, a good sign.

I was joining in on one of their guided tours of Johnston Canyon since I was traveling on my own, an iconic spot in Banff I was dying to check out. I made sure to go on their very first early morning trip so we had the canyon to ourselves.

While you can definitely visit the canyon all year unguided, I wanted to learn about the area and I wanted to borrow the right gear for it in winter. The river and waterfalls freeze in winter, and the path is covered in snow and ice which gets compacted down and even more icy with all the visitors walking on it, and is super slippery.

While you don’t need crampons, you should definitely borrow some ice/snow cleats that slip over your shoes, or are provided along with warm gear if you go on a guided tour.

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

I wore two pairs of thick leggings, thick wooly merino socks, and my heavy duty winter Parajumpers Musher jacket. My breath froze on my hair immediately and all along the edges of my jacket, and my iPhone died within seconds of my taking it out of my warm pocket.

I feel like I should also take this opportunity to mention that it is NOT always that cold in Alberta, I think the usual January average is around -15°C, but because it’s so dry, it’s much more bearable than a damp cold. Ugh, not my favorite.

But I will say I loved experience the icy winter wonderland of Johnston Canyon in those temperatures because it made it seem even more eery, still and mystical. The dry snow sparkled in the early morning light and the ice seemed the most insane shades of blue.

Didn’t take long for me to start humming the Frozen soundtrack in the back of the group. FREAKING magical guys! Let it snow!

johnston canyon winter

I was always last because I couldn’t stop taking photos and ogling the amazing ice formations. I had never seen anything like that before! Ice and frozen waterfalls that looked like blue stalactites in caves, I was in awe!

In one section you pop out at the bottom of a frozen waterfall, and you could still see the water tumbling down behind the ice in the most mesmerizing scene.

There are two sections of track leading to the upper and lower falls in the canyon, and definitely do both. If you go on a guided tour, you can warm up at the top with hot cocoa (YUS!) and maple cookies (OMG YUS I love Canada!).

You’ll probably get the chance to even see ice climbers at the top too, and can even go out yourself if you’re keen (it’s fun but hard).

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

We spent a few hours wandering up and down Johnston Canyon and finally made our way out just as the sun began to climb above the steep cliffs promising a beautiful bluebird day in Banff.

It’s hard for places to live up to expectations when you put them on a pedestal (like I have the tendency to do), but oh man, did Johnston Canyon and Banff live up to the hype!

I’d go back in a heartbeat!

Where’s the coldest place you’ve ever been? What temperatures? Do you enjoy winter travel? Would you visit a frozen canyon like this? Spill!

johnston canyon winter

johnston canyon winter

Many thanks to Travel Alberta for hosting me in Banff – like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!

36 Responses to Exploring Johnston Canyon in winter

  1. Marta Kulesza December 29, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

    I just went there last week. It’s all frozen over again and the waterfalls look different then on your photos from last year. That’s the beauty of it! Every winter it looks different!

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:21 am #

      Oh cool! I bet, I want to see it in summer too!

      • Kristen January 8, 2017 at 10:29 pm #

        I’ve been in the late spring/early summer, at the end of shoulder season and I would HIGHLY recommend going at sunrise. During the day people were parked for literally 2 miles on the side of the road outside of the parking lot, there were tourist buses everywhere. We got there around 7 am one day there was only one other car in the parking lot, we had the whole canyon to ourselves. It was incredible. I must admit, your post is making me want to see it in the winter as well though, haha!

  2. Monique December 29, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

    Lol you made me laugh ….Colder than a witch’s tit. A classic kiwi saying we use often. 😀Unfortunately Johnston Canyon was closed when we did a road trip from Canmore to Jasper however we were able to experience gorgeous, breath-taking scenery …..Definitely will be back one day 😊

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:21 am #

      Ah bummer you have to go back!

  3. Victoria @The British Berliner December 29, 2016 at 11:04 pm #

    Ooooo! I love the cold.
    I’m a winter December baby, so let it snow lol! Gosh! That was awful poetry!!

    Anyhoo, the coldest place I’ve ever been to was in the Czech Republic. That winter, it was -20°C!

    It was so cold that when I stuck out my hand (which was in my ski gloves) to make a telephone call (from a telephone box in those days!!!) it stiffened! It hurt so much that I actually cried tears!

    And then I thought, what was I doing there when I could be somewhere else with a hot toddy in hand and a warm fire. I really felt very sorry for myself at the time.

    Outside of that most horrible time, I do enjoy winter travel as long as I have my furry hat, and my Russian fur coat that trails to the floor! 😀

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:22 am #

      Awesome, glad it’s not just me! Love cozy coats!

  4. Erin December 29, 2016 at 11:29 pm #

    We must’ve been here in the same freezing cold week Liz 🙂 it was so beautiful here, definitely a highlight of my trip to Banff – gorgeous! And it was your blog post on Alberta that inspired me to go in the first place 😉

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:23 am #

      That’s awesome, makes me happy to hear!!!

  5. Myriam December 30, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    Let it gooooooooo! Let it goooooooooo! (Thanks, now it’s stuck in my head.) Beautiful pictures, beautiful descriptions. Love it.

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:23 am #


  6. Cate December 30, 2016 at 2:53 am #

    This looks amazing! I have recently fallen hard for winter travel, and Canada is next on my list. Will you be doing a guide on how to get to these frozen wonderlands?

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 5:24 am #

      I mean, they’re not hard go get to haha. Just google maps, about 25 minutes along the Bow Valley Parkway which is JUST BEAUTIFUL!!

  7. Sarah December 30, 2016 at 6:02 am #

    Awesome post!

    Where’s the coldest place you’ve ever been?

    I live in BC Canada and have visited Iceland in the middle of winter. I think the coldest temperatures I have experienced are in the -20C range.

    Do you enjoy winter travel?

    I love the cold weather! My body does not do great in the heat. Also, I love being able to bundle up in winter gear.

    Would you visit a frozen canyon like this? Spill!

    I would love to visit a frozen canyon like this 🙂 Sign me up!

    If you are ever wanting experience more of Canada in the winter pop over to BC.

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

      I am coming to BC in a week!!! For a week in Whistler

  8. Jen @ Pretty Little Grub December 30, 2016 at 10:06 am #

    I love Johnston Canyon, it’s so beautiful in winter and summer. I always tell visitors that they have to stop there! So glad you fell in love with it.

    • Liz December 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

      It’s so magical!

  9. Zach Strange December 30, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

    I just recently moved out to Virginia from Illinois in an attempt to get away from cold winters so I will pass. Looks like you really enjoyed it though.

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:39 am #

      Is Virginia much warmer than illinois?

      • Zachariah Strange January 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

        We went out to Illinois for Christmas break. The day that we left to come back home, it was 5 degrees outside. I looked up the weather for Brookneal, VA and it was 32 degrees. Also, we lived in the very southern part of the state so it was even colder up north.

        I don’t know the actual statistics but it seems to stay about 10 to 15 degrees minimum warmer in Virginia than where we lived in Illinois. I think most of that is due to where the weather comes from. Illinois gets its weather out of Canada while Virginia’s weather comes in off the ocean and is a bit warmer.

  10. Stephanie Craig December 30, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    I love your red coat! Every time you post photos in it, I want to change my entire winter wardrobe.

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:39 am #

      hhahahhaha yes!

  11. Cam December 30, 2016 at 9:53 pm #

    There’s cold and then there’s COLD. Fun to see your reaction to -30 … glad you survived to tell the tale! 🙂

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:39 am #


  12. Krishnendu Kes December 31, 2016 at 12:34 am #

    -30 degree celsius!! Oh God! How much you have elt cold. I have visited places in winters where I can enjoy the chilly cold climate and get to see snow all around me. But this must be too much!! My next trip will definitely be there. Cheers!

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:39 am #

      Yay have a good time!

  13. Mike December 31, 2016 at 2:52 am #

    What a magical place! Simply beautiful! Love all your pictures.

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:40 am #


  14. Stacy December 31, 2016 at 4:23 am #

    Unfortunately the coldest place I’ve every been to is where I live–Minnesota. It got down to -27 degrees Fahrenheit a couple weeks ago. I grew up in the northern part of the state, where it gets even colder.

    I prefer my winter travels to be to much, much warmer places! But your photos of the frozen waterfall are lovely.

    • Liz December 31, 2016 at 6:40 am #

      haha I can imagine if that’s what you grew up with!!

  15. Leanne January 2, 2017 at 4:31 am #

    So glad you enjoyed Johnston Canyon! I’m from Calgary and what I love most about this place is how striking it is in each season in its own way. If you ever visit in warmer months be sure to hike past the falls to the ink pots — they are so cool and the mountains surrounding the valley you hike into are stunning.

    The coldest I’ve been in was on a winter trip visiting Saskatchewan (the province east of Alberta) — it was -51 degrees Celsius. Blah!

    Keep the Canada posts coming:)

    • Liz January 3, 2017 at 4:59 am #

      I really really really want to come back in summer and fall and spring haha, 51 holy crap!

  16. Leigh | Campfires & Concierges January 10, 2017 at 4:59 am #

    Winter is so photogenic, I love it! However, I have winter at home (Chicago) so I have a hard time traveling to other wintry places…usually I’m looking for a tropical escape from the cold!

    • Liz January 10, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

      haha I can understand that!

  17. Christian | Chriscat unterwegs January 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

    I made my proposal to my girl in this canyon last year. and she said yes 🙂 <3

    It look's great in winter!

    • Liz January 20, 2017 at 10:47 am #

      wow that’s amazing! good spot!

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