By Dave & Deb Bouskill, on February 4, 2014

Ice walking in Alberta

While we didn’t know what to expect when we saw “ice walking” on our itinerary while exploring Alberta this winter, it sounded exciting. It was an early-morning rise from our cozy room at Deer Lodge in Lake Louise and we had to pry ourselves from the fireplace of the main lounge. It was -29 degrees Celsius outside but that didn’t stop our guide, Magda, of Discover Banff Tours from pumping us up in the parking lot of the trailhead for one of the most scenic winter walks we’ve ever taken.

The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk takes you on a journey through a picture-perfect limestone canyon on a steel catwalk anchored to the rock walls and looking down on the river below. With our ice cleats fastened to our hiking boots, we began our trek to the upper canyon. The walkways can be very slippery and the cleats helped in the frozen weather.

While many people go to Johnston Canyon during the warmer months, visiting it in the winter is the most beautiful time. The 2.5-mile trail passes by deep canyons, winding rivers that have been frozen over, and lots of ice.  It’s one of the most popular walks in Banff and we now understand why. When they said we were going on an ice walk, they meant it.

Our first major stop took us to a deep pool created by rushing water. The view from the catwalk was impressive enough, but it wasn’t until we crouched through a small rock tunnel that we saw the best view of the deep pool. The water here was so strong that it was still rushing under the ice. It’s the most incredible thing to see ice hanging off a cliff with running water clearly visible behind the ice wall. We spent several minutes taking in the view until our toes and fingers slowly began to freeze in place.

Viewfinder Tip: Layer up and keep moving to stay warm on your ice walk. 

The elevation gain of 200 feet was steady as we moved on. We warmed up quickly as we made our way to the upper canyon. Once you move away from the lower falls, the trail turns from the steel walkway to forested paths. After seeing deer mice and rabbit tracks, Magda told us of times when people have seen cougars and lynx on the trail. Banff National Park truly puts a person in the middle of nature. When you walk the trails here, you know that wildlife is sitting in watch somewhere in the distance. Even though it was far into the winter freeze, our guide Magda was still carrying bear spray, since a big black bear had been seen hanging out in the area. However, don’t let the wildlife scare you from experiencing Alberta; they are more afraid of you and prefer to stay off the trails away from civilization. Most human encounters take the animal by surprise as much as the people!

It wasn’t long before we reached the main attraction of the waterfall at the Upper Canyon. The steel walkway came to an end over the river that provided us with an extraordinary view. Before us was not one, but two massive frozen waterfalls reaching a hundred feet into the air. 

Not only were we surrounded by a spectacular view, we were also treated to a spectacle of watching two separate groups of ice climbers. We were pretty pumped since our next excursion would be  our own ice climbing adventure with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. As we sipped our hot chocolate and ate the best maple cream cookies we’ve ever had, we watched in awe as the climbers set routes on brittle ice.

Speaking of hands, our fingers were starting to freeze. In the cold temperatures of an Alberta winter, you can’t stay still for too long. So it was time to head back along the trail to get the blood pumping again. By the time we got back to the truck, we were toasty and ready to take on more great Alberta winter adventures. 

Do you like traveling to cold destinations in the winter?