Day 3 would take us to Johnston Canyon and its beautiful ink pots (10.8km & 330m gain) and the relatively easy Spray River Trail Loop (12km & 65m) adjacent to the town of Banff. This marked our last full day of stay at Johnston Canyon’s Campground.
Johnston Canyon Ink Pots
Nearly 50km of hiking had been done in the last two days and people were beginning to feel the effects, especially after the challenge that was Cascade Mountain. What a relief then that day 3 entailed minimal elevation gain and two trails that could be considered much more casual.
Our first hike was just a stone’s throw away. So much so that we initially made the mistake of driving to Johnston Canyon’s trailhead, before we realized that it was a 5 minute walk from our campsite (if even).
So there we were, at Johnston Canyon, and man were we in for one of the BUSIEST hikes I’ve ever been on, even with the early start. That was exacerbated by the fact that it was a holiday Monday during peak tourist season in the Canadian Rockies. A recipe for a hike marred by huge crowds.
The hike to Johnston Canyon’s Upper Falls is very easy and is mostly paved, lending itself well to the vast number of tourists that hike it. Having been here before, I was excited at the prospect of visiting one of my favourite spots in the park, the famous cavern by the falls seen all too often on social media.
I was also pretty pumped to know that I’d be going to the ink pots this time around, as I had missed out on them that last time I was here. Speaking of, the last time I was here was April 2016, on a cold, rainy and dreary day with my friends Steph and Rory, and with the conditions, we basically had the whole place to ourselves. So to see just how PACKED it was on this particular day, blew my mind. It almost felt like it was Lake Louise, except people were actually hiking.
On this particular day, it was hot, sunny and smokey. Knowing that this was one of our easier days, most of us took it easy. I tagged along with one of the leading groups and we made quick progress. As the hike wore on, the crowds grew and we soon found ourselves having to dodge people and strollers by the Upper Falls.
This being the case, we were all eager to get away from the masses and move on to the ink pots. So that we did, taking the occasional break for the standard trifecta of food, water and pictures, but this hike was much easier than what he had already done, and for that we were grateful.
Although it is a beautiful hike, it has a different feel to it compared to places such as Cascade, Sentinel Pass, Rundle etc. The lower levels of the hike feel extremely touristy while the upper levels follow a wide path along undulating terrain. On this day, though, I was not complaining about the lack of elevation gain. The views up towards the distant peaks, clouded in smoke were still fantastic. And yes the smoke did add a distinct feel to the views, and fortunately for everyone, it was not nearly as bad as it had been the day before.
After some time we arrived at the ink pots and man, this place was sweet to say the least! I legitimately felt like I was in a Bob Ross painting. Sawtooth mountains dotted the skyline on the distant horizon, while the view towards the east was lined with peaks smothered in a haze. A sea of pines dotted the rising slopes of the mountains nearest us, giving way to the jagged peaks that rose to the sky. And there they were before us. These pools of ethereally coloured water, surfacing from the earth.
We had long left most of the crowd behind and arrived at a place that offered much more tranquility and authenticity. Our group found a log bench to sit and lunch at. The birds were chirping, the nearby river was flowing gently and the trees swayed in the breeze. It was beautiful, and cemented the fact that you don’t always need massive elevation gain in order to attain surreal views.
By this point, our whole group arrived, with most eating their lunch by the river and myself and a few others hanging out by the pools. We chose a great time as the crowds were minimal, with many people arriving as we began to leave.
The hike back was different at certain points, to say the least. The first stage was uneventful, as I actually ran up ahead to catch up with the main group consisting of Hamza, Luc, Eric, Kenny and Keegan. Our objective when we got back to the lower falls was to hit up the famous cavern with that oh-so notable boulder jutting out from the creek. The route there entailed dodging ever growing groups of people and endlessly getting chirped from Americans whom I had offended.
How? Well, upon seeing their Kansas City Royals paraphernalia (on a good ten people, at least) I quipped to Hamza under my breath that the Royals suck, as I can’t stand them being a Jays fan. Somehow, one of them heard my remark, which was really not THAT malicious, and proceeded to flip me off and give me a really dirty look. Somehow, word spread to his compatriots all along the trail, as every single Missourian that I’d run into from that point on either gave me a look, or said something along the lines of “Oh, you’re that Canadian guy that doesn’t like Kansas City”. Oh man, I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation.
Seeking to get away from the crowds on the main trail, we found the not so hidden turnoff to head off trail and down to the cavern. Depending on the route you take, the footing can be a bit precarious with some sections being steep but it’s nothing too intense, especially with poles in hand.
We had made it down, and despite it being busier than we would’ve liked, it was just as beautiful as I remembered, especially in that gorgeous morning light.
Hamza, Kenny and myself ventured down to the cavern and spent a few minutes there, taking some shots together and admiring the views. It truly is a special place that you need to see for yourself, and the morning light made it even dreamier.
The rest of the hike back to the trailhead was marked by throngs of tourists and strollers and that’s when my eagerness to get back to camp set in. Two of the things that I cannot stand were currently impeding our progress – crowds and slow walkers. I even had a stroller run over my foot with zero apology or even acknowledgement. While Johnston Canyon is a sweet place, and accessible, I find it too crowded for my own liking. When I go out into nature, I do so to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and to connect with something much more simple and tranquil. Whether it’s by myself or with friends, I’m so accustomed to going into the woods and mountains and not having to deal with what feels like Canada Day in Ottawa. So you could see how I had grown tired of a hike like this.
Rant over. All in all, I truly was grateful for an easier hike. And well, the following hike might have actually been a bit TOO easy.
More on that below.
Spray River Loop
We arrived back in camp close to midday and by that time the day had grown even hotter. All I wanted to do was swim in an alpine lake again, but our plans called for something much different. We were set to drive back into town to hike the Spray River Loop. I’ll preface this section by saying that there honestly wasn’t too much that was noteworthy about this hike. The most exciting aspect of it for me was being able to get some really great views of Rundle and its well worn trail above tree line and spending some time alone in the woods. (More on Rundle later).
Initially, we all gathered at the Bow Falls viewpoint area and waited for what seemed like an eternity to get moving. By this point, the once bright and sunny day had turned quite dreary and overcast. Feeling similar to how I did during the Stoney Squaw hike, I just wanted to get this one out of the way, eat and nap. So after some confusion on how and where to proceed, we finally got moving down the trail.
The trail itself runs adjacent to the river and is at the valley bottom between Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain. Wanting to take it extremely easy and feeling very sluggish, I opted to stay at the very back with my photographer bros Logan and Chander. That said, between the three of us, ridiculous conversation and jokes were had throughout the first part of the hike. Accompanying this of course were the typical photographs that we took copious amounts of.
Lagging far behind the main group after our little photoshoot, we proceeded onward with Rachel Li now in our company. The hike to the midpoint bridge was extremely easy and pleasant, albeit boring save for the friends I was with. Put it this way, it’s basically a straight line fire road with very little change in elevation and nothing extremely spectacular as far as views in Banff go. Still, I was grateful for such an easy day relatively speaking. And honestly, I’ll never complain about a walk in the woods, spectacular views or not.
At one point we reached a clearing by a glade on the east side. From this vantage point you could clearly see one of Rundle’s many summits and of particular interest to me, was that the main trail was visible from so far away. I got very excited and stood there for a few moments while I studied the route. The following week, once the trek was over, I was set to hike Rundle for the second time, in an attempt to summit it. Having never been past a certain point on it, I looked up at it and examined the well worn path as much as I could, knowing I’d be there in a weeks time and hoping to be better prepared than last time.
Shaking off my reconnaissance and daydream, I kept walking and met up with my group again. We eventually reached a bridge that marked the turn around point in the loop and we had FINALLY met up with the main pack, who had been there for a while. Taking a break to rest, eat and drink, we began to share stories and thoughts as to how we’d been feeling up until that point. Group morale was high and everyone seemed to be feeling well, despite a bit of soreness here and there.
A look around and up to the skies revealed that we would soon be in for a downpour and thunder storm. We quickly packed up and made our way back to the trail head. Again, Chander, Logan, Rachel Li and I proceeded together. Minutes later the rain began to fall and we all looked to Chander and his double cameras. His preparation was on point, however, as he pull a rain cover over his backpack, and securely stored his cameras in there.
At one point Logan decided to pick up his pace and catch up to the group well ahead of us, while the three of us stuck behind. Wanting to get back as soon as possible, I picked it up too and soon found myself alone, when I knew that Chander and Rachel had company with Jess and Alex.
The rest of the walk, while wet, was pleasant. The rain was actually very soothing and the views to the south were beautiful. Rundle’s massif and upper tiers were shrouded in dark clouds as you could see the rain pelting down on them. To the north the skies began to open up a bit and for a few brief moments, it became a shower with brighter skies.
Throughout the whole hike back, I hardly kept my eyes on the path ahead of me. They were transfixed to the peaks across the river, knowing full well that I’d attempt that summit again and this time be successful. Being able to see the trail and how high it led was a bit intimidating, but more than anything it was exciting. As each second passed, I became more excited to get up there again and see those views once more, this time with Audrey.
As the rain slowed down, the skies opened up, and I soon found myself in the midst of the main pack, on the bridge back to the trailhead. We had finally made it.
The easiest and most boring hike of the trip was done and from this point on, things were about to pick up, as each day would somehow surpass the last. More on that to come.
Thank you for reading!