Johnston Canyon Cave
This “secret” cave is tucked away on an easy hike in Johnston Canyon. There are quite a few off-trails on the way to the Lower and Upper Falls, but only one path leads to this hidden gem. There are many photos of this cave online that inspire people to search for this cave. But I think the cryptic descriptions send people searching in all the wrong areas. And on such a busy hike, that causes a lot of degradation to the surrounding forest. My goal is to make it easier to find the correct path and help those off-trails disappear.
- Difficulty: easy
- Location: Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada)
- Kid Friendly: yes
- Dog Friendly: yes (on leash)
- Distance: 3.4 miles round-trip
- Elevation: 700
- Season: spring, summer, fall, winter
- Lat/Long: 51.253206, -115.838271
- Directions: Follow the Bow Valley Parkway west to Johnston Canyon for about 11 miles. You’ll find the parking lot on the east side. Follow the footbridge to the trailhead, which begins past the lodge. The trail is mostly flat with a gradual ascent.
Banff National Park is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque places to visit in Canada. One simple search on Instagram will flood in thousands of photos with gorgeous views of bright blue lakes, lush green forests, and rushing waterfalls. You can’t help but fall in love with the scenery, despite the hundreds of tourists flooding in at every hike—most likely hoping to snap a photo that goes viral on social media. (I’m not immune to the irony here).
This cave is GORGEOUS. To the left was a calm waterfall, in front was a towering boulder that looked like it could tip over any minute, and to the right was a lovely forest. We felt tucked away from the crowds on the main trail and enjoyed some snacks to the sound of rushing water. The moss grew everywhere and contrasted the browns and yellows of the rocks. Even though we felt like we cheated by getting such an amazing view without any real effort from the hike, we couldn’t have been happier to relax in the cave in awe of its beauty.
Apart from the countless lakes in Banff National Park, Johnston Canyon offers views of beautiful waterfalls. This hike is incredibly easy and surprisingly not as crowded as the other main hikes (but still pretty crowded). We figured it’d be extremely difficult to find the cave, and in a way it was… but only because we looked in crazy places and wooded off-trails thanks to that assumption. When we found it later, we felt pretty silly.
Most descriptions online were vague, saying the cave is between Lower and Upper Falls. Some gave a little more direction, saying the cave is a mile in between the two falls, or that there is a clear side-trail right after the first waterfall. We probably spent a good 45-60 minutes exploring every trail we could find along the way. We saw lovely views of the forest and different perspectives to the falls, but no cave. We almost gave up. We decided to see the Upper Falls and head back to the car since we had a long drive to cover to reach Spokane, Washington.
And what do you know? There was a well-traveled (and semi-slippery) pathway that led to the cave. I included a picture of a rest area with a bench that is right before the final stretch to the Upper Falls. To find the correct path, go to the overlook that is in the photo first (don't go down any of the off-trail paths until you find the overlook, because there are A LOT of incorrect trails). Look over the rail to see the upper view of a small waterfall, which is next to the iconic and interesting rock formation that tells you you're in the right spot.
If you're not sure you found the right spot, you're probably right. It should be very obvious when you're there. Once you find the spot pictured below, head back down the trail from the way you came. The off-trail to the cave begins about 50 feet before the green railing. In the photo below this one, I circled the green railing in the back to give you a perspective of distance. Simply follow the short side trail down, which includes some slippery rocks and a few steep sections. Once you're at the bottom you'll see the cave and all its grandeur.
There were people taking selfies in the cave when we arrived, as well as others who popped in every now and then. We spent another hour or so in the cave waiting to get perfect shots that didn’t include a random hiker with a selfie stick. It was a nice break from the crowds on the rest of the hike, where we had to wait in line to get a photo of the Upper Falls. Fun side note, you can go behind this waterfall!
But please, please, make sure you find the right trail. Don’t do what we did and wander around off-trails throughout Johnston Canyon. We want to protect nature as much as possible, and nothing makes us feel more guilty than adding to the problem of off-trail wandering. We want to make this cave public, not secret, so those off-trails can heal and vegetation can grow back. Share this post with anyone you know traveling to Banff and feel free to post your own version of directions on Instagram.
And I know I mainly focused on the cave, but don't discount the rest of the hike. The views and scenery were lovely and well worth the visit.