Hiking: Johnston Canyon

During the summer of 2021 we took a pair of casual family vacations to the mountains. The first and more southern of these was a trip to the proximity of Banff National Park. Four nights in Canmore, Alberta a mountain town just outside of the national park boundary served as the staging point for a number of family hiking days in Canada’s keynote wilderness area.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The effort it required us to reach the trailhead of this meandering family hike belied the apparent popularity of this mountain attraction.

Johnston Canyon is among the original generation of tourist hikes in this part of the National Park. Where most hikes in the area are marked by a small parking lot and a wooden sign at the trailhead, Johnston Canyon had a large paved parking lot, a tourist information kiosk, a plumbed bathroom facility, a teahouse, an ice cream shack, a restaurant with a balcony, and sat across the road from a medium-sized hotel. All this roughly thirty kilometers outside of Banff, down a secondary highway (which happened to also be partially closed to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic) requiring a lengthy (but very scenic) drive to reach.

The canyon itself is the showcase of the hike.

A small river with a series of small waterfalls has spent millions of years cutting a jagged gash across the face of the mountain, and the multitude of family hikers walk alongside, into, and over said canyon in an effort to reach the epic upper falls (or further for more adventurous sorts with more time on their hands to complete the extra four kilometers in each direction.)

To assist with the experience of closely encountering the scenery (and likely to avoid losing tourists to off-trail tumbles over cliffs, et cetera) a large stretch of the path is composed of suspended walkways clinging to the cliffs, concrete and steel spiked into the granite and welcoming tourists to explore nature in a kind of sanitized yet surreal safety mode.

We strolled up to the various waterfalls, took many photos, and found ourselves carrying the dog along most of these steel walkways (thank goodness she’s only four kilograms) because the gaps and the noise were a little too overwhelming for her little puppy brain.

On the way up we seemed to be ahead of the bulk of the crowd, only meeting a handful of descending adventurers. But on our own descent we passed literally hundreds of people, usually in groups of two, three or four, often want to meet our dog as they passed, and all slowly making their way to bear witness to and snap a selfie with the marvel of nature.

I find that it is a conflicted sort of thing for me to visit these places.

On the one hand they are popular because they are amazing and accessible and worth visiting, and have been that way for a long time, allowing many people to experience something awesome and inspiring.

On the other hand, the Disneyland-style crowds one can encounter in a popular hiking area spoils the very thing that one goes there to see, the majesty of nature and the tranquility of such an epic space.

Maybe if it wasn’t so hard to reach, it would be more of these all of things, and probably both better and worse for it.