Monday, April 12, 2021

Epic Family Bike Rides: Johnston Canyon via the 1A Highway

Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park and I'm convinced it's been plastered across billboards world wide. We used to avoid this crowded trail most summers but last year access was closed to vehicles (to promote physical distancing) and it suddenly became a beautiful, peaceful hike to do with the family (requiring a short bike ride to reach the trailhead.)

Access continues to be closed to vehicles and the highway will be ours to bike once again this year.

The 1A Highway is a great spring bike ride in Banff! 

Biking on the Closed Highway 1A

You'll be biking a section of the Highway 1A to reach the Johnston Canyon trailhead. This highway is closed between the Fireside Day Use Area west of the Town of Banff and the Johnston Canyon parking lot. On this stretch there will be no vehicles at all. 

From Johnston Canyon to Castle Junction, the only vehicles you'll meet will be driving very slowly. They'll include overnight guests of the Johnston Canyon Resort and shuttle busses taking people to Johnston Canyon (the only way you'll be able to access this trail without biking or hiking in. - and only after the May long weekend.)

From Castle Junction to Lake Louise the Highway 1A is open to all vehicles. 

As you can see from the map below, the distance from Banff to Castle Junction is 23 km one way. 

If you want to set up a shuttle to ride the highway one direction, I'd start at Castle Junction where you'll have more downhill riding and less climbing (though you'll still have some hills to climb in either direction.)

It would appear from  Google Maps that from Castle Junction you would gain 95 metres in height and descend 144 metres.

And note that map above is set for walking (so it likely would not take you over 4 hours to do the ride one way!)

Spring Highway Riding is Awesome! 

Starting your Ride from Castle Junction

If your goal is to ride to Johnston Canyon, this is the shortest option, and honestly, the ride feels downhill in both directions. (I have no idea how that works, but others have  confirmed they felt this too.)

The ride from Castle Junction to Johnston Canyon is only 6 km one way. That's a 12 km ride on a nice paved road with only a few shuttle busses or vehicles heading to the resort to stay overnight passing you. The ride is relatively flat and should be generally easy for most children with previous biking experience.

The hike to the Upper Falls is 5.4 km round trip and plan for an ice-cream stop at the resort before biking back.

Have you ever seen this bridge and the Lower Falls without people??

Families who want a longer ride can continue on the closed highway. Turn around whenever you get tired. Families who want a longer hike can continue on to the Ink Pots beyond the Upper Falls (which would extend your hike to 11.6 km round trip total distance.)

We did this ride + hike last spring and LOVED it. It was such an easy ride, the scenery was pretty, we saw a bear, and the hiking trail was deserted.

And speaking of bears, bring your bear spray, ride in a group, make noise, put bells on your bikes if you want, and don't let the kids ride ahead or behind by themselves. You're definitely in bear country. (For this reason I won't do this ride solo with my son.)

The Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon (especially powerful in spring!)

Other things to take note of:

  • There is a large parking lot across from Castle Mountain Chalets where you can park to start your ride.

  • There are bathrooms at the Johnston Canyon parking lot and they are open. (There are no bathrooms at Castle Junction so plan ahead!)

  • Bring a bike lock and plan to secure your bikes (we locked ours to a tree last year.)

  • Bring masks if you plan to go inside the resort to buy ice-cream, snacks, drinks, or lunch

  • Instruct your children to move to the side if you see a vehicle coming towards you or hear one from behind. Again, it will just be the occasional shuttle bus or overnight guest for the resort. All day users must bike or hike in if not taking the bus.

  • If you need to take the bus or have family members who would like to meet you at the trailhead, you'll find information on the Roam bus schedule here. 

And note that there will be no busses running to Johnston Canyon until May 21st. This means you really want to plan your trip BEFORE the May long weekend if you want the hiking trail to be quiet. I can't stress that enough.

Boardwalks in Johnston Canyon - completely empty!

Starting your Ride from Banff 

Personally if I was going to do the section of the 1A from Banff, I'd do it as a shuttle and ride the full highway from Castle Junction. However, if you don't want to set up a shuttle, starting in Banff will allow you a nice long ride to the trailhead and back.

The return distance for this one is 32 km + an added bonus that they don't want you parking on the side of the highway so they'd prefer you start in the Town of Banff! 

It's asked that you park at either the Fenlands Recreation Centre or the Train Station parking lot in Banff. From either parking lot you'd have to bike along Vermilion Lakes Road (shared with vehicles) to the far end, and then hop on the paved Legacy Trail to reach the 1A. 

Plan on an additional 5-6 km of riding if starting from the Town of Banff. (For a total of 37+ km of biking.)

Again, myself, I'd set up a shuttle if you want to bike the whole highway. Castle Junction to the Town of Banff would require 28+  km of biking but you could always leave the kids at the Fireside day use area (at the end of the 1A) with an adult and send a second adult back into Banff for the vehicle. The actual 1A ride is only 23 km from Castle to Fireside.

No vehicles and a wide open highway!

Spring Conditions and When to do this Ride + Hike 

As of the moment, the Highway 1A is snow free and good to go for biking. However, I'd expect snow and ice on the Johnston Canyon Trail. Bring spikes or ice cleats. The waterfalls may still be partially frozen right now as well.

Also watch the forecast before heading out. If it's recently snowed in Banff you'll want to wait for a day or two for the highway to dry out again.

I'd personally wait until May to do the ride + hike for the best experience, but if you want the most solitude, go sooner than later.

Just make sure you do it before the May long weekend before the shuttle bus service starts up. After that you can still do the road ride but the hiking trail will be busier.

Family Riding on the 1A in Banff 

Other Recommended Reading

The Best Family Bike Trails in Canmore 


  1. Thanks for the detailed post, can’t wait to do this! On the map, there looks like there is a gas station at Castle Mountain. Do you know if this is real? If so, would those be available washrooms before the bike ride?

    1. Yes there is a gas station but I would only use the bathrooms if you buy something or get gas. It’s a small business. Not really a big gas station. Best to stop at a day use area before parking.

  2. Thanks for the detailed post, can’t wait to do this! On the map, there looks like there is a gas station at Castle Mountain. Do you know if this is real? If so, would those be available washrooms before the bike ride?

  3. The washrooms at Castle Mountain store are not open to the public. There are washrooms at Johnston Canyon.

  4. Just to be clear, road between castle junction and Johnston canyon is closed to both vehicles & shuttles before the May long weekend?

    1. Yes. The only vehicles will be the occasional parks vehicle, or somebody staying at the resort overnight would be allowed to drive there.