June and early-July is the unofficial start of the hiking season in the Mountain National Parks. With streams flowing high with spring runoff, It’s a prime time to visit some of the parks’ most spectacular and sublime waterfalls.
Most of the trails to waterfalls in the parks are fairly short—from an hour to half-day round trip. Here are some of my favourites. (Trail #) referenced to the 9th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide for more complete descriptions:
Banff National Park
Johnston Canyon – Lower & Upper Falls
Lower Falls: 2.2 km round trip
Upper Falls: 5.4 km round trip
Elevation gain (to Upper Falls): 320 m
This unique trail travels over canyon-clinging catwalks and cliff-climbing staircases to the gorge’s Lower and Upper Falls.
From the trailhead beside the Johnston Canyon Resort lodge, the trail makes a short climb through a cool forest before descending steadily to Lower Falls. Along the way, you pass over sturdy iron catwalks suspended beneath overhanging canyon walls and with turbulent waters flowing beneath your feet.
At Lower Falls, you can pass over a bridge to the east side of the creek and through a tight tunnel for a mist-soaked close-up view of this beautiful cataract. Continue upstream along the creek for another 1.6 km to the higher Upper Falls, with viewpoints at both bottom and top.
This is a good year to visit the popular Johnston Canyon trail. The eastern half of the Bow Valley Parkway will remain closed to motor vehicles throughout the summer, so visitor numbers on the trail should be far less than usual.
You can bike west from Banff for 23 km to the Johnston Canyon trailhead or east for 6 km from the parking area at Rockbound trailhead (200m east of Castle Junction). Or take the ROAM Transit bus that services the road every day (see ROAM Transit schedule and reservations page).
Trailhead on the Bow Valley Parkway (1A Highway) @ N51º14.815’ W115º50.445’ (Trail #19)
3.2 km round trip
Elevation gain: 90 m
A 50-m staircase waterfall hidden in the forest off the Rockbound Lake trail near Castle Junction.
Though this impressive waterfall is less than a kilometre from the Bow Valley Parkway, it is a natural feature few people know about or visit. (Far fewer than the waterfalls in nearby Johnston Canyon.)
The hike starts on the Rockbound Lake trail and branches right from that track at 0.3 km. Another 0.6 km through dense forest brings you to a viewpoint near the top of the falls.
Be forewarned that the Rockbound Lake trailhead might be very busy during the summer of 2021 since eastbound Bow Valley Parkway cyclists will be using it a staging ground.
Trailhead on the Bow Valley Parkway (1A Highway) @ N51º16.142’ W115º54.948’ (Trail #22)
9.4 km round trip
Elevation gain: 95 m
A 120-m waterfall below the Bow Glacier that serves as the headwaters of the Bow River.
The trail starts at a parking area on the northern edge of Bow Lake. It skirts along the lakeshore, passes Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, and follows the shoreline to lake’s inlet.
Continue westward along the inlet stream over mainly flat, rocky terrain to a canyon at km 3.4. Complete a short, steep climb along the canyon to your first viewpoint for the waterfall.
You can end your trip here, but most hikers cross the rocky, treeless outwash flats to the base of this impressive waterfall.
Trailhead on the Icefields Parkway @ N51º40.727’ W116º27.886’ (Trail #54)
1.0 km round trip
Elevation loss: 60 m
This 60-m waterfall is one of Banff’s highest and most impressive waterfalls. It is only a short, downhill hike from the Icefields Parkway to the base of the falls, which is created by the waters of Nigel Creek.
At the lower end of the viewpoint for Bridal Veil Falls (seen across the valley), find the trail leading down into the forest. After a few switchbacks, it arrives at a muddy, spray-soaked slope and the best viewpoint for this roaring falls.
Trailhead on the Icefields Parkway @ N52º10.807’ W117º 03.391′ (Trail #69)
Yoho National Park
4.6 km round trip
Elevation gain: nil
Wapta is a 30-m high waterfall on the Kicking Horse River and the largest in Yoho National Park by water volume.
The 1.9 km hike to the fenced viewpoint above the falls is flat and undemanding, but most hikers like to go another 400 m and descend to a lower viewpoint that provides a more complete view of this massive cataract.
The first half of the hike follows an old roadbed then narrows into a cool, mossy forest of alder, birch, western red cedar and poplar for the last half.
From the Trans Canada Highway, a 1.8-km access road leads south to the trailhead @ N52º10.807’ W117º03.391′ (Trail #159)
8.4 km round trip
Elevation gain: 85 m
Yoho Valley is the valley of waterfalls. The trail starts from the parking lot servicing one of Canada’s highest falls, Takakkaw, which looms above you as you begin your hike north up the valley.
After passing through Takakkaw Falls Campground at 0.3 km, there is very little elevation gain as you make your way upstream along the Yoho River. Two lesser falls, Angel’s Staircase and Point Lace are passed at 2.2 km, whetting your appetite for one of the valley’s best, 30-m high Laughing Falls, 2 km further along.
If you are a strong day hiker, you can continue another 4 km to the valley’s highlight—Twin Falls. But you’ll have to climb 160 vertical metres to reach the base of the falls just beyond the historic Twin Falls Chalet.
Trailhead is located at the end of the Yoho Valley Road @ N51º29.953’ W116º29.137′ (Trail #143)
Jasper National Park
8.4 km round trip
Elevation gain: 260 m
Geraldine Falls is a 90-m waterfall that slides over a rough rock face between Lower and Second Geraldine Lake. But while you get a glimpse of the falls from Lower Geraldine Lake, you face a rough, rocky 2.4 km trek beyond to get a close-up view from the base of the falls.
Lower Geraldine Lake is reached via a root-filled 1.8-km section of heavily forested trail. And if you reach the base of the waterfall beyond the west end of the lake, you might as well scramble up the rough track leading to Second Geraldine Lake.
The trailhead is reached via a rough 5.5-km fire road that branches from the 93A Highway 1.1 km north of Athabasca Falls. (The road is only open from late spring until September.)
Trailhead is located at the Geraldine Fire Road @ N52º37.706’ W117º54.868′ (Trail #103)
3.2 km round trip
Elevation gain: 130 m
Hidden away in the Beauty Creek Canyon in southern Jasper National Park, Stanley Falls is probably the least visited waterfall in this group.
To reach the canyon, you cross a water diversion dike and follow the roadbed of the old Banff-Jasper Highway to reach the canyon. The last kilometre climbs a narrow, limestone canyon through a dense forest.
You pass a number of small waterfalls on the climb up the canyon until you reach the highest and most impressive cataract, Stanley Falls.
Trailhead is located on the Icefields Parkway @ N52º19.675’ W117º19.797′ (Trail #107)
Kootenay National Park
2.8 km round trip
Elevation gain: 30m
Marble Canyon is one of the most popular short trails in Kootenay Park. In addition to a narrow, slit canyon filled with minor waterfalls, and spanned by seven bridges, there is a fine waterfall at the top of the canyon.
Trailhead is located on Highway 93 South (Kootenay Parkway) @ N51º11.165’ W116º07.378′ (Trail #162)
Mount Robson Provincial Park
1.0 km round trip
Elevation loss: 40m
And finally, the shortest hike of all to a major waterfall—Overlander Falls on the Fraser River.
You won’t likely drive all the way to the heart of Mount Robson Provincial Park to complete this short hike (walk), but if you’re headed for the Berg Lake trail or simply driving Highway 16 between Jasper and Kamloops, this is a very worthwhile stop.
The falls are named for the “Overlanders”—fortune-seekers who bushwhacked down this valley en route to the Cariboo gold fields in 1862.
Trailhead is located on Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) @ N53º01.880’ W119º12.480′ (Trail #218)
Johnston Canyon-Lower Falls and Stanley Falls photos by Andrew Hempstead. All other photos by Brian Patton.