Winding through the western valleys of Jasper National Park, the Tonquin Valley is a multi-day hike in the Canadian Rockies that should be VERY high up on your bucket list. It’s a 44km horseshoe shaped relocation trek with the possibility of doing many side trips. The pinnacles of the hike, for most people, are the two Amethyst Lakes. At around 22km from either trailhead and lying directly below the Ramparts, they mark the halfway point of the trail. The Ramparts are very distinctly jagged mountain range placed right on the Great Divide - the continental divide of the Americas.
Whilst the hike can be done over 2 long days I would recommend that you spend at least 4 days, 3 nights, taking in all the scenery. The bookings for Tonquin Valley open at the end of January. On many other multiday hikes in the Canadian Rockies the spots are gone in a matter of first few weeks. That's not the case here. Despite its beauty I've noticed that Tonquin Valley is one of the least busy backpacking trips in the Rockies. There are few reasons for it which I'll get to in a bit.
What makes it unique from other trips is a high probability of spotting not only Moose, Black and Grizzly bears, but also Woodland Caribou. Only a few hundreds of them still live in this part of Canada.
A MULTI-Day backpacking trip along the Tonquin Valley in Jasper National Park
Getting Your Head Around The Relocation Between the Trailheads
There are two access trailheads to Tonquin Valley: Astoria and Portal. Personally, I think the Astoria is easier, also known as the Cavell trailhead. Although not a huge difference in elevation, the Astoria Trailhead is 200m higher than the Portal trailhead, which means less effort for you when hiking in. It will definitely be noticeable whilst lugging around a 15kg backpack. If you are fit you can easily make it to either Switchback or Surprise point campsite on the first day. Most people will find that the Astoria Campsite, at around 7 kilometres (ca. 4,5 miles) is too close to the trailhead to be considered useful, unless you plan on starting the hike late in the afternoon.
The most efficient way to tackle the trail is to park at the Portal trailhead then hitchhike to the Astoria trailhead. This way once you finish the hike at Portal, your vehicle will be waiting for you. If you don’t look like a crazy person then hitchhiking shouldn’t take long. Currently there is no chartered bus service between the trailheads and taxis charge a flat rate of 100$ for the 20-minute journey.
If hitching is not your thing and you understandably don’t want to spend a 100$ on a short taxi ride then consider returning to your point of origin. Just remember the Astoria Trail is easier but the Maccarib Pass accessed via the Portal trailhead is more scenic. Take your pick. If you want my opinion on this matter I would say start at the Astoria Trailhead in order to conserve the energy for exploring the core section of the trail around the Amethyst Lakes and the Eremite Valley.
My Experience On the Tonquin Valley Trail
Most of the photos in this article come from the time I did the Tonquin Valley in July 2017. That year British Columbia, the neighbouring province, was subjected to some horrific wildfires that ended up relocating almost 40,000 people! The wind, which was blowing east at the time, brought in a lot of haze. Bare this in mind when scrolling through the photos. Because of the impressiveness of the Tonquin Valley, the first thing I did upon returning to civilization was booking another 4 nights on the trail a couple of months later. Not something that happens very often with a to do list as long as mine. The second time I went in September 2017, we had 4 days of rain and snow and I hardly took any photos. You know what they say! Third time's a charm! I am definitely planning on returning next summer!
Day 1: Astoria Trailhead to Surprise Point
Immediately as you start the trail, the first breathtaking view after around 100m, is Cavell Lake. Early in the morning as the first light strikes Mount Edith Cavell and the calm atmosphere creates beautiful reflections in the water, the snow capped peak above the Cavell Glacier glistens effortlessly in the distance. This is one of the most photogenic spots in of Jasper National Park.
To make the most of your experience on the Tonquin Valley trail you should ideally book the following campsites:
- Surprise Point, Amethyst Lakes, Portal Creek (if you are completing the horseshoe relocation) or
- Surprise Point, Amethyst Lakes and Switchback or Astoria (if you are walking in and out the same way from Astoria).
As you walk along the slightly undulating path the mountain vistas peak out upon occasion, offering you brief glimpses of domineering peaks through the trees. Upon reaching the Astoria Campsite after around 2 hours, the picnic tables overlooking the Astoria River are a great spot for a lunch or snack. The trail then hugs the river for another 1.5 kilometres until you reach a fork.
At the fork, a left turn will take you across a bridge and around to Chrome Lake. If you booked your first night at Surprise Point campsite then consider this route. It's slightly shorter and has more of a steady elevation increase. This is also the most direct route for those going to the Wates-Gibson Hut.
If your first campsite reservation is at the Switchback (or Clitheroe) campsite, stick to the main path with the river on your left. The trail heads up a moderate series of switchbacks broken up by large boulder fields where cute mini-elephant like Pika can be seen scurrying around. You’ll arrive at the Switchback Campsite after around 4/5 hours total. Clitheroe is only 3.5km, or another hour, away and Surprise point is 1,5-2 hours away. The majority of the path from the trailhead to Switchback is within the tree line with brief moments of wonderful views however there’s more to come I promise. Around the middle of July, the local Grouse hatch and outcomes the cutest offspring, they use the man made paths to navigate the forest floor so keep your eyes open.
Day 2: Surprise Point to Eremite Valley to Amethyst Lakes campsite
If you stayed your first night at the Surprise Point, you are in the perfect spot for exploring the Eremite Valley. Do it in the morning before packing up and moving to Amethyst lakes for your second night. There is no point of bringing your things with you as you will be going in the opposite direction and coming back the same way. Besides with a much lighter load, you can appreciate the surroundings effortlessly. The Eremite Valley (photo above) is a one way in, one way out mostly flat hike which gives jaw dropping views of several small glaciers that call the Ramparts Mountain Range home. Also a chance to admire several glacial moraines that were deposited after the Little Ice Age in the 17th century. Depending on how much energy you have, the trail into the Eremite Valley can be lengthened or shortened to meet your requirements.
Upon returning after a day of exploring it's time to pack up and move campsites. From Surprise Point, the southern tip of the Amethyst Lake is a short walk away. Early in the morning there are several reflecting bays and the mouth of the Astoria river is a common spot to watch bears fishing for rainbow or brook trout. There are two ways to reach Amethyst lakes campsites. The much shorter of marsh hopping along the shore of the lake (2.5 kilometres) or the longer, much more boot trodden, and drier way, via Clitheroe campsite. On this section you'll go past the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge. A base for horse/fishing trips in the area.
The second way, official way from Surprise Point to Amethyst Lake campsites takes you uphill to Clitheroe and back down to Amethyst. It's 5.6 kilometres long. The Amethyst campground is the highlight of the entire Tonquin Valley, the Ramparts are right in front of you and you are only a hundred metres away from the lake. Several small swamps with a variety of vibrant wildflowers crowd the area offering stunning photography opportunities. It's also where Woodland Caribou, an endangered species of undulate in Jasper National Park, can be seen whilst changing grazing zones in September.
Day 3-4: Amethyst Lakes to Portal Trailhead via Maccarib Pass
From Amethyst continue north along the shore parallel to the Ramparts. Soon you’ll be close to the Maccarib Campsite, an alternative if Amethyst lakes campground is full. From here continue slowly uphill until climaxing on the top of the Maccarib Pass, the next part of the trail is very scenic as you’ll wind through meadows garnished with more picturesque wildflowers framed beneath numerous mountain peaks.
All too quickly you are back amongst the trees, following a babbling brook on the approach to the Portal Campsite. If you’re not the fittest of hikers then stay here for the night but if you have the energy to tackle the next 8km, downhill, for two hours, then carry on. Your chariot and a nice soak in the Miette Hot Springs awaits you. The final couple of hours is firstly along a rocky bank before descending below the tree line where a tributary for the Fraser River is your route marker. Before you know it, you’ll be at the trailhead, patting yourself on the back and driving away, successfully having ticked another one of Canadian Rockies' most spectacular multi-day hikes off your bucket list. The entire Tonquin Valley trail is well marked, like all of the hikes in Jasper National Park, I’d find it very surprising if somebody managed to lose the path.
I bet you think I’m going to say something about grizzly bears aren’t you? I did have a terrifying grizzly experience on the trail where a sow with two cubs followed me for around 500m, but this was not the most difficult wildlife experience I had. The mosquitos here are the real enemy. During the early summer months of June and July these aggressive little creatures swarm around you, trying their hardest to suck your blood. Their life literally depends on it so as you can imagine, they try pretty hard. If you can, avoid walking the Tonquin Valley trail during those months! Otherwise take my advice and bring plenty of repellent. We took two full bottles and almost ran out. A mosquito face nets (available for 6$ in outdoor stores in Jasper), a long sleeve mosquito t-shirt and long mosquito proof pants will also come in handy and will save your sanity. The mosquitos gradually subside until late August and in September there's generally none left.
Additional Information on the Tonquin Valley Trail:
- Always check the trail reports before leaving to check for closures, bear sightings and weather conditions. You can check all Trail Conditions in Jasper Here
- If you have enough energy the hike to Moat Lake to the north is worthwhile.
- In June and July there's lots of mosquitos. Come prepared with repellent, long sleeve tops, gloves and a face net.
- If you don't have a booking all is not lost. Consider popping into the Visitor Centre in Jasper for any last minute cancellations. Cancellations are very popular on this trail.
- The sun at these altitudes can be fierce, take a sun hat, UV protected sunglasses and above 30spf suncreen.
- The Cavell Road currently requires permits to drive on. Your backcountry campsite reservation counts as a permit.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since
I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.