Most of the photos in this article come from the time I did the Tonquin Valley in July 2017. That year British Columbia, the neighboring 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. Bear 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 book 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! The third time’s a charm! I am definitely planning on returning again!
Tonquin Valley overview
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 44 km 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 20 km from either trailhead and lying directly below the Ramparts, they mark the halfway point of the trail.
The Ramparts are a very distinctly jagged mountain range placed right on the Great Divide – the continental divide of the Americas.
How many days are required to complete Tonquin Valley Trail?
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.
Despite its beauty, I’ve noticed that Tonquin Valley is one of the least busy backpacking trips in the Rockies. There are a few reasons for it which I’ll get to in a bit.
What makes it unique from other trips is the high probability of spotting not only Moose, Black, and Grizzly bears, but also Woodland Caribou. Only a few hundred of them still live in this part of Canada.
When to backpack the Tonquin Valley Trail?
The official backcountry camping season on the Tonquin Valley Trail lasts from the end of June until the end of September.
However, if you want to have a good time backpacking through the Tonquin Valley I recommend holding off until later in the season and aiming to hike it between mid-August and the end of September.
A good month for hiking in the Rockies, however due to the location of the Tonquin valley, going in July is like shooting yourself in the foot.
I backpacked the Tonquin Valley trail in July for the first time and it was a disaster. Here is why. Wildfires are common in the Canadian Rockies in the month of July and they are usually started by lightning storms.
During some years the haze in the skies from wildfires is so bad, you can’t see further than a couple of hundred meters. Not to mention the poor air quality. But that’s not the worst.
Due to the proximity of swamps and lakes, Tonquin valley is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. There are millions of them hanging around in July, making your life miserable. You either must move constantly to avoid being bitten or sit in your tent. None of those is a viable option, especially when preparing meals.
By August, particularly the second half most of the mosquitos are gone, but the days are still warm and pleasant to backpack through the Tonquin Valley. This is a great time for making those backcountry reservations!
September is a great month to backpack through the Tonquin Valley, especially if your aim is to spot Woodland Caribou. They like to hang around the marsh ground during that time of the year. It’s also a great time for photographers as the trees are starting the change colors.
The downside to backpacking in September is the cold nights. And by cold, I mean really cold, even down to -10 degrees Celsius. Don’t even think about leaving the trailhead without a proper sleeping bag.
When to book the Tonquin Valley Trail for summer 2023
Due to limited spaces and the ever-increasing popularity of multiday hikes in the Canadian Rockies, once the reservation system opens the spots disappear in a matter of minutes. Make sure not to miss those dates and be ready to go through the reservation process swiftly!
How to make reservations for the Tonquin Valley Trail for the summer 2023 backpacking season
Parks Canada has announced that on March 2nd a new reservation system will launch. Stay tuned for updates and make sure to register a new account as the old ones will cease to exist.
The cost of backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail in the summer season of 2023
As with many other backcountry trails in the Canadian Rockies, there are 3 costs involved in reserving and hiking the Tonquin Valley trail:
- Reservation fee: $11.50 per online reservation ($13.50 per phone reservation)
- Camping fee/Wilderness pass: $10.50/person/night,
- National Park Entry Fee: $10.50/person/day
If, for example, you decide to spend 2 nights on the skyline trail you will need to pay 11.50 + (2 x $10.50) + (2 x $10.50) = $53.50
For the latter consider purchasing an annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass, especially if you will be visiting any national park in Canada for more than 7 days in one year. Group and family options are also available.
The relocation between the Tonquin Valley trailheads
There are two access trailheads to Tonquin Valley: Astoria and Portal.
Personally, I think Astoria is easier. Although not a huge difference in elevation, the Astoria Trailhead is 200m higher than the Portal trailhead, which means less effort for you when hiking in. It will definitely be noticeable whilst lugging around a 15kg backpack.
The most efficient way to tackle the trail is to park at the Portal trailhead then hitchhike to the Astoria trailhead and start hiking. This way once you finish the hike at Portal, your vehicle will be waiting for you.
Bringing two cars
If you plan on hiking with a bigger group, then come with two cars and leave one at each trailhead.
There is an ample parking area, free of charge at both trailheads. Whilst generally the Rockies are very safe, car break-ins do occur occasionally, so make sure not to leave any valuables in sight in your car.
Starting and ending at the same trailhead
Currently, there is no chartered bus service between the trailheads and taxis charge a big flat rate for the 20-minute journey.
If hitching is not your thing and you understandably don’t want to spend 100$ 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.
Where to stay in Jasper before and after the trek
If you plan on backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail I highly recommend staying the night before in Jasper so you can start with fully charged batteries the next morning.
Below I enlisted a few of the top-rated places in Jasper. If you found my article helpful, consider supporting my site and booking through the affiliate links! It will cost you nothing!
Accommodation on the Tonquin Valley Trail
|Campsite name||Distance from the Astoria Trailhead||Distance from The Portal Creek Trailhead||Elevation|
|Astoria||7.1 km / 4.4 mi||36.2 km / 22.49 mi||1690 m|
|Switchback||13.8 km / 8.57 mi||29.5 km / 18.33 mi||2067 m|
|Clitheroe||17.2 km / 10.68 mi||26.1 km / 16.21 mi||2080 m|
|Surprise Point||19.4 km / 12.05 mi||28.5 km / 17.7 mi||1978 m|
|Amethyst||20.4 km / 12.67 mi||22.9 km / 14.23 mi||1985 m|
|Maccarib||23.8 km / 14.78 mi||20.1 km / 12.49 mi||2012 m|
|Portal||34.6 km / 21.49 mi||10.2 km / 6.34 mi||1979 m|
Which campsites to book?
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).
Amenities and campsite rules on the Tonquin Valley Trail
- Bear lockers
- open-air outhouses
- benches for cooking food
- running creek water (not treated)
- grey water disposal
- no dogs allowed
- no hammocks allowed
- no fires allowed
Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge
The first of the two backcountry lodges are located directly in the Tonquin Valley and close to the Amethyst Lakes.
Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge offers 6 lodging cabins that can accommodate between 2-6 people.
Services include horseback riding, fishing, hiking, and even photography workshops!
How to make a reservation at the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge
All details are provided directly on the Lodge’s website including the current rates and a reservation form to fill out.
Tonquin Valley Adventures Lodge
Tonquin Valley Adventures lets you enjoy the backcountry in style. From Private cabins, down duvets, and a hot shower to home-cooked meals. To reach the lodge you can either hike in or take a guided horseback trip.
How to make a reservation at the Tonquin Valley Adventures Lodge
For current rates and reservations visit the Lodge’s website directly.
Wates Gibson Hut (ACC)
How to reserve the Wates Gibson Hut for summer 2023
In the summer season, the Wates-Gibson hut can accommodate up to 26 hikers. There are no pre-set booking times and you can stay for any period. This is a welcomed change after a couple of years of pandemic restrictions.
The current prices stand at CAD 40 for an Alpine Club Canada member and CAD 50 for a non-member. Prices are charged per person per night.
Click on the request a hut booking button directly on the ACC website to send a booking request form.
Wates Gibson Hut facilities
- mattress pads (BYO sleeping bag)
- propane stoves with propane provided
- Propane lighting
- Wood stove for heating with wood provided
- Untreated creek water (or snowmelt)
A Few Packing Essentials For The Tonquin Valley Trail
You can see me wearing this backpack in the photo above. When I first tried it on I had no idea how its anti-gravity harness system will positively influence each backpacking experience, I’ve had since. Guys following my site you should check out the men’s version.
Getting a good night’s rest after hiking with a heavy load the whole day is essential. This sleeping pad will not only keep you insulated from the ground, but it will keep you comfy too. My advice is to go with the larger size!
I’ve had this tent for years now and used it for 3 weeks in Iceland, where it was tested against some crazy winds, as well as for every single backpacking trip I did in the Rockies. So far I have no tears and all the poles are still intact. Grab a tent footprint too, to prolong the life of your tent.
I recently left my pair in a parking lot after the hike and drove off. When I noticed my mistake it was too late to go back. I couldn’t get over it for a whole week, so I ordered a second pair without any hesitation. At 300 grams a pair, their weight is hard to beat.
Tonquin Valley Trail: stages breakdown
Stage 1: Astoria Trailhead to Astoria Campsite
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 Jasper National Park.
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.
Most people will find that the Astoria campsite, at around 7 kilometers (ca. 4,5 miles) in, is too close to the trailhead to be considered useful, unless you plan on starting the hike late in the afternoon.
Stage 2: Astoria Campground to Surprise Point or Clitheroe/Switchback Campsites
From Astoria Campground the trail then hugs the river for another 1.5 kilometers until you reach a fork.
At the fork, a left turn will take you across a bridge and around 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 man-made paths to navigate the forest floor so keep your eyes open.
Extension: Eremite Valley
If you stay your first night at 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 in 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 that 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.
Stage 3: Surprise Point to Amethyst Lakes campsite
Upon returning after a day of exploring it’s time to pack up and move campsites. From Surprise Point, the southern tip of 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 marsh hopping along the shore of the lake (2.5 kilometers) or the longer, much more boot trodden, and drier way, via Clitheroe campsite.
In this section, you’ll go past the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge. A base for horse/fishing trips in the area.
The second, official way from Surprise Point to Amethyst Lake campsites takes you uphill to Clitheroe and back down to Amethyst. It’s 5.6 kilometers 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 meters 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.
Stage 4: Amethyst Lakes to Portal Campground 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.
Way 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 10km, downhill, for two hours, then carry on. Your chariot awaits you.
Stage 5: Portal Campground to Portal Creek Trailhead
A 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 the Canadian Rockies’ most spectacular multi-day hikes off your bucket list.
The entire Tonquin Valley trail is well marked, as with 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 500 m, 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 repellents. We took two full bottles and almost ran out.
A mosquito face net (available for a few dollars 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 tips for backpacking along 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
Last minute cancellations
If you don’t have a booking all is not lost. Keep checking the reservation system as cancellations do occur on this trail.
The sun at these altitudes can be fierce, take a sun hat, UV-protected sunglasses, and above 30 SPF sunscreen.