Sauntering along astride Bailey, a palomino gelding, I make my way up pretty Portal Creek Valley until the column of horses in our group crests 7,100 foot McCarib Pass. From here we catch our first glimpse of the imposing range of mountains known simply as the Ramparts that form one wall of the legendary Tonquin Valley. Often called the prettiest part of Alberta’s sprawling Jasper National Park, the Tonquin and its Ramparts are the reason I’m here.
I’m riding instead of walking because my destination is the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge, a cluster of simple cabins built around a rustic lodge. The wrangler who leads our line of 9 horses, Kable Kongsgrud, and his family own and run the venerable backcountry camp. More and more hikers and cross country skiers choose to stay at the lodge instead of camping in tents, and in fact our group encounters two backpackers near the pass who will also be staying at the lodge. But the majority of guest still arrive by horseback, so I wanted to experience that mode of transport as well. So I'll ride in, but hike out via another route, the Astoria River.
An avid hiker, I find riding to be a mixed blessing: true, you don’t have to carry a pack, but you do have to remain in the saddle for five or six hours as your horse indulges in a variety of gaits. And Bailey has the bad habit of stopping to munch grass when the mood strikes, then galloping along the trail to catch up with the other horses. That can hurt. Some of the other riders in my group, Jim and Pauletta from Medicine Hat, are expert riders and offer me, a total rookie, some useful tips. "Kick him in the ribs when he does that!" By the time we crest the pass and start down toward Amethyst Lakes, I’m improving.
The decision to stay at the lodge is a logical one, an option that makes a lot of sense. The reasons are simple: good food, comfortable if very rustic accommodations, and real walls, much betterr than tent fabric, between you and the local bear population. The lodge (and a second one near Amethyst Lakes) makes the perfect base for day hikes along the valley beside the lake, up to Moat Lake and Moat Pass, and along the remote northern end of the Ramparts.
Meals are served family style, and evenings spent around the campfire with the mountains aglow at sunset is a great way to get to know other guests. Visitors stay in a cluster of simple cabins around the lodge. Mine was right near the lake shore, where I was often visited by woodland caribou who trotted by unconcerned with my presence. The cabin was comfortable but not fancy: If it's cold in the morning, just build a fire in the woodstove. Want hot water to shave? Put a pan of water on the woodstove.
I was tipped off to the Tonquin (the valley is named after one of John Jacob Astor’s ships, as his scouts ventured far afield, even here, to find exploitable natural resources) by a Parks Canada naturalist in Lake Louise. But Jasper National Park lies far north of busy Banff. It is the largest and most northerly of the country’s Rocky Mountain national parks. The backcountry here has an out-there feel to it, a sense of remoteness that’s hard to equal in North America outside of Alaska. The feature called the Ramparts is actually a sub-range of almost a dozen 9,000 and 10,000-foot peaks, dominated by Redoubt and Dungeon Peak. Pretty Amethyst Lakes (one large body of water nearly separated into two smaller lobes by a peninsula in the middle where it narrows) lie in the broad floor of the valley, with thick forest on the east slope, the Ramparts on the west.
Watching sunrise light up the enormous broadside of the Ramparts, throwing golden reflections into the waters of Amethyst Lakes, is an experience worthy of any effort expended to get in to this wild valley. First photographed in 1915, the unrelenting beauty of the Tonquin Valley, nestled deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, has drawn pilgrims ever since—including Ansel Adams, who’s very first trip as Sierra Club photographer was right here.
The route I chose was to ride in 12 miles over high, scenic McCarib Pass and, after five days of exploring the valley on foot from the lodge, eventually hiking out a final 12 miles via the lovely Astoria River trail. This big loop requires two cars, one at the Portal Creek Trailhead, and another at the Cavell Lake trailhead, but it lays out the whole mind-blowing landscape of the Tonquin Valley in a backcountry journey to rival any. But if the Tonquin is the most scenic place in Jasper National Park, it’s not the only allure here.
The town of Jasper itself is a big part of what’s special about this hike. Small, casual, and friendly, with good food and a worldly, cosmopolitan atmosphere, it makes a pleasant and very Canadian base from which to embark in to the wilderness--and even better to return to after six days in the Tonquin. Jasper has outstanding re-entry qualities, softening one’s return to reality with its unique frontier character.
In Jasper, accommodations abound to fit any budget, with restaurants, good café’s with wifi, outdoor shops and a distinctive frontier congeniality. The vibe is extremely laid back. I like to live like a local, rent a bike and ride around town (parking can be tough), enjoying the cafes and good saloons. Trains rule here in Jasper, the yard and its rumbling locomotives dominates the town, and lots of people arrive by rail, avoiding the long drive from the major airports in Edmonton or Calgary.
The National Park headquarters are here, in the historic old building across from the train station, where you can sort out your hiking and backcountry camping permits, and get the maps you need for hikes and other adventures. Besides the trails of Jasper National Park, there's much more to do here. I took time out for kayaking on nearby Maligne Lake and a ride up the Jasper Tramway, Canada's highest and longest, for stunning views of the area.