Jasper National Park
Distance: 27 miles (43km)
Time: 3-5 days
Physical Challenge: 12345
Psychological Challenge: 12345
Staging: Jasper, Alberta, Canada
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 time or 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 allure of this place cannot be overstated. And though legendary to the cognoscenti, this is a journey that can be enjoyed with surprising solitude when you apply thoughtful strategy and take an unconventional route.
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 Parks. The backcountry within has an out-there feel to it, a sense of remoteness that’s hard to equal in North America outside of Alaska. That’s a two-sided coin, as the genuine wildness of the place is emphasized by the rich wildlife of the area, including caribou, cougar and the fact that fatal grizzly bear attacks have occurred on trails into the Tonquin in recent decades. Humans are not at the top of the food chain here. Most hikers will never see a bear in the valley, but everyone who ventures into it should accept that the reality of its wildlife is part of its beauty.
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. And while the Ramparts steal the show in terms of flashy scenery, all you have to do is turn around for another cluster of peaks that would easily lord it over any other landscape. On the east side of the lake, mounts Clitheroe, Maccarib and Old Horn all reach above 9,000 feet above their apron of old-growth timber. This is big country, in every sense. One of the most imposing peaks in Canada, Mount Edith Cavell, more than 11,000 feet high and visible from almost everywhere in the Jasper vicinity, stands guards at the start to the Astoria River trail.
Two trails reach the Tonquin from different directions, one comes in over 7,100 foot McCarib Pass, the other follows the drainage of the Astoria River, in the next valley to the south. The trails are nearly equal in length, and the merits of each over the other is argued eloquently, usually summarized like this: the McCarib is more scenic, but the Astoria is shorter, and therefore a faster way in to the campgrounds by the lake. But on my second visit here it became clear that the best way to experience this remarkable valley is connect the two trails into one 27-mile journey. That route takes you into the Tonquin Valley from the north, over striking McCarib Pass with it’s views of the Ramparts from up high, takes you through the entire valley along the shores of Amethyst Lakes, and takes you back out along the Astoria River. In that context, then, the Tonquin Valley becomes more like a four mile long pass connecting the two approach routes.
Doing it this way will require that you spend more time on the adventure, but that’s a good thing. The Tonquin requires a few days for acclimatization to it’s beauty, and begs to be savored over the course of days in changing light and conditions. The in-and-out, point-to-point route suggested here also complicates trailhead transport, but that’s easily solved with the resources of Jasper. The town of Jasper itself is a big part of what’s good about this hike. Small, casual, and friendly, but with good food and a worldly, cosmopolitan vibe, it makes a pleasant and very Canadian base from which to embark in to the wilderness, and even better to return to after five days in the Tonquin. Jasper has outstanding re-entry qualities, softening one’s return to reality with its funky character..
Logistics & Strategy
Staging for a backcountry journey through the Tonquin Valley is done from the town of Jasper, headquarters for sprawling Jasper National Park, which sits astride the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. Jasper is about four and half hours from Edmonton’s airport, and about four and a half hours from Calgary’s airport, so in terms of drive time it’s a wash. But for my sensibilities, I find Edmonton the better option when going to Jasper. It’s a straight shot due west from Edmonton on a fast, uncrowded highway, and the town of Edson, about halfway, makes the perfect stop for supplies. The drive is colored by the palpable aura of the province’s northern tier, a little wilder and rougher than down south. For those doing a tour of the Rocky Mountain parks, a good option is to fly to Edmonton, see Jasper, do the Tonquin, then head down to Banff via the Icefields Parkway, do the Rockwall Trail near Lake Louise, then drive to Calgary and fly home from there.
In Jasper, accommodations abound to fit any budget, with restaurants, good café’s with wifi, outdoor shops and a distinctive frontier congeniality. 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.
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. The strong allure of the Tonquin has of late put the permit for the hike in greater demand. The safe strategy is to reserve your permit early. The park’s backcountry offices are open June to September, but the Jasper Trail Office handles backcountry reservations year-round. Reservations are accepted up the three months in advance. Reservation fees are over and above the daily backcountry fee, but securing a reservation in advance means you are assured of getting the permit (called a wilderness pass) for the places you want to go.
You have to pick up your wilderness pass in person within 24 hours of starting the hike.
When you do that, the rangers, called wardens by Parks Canada, can offer advice on weather and trail conditions and other urgent situations. Routes into the valley have been known to close due to bear and caribou activity, but that is extremely rare.
The trailheads to the Tonquin are not far from town: The McCarib Trail begins near the Marmot Ski Area, about 10 miles from Jasper: The Astoria River Trail is at Cavell Lake, about 16 miles from town:
I recommend starting at the McCarib Traihead, hiking into the Tonquin via Portal Creek and McCarib Pass, camping in the valley for several nights, and hiking out the opposite end via the Astoria River trail. The trail description that follows reflects that route, which is 27 miles (plus sidetrips) and will take 3 to 5 days. However, for hikers who wish to shorten the trip, or wish to leave and return from the same trailhead, the best route is in and out via the Astoria River Trail. It is the shorter route (approximately 7 hours and 10 miles) to Clitheroe Campground on the southeast corner of Amethyst Lakes.
The McCarib Trail-Astoria River Trail option is only seven miles longer, travels over a high (7,000-foot) alpine pass and open meadows, and then exits by following along the river on the way out. You get the whole thing, and the route will show you more than twice the country in a stunning part of the world. The McCarib Trail follows the Portal Creek drainage from the trail head, up to the pass and then down the west side into the Tonquin Valley with astounding views of the Ramparts. The trail reaches McCarib Camp in 12 miles, and Amethyst Lakes at 13 miles. The first camp by the lake, Amethyst Camp, is reached at 14 miles.
This is the heart of the Tonquin Valley, at about 6,500 feet in elevation, with the Ramparts rising majestically to more than 10,000 feet across the lake. Take a few days to enjoy it. An informal network of trails around the lake can get you just about anywhere you want to go, but beware the southeaster shore of the lake is marshy. Four legal camps are situated on the east side of Amethyst Lakes, so there is ample camping, just find the place you like the best. Many hikers prefer Amethyst, for it’s proximity to the lake, others like Clitheroe or Surprise Point for its open views. You will need a backcountry camping permit from Parks Canada for any of the campsites. Fires are not allowed anywhere in the valley, and dogs are not permitted, to protect the wildlife.
From the north end of the Amethyst Lakes, the most appealing sidetrip is up to Moat Pass (and nearby Tonquin Pass) and Moat Lake, which is reached via a spur trail to the north. This makes an interesting, day-long side trip to the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. As you travel north in this gentle valley, you’ll be amazed at how the Ramparts just go on and on, stretching far to the north beyond the imposing peak of Mt. Geike. I saw a big grizzly in the meadows near Moat Lake, along with dozens of caribou, big ones, as the animals here represent one of the largest of the species.
An oddity of the Tonquin Valley is that it actually has accommodations. An historic rustic lodge with cabins is located at the Narrows, between the lakes, and a venerable cabin camp can be found on the way to Moat Lake at the north end of the Amethyst Lake. Both cater to small group horse parties. (You may in fact see strings of horses on the trail, and even if not, you’ll see evidence of them in on the trails.) However, as backpacking gains in popularity, both establishments are seeing an increase in the number of backpackers who choose to stay in one of the cabins rather than camp in a tent once they reach the valley. This is a viable strategy; it’s expensive, but it has its advantages. See the information section for details.
The halfway point of the recommended route is the location where the McCarib Trail route reaches the northern end of Amethyst Lake, so as you travel south through the Tonquin Valley beside the lake, you get ever closer to the Astoria River Trailhead and the end of the hike. A good option is to spend the night or two at the north end of the lake, at Amethyst Camp, and another night or two near the south end of the lake, at Surprise Point or Clitheroe Camp. If you have the time while camped near the south end of the lake, consider a day trip to Chrome Lake and the Eremite Valley.
From Clitheroe Camp, it’s 10 miles back on the Astoria River Trail to the trailhhead. The route stays high on the slope of Old Horn mountain before descending steeply to join the river about five miles from Cavell Lake and the parking lot.
A workable trailhead transportation plan is this: Before the hike, leave your rental car at the Astoria River Trail parking lot near Cavell Lake, then hitchhike back to town (that’s technically illegal but it’s easy in the big parking lot there). Back in town hire a taxi or car service to take you to the start of the McCarib Trail. As of this writing, there is no formal trailhead shuttle service in town, but if you ask around, you can find a ride, it’s the Jasper way.
Grizzly bears and black bears are among the abundant wildlife found in the Canadian Rockies. Grizzly bear sightings are uncommon, and attacks on hikers in Jasper National Park are rare, but they do happen. Protect yourself by being wary when hiking, making noise on the trails, avoiding areas of known recent activity, and by keeping your food a safe distance from your camp. The backcountry camps on this route are equipped with bear poles and wires, which enable you to store your food and toiletries in a manner that dissuades bear activity. Talk to park wardens about bear safety and bear activity along the route.
Weather remains probably the most serious danger, as on a route this high, it can change suddenly. Come prepared for cold and wet weather, even snow, even in summer, and be equipped to hike out in bad conditions. And even here, deep in the northern Rockies, you’ll have to treat or filter water.
Picking the right season for the Tonquin is perhaps as crucial to enjoying this hike as any route I know. This is a valley of rare beauty, but has it’s challenges. Amethyst Lakes is a marvel, but it make the valley a true bug hole, where mosquitoes and biting flies can be so thick as to rob you of joy. And given the fact that horse-packers use the same trails as hikers, the hiking routes can stirred into muddy bogs by the stock during wet weather. It took me two tries to get the conditions I wanted, but I finally got it right: go in late season, in fact, very late season. I recommend planning to do this route between the middle of August and the middle of September (even the end of September into early October in rare years when the weather holds). Going then will give you the best chance of relatively dry stable, weather, and with vacations over and kids back in school, the best chance for uncrowded camps and trails.
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