There’s no shortage of breath-taking hikes to experience in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, given that it’s one of the world’s largest mountain ranges. Stretching the entire length of North America, every outdoor junky knows what an incredibly special place the Rockies are. Though I’ve done a number of day hikes in western Canada, I’ve only just begun to explore them via multi-day backpacking trips.
If you’re looking for a truly spectacular, multi-day hike Tonquin Valley should be at the top of your bucket list. Here’s all you need to know about hiking on of Jasper NP’s most sot after treks!
Where, When & Why
Tonquin Valley is located along the western edge of beautiful Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. The trek is a 44 km long horseshoe shaped trail that takes you through forests, a beautiful mountain valley, over a mountain pass and past glacier fed lakes and streams. There are 2 trailheads for this hike (start & finish points) and they are only about a 30 – 40 min drive from the town of Jasper.
This hike can be done any time during the summer months, usually from June to September. Check the parks Canada website for exact dates each year (more on this below). I should mention that in June and early July mosquito’s and black flies are out in full force so be prepared!
So why should this hike be at the top of your bucket list? The incredible scenery! This hike takes you to gorgeous alpine meadows with views of towering mountains that mark the boarder of the Ramparts Mountain Range. The stunning Amethyst Lakes are the crown jewel of this hike, sitting pretty at the base of the mountains.
How To & How Long
As previously mentioned, this hike is a 44 km long horseshoe shaped trek with the start and finish being in 2 different locations: the Astoria Trailhead and the Portal Trailhead. This means that you will have to figure out a shuttle system if you want to hike the entire trail. Alternatively you can start and finish at the same trailhead by doing an out-and-back hike.
There are a few options if you choose to hike the entire trail. If you and your friends have 2 vehicles, this will be easy as you can set it up so one car is at each trailhead. However, if you’re like my friends and I and only had one vehicle, then you’re going to have to figure out something else. I’ve been told that you can hire a taxi from town though this will cost around $100 (just have the taxi follow you to the finish point, drop off your car and then have the taxi drive you to the starting point). I’ve also read that some people hitch hike from one trialhead to the other. I personally lucked out as the owner of my B&B offered to shuttle my friends and I (at 6 am no less!).
There really is no right or wrong direction to do this hike in, you can begin or end at either trailhead. That being said, the Astoria Trailhead is 200 m higher than Portal meaning you will have 200 m less elevation to hike and an extra 200 m descent.
I personally hiked from Astoria to Portal and found it to be a very nice route. The Astoria Trailhead has a gentler incline than if you started at Portal and hiked up Maccarib Pass (a tough up hill hike). I would rather hike down from Maccarib Pass than up.
This hike can easily be completed in 3 days, 2 nights (or even 2 days, 1 night if you’re really fit and up to the challenge). But often people do this hike in 4 days, 3 nights so they can spend some extra time at the Amethyst Lakes and explore some of the short side trails.
As mentioned above, that the Amethyst Lakes are the pride and joy of the Tonquin Valley hike. The campsite here books up fast but even if you can’t get a reservation here, plan to spend some time hanging out by the lake before moving onto another campsite.
That being said, I stayed at Surprise Point campsite for a night and found it to be drop dead gorgeous. Surrounded by mountains, meadows and the south end of the Amethyst Lakes, make sure you explore this area!
All camping requires reservations though the Parks Canada website. Reservations for Tonquin Valley open up in January and can get booked up quite quickly. However, it’s always worth checking back to see if there have been any cancellations if you find your desired dates and sites are already taken.
I didn’t book until the spring and had to settle for the Maccarib campground for our second night as the Amethyst Lakes campground were fully booked. However, due to the rainy weather in the forecast, many people ended up cancelling last minute.
It should be noted that there are a few other options for accommodations if camping isn’t your thing. The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) has one backcountry cabin located just past Chrome Lake called the Wates-Gibson Cabin. For more details and to make a reservation, visit the Alpine Club of Canada website.
There are also 2 backcountry lodges located on the shores of the Amethyst Lakes. Tonquin Valley Adventures and Tonquin Backcountry Lodge offer cabin accommodations, horseback riding, fishing, and much more.
My friends and I chose to do the entire trail in 3 days, 2 nights. We planned to do most of the hiking on days 1 and 3, allowing us lots of time to hang out at the stunning Amethyst Lakes on Day 2. The first day we would hike to Surprise Point campsite located at the end of the Amethyst Lakes. Day 2 we would make camp at Maccarib on the other end of the lakes. The last day we’d hike up Maccarib Pass and out to the Portal Trailhead.
Day 1 – Astoria Trailhead to Surprise Point
Early in the morning my friends and I dropped off our car at the Portal Trailhead for when we completed the hike. The lovely owner of our B&B offered to shuttle us from Portal to the Astoria trailhead. We were up before dawn and hiking down the trail by 8 am.
For most of our 3 days we endured rainy, cool weather with overcast skies, but the scenery was still incredible. Our first day saw us hiking mostly though forest with a few glacier stream crossings. The trail was either flat or slightly uphill for most of the day with some muddy spots (the trails turned to compete mud due to the pouring rain that came on day 2).
We stopped and rested as needed, having a snack at the Astoria campground and then took a lunch break on the side of the trail in the forest.
I should point out that 1.4 kms after the Astoria campground the trail splits into two. You have the option of staying on the main trail (to the right) or venturing off to the left. The main trail is a good option if you plan to camp at Switchback or Clitheroe. However, this trail has a steep switchback section so be warned. If you plan on camping at Surprise Point or the ACC Wates-Gibson cabin, it’s best to branch off the main trail and take the left fork. This trail is has a gentler ascent and takes you by beautiful Chrome Lake. It also provides a short cut to Surprise Point and the ACC cabin.
We took the left fork as it would be slightly shorter and easier to reach our campsite at Surprise Point. Chrome Lake provided a wonderful spot for a break as we got our first up close look at the mountains. It was mid-afternoon when we reached Chrome Lake and our feet and backs were begging for a break. It was the perfect place to relax and take pictures!
Pushing on, it was another 1.5 hrs until we made it to Surprise Point campground. This campsite was reported to be almost full the night we were camping there but due to the weather, we had the whole place to ourselves!
We set up camp and went to work on making an early dinner. Because we were tired and sore from the days hike we didn’t actually fully explore our new home until after we ate. And I’m so glad that we eventually did!
Surprise Point is located right at the southern end of the beautiful Amethyst Lakes in a the heart of Tonquin Valley, surrounded by towering mountains. The scenery here was like none other. Even with low hanging clouds blanketing the tops of the Rampart Mountain Range that boarder the western edge of the lakes, it was simply stunning.
It was here that we came very close to 2 woodland caribou (a male and female) who snuck up on us while we were admiring the views of the lake. After retreating to some trees to give the couple their space, we watched them make their way across the grassy meadow.
I cannot express enough how gorgeous Surprise Point is! This is truly backcountry camping/hiking at its finest.
Day 2 – Surprise Point to Maccarib
We heard the pouring rain start up in the middle of the night and it never really stopped until the next day. The only thing worst than packing up camp in the pouring rain is setting up camp in the rain and we did both!
We knew we had all day to make it the less than 10 km hike to Maccarib and our plans to spend the day relaxing on the shores of the beautiful Amethyst Lakes were all but dashed.
After a quick breakfast spent huddled under some trees, we set off across the meadow following the edge of the lake.
There are 2 ways to get back to the main trail and up to the Amethyst Lake Campsite. You can follow the trail marked on the map up (see above) to Clitheroe Campsite and then head left. Or you can follow an unmarked trail along the edge of the lake that will take you directly to Tonquin Valley Adventures and back to the main trail.
If you refer to the trail map above, you can see where the purple trail heads up towards Clitheroe but then suddenly changes color to brown. It’s here that you will find a trail branching off to the left. It’s well used and obvious when hiking so you shouldn’t miss it. Be advised that this short cut is usually wet as it lies in a marshy area with many stream crossing (no bridges). However, this route is only 2.6 kms while the main trail up to Clitheroe is 5.6 kms.
Once we reached the Amethyst Lake Campsite the rain had let up for the most part, but it was still cool and wet. Not the most ideal conditions to spend a day relaxing by the lake. My friends and I chose to continue onto Maccarib campsite, taking advantage of the slightly more favorable weather.
The hike on this particular day was flat for the most part as we were simply walking from one end of the valley to the other. The trails on the other hand where very muddy, wet and chewed up by the horses that had been using them (both backcountry lodges use horses). Our boots were soaked by the time we reached the Amethyst Lake campsite and didn’t dry out until we returned to Jasper!
Despite all the rain, cool temperatures, muddy trails and low hanging clouds, Tonquin Valley was simply gorgeous. During the brief moments the rain let up I was able to snap a few pictures from this day on my phone. I can only imagine how stunning these mountains and lakes would be in the sun!
By mid-afternoon we had made it to the Maccarib Campsite. As luck would have it, there was a large white Parks Canada tent set up over one of the picnic tables at the site. The tent had been erected for the parks workers who were conducting trail maintenance in the area. This tent provided us with much needed shelter from the rain. Though there was no wood burning stove (no camp fires are aloud in Tonquin Valley), having a large space to move around in and hang up our wet tent and clothing was pure luxury.
Over the course of the afternoon we made friends with the 3 other groups who were also staying at the campsite. We hosted a steady stream of visitors as hikers passing by would stop in to take advantage of the shelter for a quick break.
The rain continued on and off into the night and during one of the brief windows of opportunity, my friends and I made a mad dash to quickly set up our tent. Although we had packed up in the rain and began raining again right after we pitched our tent, we had a surprisingly warm and dry night. The campsites were built well, allowing the rain water to drain away from our tent rather than collect underneath.
Day 3 – Maccarib to Portal Trailhead
On our final day we woke to cloudy, overcast skies but NO RAIN! The sky was lighter in the distance and crossed our fingers that we may just see some sunshine.
Heading out after a warm breakfast we thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the mountain valley as we hiked up to Maccarib Pass. The first hour or so saw us hike through gorgeous meadows, while crossing a meandering mountain stream on multiple occasions as it wound its way down the valley. Unfortunately the trail was VERY muddy due to all the rain so we had to be strategic in where to place our feet.
As we approached the top of Maccarib Pass the sky began to get hazy. Not from the rain but from the wildfires that plagued western Canada that summer. We counted ourselves lucky that we could see the mountains at all as many places were choked so thick with smoke you couldn’t see more than a few hundred meters.
A cool wind hit us in full force as reached the summit of Maccarib Pass and we quickly hurried down the trail towards Portal Campsite. After lunch at the empty campsite we pushed on to complete the final leg of our journey.
During the final few hours of the hike the trail took us up along the side of the valley. From this vantage point we had beautiful views of the mountain basin with Portal Creek running along the bottom.
Before long we were back in the forest hiking beside a rushing glacier mountain stream. We arrived at the Portal Trailhead tired and weary but extremely satisfied with our incredible adventure!
General Tips & Info
Experience: For experienced hikers only! Hikers should be well versed in backcountry hiking and camping as this trail takes you through fairly remote and difficult to access areas.
Fitness: Though the elevation change isn’t much you should be in good physical shape to do this hike, especially while carrying a loaded backpack.
Wildlife: You’ll definitely see lots! This area is home to elk, woodland caribou, grizzly bears, black bears, marmots, birds of prey and so much more! Be respectful and give all wildlife their space. Bring a good camera with a telephoto lens so you can get those up close shots without chasing the poor creature down. Don’t feed the wildlife and use the bear lockers at each campsite to store your food.
Bear Safety: This is grizzly bear country and you are in the backcountry! Bears are a common site to see so be prepared with bear spray or other bear deterrents. Know how to act appropriately if you encounter one (ie. never turn your back, never run). For more information and safety tips on traveling in bear country, check out Parks Canada site here.
The Canadian Rockies are simply a stunning place to explore. Jasper National Park is one of my favorite areas to hike due to its ruggedness and jaw-dropping natural beauty. Tonquin Valley didn’t give us the best weather but the area is so beautiful that it didn’t really matter. My friends and I loved this hike regardless and I’d love to hike Tonquin Valley again, hopefully in the sunshine.