The Tonquin Valley is a wilderness area in Jasper National Park that is popular with hikers and horseback riders in the summer months, and skiers in the winter. It brings hikers into the heart of an alpine valley full of lakes, meadows and caribou, bordered by craggy peaks and glaciers.
In August 2019, I booked a backcountry campsite on short notice, entirely on the recommendation of a Park’s employee. The employee, who patiently stayed on the phone for me while I figured out the trip, suggested that we spend a few nights at a backcountry campground, and use it as a basecamp to stage exploration around the valley.
I hadn’t done a backcountry hiking trip in this manner before and was eager to give it a shot. The basecamp method allowed my friends and me to pack heavy because we only hiked one day with loaded packs. It also gave us the opportunity to spend time pushing deeper in the valley than we would do on a normal backpacking trip.
This trip served as a good intro to backpacking for one of my friends, as it allowed for more picking and choosing of routes and challenges. I would highly recommend this unconventional backpacking trip for anybody looking for a new hiking challenge, or as a way to better explore the Tonquin Valley on foot.
Trip Completed: August 2019
Starting Point: Astoria River Trailhead
Ending Point: Astoria River Trailhead (out and back)
Total Distance: 34 km to campsite, 84 km total
Elevation Gain: 1053 m
Duration: 4 days, 3 nights
This route takes place in Jasper National Park.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Mountain Métis , Ktunaxa, Stoney, Tsuu T’ina, Secwepemcúl’ecw (Secwépemc) and Aseniwuche Winewak (Rocky Mountain).
Maps & Resources
Campsite Reservations: Backcountry campsite reservations are required and can be booked through Parks Canada Reservation Portal.
Permits: A national park’s vehicle permit is required.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: An outfitter wasn’t used for this trip, however if you’d like to explore the area guided, the following two lodges offer services in Tonquin Valley.
Shuttle: Route started and ended at same trail head (out and back hike) so no shuttle was needed.
Day 1: Trailhead to Clithroe Campground (17 km)
The night before we hit the trail, we camped in Jasper National Park’s overflow campground, a beautifully maintained, treed site near the eastern gate. Staying in the park allowed us to get a good start on the trail, hitting the trailhead around 9:30.
We quickly organized and distributed our heavy load of food before starting the hike. Knowing that we would be staying at the same campsite for the entire trip, we opted to go heavy on food, packing cheese, sausage, vegetables, candy, a 1 kg chocolate bar and enough nuts and trail mix to feed twice our number.
Despite our heavy bags, we hit the trail in good spirits. The trail starts gradually, gently climbing up the side of a high riverbank. It is treed, but the trees occasionally offer views of mountains and the river through breaks. The trails through the Tonquin Valley are shared between hikers and horseback riders. Horses generally make a heavier impact on trails, and we passed a few sections of muddy trails that were cut up with hoof prints.
The beginning of the trip was fairly uneventful, and we chatted and hiked happily to the Astoria Campground, 7km from the trailhead. At the campground, we broke into our cheese stash, eating a quick makeshift charcuterie lunch off of our camping knives. After the snack and a quick round of cowboy coffee, we hit the trail again.
A short distance past Astoria Campground, the trail begins to climb. As we ascended switch back after switchback, the loads of food on our backs began to seem like a bad idea. We pushed hard through the steep, muddy climb, and were relieved to see it eventually even out around the Switchback Campground. We scouted out the Switchback Campground, and found a small, forested site with a few tent pads, bear locker and toilet. The site was also very buggy. Opting to avoid a snack break around the bugs, we pushed on toward Clithroe Campground.
We arrived at Clithroe around 4:00, relived to be finished hiking with a full load. We found a tent pad and set up our tent. Our commitment to heavy food paid off at dinner time when we laid out a full spread of cheese, meat and snacks on the table. The other hikers sharing the site gazed in envy at our feast. We offered to share some appetizers with our camp neighbors and quickly began making friends. Over dinner we opened up our map and scrambling guidebook. We decided to tackle Mt. Clithroe the following morning.
To save a bit of weight, we had decided to only bring one tent. As we crammed our gear inside we realized that a 3ish person tent was going to be a very tight fit for three grown men. However, we were stuck with our choice, so we crawled inside and enjoyed a tight but deep sleep after a full day’s work.
Campsite: Clitheroe Campground. Spacious, forested site with 8 tent pads, picnic tables, bear box and an open-air thunderbox. A small stream runs next to the site with cold, fresh glacial meltwater. As with all the campsites in the Tonquin Valley, mosquitos are present. I was surprised by just how prevalent the bugs were-comparably bad to those found in Ontario or Northern Saskatchewan. Luckily, we were prepared and brought lots of bug spray. There is no view from the site, but climbing a short distance to the meadow behind the site offers an excellent view of the Rampart Mountains.
Day 2: Clitheroe Campground to Mt Clitheroe, Lake Amethyst (6 km return, 6.6 km return)
The morning of our second day, we were ready for peak bagging. One member of our party decided to remain in camp and relax by the stream while the other two took on the mountain. We hiked into a pretty alpine meadow behind the campground and made our approach to Mt. Clithroe.
Mt. Clitheroe is a straightforward, nontechnical scramble. We climbed a scree-filled drainage to gain the summit. From the top, we had spectacular views of the epic Rampart Mountains and glaciers, along with the other mountains surrounding the valley. We could see the Wate-Gibson Lake outpost in the distance and watched as a helicopter delivered a load of goods to the lodge.
After about half an hour and a few hundred photos at the summit, we carefully hiked back down the scree slope. We walked across the meadow back to the campground, stopping along the way to fill our water bottles and splash our faces with cool water from an alpine stream. We returned to the campground around noon, and dove into the food stash. After covering ourselves with bug spray, we sat in the grass by the creek and relaxed. However, we eventually grew restless and eager to explore more, so we once again pulled out the map, and pointed toward Amethyst Lake.
Amethyst Lake is an easy, 3.3 km hike from the Clitheroe Campground. There is another campground at Amethyst, offering a similar treed site and similar amenities to Clitheroe. We walked a 200 m path down to Amethyst Lake (which is also the campground’s water source). The lake is bordered by swampy lowlands, but we found some rocks to sit on and went for a cold dip in the alpine water. After warming up, we walked the 3.3 km back to our campsite and busted out some raw vegetables to make a stew (while, again, flexing hard on the campers around us).
Campsite: Clitheroe Campground
Day 3: Clitheroe Campground to Ermite Valley (25 km)
On our third morning, we woke up damp, after a rainy night in our stuffed tent. The volume of men in the tent pushed much of our gear up against the outer fly, so condensation from the rainy night had run down onto sleeping bags and the arms of those sleeping on the edges of the tent. But, in good spirits, we dried out our gear, made coffee and once again pulled out our map of the valley.
South of Tonquin Valley is a wilderness area called Ermite Valley. It can be accessed by taking a side trail off of the route to the Wates-Gibson ACC hut. We made exploration the goal for the day and set out for Ermite. Little did we know, in our exciting morning state, that we had read the map scale wrong, and all the distances that we had estimated were in fact doubled. We took off happy and carefree, unaware of just how epic our day would be.
We took off on a 4 km trail toward the Surprise Point Campground and ACC hut. The trail took us across a marsh on a boardwalk, with a beautiful view of the Ramparts in the distance. Along the way, we passed The Tonquin Valley Adventure Lodge and the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge – these outfitted lodges offer overnight stays and guided hiking and horseback riding trips.
Near the spur trail to the ACC hut, we found a sign pointing toward the Ermite Valley. The sign was a posted warning, telling that the Ermite Valley is a wilderness area with unmaintained trails. Of course, this fired up our sense of adventure even more, and we pressed on. Despite the sign’s warning, a well-trodden trail led us up the northeast side of the valley. We passed other hikers and felt totally comfortable on the “unmaintained” trail.
We were eventually led to a high moraine, with a beautiful view of the valley, river and an epic glacier. Determined to adventure further, we took off down the moraine and pressed on toward the glacier. At this point, we had left the trail, and relied on our wayfinding and scrambling abilities to get us closer to the glacier. Though hiking off-trail is allowed in this “wilderness” area of the park, users should be aware of the risks. We hiked about a kilometre before arriving at a small glacial lake. We stayed here for a while, taking in the view of the glacier, melt-water outpour and surrounding mountains.
To hike back to camp, we followed a moraine down the valley, then crossed a small stream before meeting up with the Ermite Valley Trail. Though our route was through relatively easy terrain, navigation and route finding skills were necessary. We followed the Ermite Valley Trail back to the main trail, then hiked back to camp. We returned tired and dove into our snack stash for one final night. After reviewing our day on the map, we realized that we had read the scale wrong, and our planned easy 12 km hike was actually 25 km! We collapsed into the tent after dinner and got a final night’s rest in the Tonquin Valley.
Campsite: Clitheroe Campground
Day 4: Clitheroe Campground to Trailhead (17 km)
We took off on our final morning with heavy packs. Despite feasting for three nights, we still somehow had a mountain of food left. A lesson in meal planning. The trail back was straightforward, and mostly downhill. We quickly hiked down the switchbacks and reminisced about the last couple of days while taking in a final view from the trail. The last 3 km of the trail were a gentle uphill, to our disappointment. After arriving at the trailhead, we drove across the park to Miette Hot Springs and rested our bodies in the water.
Tonquin Valley has been one of the most fun backpacking trips that I’ve done to date. The last minute nature of the trip gave it a sense of adventure – we figured out most of the side trips as we went, taking inspiration from the map and our scrambling guide. I would highly recommend trying a basecamp-style backpacking trip like this, in Tonquin or another area.
The trails in Tonquin Valley were muddy, and the bugs are worse than any other spot that I’ve been to in the Rockies. That being said, with proper planning and a bit of mental fortitude, these obstacles are minor. I loved how the feasting we did on this trip, and often think fondly about the meals that we ate. However, I also do regret how poorly we packed/planned, as our bags were extremely heavy. The side trips that we took in the Valley were exciting, but difficult and involved some route-finding and scrambling. Off-trail hiking, scrambling and peak-bagging should only be attempted after proper research, and with somebody who is knowledgeable in mountain/wilderness travel.
Hey! I’m Liam! I am passionate about paddling and hiking, and have guided paddling trips in Manitoba and in Algonquin Provincial Park. My favourite river is the Bloodvein in Manitoba, followed closely by the Manigotagan. When I’m not paddling I work as a geologist.