Tonquin Valley Backpacking Trip

The fall time change has just happened, and the dark November evenings seem like a good time to write up some trip reports from this summer and sift through photos (many, many photos!). One of the highlights of the summer was a three day backpacking trip to the Tonquin Valley, near Jasper National Park. An energetic group from France had contacted us in May to arrange for a private two day backpacking trip in the Jasper area. After much deliberating on destinations (many backcountry sites were fully booked), we convinced them just one more day would allow us to get well into the backcountry, and to complete a ‘traverse’, rather than hiking in and out on the same trail. One-way travel is always my first choice when possible – new things around every corner.

The trip was scheduled from the 12th to 14th of August. The evening before our departure, my group of road-weary guests arrived at our meet-up point. They’d already been on a whirlwind trip of Rockies sightseeing and hiking stops. Although they were mostly keen on getting some dinner and checking in to their hotel, they obligingly unloaded their backpacks so we could check that they had everything they needed for the trip. Despite a few aging backpacks, all looked okay and we made plans to meet in the morning.

Day 1: Portal Creek Trailhead to Maccarib Pass camp

The following day, we met up for an early morning departure, since this was to be the longest day of our backpacking trip. Since we were hiking a one-way traverse, we parked the cars at our end point (the Astoria trailhead) and were shuttled up to our starting point at the Portal Creek trailhead. After some time getting the last of our food loaded into the nooks and crannies of backpacks, we were off. As everyone started down the trail there were a few grumbles and stops on the trail to push/pull/prod various backpack straps to make the loads comfortable…and I told everyone my theory that the backpacks are always the least comfortable for the first hour and last hour of every trip.

The Tonquin Valley is renowned for its wildlife. I think everyone was a bit alarmed though when within the first ten minutes on the trail, we saw our first grizzly prints of the trip (there were some pretty wide eyes at the size of the prints!). They looked to be less than a day old, and were heading the opposite direction. Although we followed the tracks for the first part of the day, we didn’t ever encounter our ursa friend in the flesh.

We made our way up the scenic Portal Creek, encountering a few other hikers on their way out. The day was warm and bright and…..bug free! I had warned our European guests about the possibility of a ‘real Canadian mosquito experience’, equipping everybody with bug nets, and warning everybody that yes, they really did need to bring bug spray. I braced myself for a mosquito ambush further up the trail, once we reached the alpine where the bugs are usually feisty and hungry. We took a few rest stops on the way and a nice lunch by the Portal Creek campground as everyone adjusted to their first time carrying backpacks.

The day stayed clear and warm as we wound our way up into the alpine to Maccarib Pass, one of the most scenic and wild feeling places along the trail. As we stopped for a snack at the pass, I was SURE we’d be attacked by flying mozzies…..but none to be seen. The Tonquin Valley is notorious for a lot of bugs, which is one of the reasons we’ll only schedule this trip from mid-August onwards. Since the Rockies had been exceptionally wet this summer, I was certain we were in for some unusually buggy weather. However, other than a few flying around at dusk, we had a remarkably bug-free trip (although David’s forehead might disagree!). On our second day we ran into one of the local horse packing guides and he mentioned that the bugs had been intolerable a week before, and then had disappeared like a flip being switched. Amazing!

We crested Maccaribb Pass and headed down the other side towards the Tonquin Valley proper. We hopped scotched our way between rocks and slopped through some mud and little streams (this part of the trail is quite rugged), all while taking in incredible alpine views. Just as our feet and backs were tiring, camp came into view. Tents were set up, and followed by appetizers, dinner and dessert.

Day 2: Maccarib Pass Camp to Switchback Camp, via Amethyst Lakes

We had a much shorter distance to hike on Day 2, so the morning started off with a relaxing sleep in and slow breakfast. After that we shouldered packs, and headed off towards Amethyst Lake. Amethyst Lake is the heart of the Tonquin Valley, with a backdrop of ‘The Ramparts’, an imposing mountain of many quartzite buttresses and glacier ice on the flanks. On a four-day trip, we would have stayed at Portal Creek the first day, and Amethyst Lake camp on night two, but since we were on the whirlwind three day itinerary, our plan was to keep going up to Switchback camp. However, we had plenty of time to spare, so we spent a couple of hours hanging out by the lake, with a bit of swimming (well, one brave soul anyways!), and a few folks took an alpine meadow nap.

Recharged, we headed off along the lake, and then meandered up through the forest towards our night’s camp. As we hiked we could see black clouds building in the distance, as our beautiful sunny day came to an end. A few drops started to splash as we hit camp, and tents were set up in a hurry and tarps put in place over our kitchen area. The rain held off though, as we polished off some coconut red curry dinner and apple crisp dessert (a big hit with everyone, which is saying something when you are feeding folks from France!). Just as soon as we were all snug in our tents, the skies opened up and a huge thunderstorm began. It was one of the more impressive thunderstorms that I’ve experienced in the mountains. The thunder seemed to reverberate along the valley walls for what seemed like a minute each time, and our tents were lit up by the lightning. The next morning at breakfast, we all admitted that we’d been counting seconds in our tents between thunder and lightning, thinking the storm was heading away, and kept being surprised as it seemed to move up and down the valley repeatedly….trapped in place by the mountains.

Day 3: Switchback Camp to Astoria Creek trailhead

On this last morning we started with the morning ‘choreographie’, led by David. Each morning he patiently set up the camera for some video work, and he conducted our grand departure. This morning, we started with a dance, made funny by our lack of balance with backpacks on, all captured on film as we marched out of camp. What started as a grey morning quickly turned sunny and warm and we stopped to take off outer layers in the first few minutes. Today was to be a mostly downhill and flat hike – with the big climbs already behind us. Once descending from Switchback camp we reached the Astoria River Valley – a gorgeous river laden with glacial silt and a brilliant aquamarine color. Everyone was a bit more tired today, and our rest stops were a bit longer as we took our time out to the trailhead. It appeared that the bears were hanging out in the valleys as we hiked past more bear tracks on the trail and berry-filled bear scat, but again, no first person sightings.

True to my words at the beginning of the trip, the last hour of flat trail felt the longest, but it just made reaching the cars, dropping backpacks for the last time and putting on our flip flops feel that much sweeter.

Thanks all for a great trip!

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