Jasper National Park’s Tonquin Valley Trail is known as one of the most scenic backcountry paths in the Canadian Rockies. The trail also has a reputation for being a muddy mess full of mosquitos. While the rain kept the latter at bay during the majority of our traverse, we had plenty of mud and muck to deal with. Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail is a beautiful adventure. On our trip, we took on the extra challenge of crossing the Eremite Valley to Chrome Lake. This route adds more adventure and serene beauty to an already amazing trail.
This post is all about our experience of backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail in Alberta, Canada’s Jasper National Park. We have also written an entire Tonquin Valley Trail Guide for those seeking to take on this amazing backcountry adventure for themselves.
Stats for Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail via Chrome Lake
- Route: Astoria River to Portal Creek
- Location: Jasper National Park
- Rating: Difficult
- Distance: 27.5 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,796’
- Highest Elevation: 7,273’ (Maccarib Pass)
- Time: 4 days, 3 nights
- Backpacking Season: Late August
- Camping Permits: Required
Day 1 – Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail via Chrome Lake
Our journey through the Tonquin Valley started early at the Wapiti Campground in Jasper National Park. Located an 8-mile drive from the Portal Creek Trailhead, this campground is a great spot to camp to get an early start. Upon reaching the Portal Creek Trailhead we parked our vehicle and gathered our gear. The two trailheads for the Tonquin Valley are separated by more than 13 miles of roads. We set about trying to hitchhike from one trailhead to the other. The real challenge to hitchhiking is that the traverse requires traveling along three different roads. Marmot Road, where the Portal Creek Trailhead is located. is lightly traveled during the summer.
Kindness of Strangers
After 30 minutes passed with one vehicle going the opposite way, we were contemplating hiking 4.5 miles down the asphalt to highway 93A. We had 11 miles of trail hiking to do so adding 4.5 miles of asphalt was less than appealing. Thankfully, a fellow hiker arrived in the parking lot and we asked him for a lift to the 93A. He was planning to do the Tonquin Valley as an out-n-back but quickly agreed to give us the 4.5-mile lift. We offered to pay him, but he politely declined the offer.
Once we arrived at the highway, we again threw out a thumb. Within a few minutes, we were picked up by a very nice French couple. Jennifer speaks some French so this made her day. We were headed to the Astoria River Trailhead (the southern trailhead for the Tonquin Valley), located off the adjacent Edith Cavell Road. Luckily, they were headed to Edith Cavell to hike to the Path of the Glacier Trail. The Astoria River Trailhead is located 1.5 miles prior to arriving at the Mount Cavell parking lot and Jennifer was able to effectively communicate the drop-off to them.
A Crucial Mistake
Having successfully arrived at the Astoria River Trailhead we said “merci” to the friendly French couple, grabbed our bags, and set off down the path. It had taken us almost 3 hours to get from our Wapiti Campsite to the trailhead. But we had finally made it. We no more set out on the trail when we realized that we left the majority of our fresh food in our refrigerator back in the camper. Hitchhiking the other direction would be nearly impossible given that most people traveling up the Cavell Road wouldn’t be heading back the other way for a few hours. So instead we cobbled together a plan to continue on with what we had. Missing a day and half of food is not a great way to start a four-day journey into the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies.
The Tonquin Valley Trail initially descends quickly down to the northern shore of Cavell Lake. This is an amazing spot with reflective views of Mount Edith Cavell that should not be missed. We actually hiked the Mount Edith Cavell Meadows two weeks earlier and indeed missed this amazing spot. So even if you aren’t headed out on the Tonquin Valley Trail you should make the effort to visit this lakeshore.
Lowest Point on the Tonquin Valley Trail
Leaving Cavell Lake behind, the path climbs briefly before starting a long descent through the forest, ending at a bridge that crosses over the Astoria River. At 3.25-miles from the trailhead, an elevation of 5,456’, this bridge is the lowest elevation on the entire Tonquin Valley Trail.
Once across Astoria River, the path immediately starts a moderate climb that will journey up the northern side of the valley paralleling the creek’s flow. Approaching 4.5 miles in, the trail once again descends to the edge of the Astoria River and crosses over a small tributary. This is where the first backcountry campground, the four-site Astoria Campground, is located. The 4.5-mile journey to this spot is easily traversed and most backpackers would find it too close to the trailhead.
Eremite Valley Junction
The next mile of the trail is a modest ascent as the path continues to parallel Astoria River. Approaching 5.5 miles, the path arrives at an intersection with a unique-looking footbridge crossing over Astoria River. The path that continues straight ahead is the continuation of the Astoria River Trail and the main path to the Tonquin Valley. The bridge is the start of the #106 trail that leads into the Eremite Valley. Crossing over the bridge we continue on the much narrower and far less traveled trail towards Chrome Lake and the Eremite Valley.
Eremite Valley Trail
While the main Tonquin Valley Trail is wide and well-maintained with few tripping hazards, the Eremite Valley trail leading to Chrome Lake is nearly the exact opposite. It was as if by crossing over the river we had found our way into a different land. The path was narrow and initially very hard to follow with tons of roots and boulders as tripping hazards. The path’s first three-quarters of a mile is through a bog. While the trail isn’t muddy due to the fact that this is a footpath-only trail (no horses) our shoes were soaked within seconds.
Between mile 6 and 8, the path only climbs 100’ through a very dense forest. It’s covered with more mushrooms than I have ever seen. In fact, the only other people we passed for the entire day were collecting mushrooms. An activity that I’m fairly certain is illegal in Canadian National Parks as well as US National Parks.
Boulders and Ponds
About 8-miles in on the trail the path enters a small basin strewn with large boulders. The boulders are surrounded by trees and small pools of water. The water consists of rich green and blue hues with gorgeous reflections of the surrounding mountain landscape.
Climb into the Eremit Valley
After navigating through the boulder field the trail crosses over a shallow stream and begins to climb around the shoulder of a hillside. Over the next three-quarters of a mile, the path climbs nearly 300’. This is still a very moderate incline in the Canadian Rocky Mountains but one of the steepest on this half of the journey. On the other side of the climb, we arrive at the eastern edge of Chrome Lake (6,009’) and the gorgeous Eremite Valley.
At 9.5-miles the path crosses over the run-off of Chrom Lake via a nicely built bridge. The trail then awkwardly leads up a 25’ climb before immediately returning to the lakeshore a short distance to the west of the bridge. Here on the lakeshore we stopped for a small lunch mostly consisting of trail bars since we had left today’s food in the fridge. We also spent some time with the local Canadian Geese who seemed to be enjoying the last vestiges of summer before heading south.
After lunch, we left Chrome Lake and started to ascend higher into the Eremite Valley to the junction for Outpost Lake. A left turn here leads deeper into the Eremite Valley. Outpost Lake is located about 5/8ths of a mile away. It is also home to the Wates-Gibson Hut, a part of the Alpine Club of Canada’s system of backcountry huts. As we intended to explore the Outpost Lake area the following day we took a right towards Surprise Point. This was a regrettable mistake as the weather conditions didn’t allow us to make the return hike.
The journey from Chrome Lake to Surprise Point is almost entirely uphill. We gained about 450 feet in a mile, making it the longest and steepest climb on this half of the Tonquin Valley Trail. At just over 11-miles on the day we strolled into the Surprise Point camping area. We were the first to arrive in the four-site campground so we took a moment to scope out each site. We deemed site #3 to be the best but all the sites are pretty good.
Amethyst Lake and the Rampart Range
Before setting up the tent we made our way to the overlook for Amethyst Lake just beyond the campground. The lake is massive. I knew it was a big alpine lake but it stretches out at the base of the Rampart peaks like a long moat. The landscape is truly stunning and the Surprise Point Campground is one of the best angles to take it all in.
Surprise Point Campground
Beyond the views at Surprise Point, the campground has nice camp pads, bear boxes, two picnic tables, and Jasper’s notorious barrel toilets. Other than the stagnate water of two adjacent ponds, the nearest water source is over a quarter of a mile away. That makes for a half-mile journey to collect water from the Amethyst Lake runoff. Getting there requires crossing through very boggy terrain. My shoes were already wet from the climb up but by the time I came back from collecting water they were soaked. The positive side of the journey to the river is that it makes for an amazing spot to watch the sunset and Jennifer and I returned after dinner to enjoy it.
Day 2 – When it Rains it Pours – Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail
We had intended to spend the majority of our second day exploring the Eremite Valley. Then head over to the Amethyst Campground to enjoy a night in what we had heard was the best campground in Jasper. While Amethyst is indeed nice, we prefer Surprise Point and would even recommend staying here two nights if you are looking to explore the Eremite. Unfortunately for us, the day was a wash… literally. It poured all day, along with thick cloud cover. As a result, we did not venture back into the Eremite but rather hid out in our tent for the better part of the day.
It was only in the late afternoon that we emerged to have a meal (breakfast/lunch) and pack up our site to head on toward the Amethyst Campground. Getting the tent packed up during the downpour was difficult enough but making the 3-mile journey was one of the worst experiences we’ve had in the backcountry.
Slogging through the Rain
We started out by slogging our way across the soaked terrain and to the bridge crossing over the creek coming off of Amethyst Lake. Once across the bridge, the real slog began. The terrain is seemingly sponge-like and crosses over many smaller runoffs that after a day of rain were bursting at their small trenches. None of these trenches had a bridge and we found ourselves jumping from one side and sinking down into the mud on the other.
The Amethyst Lake Lodge Cutoff
It seemed like an eternity of slowly making our way across this soaked terrain. In reality, it was less than a mile. The trail then emerged from the swamp long enough to come to a junction with the cutoff trail that leads to the Tonquin Valley Adventure Lodge on Amethyst Lake. We could have proceeded to the main Tonquin Valley Trail which may have been drier although longer. Instead, we chose to take the cutoff trail that skirts closer to the lakeshore. There is no way of knowing for sure but given the state of the Tonquin Valley Trail that we would encounter later, I believe that the trail quality was most likely equally as bad. We headed left on the narrow cutoff trail and quickly descended 30’ back into the sponge-like terrain.
The Cutoff Trail
The remainder of the journey is flat. The path never fluctuates more than 10’ over the course of the next mile. While the cutoff trail still consists of the sponge-like terrain, the creek crossings were done via stones. For the most part, this three-quarter-of-a-mile section of the traverse was better than the first part of the journey on the #106 today.
Tonquin Valley Adventure Lodge
Approaching 2 miles on the day we found ourselves walking onto the boardwalk of the Tonquin Valley Adventure Lodge. The huts looked very nice and cozy with smoke billowing from their chimneys into the rain-filled air. We meandered about the village looking for the right path to take us on to the campground. All the while gawking longingly at the warm respites sheltered from the storm.
The Amethyst Campground
After passing through the village, we finally stepped back onto the main Tonquin Valley Trail where we found a muddy mess. The next mile was spent learning how to walk on a trail submerged in mud and horse excrement while the rain still poured down on us. We were excited when we finally came to the sign indicating the Amethyst Campground to our right. Jennifer and I were the third group to arrive and with a bit of luck, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. We immediately took the opportunity to set up our tent on site number 4 and set about making an early dinner.
The Amethyst Campground is very nice with 8 campsites, bear boxes, three large picnic tables, and of course the questionable Jasper barrel toilets. The water source is the lake itself which requires venturing across the sponge-like terrain descending to the massive lake’s shore. When the clouds finally began to break up we found the views to be beautiful. It is a close second in beauty to the Surprise Point campground.
A Wilderness Challenge
For tonight’s wilderness challenge, we found that we had somehow broken our plastic spork in half and had to figure out a way to eat a freeze-dried meal without a handle. I had used our emergency supply of duct tape earlier in the summer to repair my backpack’s shoulder strap after a porcupine ate it and had forgotten to replace it. As a result, we had bandaids (unused) to fashion a stick to the spoon which worked for one meal. The ultimate solution was to lash the spoon to our brand new (never used) trowel. This worked well but even though the device had never been used as intended Jennifer was a bit squeamish. As soon as we got back to civilization we put a new piece of duct tape in our pack and splurged on a titanium spork.
Day 3 – Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail & Moat Lake
On the third day of our adventure through the Tonquin Valley, we awoke to a slight rain but the skies were clearing. The early morning fog lifted above the lake, dissipating as it reached for the jagged peaks of the Rampart Range. It was truly stunning with only the occasional sprinkle rolling through in the clouds of fog.
Slogging through the Mud
After breakfast, we packed up our site and set out on the muddy path towards the Maccarib Campground. The two campgrounds only lie 2-miles apart and with only 115’ of elevation gain. On paper, this is an easy stroll in the park but in reality, the massive amount of mud on the trail makes it difficult. This was one of the muddiest sections on the entire Tonquin Valley Trail and easily the muddiest hike we’ve ever been on. We constantly had to watch our footing, trying to find the way through that had the least chance of slipping and ending up face down in the muck.
Trail #108 Junction
At about 1.25 miles we passed by the junction heading towards the Tonquin Backcountry Lodge and on to Moat Lake via Trail #108. More on this trail in a moment. We pushed ahead past the junction and began the short 115’ climb which was actually a reprieve from the ankle-deep mud.
Maccarib Creek Intersection
After topping the hill the trail descends slightly back down to the Maccarib Creek. This is a beautiful area where the Tonquin Vally Trail hangs a sharp right and follows the creek flow up to the pass. The campground is found straight ahead crossing over the creek via a well-built bridge. On the other side, the path briefly climbs up to the 8-site Maccarib Campground.
The Maccarib Campground is a typical Jasper backcountry campsite with slightly rounded tent pads, bear boxes, barrel toilets, and two picnic tables. The views are decent with the jagged peaks rising out of the trees that surround the campground. It is a short walk back down to the bridge to collect water from the fast-flowing creek.
Moat Lake Trail (#108)
After a quick lunch, Jennifer and I surveyed the sky and decided that the weather looked good enough to try for Moat Lake. The journey was supposedly an easy 5-mile roundtrip from the campground. We found that this wasn’t the case. The distance is closer to 6 miles from the Maccrib Campground and the path is difficult to follow and very wet.
We set off back down the trail and returned to the junction leading towards Moat Lake. We choose to leave behind our cumbersome backpacks and travel with our small day pack. Almost immediately we missed a turn. There are two trails that branch off after the junction. There is no sign but the footpath is marked with ribbons tied to branches protruding from the swamp-like terrain and it stays closer to Amethyst Lake than the horse trail we followed.
The Tonquin Backcountry Lodge Horse Trail
The horse trail well-established and is much easier to follow than the footpath. Although, it is less of a path and more of a trough. Mud and horse manure mix inside the trough of deep water, making it hard for those on foot to make their way ahead. It is possible to do as rocks protrude from the muck. But it is tiring. We found out later that it was easier to take the footpath.
Horse with Bells On
About 2 miles from the campground the path comes to a sign indicating that the path to Moat Lake is to the right. It was also here that we came across our first signs pointing towards the Tonquin Backcountry Lodge. Two horses were foraging in the woods with their bells jingling. The bells are to help locate them but also to ward off bears.
We took the right towards Moat Lake and ventured a short distance to another juncture. This time there was no sign. I took an educated guess that the sharp right would lead towards the lake, figuring the left was a route back to the lodge. I was wrong. The path quickly disappeared as it traversed a small meadow. Ultimately, we stumbled upon the correct path but not before wandering around in the woods and crawling over a nearby boulder field for about 30 minutes. We were ready to abandon our search for the lake and head back to camp when we spotted a ribbon.
Following the Ribbons
It was here that we realized that the footpath to Moat Lake was marked with ribbons. In fact, the ribbons indicated the path all the way back to the Tonquin Valley Trail. For now, we pushed on and descended 150’ over the next half mile into a large meadow where we crossed over Moat Creek. The path then climbs through an area full of short brush before skirting to the north of the lake’s drainage and finally looping around to the corner edge of Moat Lake.
Moat Lake is a long narrow lake. Like Amethyst Lake, it is found at the base of the jagged Rampart Mountain Range. The Rampart Range follows the edge of Amethyst Lake in a mostly north to south direction before turning almost ninety degrees and moving in a westerly direction. It is an abrupt directional change so that the majority of the peaks seen at Moat Lake can not be seen from the center of Amethyst Lake. The peak of the range also makes up the Continental Divide. The continental watershed crosses over the low pass just to the west of Moat Lake known as Tonquin Pass. It would be easy enough to continue on the path across the pass and into British Columbia. But for us, the weather was once again rearing its ugly head and we turned back towards camp.
A Shorter Return
It had taken us nearly 3.75 miles of hiking to reach the lakeshore from the Maccarib Campground. Following the ribbons back was only a 3-mile journey. Though it isn’t without its own challenges. We quickly retraced our steps to where we had picked up the trail after getting lost and continued on to the Tonquin Backcountry Lodge. Just before arriving at the lodge we heard the bells of the horses jingling in the distance. We found a wide muddy corral area that we crossed over before arriving at the lodge. As the rain had stopped, we took the opportunity to explore the lakeshore near the lodge before continuing on the ribbon-laden path.
The Foot Path
Leaving the lodge area the path crosses through a grass-filled swamp. The ground was saturated but the park service or the lodge has cut round log steps that make it easy to traverse. At least up to a point. After a quarter of a mile of these rounded oases, they abruptly stop. While the rest of the journey is still marked with ribbons we found ourselves slogging across the swamp grass sinking ankle-deep with each step. Regardless, the path is beautiful as it follows the shore of Amethyst lake more closely than the horse path did.
Back at the junction, our boots were soaked through. As the skies opened up in a torrential downpour it made little difference. We returned to camp soaking wet from head to toe with it still pouring rain. We decided that we couldn’t get any wetter so we sat down on the water-logged picnic table and made dinner. By the time we crawled into the tent we were both shivering from the cold, damp condition. Once we were in dry clothes and snuggled into our sleeping bags we quickly warmed up. It hadn’t been the easy flat hiking day that I had anticipated but it was an adventure.
Day 4 – Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail to Portal Creek Trailhead
We awoke early on our fourth day in the wilderness of Jasper National Park to clear skies. The deluge from the night before had passed over and things were drying out quickly. We took off the rain fly to our tent, hanging it up on some nearby bushes to dry out. Then off to the cooking area for breakfast.
Back on the Tonquin Valley Trail
At breakfast, we consumed the last of our oatmeal and coffee. Because we had forgotten our fridge food on day one, we only had two granola bars and a Clif bar to make the 11.5-mile journey out. This wasn’t an ideal situation. Once our bags were packed, we threw them on, and hiked back across the bridge taking a left towards Maccarib Pass. While there were still clouds overhead, the sky was mostly blue and our four-day-old forecast had little chance of rain. Regardless, we were eager to get over the pass quickly before any inclement weather had a chance to materialize.
Climbing Maccarib Pass
The 4-mile journey to Maccarib Pass went quickly. While the trail was slightly muddy from the previous days of rain, the path was sloped enough as it climbed the 500 feet to the pass that the mud was only deep in a few areas. This was a welcomed reprieve to the flat muddy hiking along Amethyst Lake. As we gained elevation the Rampart Range receded into the distance. The path to the pass is a moderate climb with a second picturesque bridge crossing over Maccarib Creek.
Bear Run on Maccarib Pass
As we reached the rounded 7,273’ high Maccarib Pass we were greeted to the area by a healthy-looking black bear in a full sprint. He was running through the alpine terrain about 40 yards to the north of the path. We stood staring in awe at the majestic creature, and with our bear spray in hand should he return our curiosity. He didn’t show us even the slightest interest as he passed by (30 yards away), crossed over the alpine terrain, and disappeared into the bush several hundred yards away. The experience was a brief one that will live with us forever.
Starting the Long Descent
Once over Maccarib Pass, the Portal Creek Valley stretches out towards the north between the massive mountain peaks. It is a beautiful scene. The path ahead takes a wide ninety-degree turn as it descends towards the creek. Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail through this section feels more alpine than the rest. While not as stunning as the Rampart Range, it is very beautiful.
After 2 miles of scenic descent, the trail passes by the last of the backcountry campgrounds known as Portal. The campground is perched to the left of the trail at 6,490′. The area is beautiful and has easy access to the fast-flowing Portal Creek. Located only 5.75 miles from the Portal Creek Trailhead, this would be a good campsite for those getting a late start while backpacking the Tonquin Valley as an out-n-back from this side.
About a half-mile beyond the campground the Tonquin Valley Trail enters a brief but very steep 120 foot climb up the side of Peveril Peak. This section of the trail is very rocky as it makes its way around the mountainside on a rocky shelf. Lectern Peak rises sharply across the valley. The pinch point between these two mountain peaks creates what is known as The Portal and where the creek undoubtedly derives its name.
Just over 7.5 miles on the day, we began an unrelenting descent back towards the Portal Creek Trailhead. We first returned to the valley floor where we crossed over a wide bridge spanning an adjacent tributary. We stopped here briefly and finished off the very last of our food, splitting the remaining clif bar. Beyond the bridge, the trail quickly reaches the edge of Portal Creek and then follows it steeply through a gorge as it flows over the rocks and through trees.
Return to Portal Creek Trailhead
After dropping 1,600 feet in the last 4 miles of backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail the path flattens out and crosses over the Portal Creek. It was then a short stroll through the woods before we emerged at the Portal Creek Trailhead. With aching knees, hungry bellies, and shoes caked in dry crusted globs of mud/horse muck we limped to our vehicle with more than 34 miles of rugged memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail to Portal Creek Trailhead
We took on the backcountry of Jasper National Park in the pouring rain and found amazing beauty. Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail lived up to its muddy reputation and delivered scenic wonders and amazing encounters with its wildlife. There would be time to sit and cherish the memories later, but for now, we were starving. We headed for our favorite Mediterranean restaurant, The Raven, in the town of Jasper to get refueled for our next adventure.