I can best sum up the 27.5-mile adventure of hiking the Tonquin Valley Trail in two words—muddy and gorgeous. The views found on this trail are some of the most amazing in Alberta, Canada’s Jasper National Park. The highly glaciated, jagged peaks of the Rampart Mountain Range drain into the massive Amethyst Lake. The downside of this considerable amount of water is that the entire Tonquin Valley is a massive bog and breeding ground for insects. Add to these muddy conditions a substantial amount of horse manure and you are left with a path that is disgustingly slogged through rather than hiked on. The majority of this path would be best traversed in a pair of duck boots rather than hiking shoes. Even so, the beauty of the area makes it a journey that must be taken when seeking the best backcountry adventures in the Canadian Rockies.
Trailhead: Astoria River (Cavell Road) or Portal Creek (Marmot Road)
Location: Jasper National Park
Distance: 27.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,796’ (Astoria to Portal)
Highest Elevation: 7,273’ (Maccarib Pass)
Astoria River Trailhead Elevation: 5,684’ (Recommended Start)
Portal Creek Trailhead Elevation: 4,890’ (Recommended Finish)
RecommendedTime: 3 days, 2 nights
Backpacking Season: Early-July thru Mid-September (See details below)
Camping Permits: Required and the reservations fill up fast in January.
The Titcomb Basin Trail overall has a lower elevation than many of the other backpacking trails in the Canadian Rockies. This allows for a longer hiking season. This trail can be mostly snow-free as early as mid-June and remain so until early October. However, we would recommend planning your journey no earlier than July 1st and no later than mid-September.
This trail also makes for a great cross-country ski adventure if you are equipped for winter camping. The backcountry lodges also operate during the winter providing warmth to adventurous souls. The ski season typically runs from mid-February thru late March.
The Tonquin Valley Trail is fairly tame by Canadian Rockies standards. Although this is a mountain trail there is very little exposure to steep dropoffs. This is both grizzly and black bear country so make sure you travel with bear spray and keep a clean campsite utilizing the provided bear lockers for all scented items. The most present danger on this trail is the mosquitos. There is a lot of stagnant water found in the valley and therefore this is the bloodsuckers’ domain. Make sure you wear long-sleeve clothing and apply bug spray. We also suggest wearing a bug net and a wide-brim hat to keep them away from your face and neck.
The Tonquin Valley is a hard trail to hike but unlike most trails found in the Canadian Rockies, this has very little to do with elevation. With only 2,796’ of elevation gain over the course of 27.5 miles, the terrain is very moderate and even flat for long stretches. However, this flatness adds to the challenge. Where steeper trails actually drain, this path maintains a muddy disposition that makes it a challenge to traverse throughout the summer season. When all that mud piles up on and in your boots it will give your legs a workout.
Perhaps even more challenging than hiking the trail is getting from one trailhead to the other. Some people call the Tonquin Valley Trail a loop but in reality, it is a thru-hike meaning that where it ends is a substantial distance away from where it begins. The two trailheads, Astoria River and Portal Creek are located over 13-miles apart. The trail can obviously be hiked in either direction but most people will choose to start at the higher elevation (Astoria River) so that the majority of the distance is downhill. We also believe that the views are best experienced hiking in from Astoria to Portal so it is the route we recommend.
Shuttle or Hitchhike
There is currently no public transit option for shuttling the more than 13 road miles from one trailhead to the other. If you are hiking in a group the best option is to shuttle with two vehicles. The other option is to hitchhike. We chose to hitchhike, however, it is one of the most difficult hitchhikes we’ve ever done. While Cavell Road, which runs past the Astoria Trailhead, is well-traveled in the summer months the Marmot Road which runs by the Portal Creek Trailhead is not. To make it even more challenging both roads are adjacent roads to the more well-traveled 93A and do not connect directly with one another.
Many people will park at the Portal Creek Trailhead and then walk 4.5-miles back down the asphalt to the intersection with 93A to hitch a ride. This is in fact what the park ranger told us to do when we inquired at the visitor center. We, however, choose to stand at the side of Marmot Road and thumb it for half an hour. Not a single car passed by. Then a fellow hiker came rolling into the lot. We decided to offer him $20 to take us back down the road and drop us at the intersection. He agreed to take us but refused the payment. Canadians on a whole are incredibly nice people. In comparison, catching a ride on the 93A up Cavell Road was a very easy endeavor. We were on our way up the curvy road within minutes of sticking out a thumb.
If shuttling two vehicles isn’t an option for you and hitchhiking sounds too challenging, you can always hike the Titcomb Basin Trail as an out-n-back. While more challenging the path from Portal Creek Trailhead over Maccarib Pass is the more beautiful route. We recommend taking this route and proceeding to Surprise Point before turning back. See our recommended itinerary below for details.
Parking can also be a challenge when hiking the Titcomb Basin Trail. Both the Astoria and Portal Creek parking lots are small. The Astoria parking area is a long pullout found alongside Cavell Road. Portal Creek is nicer as it is a dedicated lot. Regardless of where you choose to park, it is crucial to get an early start to have the best chance of easily finding a spot.
The Tonquin Valley Trail (#105 on the Jasper Trail Map) is a well-established, wide path that is easy to follow. Starting at the Astoria River Trailhead the path drops down to Cavell Lake and then crosses through the forest alongside the river climbing moderately into the backcountry. Approaching 5.25-miles the path comes to a junction where the main trail continues straight and the #106 through the Eremite Valley leads across the creek to the left. Both trails climb moderately steep up to Amethyst Lake over the next 5 miles.
Eremite Valley Trail (#106)
The Eremite Valley route is a narrow trail that is harder to follow and more challenging to hike. It is also more beautiful as it passes by the gorgeous Chrome Lake and has an option to hike to the Outpost Lake as well. It’s a lot less traveled which offers seclusion not found on the main Tonquin Valley Trail. We prefer this route and it is the direction our stats reflect. It does add some extra mileage to the total traverse but it is negligible should you choose to hike to Surprise Point which we highly recommend.
Suprise Point to the #105
Once at Suprise Point take the trail through the campground to one of the best viewpoints overlooking Amethyst Lake before descending on the #106 to the outflow of the lake. Here a beautiful bridge crosses over the creek and then the path climbs an adjacent hill where it rejoins the main Tonquin Valley Trail (#105). However, there is a small social trail just beyond the bridge that leads to the Tonquin Valley Adventures Lodge and then on to the #105. This trail is a shortcut and it is located close to the lakeshore providing better views of Amethyst Lake.
The path leading along the lakeshore stretches out for about 3.5 miles and is typically about 50 feet above the water. This is the floor of the Tonquin Valley and it is where the majority of the mud is found.
Moat Lake Trail
At 15.25 miles on the trail, the path comes to the #108 intersection leading to the Tonquin Backcountry Lodge and the Moat Lake beyond. The trail continues past the lake and over Tonquin Pass. The path to the Backcountry Lodge is relatively easy to follow although not as wide as the main Tonquin Valley Trail. However, discerning the correct path towards Moat Lake can be a bit more challenging.
Climb to Maccarib Pass
Beyond the #108 intersection, the trail begins the long moderate climb to Maccarib Pass. The 4.5-mile climb up to the pass is well established. The 700′ climb is actually a relief as the gentle slope creates some drainage and reprieve from the mud.
Descent from Maccarib Pass
Once the path tops Maccarib Pass it is a much steeper 2,400′ descent over 7.5 miles into and through the Portal Creek Canyon. The hike is beautiful but rough on the knees. At 27.5 miles the trail comes to an end at the Portal Creek Trailhead.
The Eremite Valley Trail (#106) is a side trail that cuts off a portion of the Tonquin Valley Trail but adds in the beautiful Chrome Lake and is a more direct route to Suprise Point. We prefer this route to the main trail and it is already a part of the trail statistics. There are two other options for side hikes that we recommend as well but would add more mileage to a trek through the Tonquin Valley.
Outpost Lake is found via a 1.25-mile return (total round trip) trip from the Eremite Valley Trail (#106). It climbs up to the remote lake at the base of the Outpost Mountain in the Eremite Valley. It is beautiful and there is even an Alpine Club of Canada Hut for those who prefer a roof to a tent.
Moat Lake (#108)
The trail to Moat Lake (#108) is a 4.5-mile return (2.25-miles each way) from the main Tonquin Valley Trail (#105). The trail skirts the northern shore of Amethyst Lake and passes by the remote Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge before descending into a meadow on the north side of the Rampart Range. Here Moat Lake stretches out to the west towards Tonquin Pass and into British Columbia. The trail can be difficult to follow with areas where cut logs are used as stepping stones. There are small snips of ribbon tied off to the tree limbs and bushes to indicate the hiking path.
Camping in Jasper National Park’s backcountry is by permit only. The Tonquin Valley is a very popular destination and the campsites are snatched up quickly each January. The entire summer is booked out within a few weeks and the choicest weekends within a few hours. It is crucial to be prepared to book as soon as they become available. Here is a post with all the appropriate dates for when the Canadian Rockies campsites become available.
Backcountry camping permits are issued for specific backcountry camping areas and are only good for that campground. Each campground on the Tonquin Valley Trail has established camp pads which are indicated with numbered posts. While the individual sites are numbered they are not assigned and backpackers are free to choose a site upon arrival to the designated campground. In addition, each campground has a cooking area, bear boxes, barrel toilets, and access to water relatively close by.
Found only 4.5-miles into the trek from the Astoria River Trailhead this 4 pad campground is positioned for those getting a very late start on the hike.
Located a little over 8.5 miles along the main Tonquin Valley Trail, this 8-pad campground would make a decent choice for those looking to stay on the main path instead of hiking the more interesting Emerite Valley Trail.
This 8-pad campground is found 10.75 miles into the hike while sticking to the main trail. It makes an excellent base camp for exploring the Emerite Valley and watching the sunset over Amethyst lake, although we think the Surprise Point Campground is better for both.
Surprise Point Campground
This small 4-pad campground provides stunning views of Amethyst Lake including the best site for watching the sunset. It also makes the best base camp for fully exploring the Emerite Valley. The 11.25-mile hike up using the Emerite Valley Trail will be a challenge for the first day but it is worth the effort. The only issue with this site is its water source is located a quarter of a mile away.
This 8-pad campground is found perched above the eastern shore of Amethyst Lake. It is the most popular campground in the Tonquin Valley making it a hard permit to acquire. While it is a beautiful campground we think the seclusion and beauty of Surprise Point make for a superior backcountry experience.
Located 11.75-miles from the Portal Creek Trailhead this 8-pad campsite makes for the best spot to stay on your last night in the Tonquin Valley. While the Rampart Range still reigns over the area, Amethyst Lake is hidden from view.
Located a mere 5.75-miles from Portal Trailhead this 4-pad campground is best utilized by those who intend to explore the Tonquin Valley from the Portal Creek side of the park. While the 11.75-mile traverse to Maccarib Campground is a long one we would still recommend shooting for that site over this one unless you intend to get a late start on your climb in.
In addition to traditional backcountry campsites, the Tonquin Valley has several lodges and huts available. The Tonquin Valley Adventures, which runs the Amethyst Lake Lodge, even boosts having hot showers. A real luxury after slogging through mud all day.
Tonquin Valley Adventures Amethyst Lake Lodge – This lodge perched on the eastern shore of Amethyst Lake would make a great home base to those hiking through the Tonquin Valley. It would be expecially useful for those wishing to travel light and hike through in two days.
Tonquin Backcountry Lodge – Found on the north side of the Amethyst Lake this backcountry lodge is a bit more off the beaten path than the Valley Adventure Lodge but with no less stunning views of the gorgeous lake and Rampart Range.
Wates-Gibson Hut – Located on Outpost Lake in the Eremite Valley. This would make for a great alternative to Surprise Point Campground. The hut is run by the Alpine Club of Canada but it doesn’t appear that you need to be a member to rent the hut.
Backpacking Gear & Logistics
Many of the Tonquin Valley Campsites are found at about 6,500′ above sea level in the cold Canadian Rockies. Despite the long warm summers days, this area can drop below freezing at night. It is best to travel with layers of clothing, rain gear, a good tent, and a great sleeping bag and pad. If you are new to backpacking in mountain conditions check out our gear list and our more detailed posts about each piece of gear.
Campfires are not allowed on the Tonquin Valley Trail so you will need to bring a camp stove. The park does provide dedicated cooking areas in each campground located away from the camp pads. They typically have picnic tables which is a nice alternative to sitting on a rock at the end of a long day’s hike.
Jasper National Park provides bear lockers at each campground for communal use. Make sure to keep your food and any scented items locked away at all times while at camp. Grizzlies and black bears both inhabit this area of the Rocky Mountains. We even spotted a healthy black bear near Maccarib Pass.
All of the campgrounds on the Tonquin Valley Trail are located relatively close to water sources making filtering at camp fairly easy. The trail itself never ventures very far from water either with only a few exceptions.
Each campsite on the Tonquin Valley Trail is equipped with open-air barrel toilets. For those who are unfamiliar, these are raised platforms with toilet seats elevated above a large barrel. Typically there are three barrel toilets located right next to one another. There is little to no privacy making it less than ideal when camping with complete strangers. But most of the loos have amazing views. Bring your own TP.
Thru-Hike 2 days
We don’t really recommend a 2-day hike thru the Tonquin Valley. It just wouldn’t be enough time to really take in this beautiful landscape. However, if 2-days is all you have then get a hut at the Tonquin Valley Adventure Lodge and travel light. This will be more expensive than staying in the Amethyst Campground but the lodge provides almost everything you need allowing you to travel with a lightweight day pack.
Thru-Hike 3 days
1st Day – An 11.25 mile hike from Astoria River Trailhead to Surprise Point Campground via the Eremite Valley Trail (#106).
2nd Day – Make the 4.5-mile, mostly flat hike from Surprise Point to Maccarib Campground. Take on the 4.5-mile journey to Moat Lake if you are up for it.
3rd Day – Finish up your Tonquin Valley adventure by hiking 11.75 miles over Maccarib Pass and on to the Portal Creek Trailhead.
Thru-Hike 4 days
1st Day – Hike 10.75 miles to Clitheroe Campground from the Astoria River Trailhead via the main Tonquin Valley Trail.
2nd Day – Spend the day exploring the Emerite Valley including Surprise Point, Chrome Lake, and Outpost Lake. About 7-miles total roundtrip. Stay in the Clitheroe Campground for a second night.
3rd Day – Hike 4.25 miles to the Maccarib Campground. Take the 4.5-mile side journey to Moat Lake and back to fill the day.
4th Day – Finish up your Tonquin Valley adventure by hiking 11.75 miles over Maccarib Pass and on to the Portal Creek Trailhead.
Out-n-Back 4 days
1st Day – Hike 5.75 miles to the Portal Campground from the Portal Creek Trailhead
2nd Day – Hike 8.5 miles over Maccarib Pass and on to the Amethyst Campground. Add the 4.5-mile journey to Moat Lake if you have the energy.
3rd Day – Spend the day exploring the Emerite Valley including Surprise Point, Chrome Lake, and Outpost Lake. About 11-miles total roundtrip. Stay in the Amethyst Campground for a second night.
4th Day – Hike 14.25 miles back to the Portal Creek Trailhead.
After Backpacking the Tonquin Valley Trail
While Jasper National Park has some first-come, first-served front country campgrounds available you will most likely be hiking out long after they are taken for the night. It is best to reserve a site for after your journey when you are securing your backcountry sites. As you will most likely be ready for a shower we suggest reserving a site at either Whistlers Campground or Wapiti Campground as they are the only campgrounds with showers.
If after a few nights in the backcountry you prefer a room to a campground then check out the gorgeous Pyramid Lake Resort. The resort sits directly on the lakeshore below the stunning Pyramid Mountain. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is a close second with the added benefit of having a golf course.
If lodges and resorts are too rich for your blood, check out the town of Hinton located just to the east of the park. There are lots of hotel options available with more reasonable rates than will be found in Jasper.
The town of Jasper is small in comparison to its more popular neighbor on the southern end of the Icefield Parkway, Banff. It is no less cultured offering tasty cuisines from all over the world. Our favorite is The Raven Bistro which serves up a Mediterranean fare.
Tonquin Valley Trail Guide
With the massive waters of Amethyst Lake lapping at the base of the jagged Rampart Range, the Tonquin Valley is a sight to behold firsthand. To say it is gorgeous is an extreme understatement. It is one of the best landscapes in the Canadian Rockies. With so many camping and lodging options found in this remote landscape, it can be explored by nearly everyone If you can handle slogging through the mud.
Tonquin Valley Trail Guide – Jasper National Park
The beauty found on the Tonquin Valley Trail is stunning and well worth the muck that must be slogged through to arrive at the scenic wonderland. The unrivaled beauty of the Rampart Range rising sharply out of Amethyst Lake is hard to exaggerate. It is a jewel of the Jasper National Park backcountry. If you are looking to explore the best backcountry adventures the Canadian Rockies have to offer the Tonquin Valley Trail must be on your list.