If you have the chance to visit the Tonquin Valley, seize it! It really does live up to its reputation as the jewel of Jasper and provides some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife in the Rockies. Our three nights with Tonquin Adventures was perfect, the highlight of our trip to western Canada and the realisation of a dream we’ve harboured for years.
The setting - the Tonquin Valley lies South of Jasper township, close to Mt Edith Cavell and consists of a 5 km-long pass, set at an altitude of some 2,000 m, that cuts southwest through the mountains and provides access to an extensive backcountry wilderness crisscrossed by 70 km of trails. It is also home to the highly endangered woodland caribou. At its heart lies Amethyst Lake bordered to the West by the 1,000 metre high wall of the Ramparts. It is only accessible on foot or horseback and there are three ways in and out, though one trail is hardly used today and all are some 20 km long, making a trip there more of a multi-day destination than a day hike. Accommodation consists of a number of backcountry campsites and two rustic lodges: Tonquin Valley Adventures run by Gilbert and Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge run by Kable - confusingly, the names of both lodges have also changed recently.
Getting there - Guests staying at the lodge can either hike or ride in (for an extra fee - baggage can be carried in by horse too). Tonquin Adventures will even provide hiking guides though the paths are easy to follow. We hiked in following the Astoria Valley (trailhead near the base of Mt Edith Cavell) which is the shorter (but still 18.6 km) and safer option in bad weather. It was scenic and un-strenuous, barring the 13 switchbacks up the side of Old Horn mountain shortly after the half way point. We hiked out via the Maccarib Pass which is longer (23 km), muddier, but more spectacular and a must if the weather is good and you can arrange for pickup at the trailhead (which Gilbert very kindly organised for us).
Accommodation - the lodge consists of a dozen or so cabins and three outhouses linked by a network of boardwalks, as well as a corral and shelter for the horses and the large Brewster/Ramparts cabin dating back to 1939 (making it one of the oldest lodges in Jasper) which is the perfect place to unwind in the evenings beside the fireplace in one of the comfy sofas. The lodge’s location on a hill half way along Amethyst Lake comes with sweeping views up and down the valley. Having visited Kable’s lodge, I found Tonquin Adventure’s both more scenic, better located and un-trampled by horses hooves. Our cabin, Clitheroe, came with mosquito netting, two log bunk beds, a gas lamp, gas heating, a table, two chairs, an electric torch and a bedpan for those caught short at nights. This is rustic (don’t expect the beds to be turned down) but cozy lodging with a touch of luxury thrown in. We certainly weren’t expecting a hot shower (in a separate outhouse but with piping hot water) nor the lavish meals which were provided. Breakfasts and dinners, cooked to perfection by Karen and served in the large dining chalet, consisted of freshly baked dishes and fresh (not canned!) fruit and salads. Portions were huge and everything was exceedingly well cooked and tasty. Karen also prepared (again perfectly) the rainbow we caught on Amethyst. Wine and other alcoholic beverages are not provided with meals, but we knew that and had brought our own! After breakfast, a selection of breads, cold cuts, cheeses, vegetables, fruit, trail mix and cakes are laid out for guests to make their pack lunches.
Activities - Apart from the stunning scenery, the valley offers the opportunity to hike (there are 70 km of trails - we hiked to the scenic Moat Lake and Eremite Valleys); rock climb (the Ramparts and Majestic Mountain are great favourites); fish on Amethyst and Moat Lakes (the rainbows on Amethyst Lake are large, plentiful and easy to catch); boat (aluminium skiffs are provided by the lodge and are free to use by guests); horse ride (for an extra fee); swim (for the adventurous as the water averages 10°C); ski and snowshoe (in the winter); as well as enjoy the flora (the meadows were awash with flowers in August) and wildlife (we saw loons, bald and golden eagles, owls, various ducks, hoary marmots, marten, Clark’s nutcrackers and the caribou the valley is famous for, but not unfortunately the wolves or the mother grizzly and two cubs frequenting the area).
Verdict - Our best wilderness (with rustic luxury) experience to date. The wildlife encounters and vistas of the Tonquin Valley were stunning enough on their own, but combined with the little extras provided by members of staff, they became truly memorable. Karen wasn’t just a good cook, she was a knowledgeable expert on the region, bustling Bea always greeted us with a smile and Gilbert’s energy, generosity, enthusiasm and love of the region was infectious. The only downside were the bugs, though they also helped ensure we had the backcountry lodge and valley to ourselves.