National Geographic describes Tonquin Valley as one of the World’s top 15 hikes. We’re so lucky to have it in our own backyard. The local guidebook “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies” calls it outstanding and says “not only is the valley girded by tumultuous topography, it’s broad, with enough meadowy viewpoints to allow frequent gazing – an ineffable joy on a clear day.” Some places just inspire poetic words.

The journey begins
The journey begins

After arriving in Jasper at the end of our Icefield Cycle Tour, a group of Hostel Outdoor Group members (affectionately known as HOGs) set out on this amazing backpacking trip. The night before starting the hike we stayed at the HI Edith Cavell hostel. You can’t get a better starting place either. The hostel is right at the trailhead and the views of Mount Edith Cavell are amazing. Crowned in snow and ice year round, fur traders and explorers once used this soaring peak as a landmark from more than a hundred miles away.

View for the doorstep of HI Edith Cavell
View for the doorstep of HI Edith Cavell

You can hike into Tonquin Valley and return the same way, but it’s much more fulfilling to continue right through the valley up over Maccarib Pass and back to civilization via Portal Creek. This requires a car shuttle but it’s well worth the extra hour of driving.

Amazingly, we have almost all the same people on this trip as we had on the Banff Highline backpack I organized in July! I feel like I’m developing a cult following 🙂 We’re all keen to weigh in and see if we’ve managed to pack lighter this time. I hook the hanging scale around a tree branch and one by one we hoist our packs up, giddy to see the numbers. Success! Nearly everyone is significantly lighter!

Look how light my pack is... it floats!
Look how light my pack is… it floats!

Our first day is a leisurely walk to Switchback Campground. Now, normally, this is a pretty hard campground to miss. It’s at the top of a series of switchbacks. Past the campground the trail levels off and continues straight ahead. You can’t really miss it. Oops we did! A couple of us wander right past the sign. Realizing that something is wrong half an hour later, Michael and I run down the trail as fast as we can. A few km later and out of breath, we plunk ourselves down on the trail and hope our hiking comrades turn back once they figure out they’ve gone too far. Thanks to Susan and Michael for eventually tracking down the “lost soles” (sorry for the bad pun).

Oh! There's the campground sign!
Oh! There’s the campground sign!
8pm – Sunset

Our second day awakens with a beautiful sunrise. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Michael and I were so struck by the exceptionally clear conditions last night that we decided to sleep cowboy-style: no tent, just sleeping bags on a ground sheet. This morning our sleeping bags are wet with dew but it was so worth it. The night sky was filled with millions of brilliant stars and I haven’t seen the Milky Way so clearly since visiting South America.

We start the morning with a pre-breakfast walk to Clitherroe Campground. I love waking up early when there is still a bite in the air and walking until the sun warms me and my stomach craves food. After breakfast we hoist our (not so heavy) packs up the bear wire and head down into the enchanted Eremite Valley, free to run and dance our way through the meadows. It feels like The Sound of Music.

Looks tasty... but who will try it?
Looks tasty… but who will try it?

Eremite Valley is lush with life. We see one of Jasper’s few remaining caribou peacefully grazing the open meadows. Oily mushrooms jump out of the pungent soil and balloon to gargantuan proportions. Streams of cold fresh water gurgle forth from glassy calm lakes. And proudly overseeing all this are The Ramparts – massive towering cliffs of quartzite.

The Ramparts
The Ramparts

Tonight we have a special surprise – it’s Michael’s birthday! And to think, he almost forgot. For the last two days, I’ve been delicately ferrying an entire cheesecake in my backpack! Amazingly, it’s still in one piece. After dinner Michael and Jim wander off to do dishes and Susan provides some much needed distraction while the rest of us set up the cake and light an array of candles.

Happy Birthday, Michael!
Happy Birthday, Michael!
Cheese cake survived two days of backpacking!
Cheese cake survived two days of backpacking!
Everyone loves a birthday party
Everyone loves a birthday party

Our second and final night is at Amethyst Campground. The views are especially beautiful.

Sunset in Tonquin Valley
Sunset in Tonquin Valley

We awaken to another clear, beautiful morning.There’s no better place to watch the sun slowly bring the Rampart peaks to life than right by the lake. At first all you see if a faint hint of warming light on the highest reaches of the cliffs. Then, all of a sudden – wham – they’re burning with fire, red hot. The day has begun.


It’s only our third day and I feel like we could spend so much more time here. The walk out to Portal Creek is long but gentle. An advantage of going this direction is that the climbs are very gradual. We hardly notice that we’re going up before we crest Maccarib Pass. The rest of the walk is all downhill and it gives us lots of time to imagine returning to this special place. Perhaps as a winter ski tour?

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