Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tonquin Valley

Last week several of my friends and I headed to the Tonquin Valley in Jasper National Park for a five-day hiking trip in the backcountry. Our last multi-day foray into the wilderness was two years ago in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, a far cry from the spectacular Rocky Mountains. While Killarney had its own particular charm, partly due to its proximity to my place of birth, the Tonquin Valley is without a doubt in a league of its own.

On our first night we stayed at the Edith Cavell hostel underneath the mammoth Edith Cavell peak. This gave us a small taste of things to come. The hostel was well-maintained and the price was right. A great option for anyone needing a place to stay before heading out to the Tonquin.

The Tonquin Valley trailhead begins at the parking lot just outside the hostel, an ideal location to start a day-long hike. On our second day we set out on the trail to our final destination, the Wates-Gibson Memorial Hut, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. The trail wanders along the Astoria River until it veers south towards Chrome Lake and the Eremite Valley. It is a moderate-difficult trail, nearly 18kms to the hut. I'd say pack as light as possible and expect rain, lots of it. The trail is often wet and muddy in most spots.

Once we arrived at the hut, we made a quick dinner and went to bed early to prepare for our next four days of day hikes through the Tonquin and Eremite Valleys. The most stunning landscape around the area was the marvelous Amethyst Lake, surrounded by the Ramparts to the west, Clitheroe Mountain to the east and the impressive Raptor Meadows on the lakeshore.

The other major highlight was our last day hike up to the Fraser Glacier, home to BC's Fraser River. Climbing up to the Continental Divide in the driving wind and stinging snow was well worth the privilege of playing underneath the glacier at nearly 2,500 metres.

The one major disappointment of our trip was that I didn't get to see the elusive grizzly bear. We did spot a large caribou, a moose and some elk on our trip, along with a number of circling birds of prey. I'd recommend the Tonquin Valley to anyone who wants relatively easy access to glaciers with little human traffic and good chances to view the endangered woodland caribou. Stay at the ACC hut if you have the money, the valley is rainy and cold almost all the time, though the three Parks Canada campgrounds around Amethyst Lake are nice and comfortable, and the warden cabin is just above the lake on the main trail in case of emergencies.