Photographing in The Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park

by Dr. Robert Berdan
May 11, 2011



Amethyst Lake and the Ramparts in Tonquin Valley at sunrise by Robert Berdan ©

The Ramparts mountain range at sunrise with Amethyst Lake in the Foreground photographed from the North side of the
lake. (Nikon D300 camera, 12-24 mm wide angle lens, F16, polarizer and 2 stop neutral density grad filter on a tripod).

Map of the Tonquin Valley

To access the Tonquin Valley , drive from Jasper up to the ski lodge - Marmot Basin or Head to Edith Cavell Lake
up a winding road and then take the trails. Edith Cavell is a scenic spot with glaciers and ice caves.

If you wish to visit the Tonquin Valley you will first need to drive to Jasper which you can use as your base. There are two trails leading into the Tonquin Valley and you can walk or ride on horseback. There are a number of backcountry campgrounds you can stay at or if you prefer comfort you can make reservations at one of the two lodges located on Amethyst Lake. The Tonquin Valley is a true wilderness experience and you won't run into any crowds like in Banff or Jasper. The trip in via the north route is 23 km and takes about 6 hours on horse back. Hikers carrying a full pack usually require two days, but our cook (Sarah) hiked into the lodge in one day. The North route follows Portal Creek over the Maccarib Pass which is a scenic route, but also traverses through bear county. The south route is via the Astoria River. Which ever route you take you will need to be in good shape, have a good pair of worn in hiking boots with gaters as the trails can get muddy. If you visit during the summer make sure you also bring insect repellent as the valley is famous for its mosquitoes, horseflies, deer flies and blackflies. One reason I like to visit around the end of August and early September is that most of the pesky bugs have been killed by frost. If hiking in late summer be sure to bring bear repellent with you as Grizzlies frequent the area and their have been several bear attacks reported in the Valley over the years. If you plan on camping make sure you hang your food up high and avoid food smells near or in your tent.

Grizzly bear by Robert Berdan

Grizzly bears may be encountered in the valley in late summer so its a good idea to bring bear spray. In open areas they are easy to spot, but when hiking the trails surrounded by thick bush or trees be sure to make lots of noise.

I have made two trips into the valley with my father and we chose to go in on horseback. Both times we stayed at the Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge (north lodge) and choose to visit in early September.  Neither of us had any previous experience with horses, but it was one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken. The cost was affordable compared to other guided tours and included our meals and accommodation in comfortable cabins. On the next trip I will consider staying at the south lodge to get a different view of the lake around sunrise. Our hosts were terrific and took great care of us. During the day you can choose to take a horse trip, or go wandering off on your own. Some guests prefer to take a boat out and try their luck fishing. The scenery is so spectacular that we enjoyed just sitting on our porch and watch caribou wander through camp.

Main Cabin in the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan

Tonquin Valley Lodge at the North end of Amethyst Lake, main Cabin, dinning room and kitchen.

Tonquin Valley lodge cabins outside and inside views by Robert Berdan ©

Top Left: Main cabin and walk ways. Top Right: one of the guest cabins. Bottom Left and Right : inside view of
guest cabins with bunk beds and furnace. Tonquin Valley Lodge at the north end of Amethyst Lake.

When we first rode in and stopped for lunch we got off our horses and could barely walk. It took most of us about 10-15 minutes to straighten our legs again so we could walk upright and it brought a smile to our guides. In places the trail can be very muddy and we also travelled through some wet areas which made us appreciate being on horseback.  Hiking up into the mountains with a heavy backpack requires a decent level of fitness, however on horseback almost anyone can access this beautiful part of the park. The horses are well trained and easy to control even for city folks like ourselves. The use of horses in the parks has recently been criticized, though many park rangers use horses to access the back country to help hikers and keep an eye out for poachers. I enjoyed riding horseback as I could concentrate on the scenery while the horses did the work climbing up the mountain pass. I also like the high vantage point on a horse which let me see further and provides a greater sense of security in bear country.

Riding horseback into the Tonquin Valley with the Ramparts in the background by Robert Berdan ©

The ideal camera and lens to have with you on horseback is an 18-200 mm VR lens carried in a chest pouch so you can grab it quickly and shoot. The 18-200 mm lens lets you take wide angle views of the trail and mountains, and also allows you to zoom in if you encounter wildlife. The vibration reduction feature (VR) is especially helpful when trying to shoot from a moving horse.

18-200 mm VR lens is ideal for horseback photography by Robert Berdan ©

Three landscape views at different focal lengths taken with the 18-200 mm VR lens.  

Our cabin was a stone throw from Amethyst Lake. The lake is surrounded by mountains and on the east side there is  a vertical rock wall called the Ramparts. The best light usually occurs at sunrise though we often stayed out late into the night taking pictures. There are no city lights to interfere with your view of the stars.

The Group of Seven artists Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson painted in the valley in 1924; and 1928. The famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams also photographed in the valley.  It's hard to describe the beauty of the Tonquin valley I can only show you these pictures.

Sunrise over Amethyst Lake by Robert Berdan

Sunrise over Amethyst Lake - I used a 2 stop neutral density grad filter to darken the sky and lighten the foreground.

Ponds near the south side of Amethyst Lake by Robert Berdan

On both trips we experienced clear sunny days  most of the time and in both instances we had fresh snow on our last day. If you travel in the Fall make sure you bring warm clothing. 

Mountain Caribou Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Mountain caribou wandered right by our cabins so I followed them a little way and then just sat down to watch them for a while. . They didn't seem bothered by my presence and grazed as took pictures from about 100 feet away.

Mountain caribou fighting by Robert Berdan

Mountain Caribou fighting near our cabins at the north end of the lake

In addition to viewing Grizzly bears from a safe distance, we was also photographed a small herd of mountain caribou that wandered through our camp. We looked and listened for but did not see or hear any wolves.

Evening campfire in the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Evening camp fire where folks spilled their beans and told stories.

Cowboy overlooking Amethyst Lake in the evening by Robert Berdan ©

Cowboy (my father) with tent and lantern in front of the Ramparts at dusk.

View of the Ramparts from inside a tent by Robert Berdan ©

View of the Ramparts through my tent near the north side of the lake. The tent was only used as a prop as we choose to
stay in the more comfortable and safer cabins.

We hiked to this small lake about 2 km north of Amethyst Lake - 14 mm wide angle lens.

Cowboy looking over the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

During the day we also took horse back trips into the surrounding mountains - in this shot my father is looking over
the valley at the distant Ramparts.

Spires of Bastion Peak - Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Spires of Bastion Peak - Looking North West from behind the North Lodge

Colured clouds at sunset in the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Photographer in the foreground - colourful clouds at sunset

Mt Clitheroe before sunrise from north end of Amethyst Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Looking East from the North side of Amethyst Lake at Mt. Clitheroe before sunrise. Blue-gold polarizer, 12-24 mm zoom lens.

Morning snowfall in September on Amethyst Lake by Robert Berdan ©

On one morning we woke up to about almost a foot of snow while clouds hide the Ramparts,

Pond surrounded by snow in the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

One of many ponds found around the north side of Amethyst Lake east of the cabins.

Fresh snow in the Tonquin Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Fresh snow in early September made for some spectacular landscape opportunities around our camp site.

Spruce grouse photographed from horseback by Robert Berdan ©

Spruce Grouse and fresh snow photographed from horseback on the trip out with my 18-200 mm zoom lens.

Riding on horseback out the Maccarib Pass after Autumn snowfall by Robert Berdan ©

Riding out via the Maccarib Pass after an Autumn Snowfall. 18-200 mm lens.

If you visit the area and stay at one of the cabins, keep in mind there is no electricity and no phone reception so be sure to bring plenty of spare camera batteries and enough storage media to last you for the duration of your trip. A lightweight tripod is essential if you want to photograph around sunrise and sunset. I already mentioned the ideal lens to bring is a zoom lens with 18-200 or similar combination of lenses. Also consider bringing a lightweight set of binoculars to spot wildlife and maybe your favorite pocket book to read though the lodge has a small collection of books. Weight is an issue as you are only allowed to bring 25 pounds of gear per person, extra gear will cost you $3\pound. If you plan to go hiking I also recommend bringing bear repellent available in Jasper or various sports stores in Calgary. If you plan to ride in on horseback make sure the guides adjust the straps correctly to avoid knee pain and do some leg stretching exercises before you go and\or bring Tylenol. In my opinion late August or early September is the best time to visit. If you are sharing a cabin or tent with someone that snores be sure to bring along some ear plugs. The Tonquin Valley is a relatively unknown treasure and though I am promoting it in this article, my hope is because it's more then 20 Km in the backcounty this feature will keep the majority of visitors out of this scenic valley. If you are a photographer and looking for something different and spectacular landscapes - then this is a photographers paradise. For more information about the Tonquin Valley lodges see the links below. RB

Links and References

Don Beers (1996) Jasper-Robson: A Taste of Heaven. Highline Publishing. ISBN 0-9695088 pp 157-167.


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