Switchback Campground to Tonquin Valley Trailhead
Distance: 13.6 km
Elevation Loss: 400 m
Elevation Gain: 40 m
Time: 4 hours
Our last day in the mountains had us waking up bright and early, as we wanted to get to the parking lot and back on the road in a decent time. As hard as it is to get out of a warm sleeping bag at the break of dawn, it’s completely worth it to see the sun rising and shining its first light on the mountain tops.
The fog was just lifting as we had a quick breakfast and walked out the campsite. It provided an almost magical aura to the world around us as we walked along, just the two of us in an otherwise quiet valley.
Once we reached the main path, we hiked along a sub-alpine meadow, watching as the sun began to chase away the mist. A yellow-tinged row of mountains sat along the horizon to our right.
The trail was slowly descending back into montane land and the trees began to grow more and more dense.
We were beginning to reach the multiple series of switchbacks that our last campground had been named after.
Not long into the beginning of the dissent, we were provided our first close up of the giant rock slide that slipped off of Oldhorn Mountain, and continues to slip to this day.
The switchbacks offer a safe passage down the so there is minimal exposure to the path of the boulders.
The air was chilled as the sun hadn’t quite found its way through the trees yet. When the rays did start making their way to the ground, it made for a beautiful and welcome change in the temperature. Every time we moved down another couple of switch backs, we found our way back to the rock slide, which was on the east side of the trail.
Another bright side about hiking so early in the morning is getting the chance to see animals that are enjoying cooler temperatures. We saw several spruce grouse as we walked. The trail itself narrowed closer to the bottom.
Finally we reached the point on the trail where we could avoid the rock slide no longer.
There is a 300 m stretch where you are advised not to stop. Because of this, I was unable to stop and take a picture of the trail along the slide. There are several areas where you have to scramble over large boulders.
Once we had passed the rock slide danger, the trail became wet and muddy with various areas of water runoff and creeks that were spilling over their limits.
Despite the fact that we were no longer travelling above the treeline, there was still plenty to see, including a tree with a face (can you see it?) and Smooth Camas wildflowers.
As we made our way through the trail, we could start to hear the sound of the Astoria river to our right. Soon after, the glacier blue river showed itself and we were offered a view of Blackhorn Peak and Throne Mountain.
The trees opened up and we were provided a sitting area to stop and enjoy our surroundings.
We had a few snacks and then ventured on, quickly coming across another fork in the road. Taking a right would bring us to Chrome Lake, Outpost Lake and Eremite Valley.
We kept going straight.
Now I know I’ve been going on about how wonderful hiking is in the morning but there is one down side to being the first on the trail. Spiderwebs. And unfortunately for me, being the shortest of us two, I always lead on the trail, which means I was the unofficial spider web breaker. We tried to avoid full webs so as not to disturb the spiders but avoiding the various strings that stretch across the path is adorable and more than once I got a mouth full. Delicious.
The trail followed along the river almost the entire time before we reached the final campground that sits along the loop- Astoria. We used this as another spot to sit and enjoy another snack.
Then it was time to finish the last 6.8 km of the trip. Right after Astoria, the trail becomes fairly wide and smooth; moving through a fauna of green took us through a fairly smooth wide.
The trail’s dissension rate decreased and for the most part, we were walking along an even flat grade that worked its way through an endless array of sunshine and pine trees.
After another 2.5 km or so, a small bridge crosses over Astoria river.
After a short walk, we crossed over another (slightly larger) bridge that passes over Verdant creek where we were greeted with a beautiful view of Chak Peak and Franchere Peak.
Then we began the slow ascension up the valley towards the Tonquin Valley trailhead.
It was a thankless climb but the trail was smooth and easy on the ankles. Over time we were treated with an even closer view of Franchere Peak.
We were even greeted along the way by a wandering spruce grouse.
As we reached the pinnacle of the climb up, the whole valley opened up around us for the final time and I could see down into the area we had just explored. It was Tonquin’s final good bye
We reached the last leg of the loop, crossing over a wide bridge that leads across a stream off of Cavell Lake.
There’s one final short climb upwards and we had lastly reached the parking lot. I was happy to be back among civilization but sad at the same time.
Tonquin Valley was a beautiful backcountry hike and I loved every second of it. Even when our views were blocked with forest there was still an abundance of wildflowers to entertain our wandering eyes. I definitely want to go back someday as there are so many more hiking options that we didn’t even get the chance to check out. The valley is absolutely a hiker’s paradise.
Click here to check out Day 3 of our adventure, which covers Amethyst Campground to Switchback Campground!