Canada’s sixth oldest national park has a different flavour during winter, when rugged terrain and frigid weather conspire to make it the domain of a few in-the-know skiers.

Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada is an elemental place, especially in winter when rugged terrain and frigid weather conspire to make the tiny trickle of seasonal visitors feel small, awestruck and mortal.

With its trademark bears hibernating and its saw-toothed mountains thickly blanketed in snow, the 10,880sqkm national park – Canada’s sixth oldest, established in 1907 – has a totally different flavour at this time of year. Lakes turn into skating rinks, hiking paths are reborn as cross-country skiing trails, and Jasper’s legendary backcountry is rendered all but inaccessible, except for one small pocket in the Tonquin Valley.

The Tonquin, which sits east of North America’s Continental Divide just across the border from British Columbia, consists of an elongated high plateau replete with glacial lakes and alpine meadows that was surveyed for the first time by non-Aboriginals as recently as 1915. Overlooked by a crenelated section of the Rocky Mountains known as the Ramparts, the scenery is spectacular, photogenic and remote (the nearest road is 18km away). In summer, the valley is known for its grizzly bears and swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes. In winter, while the big fauna sleeps and most of Jasper’s two million annual visitors retire to warmer climes, it is the domain of a few in-the-know cross-country skiers plying the backcountry.

In contrast to some of Canada’s rawer, more untamed wilderness areas, skiing forays into the Tonquin Valley are relatively easy on the nerves, offering a bracing backcountry adventure, but without undue danger and discomfort. It is remote but not too remote, the avalanche risk is low, the terrain is rugged but not intolerably steep, and – best of all – overnight accommodation is available in February and March in a couple of cosy, well-run lodges  that will make you feel more like a pampered weekend warrior than Scott of the Antarctic – at least in the evenings when you can take off your skis.

Though a step up from the groomed cross-country ski trails that lie closer to the town of Jasper  (population 4,000), 23km to the northeast, the technical challenges of the Tonquin Valley are not extreme. Adequately fit intermediate skiers equipped with the correct clothing and skis should have no problem staying upright. The necessary back-country skis (slightly wider than standard cross-country skis) can be rented at shops on Connaught Drive, Jasper’s commercial strip (try Totem Ski Shop), where you will also find the Jasper Information Centre with news on the park’s current trail and weather conditions.

A reasonable level of physical fitness is the most important pre-requisite; the full Tonquin excursion progresses in a loop, clocking up a total of approximately 50km, and is best spread over two or three days. Professional guides can be hired for those not keen on going it alone; inquire at the Information Centre.

Most skiers start at Portal Creek trailhead on the road to Marmot Basin, Jasper’s sole downhill ski area, from where the trail climbs gradually to the 2,057m-high Maccarib Pass, the unofficial gateway to the Tonquin Valley. In summer, hikers follow a muddy footpath that parallels the creek, but winter skiers slide directly up the frozen snow-encrusted river in eerie silence. On a fine day in February or March, the trail may have already been broken in by other skiers, leaving clear tracks in the snow – a factor which makes progress and navigation substantially easier.

Beyond Maccarib Pass lies frozen Amethyst Lake and its two backcountry lodges: the Tonquin-Amethyst Lake Lodge and Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge, both of which provide accommodation in simple cabins with views of the lake and the Ramparts. Though closer to hostels than hotels, the wood-fired stoves, home-style food, and sociable communal space will seem like a heavenly apparition after seven hours of pushing and poling through powder. The 18-person capacity Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge offers a fully staffed service, including meals; the 14-person capacity Tonquin-Amethyst Lake Lodge delivers your packed food and any other gear you need by snowmobile to the lodge and leaves you to concoct your own feast. Both lodges are open to skiers from February to early April and should be booked in advance.

Surrounded by winter nature, plenty of skiers stay two nights at the lodges, either recovering or making short circuits of the surrounding wilderness. In 2011, Jasper was designated the world’s largest Dark-Sky Preserve (an area free of light pollution) by the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning it is an ideal spot for night time star-gazing.  

Some skiers return to the Portal Creek Trailhead by the same Maccarib Pass route, while others exit the Tonquin via the Astoria River along a trail that is regularly packed and flattened by snowmobiles in February and March. After 18km of tough but rewarding kicking and gliding you will arrive at the skirts of the 3,363m-high Mount Edith Cavell, a mountain named after an English nurse executed by the Germans in World War I. The peak is one of Jasper’s most distinctive and famous; its sheer foreboding north face, clearly visible from Jasper , cradles the Angel Glacier, named for its magnificent white “wings” and cascading trunk that falls 300m. 

Near the glacier, the solar-powered Mount Edith Cavell hostel sits next to the Astoria River trailhead. Although not officially open in winter, it is possible to stay from March onwards by pre-arranging a key pick-up. The steep Cavell Road connects the hostel with arterial Highway 93A and your ticket back to civilization. In winter, rather than plough the asphalt, park rangers groom and “track” it for cross-country skiing. Nonetheless, with the final 11km of the journey along the Cavell Road plunging continuously downhill, the experience is more akin to alpine skiing than arduous cross-country.  

Arriving back to Jasper’s well-trodden Icefields Parkway, (the highway that connects Jasper with Lake Louise) after conquering 50km of icy wilderness stirs ambivalent emotions among most skiers: tiredness mixed with relief tempered by a new appreciation for the natural world and how it can make you feel invigoratingly alive.