Winter can be a challenging time for travelers. The snow and cold can often lead to unexpected flight delays, and make getting to and from your destination more challenging than expected. But, in terms of adventure travel, winter can also bring some surprising rewards too. For instance, crowds are usually nonexistent, and the outdoor landscapes are spectacularly beautiful when blanketed in a fresh coat of snow.
I experienced both of those conditions on a recent visit to Quebec, where I not only had the opportunity to go dogsledding for the first time, but also snowshoed through one of the most breathtaking landscapes I've ever had the privilege to witness first hand.
Quebec is home to a distinct sub-region known as Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. This part of the province is more rural and rustic than the more cosmopolitan settings of Montreal and Quebec City, but has its own set of charms that include the distinctly European influences that are found in those urban settings. But Saguenay is also home to some remote regions that remain wild and untamed as well. It is there that you'll find the utterly breathtaking Valley of the Phantoms.
Located within Parc national des Monts-Valin, the Valley of the Phantoms is a popular attraction all year round. During the summer and fall it attracts many hikers who come to walk its 48 miles (77 km) of trail.
The park is also a popular draw with paddlers as well, many of whom come to explore the Rivière Valin by kayak or canoe.
But it is during the winter months that the place truly shines. Because of a unique microclimate that filters moisture and cold air into the region, the valley sees more than its fair share of snowfall.
In fact, this particular area of Quebec receives in excess of 16 meet (5 meters) of snow on an annual basis, which covers the entire area in deep, lush powder.
The Valley of the Phantoms actually derives its name from all of that precipitation. The trees that are found there become enshrouded in snow and ice throughout the season, and are given the names "ghost trees" as a result. This same phenomenon is seen in places like Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. as well, although it isn't quite as widespread or prominent as it is here. This snow coverage makes the landscape look like something out of Disney's animated film Frozen, giving it a look that simply has to be seen to be believed.
I arrived in the valley around mid-February when not all of the region's annual snowfall had hit the ground quite yet. Still, there was plenty of powder to go around with at least 10 feet (3 meters) already deposited on the ground over the course of the winter. It was a clear day during my visit, something I'm told is rare during the colder months of the year. Those clear skies brought plunging temperatures however, with the mercury hovering around -15 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 degrees C) for most of the day.
The howling wind made it feel even colder than that.
The first stop on any snowshoeing expedition to the valley is the visitor center just inside the park's gate. From there, you can obtain permits for the trek, book a seat on a snowcat shuttle, and pick up any last minute provisions or gear you might need for the day. On the morning that I was there – which was mid-week – there was still a lot of hustle and bustle, with plenty of visitors waiting to head out. On the weekends, you'll want to get there early and allow yourself ample time.
After a brief stay in the warm confines of the visitor center, the snowcats arrived and my companions and I grabbed our backpacks, snowshoes, and various other gear, and boarded the tracked vehicles. Built to ensure safe passage through the deep snow, the machines set off along a road that wasn't likely to be visible for another two months at least.
It took about 45 minutes to ride to the trailhead where we would begin our hike. This gave everyone in the snowcat a chance to get to know one another, and survey the landscape we would be traveling through that day too. The drive was a spectacular one, but by the time we stopped, nearly everyone was eager to hit the trail.
Before long, we arrived at the trailhead, finished bundling up our warm layers, donned our snowshoes, and set off. The trail starts at a very low elevation, but immediately begins climbing at a slow, but steady pace. With as much snowfall as the park receives on an annual basis, the route must be groomed several times a week in order to stay ahead of the continual accumulations. That not only makes the route extremely easy to follow, but much easier to walk on as well. In fact, at times, it was so well groomed that you might not even needed to use snowshoes at all.
Moving away from the road and deeper into the forest, the true beauty of the Valley of the Phantoms quickly becomes apparent. The pine trees that make up the surrounding forest stretch as far as the eye can see, covering the nearby hills in a sea of green. But they themselves are enshrouded in that ever-present blanket of snow, giving them a unique look that is rarely found elsewhere. It truly does turn this place into an idyllic winter wonderland that is unmatched in all of my travels.
The snow-covered trees also make a good wind break, so before long I found myself working up a bit of sweat despite the very cold conditions. The route to the summit of the mountain isn't particularly steep, but trudging upwards while wearing snowshoes will still get your heart pounding. The payoff however is that the views simply get better around every turn, with new wonders to discover along the way.
After a couple of hours of walking we came across a very welcome sight. The park has a number of warming huts situated along its trails, which give visitors a chance to get out of the cold and enjoy their lunch in comfort. Those huts feature wood burning stoves, which keep the interior both warm and dry. It was a great place to shed off a few layers, relax for a bit, and get some relief from the cold.
In addition to the warming huts, there are also a couple of larger huts that can be reserved for those who want to spend the night out on the trail as well. Those accommodations are more popular in the summer months of course, but they do get the occasional winter adventurer too. Basic and rustic, there aren't a lot of amenities, but with the wood burning stove fired up, they make a comfortable place to stay, even on colder days.
Our respite from the cold didn't last long, and before we knew we were back on the trail and continuing to move upwards. It was just a couple more miles to the summit, which sits at a modest 3228 feet (984 meters). That isn't an altitude that will impact you dramatically, but if you're accustomed to living at sea level, you might feel it somewhat. My recommendation is to take it slow and stay hydrated. The hike to the top of the mountain is fairly easy, but you don't want to overdue it along the way.
If the walk to the summit was beautiful, the view from the lookout at the top was simply drop-dead gorgeous. From there you get a view of the entire surrounding area, including lush national forests, flowing rivers, and expansive lakes. It was also a great place to see where the valley's microclimate truly begins and ends, as there was a clear demarcation of where the snow fall lessened outside the boundaries of the park. This only added to the allure of the place however, reminding us all that it was an extremely special destination.
The descent back down the mountain would normally be a quick one, but my group decided to wander off the trail and explore the interior of the landscape a bit more fully. This is not something I'd recommend to just anyone however, as it would be easy to get very lost in the forest. Fortunately, we were accompanied by a local guide, who knew the Valley of the Phantoms very well. While the rest of us were soon disoriented, he always knew the right way to go and kept us moving in the proper direction.
Off trail, the hiking became even more challenging, and the true extent of the snowfall was evident. On more than one occasion someone in the group fell through a hole in the snow and found themselves buried up to the waist, if not deeper. That made for slow going through the deeper sections of the woods, but it also helped to enhance the adventure too. Mostly we just laughed every time it happened, and did our best to help the person get back on their feet.
The last snowcat shuttle off the mountain leaves at 4:00 PM, so it is imperative that you get down before then. Otherwise, you might find yourself stranded for the night, or facing a very long walk out to the visitor center. We ended up staying in a nice cabin within the national park itself, and while our trek through the Valley of the Phantoms had come to an end, it was the subject of a great deal of conversation over dinner that night.
As far as winter landscapes go, you'll be hard pressed to find one as captivating as this valley. It is worth the visit to Quebec for the hike through the Valley of the Phantoms alone, and it is now amongst my favorite winter destinations. If you also enjoy a good cold weather adventure, this place needs to be on your "must see" list.