July 21, 2019. A hike with kids to a lovely but lesser-visited cirque just across the highway from one of K-country’s most heavily trafficked trails.
- Region: Kananaskis Country. Traditional Territory of the Stoney, Tsuu T’ina, Ktunaxa, and Blackfoot First Nations
- Distance: 3.67 km one-way
- Total Ascent: 415 m
- Elevation of Objective: 2435 m
- Hiking time: 2h 13m ascent
- Safety and Disclaimer
Pocaterra Cirque is accessed from the same trailhead as the massively popular Ptarmigan Cirque, but draws only a fraction of the traffic. The reason (I think) is the relative difficulty of deciphering the trails encountered early on in the route. A little perseverance is payed off handsomely, though. The access trail to the cirque passes a small tarn that serves as an excellent objective for smaller (or less enthusiastic) hikers. The trail also serves as access to more ambitious objectives: Pocaterra Ridge and Grizzly Col, both of which draw their share of hikers.
The hike begins at the Highwood Pass Day Use Area in Kananaskis Country. It’s accessed via Hwy 40, 67 km south from the Trans-Canada Highway junction, or 38 km north from Highwood Junction. Note that this section of Hwy 40 is closed from December 1 to June 15 every year. The parking lot fills up early in the day during high season. Don’t be surprised if you find cars spilling out onto the shoulder of the highway. There are good pit toilets at the trailhead and a map kiosk. The vast majority of visitors to the area will be heading to Ptarmigan Cirque, across the highway. The route to Pocaterra Cirque shares only the first few hundred meters with that hike.
Departing the parking lot, head northwest along the hiking trail. At about 300m a twinned dirt trail departs, splitting off to the left of the main trail and continuing northwest through a grassy clearing. A sign reminding you to stay on the designated trails marks the intersection. This trail takes you to a large boulder at the edge of the treed slope. It then enters the trees and starts to ascend. About 160m from that point, the trail turns suddenly left and continues to ascend. Now heading slightly southwest, other faint trails branch off in a couple of places, but the main trail continues gently swinging around in a more southerly direction. It ascends some more, then traverses the treed slope heading general south and southwest. If you find yourself on a steeply ascending trail that swings back to the east, you may have ended up on the Highwood Ridge trail. If you have a GPS and a digitized map to follow, it’ll make this a lot easier. The Topo Maps Canada app has a GPS track included in its default download which includes this trail (more or less…it’ll at least reassure you you’re going the right way). MotionX GPS’s Terrain map has a dotted line on it showing the way.
The trail was quite muddy from the previous day’s heavy rain and there were a few places where there was deep black mud. These spots presented some real problems for our 7 year-old, but with a little teamwork we got her across. I understand this trail has these boggy areas even when it hasn’t been raining, so consider brining extra socks for everyone, just in case.
Eventually, the trail breaks out of the trees. After an easy creek crossing, the route continues west under the north face of Highwood Ridge. In some publications, it’s this broad bowl that’s referred to as Pocaterra Cirque. The Gem Trek map folks disagree, though, as do the map makers who supply the MotionX app. On their maps, Pocaterra Cirque lies beyond here, under the cliffs of Mount Tyrwhitt and Grizzly Col.
About 2.1 km from the parking lot, the trail reaches Pocaterra Tarn (elevation 2230m). This shallow tarn makes for a decent objective for younger or less ambitious hikers. We had a snack break there and enjoyed the views looking north and east across the valley to Mount Rae, Mount Arethusa and Ptarmigan Cirque.
Beyond the tarn, the trail begins a steady ascent, eventually entering some sparse trees then coming out in a grassy clearing. A distinct cairn sits at a fork in the trail. The left fork heads to Pocaterra Cirque, the right to Pocaterra Ridge. Going left, the trail ascends a further 160 m in 750m horizontal distance. Another fork is encountered about 450m from the cairn. At this point, the left fork heads off to do a prolonged ascending traverse to Grizzly Col, and the right fork (straight on) continues to Pocaterra Cirque.
The Cirque sits in the shadow of the rugged cliffs of Mount Tyrwhitt to the southwest and the connecting ridge between it and Mount Pocaterra to the west. The southern wall of the bowl is Grizzly Col, and Highwood Ridge is due east. Looking out of the cirque gives a nice view of Pocaterra Ridge. One out of 3 of my kids made it all the way up (the others hung out with my wife and explored in the neighbourhood of the cairn). With the exception of dealing with the deep mud at the bottom of the trail, it seems everyone had a good time. There was still a some snow up in the cirque, so we had the chance to do a little glissade on our descent – perfect on a hot and sunny day.
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