July 19, 2021. A hike with kids to a picturesque cirque near the Highwood Pass.
Region: Kananaskis Country. Traditional territory of the Tsuu T’ina, Stoney Ktunaxa, and Blackfoot First Nations
Distance: 4.9 km loop
Elevation Gain: 270 m
Elevation of Objective: 2427 m
Total Time: 2h 31m
There are 3 cirques clustered around the Highwood Pass. The most famous, Ptarmigan Cirque, is justifiably popular. Pocaterra Cirque is fairly well known, though nowhere near as big a draw as its neighbour across the highway. The third, Arethusa Cirque, seems to be the least well-known. Nevertheless it is easy to access and propels hikers into amazing mountain scenery with a minimum of climbing. Nugara features it in Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies Vol 2 and I agree that it’s a good objective for motivated kids. My youngest is now 9, and she managed the ascent with a minimum of fuss. She ran out of gas before we completed the loop, though, so she and my wife took an alternate descent route that worked out quite nicely.
Access is from Hwy 40 in K-Country. Note that there’s a seasonal closure of this highway from December 15 to June 1 every year. The trailhead is not signed, but is easily found with reference to the extremely popular (and crowded) parking lot for Ptarmigan Cirque. About 1.4 km south of Ptarmigan Cirque’s parking lot there’s an unsigned pull-out to a large open area to the northeast of the highway – click here for the Google Map. We found this easily enough but did notice that the map in Nugara’s guidebook seems to be wrong – it indicates the parking area is west of Hwy 40 instead of east. There’s no signage here and no facilities. If anyone needs to make a pit-stop it would be reasonable to use the facilities at Ptarmigan Cirque’s parking area before proceeding here.
The trail to the cirque sets off from the north end of the open parking area into the trees. It’s very easy to follow and we enjoyed looking at the wildflowers as we ascended. Shortly before the trail breaks from the trees it passes a small waterfall. The trail then brings you into the cirque next to a creek above the falls. At this point the trail branches. Nugara recommends not crossing the creek and proceeding in a counterclockwise loop (or out-and back). Other reports I had read described a rather steep and potentially difficult slope they had encountered on the western part of the loop – they suggested going clockwise so as to ascend this rather then deal with a tricky descent. We decided to go clockwise.
We crossed the creek and immediately encountered another fork. We went left – the right fork was a shortcut trail through the middle of the cirque that some of us ended up using to descend. After going left we were in the trees for a short time, then we encountered the sustained, steep climb. It wasn’t awful, but I’m glad we were ascending rather than descending it because it was a fairly smooth dirt trail without too much for our boots to grip. As we ascended, we were finally treated to steadily improving views of the cirque and of the mountains on the other side of the valley. At the top of the climb we were beyond the trees and in the rocky and mossy environs of the cirque.
From the there the trail was less obvious, but not too hard to find. There was a lot of smoke in the air from fires in B.C., but the air cleared somewhat as the morning went on. We eventually got to a spot where we crossed the toe of a large rock fall. Here, my 9 year-old was ready to be done and my wife said she’d take her back down. Some flagging on a tree marked a trail that descended directly back through the trees and to the original fork in the trail by the creek (I had the benefit of the Topo Maps Canada app, which showed me where all these trails went). They descended without trouble and I carried on with my older two kids (now big lanky teens) and finished the very scenic loop through the rocky eastern portion of the cirque.
This was a great half-day hike. All of the smoke in the air was only a minor damper on our views within the cirque. Having done this trip, I think that if I were to do it again I’d proceed counterclockwise as per Nugara, but instead of completing the loop with the descent of the tricky slope on the west end, I’d backtrack after reaching the top of that slope (next to the outlier referred to as “Little Arethusa”) and then return to the shortcut trail and descend that way.
Click on the images in the gallery below to access full-resolution pictures.