Hiking Kananaskis Country – Arethusa Cirque

Today we invited another family to join us on one of our all-time favourite hikes. We’ve done this hike pretty much every year for the past 8 years, ever since we started hiking when our youngest son was 3 1/2 years old. Arethusa Cirque is not an “official” hike; the trail is not maintained, there is no signage and there are no facilities at the trailhead. It’s located one cirque over from Ptarmigan Cirque, which is a popular interpretive trail in Peter Lougheed Park in Kananaskis Country, and since Arethusa Cirque does not receive favourable reviews in the local guidebooks and doesn’t even appear on some of the park maps, hiking just a short distance takes you far from the nature seeking crowds.

The drive to the trailhead was an adventure in itself. We spotted a black bear sow with two cubs alongside the highway, and then just a few minutes later spotted a blonde grizzly crossing the road ahead of us. Unfortunately, due to bad planning on our part, all our cameras were in the back of the vehicle, so we didn’t manage to get any photos. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve spotted any bears (which is fine with us) and to see four in the space of 5 minutes was remarkable!

Given that the bears were so obviously active in the general area, once we reached the trailhead we took a couple of extra minutes to ensure all the bear spray and air horns were within easy grasp. Between the 10 of us, we had three canisters of bear spray (basically pepper spray) and 2 air horns (the loud noise may startle a bear into running). We also consider our trekking poles as last-resort defensive aids. Then, after reminding all the kids to make lots of noise, call out and still together, we headed into the forest.

After less than a kilometer, we emerged from the shaded forest into the beautiful alpine meadow. Once past a small tarn, we continued along the trail, which ran right beside a creek. The talus field bordering the other side of the trail is a treasure trove for kids and adults alike: ancient seabeds raised up to form the Canadian Rockies contain all sorts of fossils. We spotted horn corals, sections of ancient reefs and some fossilized shells as we made our way to the end of the meadow.

The mix of wildflowers was also impressive. Over the course of the day we spotted common harebells, alpine forget-me-nots, wild blue flax, pink moss campion, elephanthead lousewort, mountain sorrel, purple bladder campion (aka Japanese lantern), red and pink paintbrush, heart-leaved arnica, glacier lilies and spotted saxifrage.

The trail to the first cirque is between a burbling creek and the edge of a talus field.
After a short walk up through the forest (less than 1 km), the trail crosses and alpine meadow and then follows the edge of a creek with a talus field on the other side.
Oldest GeoKid at the waterfall in the meadow
There's a gentle waterfall feeding the creek through the meadow. We spent a bit of time here looking for fossils and enjoying the wildflowers.
Fossils along the trail
One of the kid-friendly aspects of this trail is the abundance of fossils along the trail: horn coral, ancient reef sections, shells, etc. Of course, since this hike is in a provincial park, we leave them where we find them so everyone else can enjoy them too!

After reaching the waterfall at the end of the meadow, it’s time to gain a bit of elevation. The boys elected to scramble up the rock slabs, which offer good traction due to the fact that they’re very rough (almost like sandpaper). The rest of us made our way up the draw, between the rock slabs and the talus field. But after about 15 minutes, we all ended up at the same place: a small hillock at the edge of Arethusa Cirque, looking down into the valley we’d just crossed and across Highway 40 to Highwood Ridge, Pocaterra Ridge and Mount Tyrwhitt. A leisurely hour or so after setting out, we’d reached a great spot for lunch!

Looking back to the meadow
After reaching the waterfall, it's time for a little bit of exercise: your choice of climbing up to a small draw between the talus field and rock slabs or clambering up the rock slabs to overlook the valley in one direction and Arethusa Cirque in the other. This is the view into the meadow just before gaining a little elevation.
Lunch time at Arethusa Cirque
GeoKs in Arethusa Cirque, with Highwood Pass area in background

After lunch, we had two options: retrace our morning route or extend our outing to a short loop. The route for the loop is pretty flat, until its time to descend back into the meadow, but it does cross a few talus fields, which can be challenging for relatively inexperienced hikers. Trekking poles and hiking shoes/boots (rather than runners) make navigating your way across a field of loose rocks a lot easier. After a bit of discussion, the decision was unanimous – finish the loop!

Between 2006 and 2008, we placed 5 geocaches in this valley. So hiking the loop provided a great opportunity for us to check on all of them. Since no geocachers have been up this way in 2011, we were happy to find all the containers in great shape, with plenty of room for additional signatures on the logsheets. A full trail description and reference waypoints are part of the write up for GC1E8Y3 Arethusa Adventure – FINAL, if you’re interested.

Just before reaching the base of Little Arethusa (which is right off Highway 40, whereas Mount Arethusa is further up the valley), we reached the creek which eventually becomes the waterfall down in the meadow. After spreading out to do some creek jumping, search for wild strawberries (too early in the season to find any ripe ones) or photograph wildflowers, we joined up again to begin our descent to the meadow.

Youngest GeoKid relaxes before we descend to the forest edge
After walking from Arethusa Cirque along the edge of the scree just above the middle bowl in this valley, we paused to enjoy the views and relax before heading down the steep creekside trail into the bowl of the valley, into the forest and back to the trailhead.
Highwood Ridge in the distance
Just before starting our descent back to the meadow, we paused to look down the valley. Highwood Ridge runs along the southwest (right) side of the valley.

The descent is short and fairly steep. Trekking poles are definitely helpful for this stretch – and for keeping your balance as you cross the log “bridge” over the creek. From there, it was a short 15 minute walk back through the forest to the trailhead parking.

Our friends really enjoyed the experience. We didn’t see anyone else in the valley the entire 4 hours we were there. With the loop coming it at just 4.8 km, with less than 300 meters elevation gain, this is a pretty family-friendly option, so long as you’re comfortable following a somewhat spotty trail. And although you don’t summit a mountain or climb to a pass for 180 or 360 vistas, the views across the valley from our lunch spot are pretty amazing!

Driving back up Highway 40 towards the TransCanada, we had to slow or stop for several small groups of sheep on the highway. And we spotted this blonde grizzly sow again – this time with a cub! That makes 6 (or is it 5?) bear sightings in one day. We’re sure glad we were safely in our vehicle every time!

Rocky Mountain sheep
Several small groups of sheep were on the road as we headed out of the valley/ They lick salt off the road, so drivers always have to keep a look out.

3 thoughts on “Hiking Kananaskis Country – Arethusa Cirque

  1. Pingback: Hiking Kananaskis Country – Arethusa Cirque | Out and About with the GeoKs

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