Hiking Kananaskis Country – Ptarmigan Cirque

Yesterday’s sunrise and moon set revealed a covering of fresh white snow over the peaks of the Canadian Rockies. As soon as the lads were off to school, Mr. GeoK and I loaded our day packs and trekking poles into the car and headed for Highwood Pass. We had high hopes of photographing golden larches against a backdrop of mountains dusted with snow. Since we hiked Pocaterra Ridge on the weekend and we promised to hike Arethusa with the lads, we opted to head for the short and easy Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

Traffic was quite light as we left Calgary. After we turned on to Highway 40, we realized there was more than a dusting of snow on the mountain peaks. And as we approached the summit of Highwood Pass, we observed 2 -3 cm of accumulated snow on either side of the road. We also spotted an impressive buck (elk, we think) that ran for trees before we were within zoom lens range.

There were only 3 other vehicles in the Highwood Meadows Day Use parking lot at 9:30 a.m. – and one of them turned around and left after taking a few photographs! Perhaps they weren’t prepared for the snow? We followed two sets of boot prints over the footbridge, across the highway and up through the forest to Ptarmigan Cirque. The snow-laden evergreen branches regularly shed their loads, and Mr. GeoK experienced up with a shock of cold down his back a couple of times.


We hoped to see lots of golden larches once we emerged from the forest. On that front, we were somewhat disappointed: the larches were still mostly lime green. They’ll become increasingly golden over the coming days, probably peaking in about a week to 10 days, so we recommend waiting a few more days if you’re planning to hike Ptarmigan Cirque this fall. The few partly-golden larches we did see were fairly obscured by snow cover, although they grew more noticeable as the morning passed and they shed their snow loads.

(click on any of these photos to view larger size)

Despite our disappointment over hiking this trail several days too early to view the larches in their full golden glory, we found lots of other things to photograph – the fresh snow fall, cairns and trail markers, a couple of nice waterfalls, and dramatic skies. It was quite interesting to look across the valley to Pocaterra Ridge, which we hiked just a few days ago.

(again, click on any of these photos to view larger size)

Mr. GeoK and I photographed the upper falls from almost the exact same spot. This pair of photographs demonstrates how we each bring a unique perspective to the landscape around us…and to our image processing…

By the time we stopped for a quick lunch, more than 50 hikers had joined us in the cirque. The crowd prompted us to get going back to the parking lot so we headed down right after lunch. We overtook a couple of small groups who were also heading down and encountered another 8 or 10 people on their way up. The trail was pretty messy on the way back down, as the snow was melting quickly. And with so many boots packing it down, the remaining sections of snow were pretty icy. We were glad we had our trekking poles along (MICROspikes would have been even better).

All-in-all, this was an easy, half-day outing that allowed us to enjoy the first snowfall of the season and get a sense of the larch viewing potential at Ptarmigan Cirque. And to top things off, we spotted a small herd of sheep on our return drive!

We spotted this small herd of Rocky Mountain (not so) Bighorn Sheep on our drive back to Calgary. They were wandering along Highway 40 not too far from King Creek.
We spotted this small herd of Rocky Mountain (not so) Bighorn Sheep on our drive back to Calgary. They were wandering along Highway 40 not too far from King Creek.

Total hiking distance = 5.7 km
Net elevation gain = 350 m
Total hiking time = 3 hours (including lots of time for taking photographs and a brief stop for lunch)

In our experience, this is one of the easiest half-day hikes in Kananaskis Country. It’s a great option for young children, out-of-town relatives who’ve never hiked before and anyone else who needs an “easy” option for their hike in the mountains. We first hiked the Ptarmigan loop in 2003. In fact, that was the very first hike we did with our boys!! K was about 3 1/2 years old at the time. And it marked the start of our “out and about” adventures.

5 thoughts on “Hiking Kananaskis Country – Ptarmigan Cirque

  1. Pingback: Hiking Kananaskis Country – Grizzly Peak during Larch Season | Out and About with the GeoKs

  2. Pingback: Hiking Kananaskis Country – Pocaterra Cirque | Out and About with the GeoKs

  3. Pingback: Hiking Banff NP – C-Level Cirque | Out and About with the GeoKs

  4. Beautiful photos! I’m so jealous that you have something like that right in your backyard. My husband and I love the Canadian Rockies, and it seems like it has been forever since we were there last. Thanks for showing how beautiful it is covered in snow!

    1. Hi Alison – We are truly fortunate to live so close to the awe-inspiring Canadian Rockies, where we explore all year-round.. Hopefully you’ll be able to come this way for a vacation not too far in the future. In the meantime, we’re happy to share the sights we see – snow-covered or not!

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