Over the past decade or so, we’ve become accustomed to September day-hiking in Kananaskis Country. Once a week or so, as the school bell rings to confirm that our youngest son is busy for the next 6 or 7 hours, we drive to the mountains to enjoy one of the last days of summer, observe the changing colour of the leaves and return to some of our favourite spots in Canada’s mountain parks.
Last week we drove to the Highwood Pass parking lot and set off along the trail to Pocaterra Cirque. Almost immediately, our planned hike turned into a photo walk as we took full advantage of the fact that stubborn remnants of #Snowtember provided a unique opportunity to photograph a touch of winter superimposed on the juxtaposition of summer and fall.
Our first extended stop was at a small tarn nestled below Highwood Ridge, about 30 minutes along the trail. The size and shape of this tiny mountain lake has changed over the years, most notably after last June’s major rain/flood event. This fall I noticed that long grasses have spread along one shoreline and out into the water.
From the tarn, the trail crosses a wide stretch of talus at the base of Grizzly Col. Just before the trail entered a narrow band of mixed forest I looked back towards the tarn to enjoy the fantastic view across the Kananaskis Valley to Ptarmigan Cirque (also has some alpine larch).
The mixed forest just down slope from Pocaterra Cirque contains a high proportion of alpine larch. At the time of our mid-September hike, most of the larch were the bright green that marks the start of their autumn colour transition but there were a few golden outliers.
We opted to go part way up Pocaterra Ridge to enjoy a better view of the Kananaskis Valley at lunch. That turned out to be a good decision. Not only did we find a few more early golden larch trees, but we also enjoyed an unobstructed view of Pocaterra Cirque, which was still covered in snow. We enjoyed the opportunity to photograph the blue sky, white snow and mixed alpine forest, deliberately incorporating flares rather than fighting the sun angle.
After lunch, it was time to turn back towards the parking lot and return to Calgary. As we retraced our steps, we continued to notice how the prior week’s snowfall crushed the wildflowers and grasses. Only the hardiest wildflowers (hogweed, I think) were standing tall.
We were on the Highwood Meadows Trail for the final few hundred meters to the parking lot. If you prefer to experience autumn colour in the Canadian Rockies by car, this 1.2 km return (0.75 miles) trail (which includes some boardwalk sections) is a great place to stretch your legs and learn about the geology, vegetation and climate from the interpretive signs along the trail.
Total distance = 8.5 km (includes about 2.5 km to go part way up the start of Pocaterra Ridge)
Total elevation gain = 400 meters (includes about 200 meters to go part way up the start of Pocaterra Ridge)
Total hiking time = 4 hours 20 minutes (includes about 90 minutes for extended photography stops)
NOTE: We saw fresh bear tracks in the snow remnants fairly early in the hike. Here’s a good resource explaining how to be Bear Smart in the backcountry.