Hiking Kananaskis Country – Arethusa Cirque

For six or seven years starting in about 2005, we’ve hiked Arethusa Cirque in Kananaskis Country at least once each year. Thinking about what changed a few years back to make our return visits less frequent, I think it’s that once we bought into the Canmore real estate market to establish a home base an hour closer to Canadian Rockies, we shifted our hiking mostly to the national parks – Banff, Lake Louise and Yoho.

But we have so many great memories of family hiking at Arethusa that we still make a point of re-visiting the area every couple of years. In 2011 we hiked the loop with another family in mid-summer. In 2013 our timing was late October, when the larch were well past prime and there was some accumulated snow. This year we did the hike in mid-September, a little bit early for prime larch viewing but late enough that we spotted lots of lime and a little bit of gold.

This is not an official (nor maintained) trail, but it’s much more well-known that when we first started hiking here a decade ago. In the past, we’ve seen no more than a few vehicles in the unmarked parking area at the end of the day. This time out, there were 14 vehicles neatly arranged in two rows when we finished our hike shortly after 1 pm.

Arethusa Cirque is the next cirque south of Ptarmigan Cirque along Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country. There are no trailhead facilities, so your best option is to stop at the Highwood Pass parking lot to use the pit toilets before continuing a couple of km along the highway to the Arethusa trailhead.

Watch for a stone cairn at the edge of the forest to mark the start of the trail. Less than a km on, the trail emerges from the forest into a beautiful meadow surrounded by mountains on three sides.

Between the trailhead and the meadow, the route roughly follows a creek – unnamed as far as we know. Mr. GeoK spent a fair bit of time photographing some of the small waterfalls on the creek as I hustled back to the parking lot to search for my phone.

When my search of our vehicle yielded nothing, I hurried back up the trail to where I’d left Mr. GeoK and my backpack. I emptied everything out of my pack (and his) and still couldn’t find the elusive device. It wasn’t that I needed it…it was that I was concerned about the very slight chance I’d dropped it on the highway when I leaned out the window to photograph a deer family (with my other camera). So Mr. GeoK took pity on me and we both went back to the parking area where I finally found what I was looking for, wedged between the passenger seat and centre console, almost impossible to see until I slid the seat all the way back. Anyhow, by the time we got back to where we’d first stopped to check out the little waterfalls, I’d covered 2.8 km going back and forth to the vehicle – a third of my total “hiking” distance for the day!!

We took our time moving along from the meadow to our favourite viewpoint / stopping point for lunch. Golden larch trees captured our attention. Pikas were busy gathering grasses and leaves, eating seeds and generally scurrying about. I also spotted a Ptarmigan just off the trail. And we noticed a fairly high flow rate in the stream as it comes down off Arethusa into the hanging valley.

We originally planned to turn back from our favourite picnic spot just northwest of Arethusa Cirque, but it was such a beautiful fall day that we decided to finish the loop instead of retracing our steps. That turned out to be a great decision. Not only did we get more exercise, spot more larch trees and generally enjoy more time outside, but for the first time in all the years we’ve been hiking here, we ventured up into a little cirque just at the base of Little Arethusa where we discovered a pretty tarn and a small field of cotton grass. We lingered here for quite a while, enjoying the view, checking out the impressions of early season ice left on the mud and taking photographs.

After soaking it all in, we finally made our way back to the meadow and then the parking lot, pausing only briefly for one last look to hold us until our next visit to Arethusa Cirque…



Total hiking distance = 8.8 km (including 2.8 km for back and forth to vehicle to look for phone)
Total elevation gain = 548 meters (318 net)
Total hiking time = 5 hours (including 2 hours 15 minutes for photography and lunch and a bit more for traveling the front part of the trail three times!)

6 thoughts on “Hiking Kananaskis Country – Arethusa Cirque

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    1. Yes, there’s one stretch where you’re making your way up through a boulder field, but it’s not really a scramble in the sense of any exposure or steep grade. If you do the loop from the main cirque around the hanging valley, for a couple of km the trail is quite faint as it crosses 3 scree slopes, too. But if you’re comfortable with that kind of terrain, definitely worth going!

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