* All photos taken by lotzacurls
* Day hike. Out, loop and back (lasso shaped). Trail not signed. Dogs must be leashed.
* Distance: Roughly 5 kms return (2.5 - 3 hrs total)
* Elevation gain: Roughly 350m
* Trailhead: On Hwy 40, 1.2 kms south of Ptarmigan Cirque parking lot (look for pullout on east side of hwy)
I’ve been wanting to do this hike for years now and was always hesitant because allegedly, it’s poorly marked. And so it is! Arethusa Cirque is an undesignated trail and is not maintained by Alberta Parks, as evidenced by lots of erosion and braiding. But one beautiful summer day, I decided to bite the bullet and I’m so glad that I did! Whichever time of year you choose to venture out on this trail, I can safely say this is one of the best bang-for-your-buck hikes I’ve been on. And I hike a lot.
During the larch season (mid-September to mid-October), this hike gets as crazy busy as a Saturday afternoon at IKEA. Arethusa Cirque is considered both a premier and easy larch hike, so you’ll have to keep your cool whilst searching for a spot in the small parking lot. Attendants are often on site to prevent visitors from parking on the shoulder.
Also, this section of Hwy 40 is closed from December 1st to June 15th (at the junction of hwys 40 and 742), so this is not a hike you can access in the winter for snowshoeing.
Make sure you purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass before coming out; the fine for parking without one is 180.00 $. As an undesignated trail, there won’t be an update on the Kananaskis Country Trail Report website, but check other websites beforehand (this trail does go through grizzly territory). Hike in a group, bring your bear spray and don’t forget your hiking poles (they’ll be your friends during the descent).
The trail begins at the far end of the parking lot and is very obvious throughout the forest. There are lots of roots on the climb up, so watch your footing; the path is steep enough to be dodgy and slippery when wet. From the parking lot, you’ll climb steadily for almost one km (about 20 minutes).
Emerge from the forest onto a meadow, with a small brook flowing in front of you. Now this is where you’ll have to do a bit of route finding. The elusive trail is surprisingly easy to spot throughout, but only if you’re on the right path to begin with.
At this meadow, the trail becomes a loop; you’ll eventually make your way back here. It's difficult to tell because of all the trail braiding, but you really have two choices:
1 - Go right (counter clockwise) for a gradual ascent and very steep downhill later on.
2 - Cross the small stream and go left (clockwise) for a very steep ascent, but a gradual downhill afterwards.
(Note: If it’s been raining or if there's snowmelt, I'd rather go left and up the steep slope than come down and risk a nasty fall). I chose to go right today, since conditions were bone dry. Look to your right for a trail that continues through the trees.
Going right means that the creek will stay on your left as you cross the meadow and approach an enormous boulder field.
Your goal is to pass this boulder pile and eventually curve around it; always keep it on your right. You’ll make several creek crossings over the next half-kilometre, but there are plenty of rocks to step on to avoid getting soakers. (Poles are a definite asset when crossing streams).
Passing by the boulder field, keep your eyes and ears open for pikas. These small mammals resemble rabbits, but with small round ears; they look like large hamsters. Pikas often make an adorable eep sound to communicate and can sometimes be spotted scurrying amongst the rocks.
Once past the boulders, you’ll see a faint trail leading up the rock pile. The terrain changes from earth-thumping dirt to clangy rocks as you gain altitude. This trail will lead you up between the boulder field and a rocky ledge on your left.
The path zigzags up onto the slender band of white rock (ledge in middle of photo on right).
Now for your second bit of route finding. Heading up this rock band (ledge), the trail didn’t easily ‘pop out’ among the rocks. Continually look ahead and around you for the trail, and it’ll be easy enough to spot. Look out for the odd cairn. Basically, your goal is to climb up the top of the ledge and to your left toward the high green meadow, so you can’t really go wrong. Switchbacks zigzag across to ease the grade, so none of it is very steep.
Once up at the top of the ridge, you’ll walk along a scree path. It’s a relatively easy path to walk, and once you hit another small boulder field, you’re almost done with the rocky terrain for today.
You can hear pikas here too, although they’re tough to spot and even harder to photograph.
At about 2.5 kms, leave the boulders behind and enter a lovely alpine meadow. To your right is an enormous cirque or bowl; that’s Mount Arethusa. You’ll go left for a mellow walk through the greenery, but take time to turn around and admire the scenery, what with those enormous rockwalls behind and to the right of you.
Keep your eyes open for grizzlies at this highest point of your hike; you’re on their turf now. Expansive views of the green Highwood Range stare right back at you.
You’ve walked about 3 kms in total by now; start looking out for a small stream. Once you cross it, go left onto the dirt trail immediately alongside it. Once again, there is lots of trail braiding on the way down, but keep heading downwards, keeping the creek on your left until you eventually arrive at the meadow.
You'll quickly lose altitude on the steep descent so watch your footing, as you’re unlikely to catch yourself if you fall forward. Again, poles are your friends!
After 20-25 minutes, you arrive at the end of the loop, where meadow and forest meet. You must cross the little creek one last time (look around for rocks to step over), hike the last 800m back to the parking lot, and voilà! Another gem of a hike to appreciate in beautiful K-Country. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
See you on the trails!
Other articles you might enjoy :