Arethusa Cirque Hike- Kananaskis Country

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Arethusa Cirque Trail in Kananaskis Country is a scenic loop framed by impressive rocky mountains, including its namesake Mount Arethusa. During the Arethusa Cirque hike, you’ll first get to visit a beautiful meadow, then overlook a valley full of larch trees from higher ground.

Larch trees and mountains seen from Arethusa Cirque Trail.

The full Arethusa Cirque route crosses the meadow then proceeds to higher elevation where you will traverse a scree covered slope along the edge of the cirque. For those who want a short, easier hike, you can skip the loop and just do the out and back trail to the meadow (will be just shy of 1 km).

Larch trees and mountains framing the meadow at Arethusa Cirque.

Arethusa Cirque Hike 

Distance: 4.5 km round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 250 m

Surface: Packed dirt, scree

Trail Type: Loop

Time: 2- 3 hours

Trailhead: East side of Highway 40 about 1.4 km southeast of the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area at Highwood Pass. Trailhead is unmarked.

Track log/map of the Arethusa Cirque route.
Track log/map of Arethusa Cirque Trail

Arethusa Cirque Trail Description

The Arethusa Cirque hike begins from an informal parking lot beside Highway 40. There is no signage marking the parking lot or the trailhead, since the Arethusa Cirque hike is on an unofficial trail that Alberta Parks doesn’t maintain or promote.

Informal parking lot at the Arethusa Cirque trailhead.

Arethusa Cirque Trail departs from the north end of the parking lot (the far side opposite where you drove in) and immediately enters into the forest.

Arethusa Cirque trailhead at the edge of the forest.

The trail makes a gentle ascent and soon larch trees start coming into view.

Dirt trail in the forest.

A short distance later the trail reaches the edge of the forest where there’s a stream leading towards the meadow. 

Stream beside a dirt trail with a mountain in the background.

Here at the end of the meadow, there’s a trail junction giving you the option to go clockwise or counterclockwise around the loop. There’s also a trail on the north side of the meadow that cuts right through the middle of the loop. On maps this path is labelled as the “Arethusa Cirque Shortcut Route” and provides a way to hike a smaller loop.

Meadow, pond, and yellow larch trees at Arethusa Cirque.

As for which direction to hike the Arethusa Cirque route, both ways are beautiful. If you keep left at the fork to go clockwise you’ll be ascending a steep hill, but if you keep right and go counterclockwise you’ll be descending that steep hill during the last half of the hike. 

Going counterclockwise, follow the trail along the south edge of the tree-framed meadow. There are some wonderful mountain views in almost every direction and you may even catch some nice reflections in the small pond.

Larch trees and mountains framing the meadow at Arethusa Cirque.
Yellow larch trees and mountains framing the pond at Arethusa Cirque.

Keeping straight, you’ll pass alongside some larch trees as the trail leads towards the mountains. 

Arethusa Cirque Trail leading past larch trees and towards the mountains.

At the end of the meadow you’ll reach a large pile of loose rock that has broken off the mountainside. Keep on the trail as it proceeds between the boulder pile and the stream.

Stream with trees and a mountain ridge in the background.
Looking back in the direction of the meadow
Rock pile beside a stream with a mountain ridge in the background.

Soon you’ll come to what looks like a dead end because the rock pile is now touching/partially covering the stream. Instead of going straight and boulder hopping, look for a dirt path to your left that goes into the trees. To get on that path, cross the narrow stream by using the rocks as stepping stones.

Stream in between a rock pile and forest.
Stream beside the forest with a mountain in the background.

On the other side of the stream, the trail briefly zigzags through the trees before once again crossing the water to return to the side closest to the rock pile. 

Rock pile beside a stream with Little Arethusa mountain in the background.

Now you’ll need to make your way along the bottom of the boulder-covered slope (there’s a vague path to follow). Keep watch for a small waterfall in the forest to your left.

Trail beside a boulder covered slope.
Small waterfall flowing down from the forest.

As the trail climbs, make sure you stop every so often to look behind you because there are nice views now that you’ve gained some elevation. 

Rock pile, forest, and mountains.
Rock pile, forest, and mountains.

Further ahead the trail moves away from the boulders and starts climbing up a hill covered with scree. This will take you a little bit off track of what hiking apps show as the trail, but that’s okay because this is the more frequented route.

Hiker on Arethusa Cirque Trail going up a scree covered slope.

Keep on the well-trodden trail as it goes north up the hill, then turn right to continue straight towards the mountain. There will be wonderful views of peaks all around as well as the forested valley you are ascending from.

Hiker going up a scree covered slope on Arethusa Cirque Trail.
View of the forest, mountains, and rock pile.

As you get closer to the east side of the cirque, the trail disappears so there’s not a clear route to follow. Basically you need to walk towards the bowl in front of Storm Mountain, then turn left to go uphill towards the scree-covered slope below the towering peak. 

Hiker walking towards a bowl at the base of a snow-dusted mountain.
A towering rocky peak.

Keep watch for a more distinct path, but make sure you don’t take one that puts you at or below the treeline. Once you find your way onto the scree, there’s a clear trail to follow across the slope at the edge of the cirque.

Arethusa Cirque Trail crossing a scree-covered slope.
Arethusa Cirque Trail on a scree-covered slope.

From this rocky path along the border of the cirque there are stunning views of the surrounding peaks, including Mount Arethusa and Little Arethusa, as well as Highwood Ridge. You can also look out over the tree-filled valley below, which is extra beautiful in autumn when the larch trees have turned golden yellow.

Forest and mountains seen from Arethusa Cirque Trail.
Larch forest in Arethusa Cirque with mountains in the background.
Looking down on a forest with yellow larch trees.

Keep walking across the slope until you come to the north end of the cirque. The trail turns left and proceeds through an almost barren patch of land below Mount Arethusa.

Hiker on Arethusa Cirque Trail walking towards a mountain.
Mount Arethusa at the end of the cirque.

As you hike along the rolling, rocky landscape at the end of the cirque, you’ll get some great views of Highwood Ridge across the valley to your left, Little Arethusa straight ahead, and Mount Arethusa to your right. The mountains behind you have some interesting features too.

Little Arethusa and Mount Arethusa.
Little Arethusa and Mount Arethusa
Larch forest and mountains seen while hiking the Arethusa Cirque Route.
Highwood Ridge
Mountains framing Arethusa Cirque.
Looking back at the peak you just hiked under

Next up the trail crosses a field of loose rock near the midpoint of the cirque. On the other side of the rock you’ll be back on grass for easier walking.

Arethusa Cirque Trail crossing a rock field.
Hiker crossing a rock field on Arethusa Cirque Trail.

Continuing along the north end of the cirque, the trail passes by some small larch trees as you get closer to Little Arethusa. There are still marvellous mountain views in every direction.

Small trees around Arethusa Cirque Trail.
Mount Arethusa.
Yellow larch trees at the end of the cirque.

At the northwest corner of the cirque you’ll come to a trail junction. Keeping straight will take you up to Little Arethusa peak and turning left will take you downhill along the west side of Arethusa Cirque. Go left to complete the Arethusa Cirque route.

Larch trees beside Arethusa Cirque Trail.

During this next section of the Arethusa Cirque hike you’ll be making a steep descent between a gully and the edge of the forest. As you make your way downhill you can see the areas you hiked earlier along the south and east sides of the cirque.

Trail going downhill towards a mountain.
Arethusa Cirque Trail between a steep gully and forest.
Mountains and forest with larch trees.

Eventually the trail enters into the forest and becomes less steep as it continues to descend towards the meadow.

Trail in the forest beside a creek bed.

Once you arrive back at the meadow, that completes the loop of the Arethusa Cirque route. If you want, spend some time relaxing in this picturesque spot before continuing downhill on the forested trail you hiked in on to return to the parking area.

Meadow and mountains at Arethusa Cirque.

Review of the Arethusa Cirque Hike

Arethusa Cirque Trail is one of the top larch hikes in Kananaskis, but it also would be rewarding at other times of the year thanks to the panoramic views. You may even see some mountain sheep while hiking around the cirque.

Larch trees in Arethusa Cirque with mountains in the background.

A nice thing about this hike is that there are options- you can do a quick jaunt to the meadow, shorten the loop by taking the shortcut trail, or do the full Arethusa Cirque route. No matter what you choose, you will get to experience the beautiful scenery of Arethusa Cirque.

Mountains framing the forest in Arethusa Cirque.

Since this is an unofficial trail, it’s not maintained or marked with signs. For the most part, an easy to follow trail has been established by other hikers. However, there are a few points where basic route finding might be needed (the transition from the south to the east side of the cirque comes to mind), and some people have reported going up the shortcut route by accident. 

Snow-dusted mountains around Arethusa Cirque.

Pictures of the Arethusa Cirque Route

Here are some more photos of the Arethusa Cirque hike.

Dirt trail in the forest.
Forested trail at the start of the hike
Meadow, larch trees, and mountains at Arethusa Cirque.
Proceeding east through the meadow
Larch trees beginning to change from green to yellow.
Larch trees on the perimeter of the meadow
Stream beside a rock pile.
Crossing the stream beside the rock pile
Rock pile, forest and mountains.
View seen from the bottom of the hill at the southeast end of the cirque
Rock pile, forest, and mountains.
Going up hill and enjoying views of Highwood Ridge (L) and Little Arethusa (R)
Bowl below a snow-dusted mountain.
Stopping at the bowl below Storm Mountain
Arethusa Cirque Trail leading across a scree slope.
Heading across the scree slope
Arethusa Cirque Trail and mountain peaks overlooking the forest.
View of Little Arethusa and Mount Arethusa from the scree trail
Looking out over the larch forest in the cirque.
Overlooking the larch forest
Arethusa Cirque Trail crossing a scree slope towards a mountain.
Still crossing the rocky slope
Hiker on Arethusa Cirque Trail walking towards a mountain.
View of the larch forest and mountains seen on the Arethusa Cirque hike.
More views of the forest and Highwood Ridge
Rock covered slope below a rocky, towering peak.
Hiking below the peak
View overlooking the larch forest seen during the Arethusa Cirque hike.
View seen while hiking along the north end of the cirque
Rocky mountains framing the cirque.
Looking back at the east end of the cirque
Hiker on the Arethusa Cirque Route.
Hiking towards another scree slope at the north end of the cirque
Arethusa Cirque Trail leading towards Little Arethusa mountain.
Trail crossing the north end of the cirque towards Little Arethusa
Little Arethusa and Mount Arethusa.
Getting closer to Little Arethusa and Mount Arethusa at the northwest corner of the cirque
Mountains towering above the forest in the cirque.
View of the south side of the cirque
Small larch trees with a mountain in the background.
Looking towards Highwood Ridge
Mountains framing the cirque.
More views looking back at the east side of the cirque
Small trees beside the trail.
Almost at the trail junction where the Little Arethusa route begins
Arethusa Cirque Trail going downhill with mountains in the background.
Going downhill along the west side of the cirque
Steep gully overlooked by a mountain.
Steep gully beside the trail
Mountain views seen while descending the trail.
Scenery during the descent
Pond and larch trees in the mountain framed meadow at Arethusa Cirque.
Back at the meadow to complete the loop

Tips for Hiking Arethusa Cirque Trail

Location: Arethusa Cirque is located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. The trailhead is a short distance southeast of the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area/Highwood Pass parking lot, on the east side of Highway 40.

Getting to the Arethusa Cirque Trailhead: From Highway 1, turn south onto Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail). Follow it past the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area at Highwood Pass and continue about 1.4 km until you see a dirt trail and informal parking area on the left hand side next to the road. The turn off is not marked. 

  • Highway 40 is closed south of the Kananaskis Lakes Trail junction from December 1 to June 15.

Best Time to Hike Arethusa Cirque Trail: Arethusa Cirque can only be accessed from June 15- December 1 due to a seasonal closure of the stretch of highway that goes to the trailhead. July through September is the best time to hike Arethusa Cirque Trail, but it’s especially beautiful during the last two weeks of September when the larch needles turn yellow. 

  • It’s not recommended to hike this trail when wet/muddy because the steep parts would be very slippery.

Kananaskis Conservation Pass: To park in Kananaskis Country you need to purchase a daily or annual Kananaskis Conservation Pass. It can easily be bought online and is registered to your licence plate (there’s no physical pass to be displayed in your vehicle). You can also purchase a pass at the Kananaskis Visitor Information Centre on Highway 40 (in person or by using the WiFi). 

Facilities: None. The closest outhouses are at the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area/Highwood Pass parking lot.

Visitor Guidelines and Safety: This hike is in bear country so bring bear spray, make noise while hiking, and educate yourself on what to do if you encounter one. 

  • Stay on established trails to help protect the fragile alpine environment.
  • Weather changes quickly in the mountains so come prepared with layers.
  • If you use a hiking app, download your trail map ahead of time since there’s no cell service. 
  • Leave no trace by packing out your garbage. 

Gear and What to Bring: Wear hiking boots with a sturdy sole and ankle support. Hiking poles are nice to have for the descent.

Mountains framing the cirque.

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