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The Ptarmigan Cirque hike is a popular short hike in Kananaskis Country that is known for its wildflowers in early summer and larch trees in the fall.
Since Ptarmigan Cirque Trail starts at Highwood Pass, the highest point in Canada accessible by paved road, it offers a quick route into the alpine, reaching an elevation approximately 2400 m above sea level.
From the cliff-framed meadow in the amphitheatre you can enjoy wide views of the surrounding mountains and ridges including Mount Rae, Mount Arethusa, Little Arethusa, Mount Tyrwhitt, Highwood Ridge, and Pocaterra Ridge.
Ptarmigan Cirque Hike
Distance: 3.7 km round trip
Elevation Gain: 193 m
Surface: Dirt with exposed rocks and roots, some gravel and scree at the far end of the cirque
Trail Type: Out and back with a loop
Time: 1.5- 2 hours
Trailhead: Highwood Meadows Day Use Area at Highwood Pass
Ptarmigan Cirque Trail Description
The Ptarmigan Cirque hike begins at the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area. In the parking lot near the trailhead you’ll see a bulletin board with some brief information about the hike and a map of Ptarmigan Cirque Trail.
Upon departing the parking lot and crossing over a wooden bridge, you’ll be following Highwood Meadows Trail until it arrives at Ptarmigan Cirque Trail about 0.4 km later.
As you hike through the meadow beside the highway, follow the path as it makes a slight curve towards the road. You’ll soon come to a trail junction just before a wooden boardwalk. Turn right here then walk across the highway.
On the other side of the road you’ll now be on Ptarmigan Cirque Trail. Right away the path starts to ascend above the ditch, beginning the steady climb to Ptarmigan Cirque.
As you leave the road behind, you’ll be embarking on an uphill walk through a forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. There are some exposed roots on the trail so be careful not to trip.
At first there’s nothing really to look at except trees, but as you get higher on the trail some mountains can be seen through gaps in the forest.
Eventually the trail arrives at a viewpoint at the edge of a meadow and valley. From here you can see Little Arethusa mountain and Highwood Ridge, as well as larch trees on the mountainsides.
After the viewpoint the trail heads away from the valley and goes back into the forest. Soon you’ll arrive at a junction where Ptarmigan Cirque Trail splits into a loop. The loop is to be hiked clockwise only (as indicated by a sign saying “One Way Do Not Enter”), so keep left at the junction.
The trail continues to climb and it’s not long until you reach a meadow above the treeline. There are some nice mountain views to enjoy as you finish the ascent to Ptarmigan Cirque.
Now that you’ve reached the amphitheatre, the trail levels out as it traverses the rolling meadows of Ptarmigan Cirque. As you hike towards the limestone cliffs of Mount Rae you’ll see small trees whose growth has been stunted by the harsh alpine environment.
From the trail you’ll also get a wonderful view of the larch trees and mountains that frame Highwood Pass.
Keep following the path towards the end of the cirque, making sure to appreciate the views of Mount Rae, Mount Arethusa, and the scenic meadow they overlook.
At the upper end of the loop you’ll reach a terminal moraine and the highest point on Ptarmigan Cirque Trail. Here the trail turns right and crosses some rocks then a small stream. If you lose sight of the path in the rocks just look for a sign marking the way.
Now that you’re on the east side of the cirque, the trail crosses over some more fallen rock then gradually descends along the edge of the meadow.
This is one of the most scenic parts of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike because you get a gorgeous panoramic view of Mount Tyrwhitt, Pocaterra Ridge, and Pocaterra Cirque on the other side of Highwood Pass.
Nearing the end of the loop the trail passes by a rocky gorge, then a small group of larch trees before descending towards the forest.
Once you’re back in the trees, you’ll soon come to the junction where the loop began. Turn left and follow the forested trail downhill all the way back to the highway. Cross the road then retrace your steps along Highwood Meadows Trail to return to the parking lot.
Review of the Ptarmigan Cirque Hike
The Ptarmigan Cirque hike is a great choice if you’re looking for a short hike in Kananaskis that has some elevation gain but isn’t too strenuous.
The trail has a nice mix of scenery from forests and mountains to meadows and moraine. The highlight is the sweeping views you get of the Highwood Pass area, including Pocaterra Cirque across the road.
Compared to other Kananaskis larch hikes, Ptarmigan Cirque doesn’t have as high a density of larch trees. There are some larch at the edge of the forest and scattered throughout the meadow, but for the most part you’ll be admiring groups of them in nearby valleys and on distant mountainsides.
Even outside of larch season, the Ptarmigan Cirque hike is well worth doing and offers big rewards for only a moderate amount of effort.
Tips for Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque Trail
Location: Ptarmigan Cirque is located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. The trailhead is at the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area/Highwood Pass parking lot beside Highway 40.
Getting to the Ptarmigan Cirque Trailhead: From Highway 1, turn south onto Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail) and follow it to the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area at Highwood Pass. The parking lot will be on the right. If the lot is full, you’ll likely see vehicles parked on the sides of the road.
- Highway 40 is closed south of the Kananaskis Lakes Trail junction from December 1 to June 15.
Best Time to Hike Ptarmigan Cirque Trail: Ptarmigan 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 Ptarmigan Cirque Trail, but it’s most beautiful in early summer when you can see wildflowers in bloom and during the last two weeks of September when the larch needles turn yellow.
Interpretive Brochure: Ptarmigan Cirque Trail is an interpretive hike, but instead of information panels along the route, there are numbered posts that correspond to sections in the brochure. You can download it from the Alberta Parks website here.
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: There are outhouses and a picnic table at the trailhead 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. Bears are known to frequent the Highwood Pass area, including Ptarmigan Cirque.
- Avoid going off trail 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. If the bins at the trailhead are full, take your garbage home with you.
Gear and What to Bring: Wear hiking boots or shoes with a sturdy sole. Hiking poles are nice to have for the descent but aren’t essential unless you have bad knees.
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