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You’ll pass several waterfalls on the way down from Ptarmigan Cirque
You’ll pass several waterfalls on the way down from Ptarmigan Cirque

Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country

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If you want a short hike that delivers superlative mountain scenery in short order do the popular Ptarmigan Cirque hike in Kananaskis Country. It’s a 4.5 km loop (if you include the interpretive trail) with a family-friendly 214 m of elevation gain. There is the option to hike a section of the scramblers trail that heads for Mt. Rae.

Note that the Ptarmigan Cirque hike is only open – when the road over Highwood Pass is open which is from June 15th until December 1st. Check Kananaskis trail reports before you go as the Ptarmigan Cirque trail does get closed if there is bear activity. Also be sure to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

The Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country
The hike to the cirque starts from the parking lot at the top of Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country

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The perfect hike for out-of-town guests new to the mountains

For a short outing, the Ptarmigan Cirque hike delivers a tremendous variety of scenery – including coniferous forests, high alpine meadows, mountains and waterfalls. It’s the perfect hike to take your out of town guests who want a taste of the mountains without spending a full day in them. And it’s a great one for families too.

The hike takes you across the highway at the summit - at an elevation of 2206 m
The hike takes you across the highway at the summit – at an elevation of 2206 m

The hike though short is classified as a moderate hike by some because of the elevation gain though I think it’s an easy one. Most of the vertical gain occurs in the first kilometre. After that you reach the meadows and the grade moderates to one where you won’t hear your heart pounding in your ears.

Ptarmigan Cirque hike description

Round trip distance: 4.5 km loop

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Elevation gain: 214 m (702 feet)

Highpoint: 2420 m (7938 feet)

Time needed: 1.5 – 2.5 hours

Map: Gem Trek – Kananaskis Lakes

The trail is a snap to follow. When you reach a T-junction go straight and hike the loop in a clockwise direction. (See the map below.) Make your way through wildflower studded meadows – noting glacier lilies, alpine forget-me-nots and Indian paintbrush to name a few flowers.

In short order you reach a sign with a hiker on it. It’s worthwhile to continue on this scramblers trail to an obvious high point where you’ll want to pull out a picnic lunch. If you were to continue on the trail you would access Mt. Rae.

The steepest part of the hike is at the start
The steepest part of the hike is at the start
Depending on when you hike you may see these glacier lilies - a flower you can eat
Depending on when you hike you may see these glacier lilies – a flower you can eat
Meadows are filled with wildflowers in the summer
Meadows are filled with wildflowers in the summer
The Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country
Our friends at the turnoff to the scramblers route up Mt Rae
There is the option to do and up and down hike to get a better view
There is the option to do and up and down hike to get a better view; it also is the scramblers access route to Mt Rae
Into a world of rock - and the occasional marmot
Into a world of rock – and the occasional marmot
Some people like poles for the descent on the scree
Some people like poles for the descent on the scree

Retrace your steps to the main trail, being careful on the descent through the scree that you don’t go over on your ankle. Once back on the main trail it’s lovely hiking – first across a creek above a pretty waterfall and then through patches of scree and meadows – all the while enjoying views across to Grizzly Ridge, Pocaterra Ridge and Mt. Tyrwhitt.

The Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country
You’ll pass several waterfalls on the way downYou get the best view of the Ptarmigan cirque on the descentYou get the best view of the cirque on the descent
The Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country
Enjoy views across the highway of Pocaterra Ridge (on the right), Grizzly Ridge (partially visible on the left) and Mt. Tyrwhitt at the back on the left
Map of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike
Map of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike

Hike the short Interpretive Trail 

If you didn’t do the interpretive trail at the start of the hike do it at the end. It’s only 0.1 km long each way on a boardwalk. Read the educational signs to learn about sub-alpine meadows and the growth rates of trees at altitude.

Add a short optional hike on an interpretative trail
Add a short optional hike on an interpretative trail 

The most scenic short hike in Kananaskis Country

The Ptarmigan trail is the most scenic, short trail I’ve hiked to date in Kananaskis Country. Even though its short, go prepared as the weather changes quickly in the high alpine. 

Take a warm coat even if you start out on a hot day. Don’t forget the bear spray either. Grizzlies frequent this area. In fact we saw a mother grizzly and her three cubs just off the highway, several kilometres to the north, both driving to the pass and on the way home.

Dogs are allowed on this trail but KEEP them on a leash or you risk a significant fine. Don’t expect a  warning. The park ranger makes a daily trip to this area and won’t hesitate to write you a ticket.

Ptarmigan Cirque trailhead location 

From Calgary drive west on Highway 1 to reach the exit for Highway 40. Drive south on Highway 40 for approximately 67 kilometres to the top of Highwood Pass – the highest public road in Canada.

Park at the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area parking lot on the west side of Hwy 40. (There are washrooms here.) Start right from the parking lot on the Highwood Meadows Interpretive Trail boardwalk. In short order look for a trailhead sign for Ptarmigan Cirque. It will take you across the highway.

A few things to take on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail

I like something comfortable to sit on at lunch time and swear by my almost weightless seat cushion.

The older I get the more I like using hiking poles. Invest in a good pair that are collapsible, preferably made of carbon because of their weightless quality.

No matter how the day starts I always carry rain gear. And I find a ball cap or brim hat with a chin strap invaluable in the rain or on a hot, in your face sunny day.

I always pack a buff as it’s a multi-purpose piece of cloth – good for covering your face or head yet it takes up almost no room.

A pocket wildflower guide comes in handy on this hike.

Location map

                       

Other hikes you can do from Highwood Pass – and they are all exceptional include:

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country

 

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