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 3.6 kilometre loop (if you include the interpretive trail) with 210 metres of elevation gain. There is the option to hike a section of the scramblers trail that heads for Mt. Rae. For a short hike it 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 though short is classified as a moderate hike because of the elevation gain. 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.
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.
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 Peak, Pocaterra Ridge and Mt. Tyrwhitt.
If you didn’t do the interpretive trail at the start of the hike do it at the end. It’s only 0.1 kilometres long each way on a boardwalk. Read the educational signs to learn about sub-alpine meadows and the growth rates of trees at altitude.
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.
Finding the trailhead for the Ptarmigan Cirque hike
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.
Other hikes you can do from Highwood Pass – and they are all exceptional include:
- The Grizzly Peak Hike in Kananaskis Country
- The Fantastic Pocaterra Ridge Hike in Kananaskis Country
- The Fabulous Arethusa Cirque Hike in Kananaskis Country
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