Hike from Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada, to Ptarmigan Cirque for wildflowers in summer, larches in fall, and a pretty little waterfall.
It’s not every day that little kids can hike to alpine terrain without assistance (unless they’re mountain goats), but at Ptarmigan Cirque, they can! Starting from Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada, you get above treeline in only 2 kilometres and enter a beautiful alpine meadow. The cirque, carved by glaciers, dominates the view straight ahead, but there are other wonders for the eyes. A sparkling stream, small waterfalls, wildflowers, and peaks in all directions await.
While adults may complete the hike in 1.5 hours, allow 2 – 3 hours with children.
Hike Ptarmigan Cirque in July to see wildflowers, and mid to late September for larches.
Ptarmigan Cirque Route Description
From Highwood Pass, head north on the Highwood Meadows Trail to the Ptarmigan Cirque turnoff. Carefully cross Highway 40, then make your way up through the trees to the cirque. The first kilometre is fairly steep with 200 metres of elevation gain, but the preschoolers in our group had no difficulty at all! In fact, they would have hiked quicker if we hadn’t stopped them every few minutes to take photos.
Once you leave the trees, the trail flattens out and the views open up. Since the alpine meadow is so fragile – it is covered in snow for half the year – be sure to stay on the trail. If you need a break, there are lots of rocks to sit on near the creek and waterfall. From here, you have the option to continue on the loop, or hike to the back of the basin. While my party snacked, I jogged to the back, but didn’t notice a major improvement in the view. (Note: Ambitious hikers may scramble Mount Rae from here, but this scramble is not suitable for young children.)
Carrying on, keep your eyes open for fossils (near trail marker #8) and patches of snow that linger until mid summer. After signpost #12, the trail rejoins the trail you came up on. It is a quick hike down, so be sure to keep the kids close as you approach the highway, and cross very carefully. If you still have energy, the Highwood Meadows interpretive trail is a pleasant 500-metre stroll with no elevation gain.
Ptarmigan Cirque is the best short hike in Kananaskis! It is deep in the heart of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, but well worth the drive with a lot to see over a short distance. Go in July for the wildflowers or in mid to late September to see golden larches.
Ptarmigan Cirque Trail At a Glance
- Distance: 4.5 km loop
- Elevation Gain: 210 m
- Stroller friendly? No
- Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (short and steep)
- Parking and Washrooms: Highwood Meadows Day Use
- When to go: July to mid/late October, weather/avalanche conditions permitting
Download the Alberta Parks Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail brochure before you go, so you can read the info at each trail marker.
Highwood Meadows Day Use is located 1 hour 40 minutes SW of Calgary on Highway 40. Please observe the 90 km/hr speed limit and watch for wildlife.
The parking lot fills up quickly on the weekend. Arrive early in the morning, or in late afternoon when people are leaving. Do not park on the side of the highway!
What to Bring
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Good hiking boots, a down hoody or fleece, toque, gloves, and windproof/waterproof shell are recommended year round. Trekking poles are useful for long hikes, steep descents, or when you’re carrying a heavy pack. You should also carry The Ten Essentials including: water, extra food, extra clothes, a first aid kit, headlamp, GPS / compass, and map of the area, sunscreen (this mineral sunscreen is fragrance free, paraben free, and reef-friendly), bug spray (this Deet-free one contains 20% icaridin and will repel ticks), and bear spray. Carry bear spray in a Bear Spray Holster or Scat Griz Bear Spray Running Belt.
A Garmin inReach Mini 2 satellite communicator is highly recommended for contacting Search & Rescue and emergency contacts in the event of an emergency, or communicating with friends and family when you are out of cell phone range. You can send text messages and your GPS coordinates via satellite (but a monthly plan is required)!
In late fall, we recommend traction devices such as Kahtoola Microspikes (available from Amazon and MEC), or Hillsound Trail Crampons (available at Amazon and Sport Chek) and trekking poles with snow baskets. Base layers, insulated winter boots, a down jacket and windproof/waterproof shell (or insulated ski jacket / parka), gloves or mittens, and toque are cold weather must-haves. See our fall / winter hiking gear guide for product recommendations.