Arethusa Cirque is an extremely scenic short Kananaskis hike near the Highwood Pass. It’s not as well-known as the nearby Ptarmigan Cirque trail or the Pocaterra Ridge hike, but it offers a ton of varied Rocky Mountain scenery for a moderate amount of effort.
While hiking Arethusa Cirque trail any time of year is more than worth the effort, this trail is even more impressive in September. Arethusa Cirque is becoming increasingly popular, especially in early fall, as it is an excellent Kananaskis larch tree hike. If you time it right, you’ll enjoy hiking through large patches of golden larch trees along the base of a beautiful mountain cirque.
With exceptional scenery and an abundance of larch trees, Arethusa Cirque will continue to attract more and more hikers to this incredible Kananaskis larch hike! You should be one of them!
Arethusa Cirque Trail – Quick Details
Trailhead: Arethusa Cirque trailhead
Distance: 4.5 km loop
Elevation: 357 m elevation gain
What You’ll Find in This Article on Arethusa Cirque Hike in Banff:
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Arethusa Cirque Trail Highlights
The Arethusa Cirque hiking trail starts uphill at the far end of the parking lot, just before you reach a mountain stream. The lush forest surrounding the Arethusa Cirque trail is magical with a glowing green moss carpet. The sound of the mountain stream is never far away.
Throughout spring and summer, you’ll be treated to an abundance of wildflowers growing where the dappled sunlight allows. Towards the end of summer, you’ll see surprisingly huge mushrooms – much larger than you typically see in Kananaskis Country.
You’ll want to wear proper hiking shoes or boots when hiking Arethusa Cirque due to the abundance of protruding roots and rocks along the trail. The trail has odd side angles in spots, making good grips important for traction, especially if the hiking trail is wet.
After 0.5 km of a steady uphill climb, larch trees begin to appear along the side of the hiking trail. The trail starts to get rockier in spots, but it doesn’t last long.
You reach the loop portion of the Arethusa Cirque trail after 0.7 km of hiking. You emerge from the forest into an open meadow. Surrounded by the towering Rocky Mountains and a beautiful stream flowing through the meadow, this is one incredibly scenic spot in Kananaskis Country. In fall, when this is an excellent larch tree hike, the scenery is just that much better, if that’s even possible! It’s hard to tear yourself away from this spot.
As you stand at the entrance of the meadow in the Arethusa Cirque trail, Storm Mountain (3,095m) looms overhead on the right, Mount Arethusa (2,912m) is straight ahead, with Little Arethusa (2,767m) on the left. If you look behind you, you’ll be treated to a nice view of Highwood Ridge (2,697m).
The Arethusa Cirque hike becomes a loop at this stage, so you have your choice of directions. This trail can get confusing, as you can cross the stream and go left or up the middle. We prefer to hike Arethusa Cirque trail in a counterclockwise direction, so we follow the hiking trail to the right (without crossing the stream).
Going counterclockwise on the Arethusa Cirque trail means you get to follow the beautiful mountain stream (it will be on your left) with a huge pile of boulders fallen from Storm Mountain on your right. There are a few larch trees found scattered around the area.
After 1 km the Arethusa Cirque trail makes its first of several creek crossings. Many of the creek crossings are on small rocks, making a slip into the creek water a risk. Water resistant hiking shoes and an extra pair of dry socks will be a good idea for those with balance challenges (like me). When hiking with kids, they may need some help across.
Continue hiking straight as you approach the huge rock pile at the base of Storm Mountain. This is prime territory to see pikas – keep your ears open and listen for their telltale “eeeeeep” sound. Stay very still and quiet if you want a chance to see these small, incredibly cute critters. While you are standing still trying to spot a pika, look to the right for a large patch of larch trees.
As you walk through the rock pile, notice the prevalence of copper-coloured rocks. Then look up at the cliffs high above on Storm Mountain and you’ll see the bands of copper-coloured rocks where these boulders used to be.
You’ll reach a short, steep scramble after 1.3 km of hiking along the Arethusa Cirque trail. This section would not be fun to come down (hiking the loop clockwise) if the trail were slippery. There are several trails to choose from here and it’s easy to get off the trail. Having a trail map of Arethusa Cirque hike on a good hiking app is a good idea to help stay on course.
The best way to stay on the Arethusa Cirque trail is to hike up the bottom of the creek bed – the water flows well below the rocks at this stage of the hike. There will be a few small scramble elements to this leg of the hike, but most of it is reasonably easy hiking. Avoid the trails which zig-zag up the valley wall on the left.
If you are hiking Arethusa Cirque trail with kids, they’ll especially love this section. Many kids are natural little mountain goats and will take to exploring the rocky terrain all around. If they have a keen eye, they may even find some fossils (keep in mind that this is an Alberta Provincial Park and fossils cannot be removed).
Look to your left for another cluster of Kananaskis larch trees. With so many clusters of larch trees, it’s no wonder why Arethusa Cirque trail is becoming a popular larch tree hike in Kananaskis.
After 1.7 km of hiking Arethusa Cirque you’ll reach a grassy meadow at the end of the Storm Mountain rock pile and the rocky river valley you’ve been hiking. The hiking trail takes a sharp left here, although it’s not well marked. You’ll still hear pikas here, so keep your eyes and ears open.
This leg of the Arethusa Cirque trail has you walking along the edge of a ridge. You’ll be treated to great views of the valley below. In larch season, you’ll get an excellent view of the Kananaskis larch hike you’ve enjoyed so far.
Before long, you need to leave the ridge and hike up one additional layer of rock to the next level. The Arethusa Cirque hiking trail now leads you through a section of scree along the base of Storm Mountain. The scree makes for some slippery footing in spots, but it’s otherwise easy to traverse.
The Arethusa Cirque hike is a good Kananaskis hike to find fossils. If you keep your eyes open along this leg, it’s pretty easy to spot them. At a minimum, look along the larger rocks to see well defined fossils protruding. Please don’t touch so future generations can enjoy the fossils along the Arethusa Cirque trail.
When you’re not hunting for fossils, you won’t believe how beautiful the Kananaskis views are from this stretch of the Arethusa Cirque trail. This is another great pika spotting spot – you can hear them all around, but it’s hard to see the cute little guys.
You’ll leave the scree and enter a meadow at the 2.3 km mark of the Arethusa Cirque hike. Look to the right and you’ll see the mountain valley extends away from you much further in this spot. This is the perfect spot to have some fun with echoes!
This is the highest altitude point of the Arethusa Cirque hike, so it’s an easy walk through the meadow. There are a few small larch trees here and there, with excellent views of the surrounding Kananaskis mountains to the right and the larger patches of larch trees below.
The meadow is interrupted at the 2.6 km mark with another rock field, although it’s only 100m long and is pretty easy to walk through.
Small windswept coniferous trees and bushes grow in the meadow beyond the rock field. You can really see the impact the wind has on the trees growing in this meadow. It’s sometimes hard to find the trail here, so again having an Arethusa Cirque map on your phone really helps.
The Arethusa Cirque hike crosses another small stream after 3 km of hiking. Follow the hiking trail straight into the trees and avoid following the very first trail going downhill to the left.
At 3.1 km, you’ll arrive at a trail junction for several hikes in this area. Go straight for the Mount Arethusa Route or for the Little Arethusa Route (both trails leading to the respective summits). To continue along the Arethusa Cirque trail go left, starting downhill. From here, you’ll hear the mountain stream, see a few larch trees and soak in beautiful views of the first half of the Arethusa Cirque hike.
The Arethusa Cirque hiking trail becomes very steep downhill at the 3.4 km mark. You’ll be glad to be wearing proper hiking shoes or boots with good traction here. Hiking poles would also be beneficial. This steep section is only 200m long, but it can be somewhat dangerous if slippery. We’ve slipped several times along this stretch.
We always recommend staying on the hiking trail to reduce erosion, but if it’s necessary for your safety, you can walk in the grass next to the trail for better traction.
After the worst of the downhill, you’ll walk another 200m through a winding forest path with plenty of wildflowers before arriving at the end of the Arethusa Cirque loop. You’ll have one final creek crossing here to get to the trail back to the parking lot. It’s a long creek crossing over a downed log; cross carefully as it’s pretty easy to fall into the creek (I have!). The water is not deep but hiking with wet shoes and socks is not a lot of fun.
Retracing your steps for a final 800m and you’ll be back at the Arethusa Cirque trail parking lot!
Arethusa Cirque Trailhead
The Arethusa Cirque trailhead is found in a small, unmarked gravel parking lot just 1.4 km south of the Ptarmigan Cirque parking lot (on the east side of the road).
The Arethusa Cirque trailhead is just over 1 hour and 20 minutes from Banff and 1 hour and 40 minutes from Calgary. You reach the Arethusa parking lot by taking the TransCanada Highway 1 to Kananaskis Trail (Highway 40). You’ll head south on Highway 40 for approximately 68 km before reaching the parking lot on your left.
The Arethusa Cirque parking lot will get extremely busy during larch season. If you’d like to improve your odds of getting a coveted parking spot during the Kananaskis larch season, consider staying overnight at the 4-star Kananaskis Mountain Lodge in Kananaskis Village. The Kananaskis Mountain Lodge is a mere 35-minute drive to the excellent Highwood Pass larch hikes. After a day of hiking among golden larches, soothe your sore muscles at the Kananaskis Nordic Spa.
Keep in mind that this section of Highway 40 is closed from December 1st to June 14th every year.
Arethusa Cirque Hike Stats
How Long is the Arethusa Cirque Hike?
The round-trip distance of the Arethusa Cirque trail is just over 4.6 km. This hike can be done as a loop going in either direction, though we prefer to go counter-clockwise.
We’ve heard some people taking a trail up the middle (once you reach the meadow after the first 0.8 km and cross the creek) as an out-and-back or using this trail as part of a loop. AllTrails has this marked as Arethusa Shortcut Route.
While this might make for an easier hike, you’ll miss a very large section that makes this Kananaskis hike incredible.
How Hard is the Hike to Arethusa Cirque?
Due to the length and incline, we rate the Arethusa Cirque hike as “easy-to-moderate”.
We are referring to the entire loop of the Arethusa Cirque and not taking the middle shortcut route. At 4.6 km and 357 m elevation gain, the Arethusa Cirque trail is an easy trail but it’s not without its challenging sections.
Keep in mind that there are also some very steep sections, but they are short and can be managed. Don’t let this scare you, this is still a relatively easy hike to the cirque.
There are also some creek crossings where you’ll need to hop across rocks or balance on logs. It’s best to know what you are getting yourself into!
How Long Does the Arethusa Cirque Hike Take?
It should take a typical adult 2-3 hours to hike to Arethusa Cirque. That includes time to stop for lunch and taking pictures along the way.
We did this hike with our two kids (8 and 6 years old) and it took us 2.5 hours. This included searching for fossils along the way and looking for pikas.
Arethusa Cirque Trail Map
The Arethusa Cirque trail isn’t always easy to follow. If this is your first time doing the trail, we recommend you have a map you can follow.
To find the Arethusa Cirque trail map in Alltrails, simply search for “Arethusa Cirque Route”. Be sure to download your hiking maps prior to leaving.
Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!
This hike isn’t an official hike (at least not the entire loop), so unfortunately it’s not found on the Gem Trek hiking maps.
Hiking Arethusa Cirque Trail with Kids
We first hiked Arethusa Cirque without our kids during larch season. Our kids are decent hikers and we knew they would enjoy this hike. Given the short distance, plus the opportunity to climb on the rocks while looking for pikas made this an ideal family hike in Kananaskis.
When we came back to hike Arethusa Cirque with our kids, they especially loved traversing the rock section where they could search for fossils. We recommend leaving some extra time for this.
The only challenges we found on the way, hiking with our 8 and 6 year old, were the creek crossings and the final steep section. The rocks we used for crossing the creek were just a bit too far apart, but we were able to assist the kids across.
On the final steep section, they both slipped and fell a couple of times on the way down as it was muddy the day we went.
Don’t miss these other best Banff day-hikes with kids.
Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break
This is a relatively short hike, so it’s possible to do without needing to stop for lunch or a break. However, with the incredible views, we recommend finding a big rock along the way to stop and take it all in. The views from the open meadow at the top makes for a great spot to stop.
Arethusa Cirque Hiking Safety
Rocks, roots, boulders and creek crossings PLUS a very steep descent means keeping a keen eye on where you are placing your feet! Take it slowly and it’s all easily manageable.
It’s also important to educate yourself on Bear Safety in Kananaskis. This should entail carrying bear spray, hiking in a group and making plenty of noise on the way up. It’s not unusual to encounter grizzly bears in this area when larch season is upon us. To make matters worse, the bears are focused on fattening up before the winter so make a lot of noise as you hike.
Cougars also live in Banff National Park. Learn more about Cougar Safety.
Chances of a dangerous wildlife encounter in Kananaskis are very low, but you never know what will happen with Kananaskis wildlife, so be prepared.
We recommend you check the Peter Lougheed trail report wildlife warnings and possible closures before you head out.
Arethusa Cirque Trail Logistics
- On-leash dogs are allowed on the Arethusa Cirque hike.
- Mountain biking is not allowed on the Arethusa Cirque trail.
- There are no toilets at the Arethusa Cirque parking lot but there are toilets at the nearby Highwood Meadows parking lot.
- Plan to pack plenty of water and snacks for this hike. Fill your hydration packs before you leave.
- You won’t get cell service for the entirety of your hike, so don’t count on it for your safety.
What to Bring for Hiking Arethusa Cirque trail
This isn’t a very long hike, so you don’t need to be as prepared with all the proper hiking gear. Check out our list of hiking essentials with the hiking gear and clothing we recommend to get the most enjoyment out of your hike, regardless of the variable Kananaskis weather and trail conditions. The Arethusa Cirque trail is a short Kananaskis hike, but there are still a few items that we recommend bringing:
- Bear spray is a must for your safety. Cannisters are available to buy or rent at many locations in Canmore and Banff. Carry your bear spray in an easily accessible location.
- Water – the Arethusa Cirque trail has some climbing, so make sure you bring enough water. A hydration pack is an effective and eco-conscious way to bring enough water for a hard hike.
- We don’t use trekking poles, but they can help with balance and to take pressure off knees on the descent
- Bring several layers of clothing with you. The weather can be quite variable hiking in Kananaskis, no matter the season. Keep in mind the elevation of Highwood Pass as well, as it will be much cooler temperatures at this higher elevation. Also, if you enjoy this hike during larch season, the sun will be lower in the sky and you may be in shade for most of the hike. Bring a daybag as you can expect to put on and take off layers all day.
Arethusa Cirque Footwear Recommendation
You don’t have to go far for incredible views on this hike!
Other Alberta Larch Hikes
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Celine Brewer, a local Canmore resident, is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada. She has a passion for being out in the mountains any time of year. In the summer, you'll often find her hiking or mountain biking. In the winter, she enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking the most.
As much as she loves the mountains, she also loves travel! When she's not playing outdoors at home, she's either traveling the world with her husband and two kids or working on their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.