Hiking Arethusa Cirque Trail in Kananaskis

Author: Celine Brewer

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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.

The Arethusa Cirque trail is one of the best larch hikes in Kananaskis
Dan walking through the larch trees along Arethusa Cirque trail in Kananaskis.

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

Arethusa Cirque has an extensive forest of Subalpine larch trees (Larix lyallii)
Golden larches in late September at Arethusa Cirque.

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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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike is a fun activity for kids in Kananaskis Country
Hiking Arethusa Cirque with kids.

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.

Wildflowers of Kananaskis Country, Alberta

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.

The meadow at the beginning of the loop on the Arethusa Cirque trail is an incredibly scenic spot in Kananaskis, Caanda
Stunning mountain views along Arethusa Cirque trail.

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).

Larch hikes near Highwood Pass, Alberta
Larches scattered near the mountain stream on Arethusa Cirque trail in Kananaskis.

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.

Golden larch trees still hang onto their needles in late September on the Arethusa Cirque hike in Kananaskis, Alberta
Golden larches along Arethusa Cirque trail.

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.

Plenty of creek crossings make Arethusa Cirque a fun Kananaskis hiking trail for kids
Celine and the kids cross the stream.

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.

Even kids will appreciate the amazing fall colors in Kananaskis while hiking Arethusa Cirque
Our son standing in the meadow with larch trees that are still green in early September.

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.

A rock pile at the base of Storm Mountain in Kananaskis Country

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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike has a few small scramble elements, but overall it is an easy Kananaskis hike
Celine climbing the rocky section on Arethusa Cirque trail.

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).

The rock piles are one reason the Arethusa Cirque Trail is a great activity for kids in Kananaskis Country
The kids loving the climb over rocks on the Arethusa Cirque hike.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike features mountain streams, larch trees and rugged mountain peaks
Celine hiking Arethusa Cirque in late September.

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.

there are many pikas along Arethusa Cirque trail in Kananaskis (this one is from Banff though)
An adorable pika seen along the Arethusa Cirque hike.

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.

A beautiful larch forest beneath Mount Arethusa, Alberta, Canada
Celine hiking Arethusa Cirque with golden larches in the background.

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.

A great hike to easily find fossils in Alberta in the Arethusa Cirque trail near the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country
Fossils we saw along 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 enjoy an excellent view of Pocaterra Ridge from Arethusa Cirque - two of the best larch hikes in Alberta
Dan looking down on the golden larch trees from a high point on Arethusa Cirque hike.

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.

It's easy to see why Arethusa Cirque is one of the best larch tree hikes in Alberta
Dan walking through the meadow with the valley filled with larch trees on Arethusa Cirque hike.

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.

A meadow above the treeline on the Arethusa Cirque Kananaskis hike

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.

Arethusa Cirque is one of our favorite fall hikes in Kananaskis
Celine and the kids start the steep downhill section of Arethusa Cirque.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike can get steep for short sections
Dan on the loose, dusty and steep section on the Arethusa Cirque trail.

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.

A hiker crosses a bridge made from trees on the Arethusa Cirque hike near Highwood Pass, Kananaskis
Celine crossing the stream along Arethusa Cirque trail in Kananaskis.

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).

Arethusa Cirque parking lot is not very big.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike is a Kananaskis larch tree hike under 5km long
Celine hiking Arethusa Cirque trail in late September.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque trail has a few short challenges, but otherwise it's an easy Kananaskis hike

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 is a short, steep downhill on the Arethusa Cirque trail which may be difficult for some hikers
Navigating the short but steep section on Arethusa Cirque hike.

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.

Kananaskis hikes under 5km long - Arethusa Cirque hike

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.

larch trees are not the only attraction on the Arethusa Cirque trail - it has a series of small waterfalls too

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.

the many easy challenges make Arethusa Cirque a fun hiking trail for kids in Kananaskis
Our daughter crossing the stream on the rocks.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque hike is a popular kid-friendly hike in Kananaskis Country
Kids easily cross the stream using the log.

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.

enjoy incredible views of the Arethusa Cirque larch trees in September
Panoramic view of Arethusa Cirque hike in Kananaskis.

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.

The Arethusa Cirque trail is a fun thing to do with kids in Kananaskis

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.

Purple flowers grow in a meadow below the larch forest on the Arethusa Cirque trail in Alberta, Canada
Wildflowers along Arethusa Cirque trail in early September.

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.
mountain streams, rocky mountains and golden larch trees make Arethusa Cirque a popular fall hike in Kananaskis
Mountains and larches reflect in the pond along the Arethusa Cirque hiking trail.

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.
We recommend dressing in layers while hiking in Kananaskis in fall

Arethusa Cirque Footwear Recommendation

For the Arethusa Cirque trail, we recommend proper hiking shoes or boots. With the rock sections and slippery descent, you’ll want good traction.

We recommend wearing a good pair of hiking boots while on the Arethusa Cirque trail near Highwood Pass

You don’t have to go far for incredible views on this hike!

Other Alberta Larch Hikes

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Arethusa Cirque is a stunning hike in Kananaskis. Not far from Highwood Pass, it's one of the best Kananaskis 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.