Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis

Author: Celine Brewer

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The Ptarmigan Cirque hike is a very popular Kananaskis trail near the Highwood Pass (the highest paved pass in Canada). This fun, kid-friendly Kananaskis hike offers hikers a wide variety of excellent mountain scenery over a relatively short distance.

Being a highly scenic and relatively easy Kananaskis hike, Ptarmigan Cirque is popular all throughout hiking season, but its popularity explodes in fall as it is a well-known 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.

For this popular hike in Kananaskis, you’ll want to go early and avoid weekends when possible! The parking lot for Ptarmigan Cirque serves as the starting point for other hikes (like the Pocaterra Ridge trail – another popular Kananaskis larch hike).

Ptarmigan Cirque Trail – Quick Details

Trailhead: Highwood Meadows Day Use

Distance: 3.6 km loop

Elevation: 267 m elevation gain

View on Ptarmigan Cirque - best larches hikes Kananaskis
The view of the larches at Ptarmigan Cirque in Kananaskis.

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Ptargmigan Cirque Hike Highlights

From the Ptarmigan Cirque parking lot, head west on the Highwood Meadows Trail. You’ll cross a bridge over a river almost immediately, which incidentally, is the same river you’ll cross at the top of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike, near a series of beautiful waterfalls.

The Highwood Meadows trail is a very easy hike along a flat, crushed gravel trail through an open meadow along the base of Highwood Ridge (2,697m). The open mountain meadow is flush with wildflowers (in season) and affords hikers some nice views of Little Arethusa (2,767m), Mt. Rae (3,218m) and Storm Mountain (3,095m) across the highway.       

mother and boy hiking Highwood Meadows Kananaskis
Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with Kids.

At 0.4 km on the Highwood Meadows Trail you’ll reach a bridge. You can go straight and finish the final 200m of the Highwood Meadows hike, or you can turn onto the trail to the right to begin the Ptarmigan Cirque hike. (You won’t miss much if you skip the final 200m of the Highwood Meadows hike).

Junction to Ptarmigan Cirque Trail from Highwood Meadows
The trail veers to the right to continue on Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

After a few seconds, you’ll need to safely cross Highway 40 to continue hiking the Ptarmigan Cirque trail. There’s a crosswalk but given Highwood Pass is the highest paved road in Canada, it’s a popular highway with a speed limit of 90 km/h, so please cross carefully.

Crossing highway to start Ptarmigan Cirque trail
Crossing Highway 40 to hike Ptarmigan Cirque.

After crossing Highway 40, the Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail starts to climb gently uphill into a mossy, coniferous forest. In contrast to the well-groomed Highwood Meadows Trail, the Ptarmigan Cirque trail is a real mountain hiking trail with plenty of rocks and roots protruding.

Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail Kananaskis
Steep & rooty sections on Ptarmigan Cirque hike.

There are many numbered interpretive signs along the Ptarmigan Cirque trail. In days gone by there would have been printed trail guides at the trailhead, but thankfully you can download a pdf copy of the Ptarmigan Cirque interpretive trail guide before leaving home (you can’t do it there as you’ll be in a huge dead zone for cell coverage).

The Ptarmigan Cirque trail gets steep for a few short sections at the 0.9 km mark. If the hiking trail is wet, the roots can be slippery. There are several breaks in the trees allowing wildflowers to grow and affording you nice views of Highwood Ridge across the Kananaskis valley.

Roots along Ptarmigan Cirque (trail conditions)

You’ll enter a beautiful little meadow after hiking 1 km on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail. Enjoy views of the rocky cliffs of Little Arethusa ahead on the right, before reentering the forest.

The loop portion of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike begins at the 1.2 km mark. This portion of the Ptarmigan Loop trail is one way, so follow the signs to the left.

Sign for one way section on Ptarmigan Cirque trail - Kananaskis larch hike

You’ll leave the forest behind at the 1.3 km mark of the Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail as you reenter a large open meadow. This is the beginning of a long stretch of outstanding Kananaskis mountain views. You’ll see the first few larch trees of this hike at the entrance to the meadow. As you’d expect, there are an abundance of alpine wildflowers in this meadow (in season).

wildflowers growing on Ptarmigan Cirque hike in Kananaskis
Wildflowers along Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

After 100 m of meadow hiking, you’ll pass through a small cluster of trees. Upon emerging from the trees, you’ll get your first glimpse of the cirque beneath Mt. Rae which you’ll be hiking through. There are a few larch trees along this portion of the hike, scattered here and there.

As you gain elevation, look for the other side of the Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail on your right. While you’re looking around, look ahead for first glimpse of the pretty waterfall you’ve been hearing for a while and then look behind you for a wonderful view of the beautiful lines of Highwood Ridge.

Waterfalls on Ptarmigan Cirque Kananaskis
Small waterfall at Ptarmigan Cirque.

You’ll reach a rock pile at the 1.8 km mark of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike. Look up at it for a hiking sign to indicate where the official hiking trail goes. (The more obvious lower trail goes to the base of the waterfall, but please respect the “Stay on the Trail” signs and don’t go here. Stay on the real trail and you’ll get great waterfall pictures on other side)

trail marker on Ptarmigan trail
Trail signs keep you on the main trail.

At the top of the little rock pile, you’ll cross the stream on an easy bridge of large rocks. Remember, this is the same stream you crossed at the very beginning of the Ptarmigan Cirque hike. As you cross the stream, there’s a smaller waterfall on your left, with the larger waterfall below on your right.

family hopping across rocks on Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail in Kananaskis
Celine and kids cross over rocks at Ptarmigan Cirque.

After crossing the river, the Ptarmigan Cirque trail starts heading back towards the parking lot. You can get nice pictures of the waterfall from here. Try to stay on the rocks to reduce erosion.

looking down on water along Ptarmigan Cirque hike
Looking back at the waterfall from above.

The Ptarmigan Cirque trail follows the top of a rocky berm, with boulders from Little Arethusa all around. The scenery is very nice here, so watch your step.

As with most boulder fields, this is prime pika territory. Stay very still and quiet and listen for their telltale “eeeeeeep” sound. If you’re lucky, you just may see one of the incredibly cute little pikas.

At the 2.2 km mark of the Ptarmigan Cirque trail, you’ll leave the rock pile and reenter the meadow. You’ll cross the stream again at the base of a short, beautiful waterfall over an easy bridge made of rocks.

mother and kids hiking Ptarmigan Cirque in Kananaskis
More rock crossing along the Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

Shortly after the second Ptarmigan Cirque waterfall, you’ll pass a few larch trees. This is the beginning of the larch tree hike portion on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

At the 2.4 km mark, there’s a spur trail to the left for a viewpoint of a small canyon. There’s a bench to stop and enjoy the views.

views of green larch trees in Kananaskis hike Ptarmigan Cirque
Trail section that enters the larch forest, which is still green in early September.

If you go straight, you’ll enter a meadow with many larch trees. This is the best section for larch trees on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail. While there are many beautiful larch trees on the Ptarmigan Cirque hike, this is one of the easiest hikes to enjoy larch trees so it’s likely to be busy!

mother holding baby in front of golden larches on Kananaskis hike - Ptarmigan Cirque
We hiked Ptarmigan Cirque with our baby.

Just 100 meters after the beautiful meadow of larch trees, you reach the end of the loop portion of the Ptarmigan Cirque trail. From here, you follow the same trail back to the Highwood Meadows trail, then back to the trailhead.

Ptarmigan Cirque Trailhead

To reach the Ptarmigan Cirque trail, you first head west on the Highwood Meadows Trail from the Highwood Meadows Day Use Parking Lot. The Ptarmigan Cirque trailhead is found across Highway 40 approximately 400 m in on the Highwood Meadows trail. There’s a white hiking sign indicating the Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail continues to the right, where you’ll cross the highway then join the start of it (again it’s signed on the other side of the highway).

The Highwood Meadows Day Use is just over 1 hour and 20 minutes from Banff and 1 hour and 40 minutes from Calgary. You reach the Ptarmigan parking lot by taking the TransCanada Highway 1 to Kananaskis Trail (Highway 40). You’ll head south on Highway 40 for approximately 67 km before reaching the parking lot on your left.

The Highwood Meadows Day Use parking lot will get extremely busy during larch season, as it also serves other nearby hikes.

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.

Local Tip

Keep in mind that this section of Highway 40 is closed from December 1st to June 14th every year.

Ptarmigan Cirque Hike Stats

How Long is the Ptarmigan Cirque Hike?

The round-trip distance of the Ptarmigan Cirque trail is a short 3.6 km. It’s one of the shortest larch tree hikes in Kananaskis, which adds to its popularity.

Walking amongst still green larch trees on Ptarmigan Cirque trail - Kananaskis best larch hikes
Walking amongst still green larch trees in early September.

How Hard is the Hike to Ptarmigan Cirque?

Due to the length and incline, we rate the Ptarmigan Cirque hike as “easy”.

At 3.6 km and 267 m elevation gain, the Ptarmigan Cirque trail is an easy Kananaskis hike.

Aside from some roots that might be slippery and one short steep section, most people will find this to be an easy kid-friendly hike in Kananaskis.

mother and daughter hiking kid friendly Kananaskis hike - Ptarmigan Cirque
Celine and our daughter enjoying this hike in early September before it gets too busy.

How Long Does the Ptarmigan Cirque Hike Take?

It should take a typical adult around an hour to hike Ptarmigan Cirque.

We did this hike with our two kids (8 and 6 years old) and it took us 1.5 hours.

hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with kids in Kananaskis
Ptarmigan has a few sections with plenty of roots.

Ptarmigan Cirque Trail Map

The Ptarmigan Cirque trail is easy to follow the entire way and it’s well signed. If you are feeling uncertain, you can use the Alltrails app while hiking to Ptarmigan Cirque, but you likely won’t need it.

View of Ptarmigan trail and surrounding mountains
The meadow filled with wildflowers past their peak in early September.

To find the Ptarmigan Cirque trail map in Alltrails, simply click here for the “Ptarmigan Cirque trail mao”. Be sure to download your hiking maps prior to leaving.

A recent App of the Year winner, AllTrails is also one of the best apps for visiting Banff! Enjoy map downloads and many more premium features with a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+!

Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque Trail with Kids

If you are hiking in Kananaskis with kids, this is an excellent hike for the entire family. We first hiked Ptarmigan Cirque when our kids were 3 and 1 years old. Our three year old was able to complete most of the hike herself.

Mother hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with toddler and baby
Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with a toddler.

Now with our 8 and 6 year old children, we were able to pair up this hike with nearby Arethusa Cirque and they were able to do both without any issue.

With an easy trail, impressive views, waterfalls, rocks to climb on PLUS pikas to spot, there’s plenty to keep kids interested on this hike.

Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with a baby
Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque with a baby.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The obvious place to stop for a break or lunch is along the rocks near the waterfall. There’s also a bench on the way back down.

toddler climbing rocks on Ptarmigan Cirque Kananaskis (hikes with toddlers)
Kids will love Ptarmigan Cirque!

Ptarmigan Cirque Hiking Safety

Aside from a few sections covered in roots that you’ll need to climb over, there are relatively few hiking hazards along the Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow up all the way to the Ptarmigan Cirque.

trail marker on Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail

It is 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, especially 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.

We recommend you check the Ptarmigan Cirque trail report for the Ptarmigan Cirque trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures before you head out.

Mother hiking while carrying baby on Ptarmigan Cirque hiking trail - one of the best larch hikes in Kananaskis

Wildlife Safety

When hiking in Kananaskis Country, you are responsible for your own safety. Before hitting the hiking trails we highly recommend you read our 9 Essential Kananaskis Hiking Tips for information about bear safety, trail conditions, wildlife warnings and possible closures.

Ptarmigan Cirque Trail Logistics

On-leash dogs are allowed on the Ptarmigan Cirque hike.

Mountain biking is not allowed on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

There are toilets in the Highwood Meadows Day Use area.

Plan to pack plenty of water and snacks for this hike. Fill your hydration packs before you leave. The closest place to get food is Kananaskis Village.

You won’t get cell service for the entirety of your hike, so don’t count on it for your safety.

Golden larches on Ptarmigan Cirque trail - larch tree hikes in Kananaskis
Golden larch trees along Ptarmigan Cirque trail in Kananaskis.

What to Bring for Hiking Ptarmigan Cirque Trail

Even though this isn’t a very long Kananaskis hike, you should be prepared with the appropriate level of hiking gear. Before hitting the trail, be sure to check out our list of Alberta 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

Views on Ptarmigan Cirque hike in fall
Ptarmigan Cirque trail - an easy hike in Kananaskis

A truly enjoyable hike that makes it easy to see golden larches!

Other Larch Hikes in Kananaskis

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Ptarmigan Cirque in Kananaskis is one of the best larch hikes. Ptarmigan Cirque is an easy hike that offers incredible scenery especially of the golden larches in the fall.
Celine Brewer - Travel Banff Canada

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.