Ptarmigan Cirque - The Best Short Hike in Kananaskis

by - Monday, July 13, 2015

It's not every day that little kids can hike to alpine terrain without assistance, unless they are mountain goats, but at Ptarmigan Cirque, they can! Starting from Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada, in only 2 kilometres, you 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 will amaze you. 

Ptarmigan Cirque, Kananaskis
While adults may complete the hike in 1.5 hours, allow 2 - 3 hours with children. The first kilometre is a bit 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. 

Starting out on Highwood Meadows Trail
Crossing Highway 40
 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 - continue on to the creek for a snack break where there are lots of rocks to sit on. Near the creek, 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 an improvement in the view. (Note: Ambitious hikers may scramble Mount Rae from here, but I do not recommend taking young children there.)

Ptarmigan Cirque
Small canyon
Babbling brook
Ptarmigan Cirque 
Carrying on, keep your eyes open for fossils (near trailmarker #8) and patches of snow. 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 metres stroll (no elevation gain).

Barnacle fossil
Lingering snow patch! Do you wanna build a snowman?
Heading back
Ptarmigan Cirque Trail At a Glance

Distance: 4.5 km loop
Elevation Gain: 210 m
Stroller friendly? No

Know Before You Go
  • This is bear country. I recommend travelling in a group, making noise, and carrying bear spray. For more bear safety tips, please read this post.
  • You must cross Highway 40 to access the rest of the trail. Please hold children's hands as cars are travelling very quickly on this road.
  • This is a sensitive alpine environment. Please stay on trail and leave no trace.
  • The weather can change very quickly at high elevations, and it is often windy above treeline. Bring a sweater and waterproof layer. Highwood Pass is 2,206 metres above sea level! 
  • A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are great for sun protection too.
  • Pack a small first aid kit as the rocks are very sharp! 
Ptarmigan Cirque is by far 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 early July for the wildflowers or in the fall to see golden larches.

What is your favorite family hike?

For More Information

The Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail brochure is available here from Alberta Parks. 

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  1. Love these trails that let the munchkins experience the adventure of the true backcountry!

    Just a heads-up though that as of July 23, Ptarmigan Cirque is closed due to bear activity. Worth checking before heading out

  2. Yes, conditions always change! That's a good reminder to check the trail reports. :) Looks like the trail is open again so people can check out the larches!


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