Awesome Arethusa Cirque and Little Arethusa

by - Thursday, September 21, 2017

Arethusa Cirque is a beautiful, less travelled trail that takes you to a lovely alpine meadow ringed with larches. Fossils and falls await at the far end of the meadow, watched over by dramatic, jagged peaks. Visit in summer to see wildflowers and splash in the creek, or autumn to enjoy the golden larch trees.

Why is Arethusa Cirque, next to Ptarmigan Cirque, so often overlooked? It's an unofficial trail and old trail reports speak of bushwhacking and routefinding. Fast forward to 2017 and there is a well beaten path for most of the way and some minor route finding above treeline (made easier by sporadic bits of flagging tape). Scramble up Little Arethusa for even better views, and wave at the crowds at Pocaterra and Ptarmigan Cirques!

Arethusa Cirque

Trip Report

It's cloudy and 6 degrees as we pull into the (unmarked) Arethusa parking lot. We bundle up and look for the trailhead. I'm a little nervous as we set out, due to reports of bushwhacking, but am pleasantly surprised to see flagging tape at the north end of the parking lot as well as a no hunting sign.

A well used trail leads up and to the right. The trail climbs gradually to the meadow (~700 m from the car) where we have the option to go straight across the creek and through the larches, or to the right. Hikers on their way back tell us to stay right as there's a shallower creek crossing there. 

Stay to the right of the creek to do the cirque circuit
After lunch in the meadow, we follow the creek and talus slopes full of fossils to the far end of the cirque where there is a small waterfall. In fall, it's easy to find places to cross the shallow creek. Next, we head left through the trees towards an open ridge directly opposite. 

Pink flagging tape marks the way into the valley (go left) and to Little Arethusa (go straight). While the flagging tape helps, you have to pay attention or you could miss it. There are two ways down: the first trail on the left goes through larches. If you miss that trail, or want to stay above treeline a little longer, there's another trail about 300 metres further west just past a large gulley (marked by a rock cairn and flagging tape, a little downslope, on skier's right of the gulley). This trail is a lot steeper and narrower, but is well defined. Both paths lead down to the meadow and from there, you turn right and hike 700 metres to the parking lot.

View from the larch trail looking north. Mount Arethusa is at centre;
Little Arethusa is at far left.
Storm Mountain in a sea of larches
Higher elevation view of Storm Mountain
Since our objective is Little Arethusa, an outlier of Mount Arethusa near Highway 40, we stay above treeline and head towards the highway. The peak looks little from a distance, but as we get closer, we realize how ridiculously steep it is. We start out zigzagging up scree and slab, then move westward where it's rumoured to be easier. Large cairns reveal a good, rocky trail and we take that, albeit slowly, to the summit ridge.

Little Girl and Little Arethusa
Taking a breather
Emi enjoys climbing the slab sections (and using them as chairs)
Yeah.. steep. Just keep climbing.
Summit ridge - stay to the west (road) side to avoid the drop off


The summit ridge is exposed, with a massive dropoff on the east side, but by dropping down to the west side (side closest to the road), we avoid danger. It's then a pleasant walk to the small summit. From the top, we look down on Ptarmigan Cirque and across to Pocaterra Ridge, Highwood Range and back at Storm Mountain. It's an amazing view for such a short hike and we will definitely do it again!

Little Arethusa Summit, Storm Mountain in back
Summit of Little Arethusa, Highwood Range in background
As the sun dips lower in the sky, we retrace our steps until we see a cairn and flagging tape on the right (just before the large gulley). The narrow trail is soon enclosed in trees, so we sing loudly to scare the wild things. At the bottom of the ridge, we cross a dry streambed, and notice we are already back at the meadow where we had lunch. From here, we're on familiar ground. We turn right and head downhill to the car. Ice cream at Fortress Junction awaits! 

Heading back
Follow the trail on the west (skier's right) side of the gulley.
It took us 6 hours (with our 6 yr old and 8 yr old) round trip at a leisurely pace including lunch, many short breaks and a long summit break. Adults usually do the cirque and peak in 3-4 hours.


Arethusa Cirque (& Little Arethusa) at a Glance

Distance: 4.5 km loop (+ 1 km return for Little Arethusa)
Elevation Gain: 275 m (+ 330 m for Little Arethusa)
Washrooms: None. Nearest washrooms are at Highwood Pass Day Use.
Stroller Friendly? No
Parking: On Highway 40, 1.3 km south of Highwood Pass Day Use on left hand side *The parking lot is gravel and unmarked, but you can't miss it.*

Arethusa Cirque and Little Arethusa trails in Kananaskis
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Getting There

The parking lot for Arethusa Cirque & Little Arethusa is 1.3 km south of Highwood Pass Day Use on Highway 40, 141 km SW of Calgary. Take Highway 1 west out of town to the Kananaskis Trail/Hwy 40 turnoff. Stay on Hwy 40 for 68 km. The unmarked gravel/dirt parking lot will be on your left.

If you live in south Calgary, you can drive up via Longview and Highway 40. The unmarked parking lot is 79.2 km from the Highway 22/40 junction on the right hand side. If you get to Highwood Meadows, you've gone 1.3 km too far.

Know Before You Go

Arethusa Cirque Trail is often snowy in September so be prepared with waterproof hiking boots and gaiters. Ice cleats or microspikes are nice to have if there has been freezing and thawing.

Little Arethusa is extremely steep, has lots of loose rock and considerable exposure on the summit ridge. You can avoid the drop off by hiking on the west side (side closest to Hwy 40) of the summit ridge. Hiking boots and trekking poles are recommended.

What is your favorite fall hike in the Canadian Rockies?

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