Arethusa Cirque is a beautiful, less travelled trail that takes you to a lovely alpine meadow ringed with larches. Fossils and little waterfalls 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!
It’s cloudy and 6 degrees as we pull into the (unmarked) Arethusa parking lot. We bundle up and head for the trailhead at the north end of the parking lot. 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 left or right. Hikers on their way back tell us to stay right as it’s easier to find the trail if you do the loop counter-clockwise. (Variation: If you just want to see the larches and want to avoid the scramble, go to the left and return the way you came.)
To do the loop, follow the creek and talus slopes full of fossils to the far end of the cirque where there is a small waterfall. Cross the creek twice (cross to the left side of the creek just before the falls, ignore the trail that heads left shortly after, then cross to the right side of the creek), then ascend the steep slope. Go left at the top of the hill on a narrow but well-defined rocky trail along the east side of Storm Mountain.
Follow the trail to the left, onto a grassy ridge. After passing a large gulley, keep an eye out for flagging tape and head left to go downhill. At the bottom of the hill, re-join the trail you hiked in on and hike 700 metres to the parking lot.
Since our objective is Little Arethusa, an outlier of Mount Arethusa near Highway 40, we continue straight, (instead of turning left and going downhill) to 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 rumored to be easier. Large cairns reveal a good, rocky trail and we take that, albeit slowly, to the summit ridge.
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!
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!
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
*Note this is an unofficial trail so the parking lot is not marked and there are no trail markers.*
Distance: 5 km loop (+ 1 km for Little Arethusa)
Eelvation Gain: 275 metres (+330 m for Little Arethusa)
Washrooms: None. Nearest washrooms are at Highwood Pass Day Use
Stroller friendly? No
Difficulty: Moderate due to loose rock and steep sections. Hiking poles recommended
Parking: On Highway 40, 1.3 km south of Highwood Pass on left hand side. See directions below.
The unmarked 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 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. I do not recommend doing the trail if snow-covered as it can be hard to find the trail.
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?