Ptarmigan Cirque

Elevation: 2415 m
Elevation Gain: 210 m
Ptarmigan Cirque is a large west-facing bowl located between Mounts Rae and Arethusa. Like other cirques, the concave amphitheater between these peaks was formed by the erosion of an ancient valley glacier. The steep rock walls on 3 of the cirque’s 4 sides collected snow, which accumulated at their base forming a glacier. As the glacier grew, it acted to steepen the surrounding walls while scouring the land beneath it. This glacier has long since disappeared, however, its impact on the surrounding landscape remains evident. Ptarmigan Cirque was named for the white tailed ptarmigans native to these and similar alpine surroundings. White tailed ptarmigans are the smallest members of the grouse family and are well-adapted to harsh alpine environments.
Note: Ptarmigan Cirque is a self-guided interpretive hike. To learn about life in the alpine and get the most out of your experience, I highly recommend printing off Kananaskis Country's Interpretive Pamphlet prior to your visit.
My Ascents:
September 19 2015

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Brianne discovered that walking can be an effective way to encourage the baby in her belly to drop, creating more room for her and potentially expediting labor. Under the guise of “wanting to see the golden larches,” she, therefore, tricked her mom and I into taking her out to K-Country for a hike amongst the high alpine scenery.

With an eye towards minimizing exertion, we opted to take my beautiful pregnant wife for a short hike waddle up Ptarmigan Cirque. Ptarmigan Cirque reaches elevations higher than the summits of many front range peaks but requires an elevation gain of only 210 m as a result of the fact that the hike begins at the highest point in Canada which can be reached by paved highway (Highwood Pass, elevation 2206 m).

Even at 38 weeks pregnant, my Mommy Goat makes quick work of the (initially) steep, snowy trail!

Mount Lipsett (left) and Highwood Ridge (right) bracket a forest filled with golden larch trees (allegedly the reason that we came).

Brianne, her mom and Crux make their way through snowy alpine meadows towards the back of the cirque. The official trail is quite short and loops around above the small waterfalls on the right before returning on the other side of the valley. For anyone wishing to extend the trip, however, unofficial trails venture further into the cirque (and even up Mount Rae – a challenging scramble). If you do leave the official trail behind, please stay on other trails or rocks as the alpine flora in the cirque is extremely fragile! Small plants which took 20 years to grow can easily be wiped out by 1 careless footstep!

The impressive vertical rock strata making up Little Arethusa’s west face tower high above.

Karen negotiates an easy rock step, making her way up and over the cirque’s small waterfalls as Mount Arethusa (left) mingles with the clouds above.

Up in the cirque and proud of my Mommy Goat! Not many women are still hiking when they’re 38 weeks along!

Family photo…we’re only missing 1 person (no – not you Gary)! Hurry up Baby!

The cirque’s still-flowing stream meanders down towards a snowy backdrop featuring Highwood Ridge (left), Grizzly Ridge (right) and cloud-covered Mount Trywhitt (far right).

350 million year old horn coral near the waterfalls. The same tectonic forces which dramatically uplifted the rock layers in the surrounding peaks brought these fossils from the bottom of an ancient sea to an alpine cirque 2.4 vertical kilometers above sea level.

The small waterfalls where I cut my teeth as an aspiring scrambler. As a small child, my parents would hike up to Ptarmigan Cirque and let me loose on the small rock bands nearby!

Looking back towards massive Mount Rae (the tallest peak visible from Calgary) as it disappears into the clouds above.

After a chilly lunch stop, Karen decided that it was time to GTFD in search of a HOT coffee! The ridge-like feature that the path follows here is a mini moraine which formed as rock fall from Mount Arethusa piled up against the remains of the ancient glacier which once filled the cirque.

Crux enjoys a small stream crossing as we continue to descend.

Beautiful fall colors!

Interesting descent technique…

Brianne enjoys the larches as we re-enter the subalpine forest. After enjoying a quick “slip and slide” down the snowy trail, we found ourselves back at the trailhead. In terms of getting out for a day amidst the larches, our hike up Ptarmigan Cirque was an unmitigated success. In terms of getting baby to get a move on, however, I’m afraid that we had no such luck (sorry Brianne – looks like we’ll just have to go for another hike next weekend)!