Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail leads you up a steep incline to a beautiful cirque in Highwood Pass. The sensitive alpine flora and expansive mountain views make this challenging family-friendly hike a favourite for adventurous families. Make sure to pack warm gear, as this area is often cold even in the summer months.
If your family is new to hiking, then consider trying some of the easy/moderate hikes before tackling the steep switchbacks on this hike.
Distance and Elevation: 4.5 km, 250 m
Facilities: Outhouse, Parking Lot, One Picnic Table
Hike Highlights: waterfall, Mountain Views, Cirque
Accessibility: Child Carrier Friendly
Closed: December 1st-June 14th
From the Trans Canada Highway AB-1 W take the 118 exit and turn onto Kananaskis Trail Highway AB-40 S towards Kananaskis. Drive down the Kananaskis Trail Highway AB-40 S for 67 km until you reach the Highwood Pass parking lot on the right.
Note: This kid-friendly hike starts at the highwood pass which happens to be the highest driveable pass in Canada. That means that even on the nicest days it can become quite chilly so be prepared! We sure were happy that we had along our kids winter gear when we hiked on June 25th!!
The trailhead for Ptarmigan Cirque and the Highwood Meadows hike (located on page 25) starts from the same location and is located beside the outhouse in the Highwood Pass parking lot. Cross the bridge and begin the hike.
Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail starts in Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada.
During berry season, typically from mid-July to the end of August, bear sightings are common. At this time of year, use extra caution and consider hiking in groups of four or more. If a bear warning is in effect for the area, avoid this trail. From the trailhead, hike across the short bridge before following the wide hard-packed trail.
At the junction, take a right and follow the sign pointing to Ptarmigan Cirque Trail. Soon after, the family-friendly trail crosses the highway. Use caution when crossing the highway as cars rarely slow down for hikers.
Past the highway, begin the steep climb up the mountainside. Head up the trail for about one km of switchbacks.This is the hardest part of the hike, so be prepared to give lots of encouragement for little hikers and take breaks as needed. Eventually, the trail levels out and becomes a beautiful, easy loop in the alpine that is completely worth the effort.
Make sure to stay on the trail as the flora in this area is very sensitive and regrowth can take many years because of the high altitude.
After hiking about halfway through the loop, you will have the option to hike up a short distance to a small waterfall. If you choose this option, then you will be adding about 0.5 km to your hike. From the small waterfall, head back onto the trail the way you came and complete your hike around the cirque.
The hike eventually returns into the trees to the original trail that was used to get up into the alpine. Head down the switchbacks and across the highway, returning to the parking lot.
Combine Ptarmigan Cirque Trail with Highwood Meadows. If the family is too tired, then stop by the Peter Lougheed Discovery Centre or treat yourself with ice cream at the Kananaskis Village to celebrate completing a more challenging hike.
Please note: Our first time completing Ptarmigan Cirque with two kids aged 1 and two in carriers for the majority of the time took 40 minutes to hike to the waterfall. We then took our time and made it down the mountain for a total of 2 hours of hiking.
I have also done this hike solo with a 2 and 3 year old last summer. Read about the adventure in the post “Love, Sweat and Tears: A true story of hiking with toddlers“
Want easy access to more hikes like this on?
PRE-ORDER the paperback book Hikes for Families: A Guide to the Canadian Rockies here.
Purchase (Ebook) Hikes for Families: A Guide to the Canadian Rockies here.
Our first adventure on Ptarmigan Cirque with two littles in carriers:
This past weekend I felt completely energized. More energized than I have felt in a long time. This might be because my husband was away for a week and then when he got back the stomach flu decided to take us down one by one. Nobody likes being sick but now that I have kids I really don’t like getting sick. Instead of getting sick for a week with kids we now have to endure an extra week for every member of the family that gets sick. A week long sickness turned into a month as we helped each member hug the porcelain.
Now that we are all better what was our first plan of action? Ok I have to backtrack again. Our first plan of action would have been to see our new oh so cute nephew in Edmonton but since I had just started feeling better on the Friday there was no way we were risking giving our bug to a newborn.
So… Let me rephrase that. Now that we are all better again what was our second plan of action? It was heading to the mountains for a beautiful hike in the Alpine with our two little girls.
This hike is exactly as described. A shortish hike that allows you to easily take your littles into the alpine. Our almost 3 year old could complete the hike on a good day on her own two feet. I say a good day because now that her little sister is in a carrier it is really hard to hike at her pace while keeping my 1 year old happy in the carrier. Also our oldest daughter used to hate the carrier but loves it now because her sister is in one. The plus side is that we can do more strenuous hikes and do them faster. The downside is that I want her to have the opportunity to complete some hikes since we had a lot of fun hiking together. All in do time I guess.
We left Calgary in the rain and arrived at the trail head around lunchtime. It was cloudy and the wind was incredible. It made me think for a half second that we should cancel. My fingers were freezing and it was the end of June! Luckily I pulled out the girls winter clothes that I am so glad my husband remembered to pack. We would have had to call it quits before we had even started if we did not have the proper gear.
Instead of eating our lunch on the trail we ate at the one lone picnic table. We wanted the girls to be as happy as possible with full bellies on the trail. I also knew that our 1 year old would zonk once I started hiking in the carrier with a full belly. This meant we would have a relatively peaceful hike.
The initial incline took my breathe away as we booked it up the slope. I was pumped that I was getting in some good exercise with a sleeping baby on my back. Our oldest daughter was happily talking to my husband in our MEC carrier.
Once we hit the tree line we were all in awe. I could not stop snapping pictures. I was so happy to be with my family AND be able to easily access such a beautiful hike. Besides the breathtaking views our hike was uneventful. Ok… not completely uneventful. Hiking is never uneventful when you are with a 1 year old and an almost 3 year old. However, I might just have to save that story for a future post…..