Arethusa cirque and Little Arethusa

Update Sep 20, 2012: One day after making this post, the Calgary Herald had a story which is relevant: Banff prepares for large larch crowds

Also: Big crowds expected in Lake Louise to see larches

The larch trees have finally started to turn into their beautiful fall colours. While hiking Little Arethusa exactly one week ago, the trees were still completely green, but today they were golden. I expect this weekend will be the height of larch season.

Golden larches on the trail to Arethusa cirque. The mountain in the background is Little Arethusa, which we climbed last week.

There will be hordes of hikers at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake on Saturday and Sunday. You can avoid the throngs at Lake Louise and fight with smaller crowds in the Highwood Pass area of Kananaskis Country, where you will behold a wonderful display of larches in vibrant gold.

Today, numerous vehicles were present in the Highwood Pass parking lot where you would start your hike to Ptarmigan Cirque or Pocaterra Ridge. We went 1K further down the road to the trailhead for Arethusa Cirque/Little Arethusa. Last week we hiked up to Little Arethusa and decided to return and check out Arethusa Cirque today, knowing that the larch trees should be turning by now.

It was a perfect autumn day with a bright sun and a big blue sky. The temperature at the pass was +18.

There are spectacular views of many mountains on the trail to Arethusa cirque

The hike into the cirque has an elevation gain of 170 metres, but you don’t really have to go all the way. After gaining 100 metres, and going a distance of 700 metres, you’ll cross a pretty little creek and walk through a lovely meadow for the next half kilometre, which would be very satisfying if that’s all you wanted to do.

From the meadow, you see all the surrounding mountains and larch trees. It’s a hike where I feel the need to go slow, to soak in the magnificent surroundings. Going to the end simply means walking on a lot of rock and scree with more elevation gain. It allows you to survey the scenery from a higher elevation, but it’s not necessary to have an enjoyable hike.  If you want to see golden larches without a long or strenuous hike, in relative peace and quiet,  I can recommend Arethusa Cirque.

It’s a steep but relatively easy slope to the top of Little Arethusa

Little Arethusa

If you are ambitious and in need of more strenuous hiking, you can head up to the peak of Little Arethusa. It’s not that far, with a distance of 2.7K, but you’ll do a net elevation gain of 560 metres.

Most of the trip is in the open, so you’ll have excellent views.  We encountered a small herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep who were grazing in the meadows at the foot of the mountain. You’ll have a well-defined trail for the first kilometre, but there’s no defined trail as you start climbing the slope, however the route-finding was pretty easy. I’ll let Craig Copeland describe it for you, from his guide book, Where Locals Hike:

You’ll have wonderful views from Little Arethusa

“Little Arethusa is ideal for neophyte scramblers. Though steep, the ascent is on a broad slope covered with scree. Exposure is nil as far as the first summit. About half way up are grassy terraces with gratifying views. You’ll peer down into Arethusa cirque, gape at tempestuous Storm mountain, with its distinctive swirling strata, and gaze at Highwood ridge and the Elk Range.”

The first peak of Little Arethusa

I disagree with Copeland’s review of Arethusa Cirque, as he says “it’s not a worthy objective.” I’ve learned not to put a lot of faith in the opinions of others, preferring to discover the merits of the trails and destinations on my own.


From Little Arethusa, looking southeast towards Arethusa cirque



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  1. Other wonderful larch destinations in Kananaskis Country include: Mt. Allan-Marmot Creek Basin, Fortress ski area and Fortress Lake, Tent Ridge, Tryst Lake, Commonwealth Creek/Smuts Pass, Burstall Pass, Piggy Plus valley, Rummel Lake, Chester Lake, Mt. Indefatigable, Lake Rae, Tombstone Pass and Tombstone Lakes, Pocaterra Basin & Pocaterra Ridge, Running Rain Lake, Odlum Ridge, Mist Ridge, Picklejar Pass, Loomis Lake, Bishop Pass and Pasque Ridge.
    In Banff Park, there are excellent larch forests at Wenkchemna Pass, Consolation Valley, Panorama Ridge, Taylor Lake, Rockbound Lake, Gibbons Pass, Healy Pass, Egypt Lake, Boulder Pass, the Skoki area and of course the Lake O’Hara area in Yoho Park too.
    If you hiked every single day during the larch season, you wouldn’t be able to get to all of the larch destinations, without ever setting foot in Larch Valley.

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