Ptarmigan Cirque - Highwood Pass: Take Highway 40 south past the Kananaskis Lake turnoff to the Highwood Pass day use area. Trail head is the same as interpretive trail. Highwood 40 is closed at the Kananaskis Lakes junction from Dec 1 to June 15.
Ptarmigan Cirque is an amazing hike for so many reasons. On paper it doesn't look like much -- it's short (4.5 km total), the incline isn't much (225m), and the drive out to the Highwood Pass can take a good couple of hours from the city area. But everyone should do this hike at least once -- and preferably during wildflower season.
For starters the trailhead is beside the highest paved pass in Canada. This hike starts from an altitude of 2206m/7239 ft. And that 225m in altitude gain? That's pretty much all in the first kilometer. Suddenly, it's no walk in the park.
But the big draw of this hike is the terrain. You start from sub-alpine, and hike into true alpine terrain, the land of former glaciers and hardy vegetation. Even from the trailhead, one can tell that only the stronger trees, plants and critters survive. This particular area and altitude sees snow approximately 9 months out of the year (as evidenced by photos taken in late June).
The hike leads into what can only be described as a high plateau in the mountain, almost a bowl among the peaks, and is utterly unique.
The trailhead is shared with a short interpretive walk that is also worth the drive. The walk explains the climate and issues surrounding life in such an area:
The trail splits from the interpretive walk, crosses the highway and immediately begins the sharp ascent. It can a tough go -- especially if you're not used to high altitude -- but you're rewarded pretty quickly. This is looking across the highway, west:
I first encountered these flowers -- known as Chalice Flower or Western Anemone (Pulsatilla occidentalis) while hiking near the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. Their life is fascinating -- they exist mostly in alpine areas with short summer seasons. They bloom as small white flowers, and are covered in small hairs to protect them from the cold.
The bloom only lasts a short time -- maybe 2 weeks -- and then it is replaced by the "pod" seen here, known by many names such as "mops" "shaggy heads" "towhead babies" and my favorite "hippies on a stick". There were hundreds on this particular hike, and I picked this one because it looked, for the moment, almost entirely perfect:
After the climb, the trail meanders slowly toward the "bowl". As it transitions from sub-alpine to alpine, it almost seems like you're walking through a slowly rising meadow:
Looking south at the Highwood Range:
Nat and I are usually first on the trail, but this trail runner beat us to it. On the first photo I zoomed in on the man in red, but then I took a shot from a normal range, just to see the enormity of the area we were in (click on the second photo to see the man in red):
Though it was late in the season -- especially in a climate like this -- there were plenty of flowers along the trail. These Alpine Forget-Me-Nots (myosotis alpestris) were plentiful:
Another look down the Highwood Range from higher up the trail:
More wildflowers -- and a pretty one I just can't seem to identify. I'd like to call it a type of Cinquefoil, but it also resembles a buttercup. I'll keep looking. The distinctive star shape really caught my eye:
Even in late August, there were plenty of streams and falls throughout the meadow. I'm itching to hike this area come spring!
Another look at the "bowl". The trail makes it way through and over boulders and little creeks, but it's generally a flat meadow. The trail follows a "U" shape to the back of the plateau and around the other side to the front. All of this was carved out by glaciers:
Nice shot of the "bowl" from a spot near the end of the "U":
Pretty sure this is Slender Beardtongue (penstemon procerus). Stunning colours:
Sometimes those short hikes turn out to have the most interesting sights.