What to Expect on the Ptarmigan Cirque Hike in Kananaskis

Waterfalls and alpine meadows are on this three-hour hike in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park


Name of hike: Ptarmigan Cirque

The area: Peter Lougheed Park, Kananaskis Country

Distance: The full Ptarmigan Cirque Loop is 4.5 kilometres and takes 2.5 to 3 hours, depending how often you stop to take pictures, which you can expect to do every two minutes. 

Elevation gain: 210 metres

Difficulty: Moderate


How to get there 

141 kilometres from the Calgary Tower

The drive takes about an hour and a half. Take Highway 1 West, then turn south onto Highway 40. Park at the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area parking lot on Hwy 40. Start by following the Highwood Meadows Interpretive Trail boardwalk from the parking lot. On the right hand side you’ll come to a trailhead sign for Ptarmigan Cirque. This path will lead you across the highway to begin the hike.


What to expect

This is a moderate difficulty hike, mostly because of the steep initial ascent. All the switchbacks are worth powering through. Once the trail levels out and you reach the alpine meadow, the views and your surroundings are spectacular. This high altitude alpine meadow is a particularly fragile ecosystem, so it’s especially important to stay on the trail to avoid damaging plant life that is very slow to recover.

Sturdy shoes are a must, as some sections are slippery with loose gravel. Many people on the trail have hiking poles. There are also plenty of kids, so if your kids are good hikers they should be able to tackle this one.

Cell service throughout the Kananaskis region is spotty, and non-existent on this trail. 

Check the Alberta Parks Trail Report before setting out for up-to-date information on trail condition, closures, bear/wildlife warnings and more. No matter where you are hiking it’s always a good idea to let someone know your planned route and estimated time of return.


Photograph by Julya Hajnoczky

Leave the parking lot via the Interpretive Trail boardwalk. A short walk will get you to the path marked Ptarmigan Cirque, which will lead you to a crosswalk across Hwy 40 and to the trailhead.



The initial ascent takes you through a dense coniferous forest, interspersed with larches (these will be worth a return visit in the fall when the needles turn golden). The constantly climbing switchbacks last for about 1 kilometre, but are so worth it.



All of a sudden, the forest opens onto the alpine meadow, which is absolutely carpeted with blooming alpine flowers in mid- to late-July. You can see bright red paintbrush flowers, purple Asters, pink and white heather, white mountain avens, alpine goldenrod, and fuchsia moss campion (it looks like a little moss cushion dotted with tiny flowers).



The wide-open meadow that the loop takes you through presents some stunning vistas.



These tiny alpine forget-me-nots bloom in July in a shade of blue that almost glows.



This sign at the base of the scree slopes marks the top of the Ptarmigan Cirque loop. If you’ve continued on past it towards the bowl you are headed for a scramble up Mt. Rae (not covered in this hike – refer to alternate trail guides), so from this point you should continue to follow the trail back in the general direction of the parking lot.



In case the wildflowers and views haven’t convinced you, there are also numerous waterfalls along the hike, some of which look like they were laid out by expert landscapers.



The loop will take you through some seemingly barren rocky terrain, but if you look closely you’ll see many of the boulders are covered with a rainbow of lichen. The loop closes at the end of the meadow, and you’ll return to the parking lot via the same switchback trail you came up on.


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