Ptarmigan Cirque is a scenic hike into an impressive bowl beside Mount Rae near Highwood Pass.
Ptarmigan Cirque is a popular hike beginning at 7,239 ft. (2,206 m) Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country 65 KM (40⅝ miles) west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada on the TransCanada Highway and 70 KM (43¾ miles) south on Kananaskis Trail (Highway 40).
Ptarmigan Cirque begins on the east side of Kananaskis Trail (Hwy 40), at Highwood Pass, and abruptly ascends on good gravel trail. Try to avoid being killed while crossing the highway. The trail negotiates several well-graded switchbacks through forest, to ease the moderate elevation gain, then branches to a clockwise, one-way loop which continues the climb towards the cirque.
Richardson Ground Squirrels are prolific and line up near trail-side to whistle at passing hikers.
On the approach plateau, the trail becomes more rugged above a rapidly descending stream emanating from the cirque. Waterfalls are plentiful. In a neutral spot, where the surrounding, spectacular view is most expansive, a pause is taken to capture a short video of Ptarmigan Cirque.
The loop turns at a very nice waterfall but a more rustic trail continues up and over rock bands further into the cirque. On the rocky, extension trail a kind woman takes a picture for me.
At the end of this approximately one kilometer trail, there is a small, pristine waterfall erupting from the bottom of a very large terminal moraine. The source of the flow is hidden in the cirque, above and behind the moraine. This will need to be investigated. Perhaps there is a lake or remnants of a glacier. The inner child kicks in to buffer the struggle with sustained altitude. Discovery is imminent as the climb proceeds on steeper, scree slope to the left side of the moraine.
Behind the massive moraine is a large deposit of snow with evidence of a tiny lake at the bottom which is feeding the waterfall. Further into the cirque now the terrain becomes very impressive and expands around a corner outside the range of visibility. This will need to be investigated.
Swinging around the corner on scree slope reveals a snow slope at the south end of the cirque which would allow scrambling directly to the top of the ridge col between Mount Rae and Mount Arethusa. At the top there would be an incredible view east as well as north towards Mount Rae.
The Rae Glacier is purportedly the most easterly glacier in the Rocky Mountains. The glacier is the headwater source and one of the main sources of water for Elbow Lake which feeds Elbow River wandering east to join the mighty Bow River flowing through central Calgary.
Every fiber of my being wants to climb that snow slope at the south end of the cirque. However, heavy weather from the west is forming up. Cloud is getting very dark, ceilings are dropping rapidly and the wind is gaining significant momentum as the weather front approaches. With incredible reluctance, the retreat begins. It is the only sensible thing to do.
Many images are captured on the picturesque hike down the other side of the loop and arrival at the parking area occurs as a very light rain begins.
On the drive home to Calgary and within the 70 KM drive north on Kananaskis Trail (Highway 40), the drive passes through three major, maximum-wiper-speed rainstorms as heavy weather picks its path through mountain passes. The sound of the pounding rain on the roof of the car enhances the rhythms of Nickelback and Lady Gaga.
The approach to the TransCanada Highway occurs into an exciting thunder-storm. Lightning strikes on mountain summits are impressive. Mother Nature has done it all this day. Such is the way of the mountains. I do love this place.