Arethusa Cirque: How to Hike the BEST Larch Trail in Kananaskis

Arethusa Cirque is one of Kananaskis Country’s hidden gems, a beautiful 4.5 km loop nestled beneath dramatic peaks that weaves through forests, meadows, and the rocky remains of ancient glaciers.

Not as well-known as neighboring Ptarmigan or Pocaterra Cirques, but equally spectacular, Arethusa Cirque offers an incredibly rewarding experience for relatively low effort. The short distance makes this hike accessible to both novice and experienced hikers, and we consider it one of the easier Kananaskis hikes you can enjoy. With varied terrain and sweeping panoramas that provide an unforgettable adventure in the Rockies, all members of the fam will enjoy this one!


That’s not to say that Arethusa Cirque is an unheard of hike, by any means. Once the road through Highwood Pass opens in June, plenty of people get out to enjoy this beautiful part of the park. Arethusa Cirque is exceptionally beautiful during the last few weeks of September and the beginning of October, thanks to its thousands of larches in the valley.

When the needles start to turn yellow this is one of the main areas hikers head for the great larch march.

Arethusa Cirque Hike Key Stats

Infographic for hike length

4.5 km (loop)

Infographic For Hike duration

2-4 hours

Infographic For Hike Elevation Gain

278 meters

Infographic for difficulty of hike


Infographic For Trailhead

Arethusa Cirque Trailhead off HWY 40 (unmarked dirt lot 1.5 km past the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area)

Arethusa Cirque Route Description

Arethusa Cirque Route Description
Beautiful views right from the start of the trail

Arethusa cirque with Little Arethusa in the background
Arethusa cirque with Little Arethusa in the background

Arethusa Cirque is located in Highwood Pass, almost 70km south of the Trans-Canada Highway. Buckle up for a scenic 1.5 hour drive from Calgary or Banff (just over 1 hour from Canmore) to this remote area of Kananaskis. If driving southbound on Highway 40, keep an eye out for the trailhead after reaching the top of Highwood Pass and continue beyond the parking for Ptarmigan and Pocaterra.

Highwood Pass in Kananaskis

As an unofficial trail, Arethusa Cirque lacks signage of its own and the trailhead is little more than a gravel lot off the side of the road. There are no amenities at the trailhead and the closest toilets and garbage bins are located about 1km away at the Ptarmigan Cirque lot.

The start of the hike is equally nondescript. From the north end of the parking area, a narrow well-worn path leads into the trees and gently ascends through dense forest in parallel with a babbling creek.

Arethusa Cirque meadow at sunset
Arethusa Cirque meadow

Where the trail meets the creek, the trees open up to a spectacular amphitheater that cradles a brilliant array of alpine vegetation, from wildflowers to evergreens. In the fall, you’ll be welcomed by the larches’ warm golden glow.

From here, the trail forks to loop around the cirque and can be followed either clockwise or counterclockwise. The advantages of one direction over the other are often debated and largely depend on preferences for navigating steep hills – up or down?

Those who prefer to take the uphill head-on should follow the clockwise direction by crossing the creek and proceeding along the dirt path that veers left into the trees. A steep incline follows soon after. Traveling counterclockwise defers this segment to the descent at the end of the loop.

While many find it easier to go up a steep incline, we opted for the counterclockwise route, considering it to be the path of least resistance with easier route-finding. But there’s no wrong choice and either direction will provide breathtaking scenes!

meadow in Arethusa Cirque

To loop counterclockwise, take the right fork at the creek along the narrow path that meanders into the meadow. While you’ll avoid this initial creek crossing, two others will follow as the trail and stream approach the rockpiles. A first crossing just below a small waterfall leads to the left bank for a brief stretch before the trail re-crosses the stream and returns to the boulder field.

Creek in Arethusa Cirque

The narrow trail then ascends steeply towards the jagged peaks, providing expansive views back down as you rise above the trees. Sharp eyes, offline maps, and some route-finding skills are useful when you reach the top of the hill as the trail becomes less defined in the alpine bowl.

Arethusa Cirque trail with larches
Arethusa Cirque trail with larches
Arethusa Cirque below Storm Mountain
Arethusa Cirque below Storm Mountain

Keep left to follow the unmarked route that encircles the amphitheater, alternating from scree to grass as you round the ridge towards Little Arethusa to the west. The walk along the cirque is a real highlight, with evolving displays of the prominent peaks that tower over the lush basin.

Looking across Arethusa Cirque to Little Arethusa
Looking across Arethusa Cirque to Little Arethusa
Arethusa Cirque in fall
From the top of the gully about to descend the trail on the west side

As you approach the opposite end of the cirque, a gully opens up on the left side. From here, you can continue straight up to Little Arethusa or turn left to descend along the dirt trail on the west side of the gully.

Arethusa Cirque at sunset

Poles may be helpful here as it’s easy to slip on the dirt trail that leads back down to the meadow and the start of the loop. Cross the creek and you’ll rejoin the evergreen forest trail that returns to the parking lot.

Crossing the creek along on Arethusa Cirque
Crossing the creek along on Arethusa Cirque

Little Arethusa Add On

Sunset from the summit of Little  Arethusa
Sunset from the summit of Little Arethusa

For those seeking a more challenging hike and the thrill of a summit, the adjacent Little Arethusa is a stunning extension that will add about 2km of distance and an extra 350m of elevation to your journey. The stats may seem fairly modest on paper, but be prepared for a heart-pumping shot up a scree slope along a minimally defined route.

Looking back down the trail to Little Arethusa
Looking back down the trail to Little Arethusa

To reach the path that leads up Little Arethusa, take the trail that branches west of Arethusa Cirque above the tree-line. If you opt for the clockwise route into the cirque, you’ll head left once you’ve reached the top of the gully. Alternatively, if following the counterclockwise route, stay straight from the ridge.

The narrow path traverses the meadow above the tree-line for a few hundred meters before zig-zagging up the scree. From the summit ridge, there’s a steep drop towards Mount Arethusa, but this exposure is easily avoided by keeping left and following the trail that leads up just below the rock slabs.

Summit Ridge Little Arethusa
Summit Ridge Little Arethusa

From the small summit, jaw-dropping scenes stretch out in all directions, providing a bird’s eye view of Mount Arethusa, Storm Mountain, the Highwood Range, Pocaterra and Ptarmigan Cirques.

While there are many stunning hikes to be found in the Canadian Rockies, achieving unobstructed, 360-degree panoramas within such a short timeframe is a real treat. Little Arethusa also serves as a superb introduction to steeper Alberta hikes you can find throughout the Rockies, including classics like Tent RidgeWindtower, and EEOR.

Rocky outcrop just below the summit of Little Arethusa
Rocky outcrop just below the summit of Little Arethusa

To return from the summit, simply retrace your steps back down the rocky slope until you reunite with the Arethusa Cirque trail at the tree-line.

A Pass is Needed to Hike in Kananaskis

Visitors are required to hold a Kananaskis Conservation Pass, which covers Kananaskis and the Bow Valley Corridor. This pass is separate from the National Parks Pass needed to visit Banff and the other national parks. Passes may be purchased online and are attached to a license plate number. Requirements are around vehicles and parking, not the individual. This includes parking at the Canmore Nordic Center or Grassi Lakes.

Pass Prices

  • Daily Pass: $15 (registers one vehicle)
  • Annual Pass: $90 (registers two cars)

A Guide to Understanding the Kananaskis Conservation Pass

When Can You Hike Arethusa Cirque?

Larches in Arethusa Cirque

Arethusa Cirque can be hiked after the June 15 opening of the Highwood Pass road. The summer months offer a vibrant tapestry of wildflowers, turning to warmer shades in the fall when the larches don their stunning gold hues. Undoubtedly, mid to late September is one of the best times to visit to enjoy this seasonal spectacle. You will encounter more crowds during this popular hiking period, so visit on a weekday for more solitude.

Given its high elevation, snow usually blankets the trail starting in October and into November. Once the Highwood Pass road closes on December 1, access is restricted to all but the most adventurous skiers and bikers until the re-opening in June.

How Long Does it Take to Hike Arethusa Cirque?

Arethusa Cirque in fall

Arethusa Cirque is short but sweet. Novice hikers should budget about 3 hours to complete the circuit, while more experienced hikers can probably make the tour in 2 hours. Fitness, route-finding abilities, trail conditions will all influence the hiking timeline and it’s worth it to add a few snack and photography breaks.

For a longer day, summiting Little Arethusa will add another 2 to 3 hours of hike time (making about 5 hours in total). Always remember to plan a timeline based on your own abilities and experience. Pack a headlamp if hiking later in the day and set a turn around time to avoid getting caught out after dark.

If you want a long day out and the larches are in full swing, consider adding Ptarmigan Cirque to your day as it’s another short and sweet hike, and you are right there!

How Hard is it to Hike Arethusa Cirque?

Larch at Arethusa Cirque

With a short distance and modest elevation gain, Arethusa Cirque is a reasonably accessible hike by Canadian Rockies standards. That being said, it could be classified as a moderate trail given the presence of some steeper inclines and rugged terrain that requires occasional route-finding.

Arethusa Cirque is a great option for hikers who want to build experience on different terrain or who want a bit more pizzazz than a forest walk. Those with a good level of physical fitness will find the trail more fun than strenuous. Summiting Little Arethusa would bump this hike into a more difficult category, albeit still relatively moderate given the absence of major technical challenges.

Note that variable weather conditions significantly affect trail difficulty. While I easily managed Arethusa Cirque in trail shoes without poles during dry conditions, I would certainly opt for boots and poles if expecting any mud. It also never hurts to have poles for balance on creek crossings and to relieve knee pressure on steep descents!

Microspikes and poles would be essential to safely navigate ice, while snowshoes may be needed later in the fall. Consult trail reports in advance to help prepare appropriately and pack the right gear. You can also check this post for tips on what to wear hiking.

Is the Hike to Arethusa Cirque Family and Dog Friendly?

Hiker and small dog along Arethusa Cirque trail during larch season

Arethusa Cirque is great for furry companions and for families with school-aged children keen to tackle a few challenges like small creek crossings, inclines, and rocks.

Hiking with a newborn!

Most of the trail is packed dirt, but the short rocky sections could cause discomfort for sensitive paws. Remember to always keep dogs leashed in the mountains for their own safety as well as that of wildlife and fellow hikers. You’ll also need to pack out all waste.

How Busy is Arethusa Cirque?

Cameron hiking Arethusa Cirque

Arethusa Cirque is not as well known as other Kananaskis trails and offers relative tranquility. Depending on how other hikers move around the loop, you may not even cross paths.

I’ve opted to hike this area early in the fall before sunset and have only ever encountered a handful of hikers. However, larch season can attract crowds, particularly over weekends, and I’ve heard reports of full parking during such times.

Hiking Tips for the Canadian Rockies

sunset on Little Arethusa
Sunset on Little Arethusa
  • Check the weather and trail conditions before leaving home. AllTrails is a great resource with reviews from those who recently completed the trail. Alberta Parks also posts highway and wildlife advisories on its website.
  • There is no cellular service on the trail or surrounding area so it’s important to plan ahead and consider bringing a satellite communicator in case of emergency.
  • Be aware of wildlife and always carry bear spray. You can also stay safe in bear country by respecting advisories, maintaining an awareness of surroundings, making noise on the trail, hiking in groups, and packing out all food and waste.
  • Plan for your own level of fitness and comfort. Make sure you budget enough time to travel at your own pace and pack plenty of food and water to keep you sustained. If hiking later in the day, set a turn around time to avoid getting caught out in the dark.
  • Dress for variable conditions with layers. Check out this post for advice on what to wear while hiking in the Rockies. I also love to leave a bag with clean clothes, extra water, and salty snacks in the car to feel refreshed on the post-hike drive.
  • Adhere to leave no trace principles while hiking, including packing out all waste and staying on trails. Helping preserve the sensitive mountain ecology will ensure that future generations of humans and wildlife can continue to enjoy these spectacular places.
  • Lastly, a GPS tracker could save your life – it’s one of those backpacking essentials I like to have on me just in case I need to hit SOS. Alltrails is our favorite app to have on a hike. It shows the correct trail way, elevation, and other hiker reviews. We paid the subscription fee so that we could download all the data we need to our phones.

Gear We Recommend for Arethusa Cirque

Salomon Speedcross 5

Salomon Speedcross 5

The vast majority of hikes and easy scrambles in the Rockies, you’ll find us in our trusty Salomon Speedcross.

Arc'teryx Cerium Hoody

Arc’teryx Cerium

Arc’teryx Cerium is our pick for the best down jacket. It’s incredibly light, and we bring it on almost every hike in the Rockies.

Peak Design Capture Clip

PD Capture Clip

This nifty clip from Peak Design secures a camera to my backpack strap for easy reach. No more digging in the backpack!

Hiking Poles

Hiking Poles

A pair of durable and lightweight hiking poles are a great asset on the hiking trail. 

Gregory Nano Backpack

Gregory Nano 20L

20L feels like the ideal size for quick hikes and scrambles. We love the Nano from Gregory with a hydration reservoir.

Garmin Inreach Mini

Garmin Inreach Mini

There is not much cell service in the Canadian Rockies. In case of emergencies, we carry an emergency beacon with GPS.

Other Awesome Kananaskis Hikes

pocaterra ridge
Pocaterra Ridge

There are so many more great hikes in the Kananaskis Country Provincial Park. A few of my favorites are Tent RidgeWindtowerHa Ling, and EEOR. There is always Pocaterra Ridge and Ptarmigan Cirque nearby too!

Other Great Larch Hikes

Natasha Alden at Taylor Lake
Taylor Lake

Arethusa Cirque is one of the best hikes to enjoy when the larches turn golden every September. Though there are plenty of others we love including Pocaterra Ridge nearby, but there are others in Banff we absolutely love. Our favorites include Taylor Lake, Arnica Lake, and Saddleback Pass!

Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies

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About Miranda Spessot

A professional planner by day, Miranda works to better understand human habitats and create more livable, sustainable, and inclusive communities. She also applies this spatial sense in personal pursuits by mapping brewery bike tours for friends, navigating transit systems abroad, and road tripping around western Canada. Outside of office hours, Miranda can usually be found adventuring outdoors: hiking, scrambling, camping, skiing, paddle-boarding, running, or trying to photograph her dog. Raised in Ontario, Miranda lives in Canmore, Alberta.

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