Thursday, October 12, 2017

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass

I'm going to have to start a series on "winter summits" because our September hikes often end up as intro mountaineering ascents. At least this year I got smart, and dressed my son in real winter boots (and brought enough clothing to keep a bus-load of kids warm.)

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass (Rockies Family Adventures)
Little Arethusa Summit, Highwood Pass, Kananaskis

We wanted to see golden larch trees at the end of September but instead, we had a snowball fight, climbed a very snowy mountain, and enjoyed some interesting hiking along a narrow icy ridge. Somehow though, it was a lot of fun, and I actually think the snow made our ascent easier without the scree we normally pound our way through in the Rockies.

First Summits - Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass (Rockies Family Adventures)
Ridge walking on Little Arethusa

Introduction to Arethusa Cirque and Little Arethusa & Trailhead

To ascend Little Arethusa, you first have to hike up to Arethusa Cirque, the next cirque over from popular Ptarmigan Cirque on the same side of the highway.

Arethusa Cirque is located just over Highwood Pass on Highway 40 (and the highway is open through the end of November. Then it doesn't open again until mid-June.)

To reach the Arethusa Cirque parking area, follow highway 40 until you reach the main parking area for Highwood Pass at Highwood Meadows. Use the bathrooms here because you won't find any at the Arethusa Cirque parking area.

Drive past Highwood Meadows for approximately 1 km, and park in an unofficial parking lot on the left hand (east) side of the highway. It will be the next parking area you come to after the official Highwood Meadows one.

From the parking area, you'll follow an unofficial trail through the trees, climbing 120 metres in 1.5 km to reach the cirque. Beyond that, you have the option of hiking up to the summit of "Little Arethusa," the name given for the easy peak to the southwest of main Mt Arethusa.

Hiking up Little Arethusa with the Cirque below us in this photo

Stats for our Summit Ascent of Little Arethusa

Height Gain - 576 metres to the top of Little Arethusa from the highway (roughly 450 metres above the Cirque)

Distance - 2.7 km one way from the highway

Time that it took us - 4.5 hours return

Age of kids we hiked with - We reached the summit with two boys, ages 8 and 10.

Best Guide Book - Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 5 by Gillean Daffern

On top of the world above Highwood Pass on the Summit Ridge of Little Arethusa

Hiking to Arethusa Cirque

This is an easy peasy 1.5 km hike, but I would recommend previous hiking experience on unofficial rough trails. There is no sign at the trailhead, and there are no signs along the trail. If you want something more "official," neighboring Ptarmigan Cirque is a better choice.

We stopped often to throw snowballs and play along the trail

We were lucky that other hikers had gone ahead of us because otherwise, we might have had route finding challenges on the unofficial trail up to the cirque. Nobody in our group had ever hiked up to Arethusa Cirque before so we were all in unfamiliar territory.

There was one creek crossing that we helped the kids across, but otherwise, the hike was very straight forward and we stopped often to throw snowballs.

Creek crossing on the Arethusa Cirque Trail

Hiking up Little Arethusa

We took a break in meadows (at least I think they were meadows under all the snow) and then headed towards the summit in the distance. See photo below so that you know what you're aiming for. If you're looking straight towards the Cirque, Little Arethusa is to your left.

Little Arethusa as seen from Arethusa Cirque

From the Cirque, we hiked cross country, heading for the lower slopes of Little Arethusa (shown in the photo above.)

Hiking up from Arethusa Cirque to the Lower Slopes of Little Arethusa

It was a very straight forward climb up to the ridge of Little Arethusa and I'm sure the snow helped us because it didn't feel as steep as I'd anticipated it to be. I had heard that we should be expecting a steep slog, but the ascent went by quite quickly and painlessly.

Hiking up snow and grass to reach the Little Arethusa Ridge

In normal conditions there may be a trail of sorts up Little Arethusa, but for us, we just headed straight up the grassy (now snowy hillside,) following the path made by others ahead of us. Thankfully, it did switchback its way up and we've done a lot of steeper hikes this summer. (nearby Pocaterra Ridge felt much steeper.)

Steep but very beautiful ascent up Little Arethusa
So, maybe it was a "little bit" steep and slog-ish

Little Arethusa Ridge Walk and Summit

We topped out on the false summit and took a short break while we contemplated the ridge ahead of us. Fortunately the trail does not travel along the top of the narrow ridge but traverses below it to the left. It was never especially scary, and with ice cleats on, we had good traction on the slippery trail.

Traversing along the left side of the summit ridge

A very short walk led us to the first cairn, and a small rocky area large enough for a handful of people. It's still not very big though so this isn't where you stop to have lunch. And it wasn't the true summit yet. The true summit was just beyond, accessed via the narrowest section of ridge we had to walk on. Fortunately, it was only 5 steps across this narrow section and we were at the official summit.

Hiking up the ridge to the staging area before the true summit
The Summit of Little Arethusa - with just enough space for two to three people

The summit is very small with room for a few people at most. Take your photos and then hike back along the ridge if you're going to have lunch up here. There's just not room for crowds on the summit or on the ridge at all.

Boys on the summit of Little Arethusa
Resting on the summit ridge of Little Arethusa, Highwood Pass and the highway below us

Hiking Back Down the Ridge

The hike back down the ridge was short and within 5 minutes, we were back at the plateau, looking down on the slope we'd climbed up from the cirque.

Hiking along the narrowest part of the ridge off of the summit

And if you want to "see" how narrow the short section is between the final rocky area at the end of the ridge, and the official summit, just look at the photo above. My foot is at the edge of the ridge - and it drops off there.

Resting on the summit ridge of Little Arethusa
Hiking down the ridge top of Little Arethusa

Safety Tips! Climbing Snowy Mountains with Kids

Below are a few guidelines/suggestions to keep in mind if you want to attempt a winter summit or snow hike with your kids.

  • Waterproof hiking boots (or even winter boots) are imperative. Last year my son was wearing low cut hiking shoes on a snow hike, and his feet got very cold/wet. This year, he wore his actual winter snow boots (the same kind you'd wear snowshoeing) and he was much happier!

  • Bring layers of clothing, mittens or gloves, extra mittens/gloves, and warm hats. We also had Buffs to keep our necks and faces warm. And then make sure you have backpacks large enough to fit all of these extra layers and clothing items. With winter hikes, more is definitely best! So don't skimp on the warm clothes.

  • Think emergency and ask yourself if you'd have enough warm clothing/supplies if you had to spend the night outside waiting for a rescue. We carried an emergency blanket and a small bivy sack with us. Other essentials would be extra food and supplies to start a fire.

  • I recommend choosing a trail you've actually done before in summer so that you know where the trail is supposed to go. We figured we wouldn't get lost since it was only a 1.5 km hike to the cirque, but for a longer hike, I'd want to make sure we were experienced with the trail before attempting it in snowy conditions.

  • Ice cleats or Kahtoola Microspikes are vital. And if you can find an XS pair of Microspikes for the kids, they are truly the best product for traction on the market. We are lucky that my son has a pair, and so he can climb snowy mountains as well as we can.

  • Make sure there is no avalanche danger for the summit you are climbing, or for the area you will be hiking through. If you're not sure, check with a visitor centre. We always do our snow hikes in late September or early October before there is avalanche risk.

  • Allow yourself extra time and plan for reduced daylight hours. A hike that might regularly take 5 hours, could take 7 if there's snow on the trail. And as it gets later in the season, days get shorter.
I highly recommend ice cleats or spikes if you're going to do this

And, in the end, we saw a few larch trees.

Hiking back down out of Arethusa Cirque

Overall Opinion of this Hike 

We have done a lot of summit hikes this summer that I called "Oncers." Too steep, too rugged, too much scree, too loose... - or we had perfect conditions and I don't feel like we need to go back up again.

Little Arethusa is a mountain I'd happily do again though. I'd love to compare our winter hike with a summer hike. And I'd love to go mid-week when we could have the summit ridge to ourselves (and maybe have lunch on the ridge.)

This was an easy outing (for us) and we'll definitely be back.

Very happy camper on top of Little Arethusa
Parting shot on Little Arethusa

Disclaimer: There are a few links in this story, all meant to help you with additional resources and information. I am not sponsored by Kahtoola and received no financial support for linking to their website. I also get no money if you choose to buy a guidebook for Kananaskis off Amazon. If you want to buy a hiking book for the Kananaskis area, buy it wherever you'd like.


  1. To your great safety list I would add bear spray...was not a believer until I joined the Bear Safety and Awareness FB Group....bears are definitely present here. We observed numerous diggings and scat in the cirque area two weeks ago.

    1. Thanks. Good point on the bear spray. I had only been thinking of "winter hiking specific" items in my list of special things to bring. It could have been noted though that bear spray is recommended on any hiking trip.
      Rockies Family Adventures

  2. This was one of my favorite hikes during wildflower season. We hiked up a sloped that was COVERED in flowers, spent a good chunk of time there haha.