Ptarmigan Cirque

Nestled high between the peaks of Mount Rae and Mount Arethusa lies Ptarmigan Cirque, 2438m above sea level. The Highwood Pass, where the trail begins, is the highest paved pass in Canada, and one of the few locations you can drive to see larches in the fall. Ptarmigan Cirque trail is only accessible a few months of the year, as the road into the area is closed from Dec. 1st to June 15th every year. The Cirque itself can have snow in it 9 months of the year.

While the official trail itself is only a few kilometers long, you get to climb most of the 230 meters in elevation gain within the first kilometer or so in a series of short switchbacks, so it’s quite the huff and puff. The views within and across from the Cirque are incredible, but you have to earn it first.

First Falls
First Falls, pencil on paper


The official trail takes you to the foot of a small waterfall, then in a loop around the lower part of the Cirque before heading back down. Those of us who know the trail, however, usually climb past that first waterfall to the upper part of the Cirque, where the terrain tends to run mainly to rock, and you eventually reach a second waterfall. Beyond that is even more rock, getting into an area that’s popular with scramblers and climbers (not my thing, but to each their own).

Rockfall, charcoal on paper

The first real views come once you’ve reached the treeline above the switchbacks. From there you can see up the Cirque, but also back across the valley to look at the Highwood and Pocaterra Ridges, and Mount Tyrwhitt and Grizzly Peak.

Across the Valley
Across the Valley, pastel on paper

At that point, the area opens into meadows full of fireweed and western anemone (often called Hippy on a Stick when they go to seed), among other wildflowers. We often see bighorn sheep above treeline. Columbian ground squirrels are also common there, and in the rockiest areas, we’ll often hear, and sometimes see, the adorable pika. It’s also not uncommon to see bear diggings along that slope, though so far, I’ve been lucky not to run into a bear up there. While the area is named for ptarmigan, I had yet to see one there, as they are experts at camouflaging themselves on the verges of meadows and rockpiles.

Hippy on a Stick
Hippy on a Stick, pastel on velour

Once in the rocky area between the two waterfalls, if you know where to look, you can find a boulder with tiny fossil shells in it. Mostly, though, we like to sit and picnic on the boulders at the foot of the second falls.

After lunch, we head back to the first waterfall and the official trail, and complete the loop around the Cirque. It comes out on a high ridge with a bench, below which is another waterfall coming out of a slot canyon in the cliff face there. That’s always worth a rest stop before heading back into the trees and descending back to the trailhead.

View from the Bench
View from the Bench, Inktense on paper

If you enjoyed the artwork, some of it is now available for sale on various products on Please follow the link to see what’s available:

4 thoughts on “Ptarmigan Cirque

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  1. Really enjoy stories on the trail. And love the drawings, but the colored ones more then the black and white this time. Keep them coming Linda. I have posted on Facebook.


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