The third week in September is glorious in Alberta. September, itself, is pretty magnificent if you ever plan on visiting. The reason the third week is particularly special is because mother nature’s clock chimes with just the right amount of cooler nights, signaling the magnificent larch trees to change from green to a rich yellow, before they lose their needles. Larches grow at specific elevations in the Rocky Mountains and since we are a toddling family still, we try to seek out hikes that are appropriate for little legs yet still manage to get us up in to the alpine. We found a new family larch viewing hike this year and it was just great: Arethusa Cirque.
Larches are coniferous trees but they shed their needles, so they’re an oxymoronic deciduous conifer! Before they lose their soft needles, they turn a vibrant yellow, much like the poplars and aspens found at lower elevations. The trick with larches is that the ones in the Rocky Mountains near Calgary live at high elevations and you can’t always see them. Sure, you see the odd cluster from the Transcanada Highway, growing high up on a mountainside, but you don’t quite know for sure if the larches at your favourite hike will have turned just the right amount of golden yellow without doing the work to hike in and check it out for yourself! And, that is part of what makes them so special.
Once the larches start turning, you have about ten days to cram in as many hikes as possible! Here are some suggestions for helping you decide where to go:
I’ll leave you to check out the Dafferns’ information on this wonderful hike and will share some pictures and tips about tackling it with young kids, below. Of note, is their sketch map that further details the trail network in this bowl; information that is not clearly visible on any other map you may pack with you.
The parking spot for Arethusa Cirque just over a kilometre past the mega-parking lot at the top of Highwood Pass on Highway 40 (about 20-25 minutes drive past the winter gate), on your left hand side (if you are heading southbound). It’s a bumpy dirt track that leads to a clearing and the trailhead is at the far end. If you prefer to use an outhouse before starting your hike, be sure to stop at the Highwood Pass parking lot (FYI, this is where the trailheads for Ptarmigan Cirque and other hikes are located).
The Main Trail
You will follow a well-worn single track from the parking lot to the junction with Arethusa Creek, at which point you have some decisions to make. It took us less than half an hour to get to this point, with the just two-year old walking at least half of the distance, lots of picture taking, and forest gawking, looking at mushrooms, bark, and larches. It is a beautiful coniferous forest and you can hear Arethusa Creek falling down the mountainside the entire way up. The beauty of this trail is that it is quick access to the alpine at a nice, gentle incline, perfect for toddlers and young children, alike. Ptarmigan Cirque and Elbow Lake trails are both known for their steep starts, but this trail does not have that limitation.
Family Larch Viewing & Kid-Specific Tips
The other beauty of this hike, with respect to doing it with kids, is that once you hit Arethusa Creek, you can do as little or as much as you like! If you keep to the right, you follow the creek for a bit and then there are several great picnic spots. This is where we went. It is difficult to find the trail marked “east trail” on the Dufferns’ sketch map, so if you are intent on completing a loop, I would recommend heading up the more defined looking North Trail, instead, which you will see as soon as you hit Arethusa Creek.
On a similar vein, if you are more comfortable hiking with a very defined trail with kids, then I wouldn’t recommend this hike. This is an on foot or carrier-only hike, too; no strollers, not even a single Chariot, would work here. The 2 and 5-year-olds walked a lot. The 2-year-old was in our Osprey carrier when we were scrambling on some boulders or crossing Arethusa Creek, and the 5-year-old managed these trickier sections with some assistance from an adult. Well-trodden family larch viewing hike options include Larch Valley or the shorter but equally gorgeous Lake Agnes out at Lake Louise.
You may notice that I am wearing a huge pack on my back! Don’t worry, it’s not that heavy, but it does have the essentials for hiking for four different people at this time of year: lunch, snacks, water, a real first aid kit (including splint), extra layers (it looked like it could rain, which also meant it could very well snow!), including toques and mitts, plus some closed shoes and socks for the kids in case it did snow (they were in KEEN sandals and Crocs). My husband was wearing our structured kid carrier at this point and had the bear spray, bear bangers and safety flares, and ‘baby’ (the Corolle doll that seems to go everywhere right now!). We traded during the hike, sharing the load of carrying the toddler, when required, as she is heavy!
I think that it is very important to always be prepared, especially at this time of year, so that you can fully enjoy your family larch viewing trip.
Animals and Safety
There were lots of mountain sheep when we were in the area. A whole herd was sauntering down the path as we were coming up the main trail, then there were bunch more in the alpine, hanging out in the rocky terrain. One sheep in particular was overly docile and I suspect it was because people have left behind crumbs after eating their lunches.
So, please be sure to leave no trace (only footprints); one thing that I recommend to do when picnicking with young children, is to use a lightweight picnic blanket to capture all of the crumbs. Please give a wide berth to wildlife, even if (or especially so) they appear curious or tame – their natural behaviours may have been compromised due to too much exposure to humans (and our food), making their behaviour even that much more unpredictable.
Of course, all sorts of wildlife may be spotted in the area. Always carry bear spray and have it easily accessible. It is safest to travel in groups of 4 or more. And, be sure to check trail conditions before you go, here is a link to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park’s Trail Report (note that Arethusa is not one of the trails listed but could have a special advisory, if necesssary).
Arethusa Cirque for the Win!
A wonderful family larch viewing hike, I hope that these notes have been helpful to get you out this week to enjoy the gorgeous fall that Alberta gives us! We look forward to doing it again next year and exploring the North and Larch Trails in detail.