Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Pocaterra Cirque

Pocaterra Cirque
There we were, Mack, Michael and myself, a stone's throw from five big horn sheep. All I could think was, "Wow, that beats the larches turning gold any day." 

Golden larch needles
Bighorn sheep out people watching
A week earlier I'd hiked Pocaterra Ridge to see the larches turning gold. Starting from the Highwood Pass day use area in Kananaskis (the highest point of the highest regularly maintained highway in Canada), the larches at Pocaterra are arguably better than in the more popular Larch Valley and the crowds are unarguably thinner. Pocaterra Ridge is also a great hike in its own right, which is something I wouldn't say about Larch Valley. Maybe I've passed through it too many times on the way to Sentinel Pass, Temple Mountain and Eiffel Peak, but the interminable, viewless switchbacks up to Larch Valley aren't my idea of fun. On the way to the ridge we passed by Pocaterra Cirque and I thought it'd make the perfect kids hike: larches for the parents and rocks and stuff for the kids to climb on. (Tryst Lake is another kids' hike that has larches, but not as many as Pocaterra Cirque.)

The trail veers off of the interpretive trail shortly after leaving the parking lot. (A couple weeks earlier instead of veering left we'd gone straight on the kid's hike to Ptarmigan Cirque.) After gaining about 60 m, it drops out of the trees into a lush meadow with Grizzly Ridge to the left, views of the Highwood Valley to the right, and golden larches straight ahead. After passing a very small lake, the trail re-enters the trees and gains another hundred meters or so. Three kilometers from the parking lot the trail splits with Pocaterra Ridge to the right and Grizzly Col to the left. We went left for a few minutes, dropped our packs and had lunch.

We explored, climbed on rocks and made another bigfoot video for an hour, then headed back. It was then that we encountered the bighorn sheep. They were about 10 m off the trail, and didn't seem bothered in the least by us. Although the boys had seen bighorn sheep up close through the car window, it was the first time they'd seen them on the trail. It was also the first time I've seen them that close on the trail. I've seen them from a distance--just the week before we'd seen a few from the ridge, grazing a couple hundred meters below us--but I've never walked right past them. It was one of those shared experiences with Mack and Michael that I`ll remember for the rest of my life.

Another reason I'll remember Pocaterra Cirque is for something Mack said. At the bottom of a steep section where the trail was hard packed dirt and offered little traction, he told me: "Dad, I didn't have any trouble coming down that. All this hiking must be working." Forget the bighorn sheep and the larches. That's what hiking with kids is all about.

Distance: About 6 km return
Elevation gain: About 150 meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hour
Directions: Head west on the Trans-Canada. Take the turnoff for Kananaskis Country/Highway 40. Drive south for about 67 km to Highwood Pass parking lot. Head down the trail for a minute or two until you come to an unmaintained trail on the left. Take it.

Click here for a driving map.

Pocaterra Ridge in the background

The trail to Pocaterra Cirque below Grizzly Ridge

We keep running into bigfoot...


  1. Wow love how you and your kids get to enjoy such an awesome place as the Canadian Rockies. I am from the US and love this place. I have a question or two about this hike. I have hiked Larch Valley and love it. The abundance of Larch trees there is staggering. Do you find this place to be as good? I am confused about Pocaterra Cirque and Pocaterra Ridge. Are they the same or is the ridge further in. Do I need to go to the ridge to see all the larches? Do you have any idea how long it would take to hike? I will be passing by here one day around one which is a little late and would love to hike in if I have time. I felt as though you could provide good advice. Thanks in advance and I have enjoyed some of your posts.

    1. We have a lot of fun! In my opinion, Pocaterra Cirque equals Larch Valley. Sections of Pocaterra Ridge surpass Larch Valley. You can see some photos here . The cirque can be done in two or three hours if you're quick. The ridge begins at the end of the cirque trail, and entails a 550 m elevation gain. Getting to and from the parts with the larches would be a full day hike. The last couple years more and more people are going to Pocaterra for the larches, but it's still nowhere near as busy as Larch Valley.

    2. Thank you Ken. I just read in another post that on the ridge between peaks 3 and 4 are where the biggest section of larches are. He also went on to say that they came out at Little Highwood Pass. So they only did this one way but they had 2 vehicles. I was thinking I may start there, come in for a ways then turn around and head back out. Are you familiar enough with this hike you could tell me how to find the trail from the Little Highwood Pass area and I am not even sure where that is. Thanks again.

    3. Bob Spirko did the ridge from that end. His trip report has a map showing where they started. I came from the other end, and don't recall how obvious the trail head at the Little Highwood end is. I don't recall the creek being difficult to cross either.

    4. The Little Highwood Pass parking area on Highway 40 is well signed. You can't miss it.


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