Little Arethusa

When winter weather rolls into the Rockies, the quest for smaller objectives begins. The day before our three-night getaway at Mount Engadine Lodge, an early-season snowstorm nailed Kananaskis. With some summit forecasts calling for upwards of 30 centimeters (nearly a foot) of powder, finding some last-minute smaller objectives became our main objective. Enter, Little Arethusa…

Little Arethusa is an outlier on the southwest side of larger Mount Arethusa. Like many Kananaskis summits, Arethusa was named after a warship that served in the First World War. The subpeak stands at a respectable 2768 m (9,081 feet), but is still dwarfed by neighboring Arethusa (2912 m) and Storm Mountain (3095 m). Little Arethusa rises above Arethusa Cirque, a glacially-carved basin between Arethusa and Storm Mountain that explodes with golden larches for a few fleeing weeks of autumn. While this minor summit may be considered ‘little,’ the views from the pint-sized peak are anything but.

Little Arethusa is located in the Highwood Pass area of Kananaskis, one of the premier larch locations in southern Alberta. Highwood Pass is fairly close to Calgary (about an hour and a half drive) and many of the best larch-viewing trails are super accessible, requiring only a moderate amount of work. Because of this accessibility, the area sees a lot of visitors, especially when the larches peak.

One of the most popular spots is just across the Kananaskis Highway from Little Arethusa – Pocaterra Ridge. We initially considered hiking the ridge; however, reading trip reports of the excessive amount of foot traffic made us cringe. Additionally, we weren’t entirely sure how safe conditions along the ridge were given the recent snowfall. As such, we decided to head slightly further south to Arethusa Cirque and see if we could scramble Little Arethusa.

While we were deterred by Pocaterra Ridge’s surging popularity, Arethusa Cirque isn’t exactly unpopular. It’s a mere kilometer away and suitable for most abilities. Nevertheless, we figured there’d be far fewer people scrambling the peak, which would (hopefully) provide the opportunity for a bit of solitude. We headed out with optimism, thinking the day’s conditions may play in our favor: (1) It was a Monday, (2) There was a bunch of snow, and (3) The weather looked less than stellar with heavy cloud cover in the forecast. We set out reasonably early and figured we’d take our chances.

We arrived at the trailhead for Arethusa Cirque to find a huge parking lot (ick), but with only about ten other cars there. It was more than we expected to find (perhaps stupidly) on a Monday, but we considered it a win given how many cars the lot could potentially accommodate.

The trail around the cirque forms a lollipop and can be hiked either clockwise or counterclockwise. Direction seems to be irrelevant, although it is slightly steeper along one early section if you go clockwise. Since we were keen to scramble Little Arethusa at the beginning of the trip, we headed clockwise at the split.

From the parking lot, the trail immediately begins a moderate ascent through the forest. We made it all of about fifty feet before we were pulled over slapping on traction. All the weekend foot traffic had packed down the soft snow creating quite the slippery track. Now much zippier with our spikes, we soon hit Storm Creek and the trail split, with either direction suitable for hiking the loop. We headed hiker’s left (clockwise) and continued through the forest for about another half mile. When we reached a lightly-vegetation hillside, we split off left from the main trail and headed for the southeast slopes of Little Arethusa.

From the main trail to the summit, it was expectedly much steeper than the rest of the hike, gaining 1,100 vertical feet over the half mile to the summit. Though we’d passed a handful of parties on the first section of trail, there was no one else on Little Arethusa. It was just the tranquility we’d hoped for. Though the scree ramp was snow-covered, there was less accumulation than we’d expected. Given how icy the trail was lower down, we kept our spikes on, although we probably didn’t need them. Once we got to the ridge, though, I was glad I had them. There was a small amount of exposure along the ridge crest, and a couple spots where a slip near the sheer northeast side would have ended very badly.

The ridge walk felt kind of exhilarating given the drop on the other side, and the views from the tiny summit block were quite striking. All that fresh snow on the serrated summits made the mountainscape look all the more epic. The fast-moving clouds created an even more foreboding feel, with Storm Mountain looking exceptionally ominous under overcast skies. Across the highway (and provincial border), we watched mesmerized as clouds poured over the Elk Range toward Storelk Mountain.

The forecasted cloud cover didn’t last long, though. By the time we were halfway through our descent, the sun had slowly started to make an appearance. As cool as those clouds were, it was equally nice to get some good illumination on the golden larches, and the shifting sunlight made it kind of fun to shoot. As shadows turned to light, the larches transformed from a deep bronze to a blazing gold.

Last year, larch season in the Canadian Rockies felt like July. The sun was harsh and temperatures soared. While it certainly made for some awesome late-season summit scrambles, we kind of felt like we missed out on those moody larch moments you only get when autumn and winter brusquely collide. This year, though, we were treated to that strikingly stark contrast of golden needles against a backdrop of freshly fallen snow. The storm may have quelled our weekend summit plans, but it sure made up for it with these awe-inspiring larch scenes. And who knows? If it weren’t for the unexpected dumping, maybe we never would have made it over here. I supposed nature always knows best.

After retracing our footsteps down Little Arethusa, we rejoined the main trail to finish out the loop around Arethusa Cirque. Continuing clockwise back to the original split near Storm Creek, it was about 1.5 miles (2.4 km). The trail rose and fell gently as it curled around the larch-filled bowl, skirting the southern slopes of Mount Arethusa and western tip of Storm Mountain. The views were great from nearly every vantage point, and I’m fairly certain we were incapable of walking more than ten steps before once again reaching for our cameras.

Overall, we really enjoyed this little outing. There were certainly more people than we’d typically see in a day out in the backcountry, but it really wasn’t too bad. And despite it being much shorter than anything we’d typically choose, those moody skies and gilded larches sure were magical.

Total distance: 4.0 miles (6.5 km)
Elevation gain: 2,048 feet (620 meters)
Scramble rating: Easy

If you want to hike Arethusa Cirque without the scramble up Little Arethusa, the circuit clocks in at just 3 miles (5 km) roundtrip with around 1,000 feet (300 m) of elevation gain.

Photo gallery

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *