Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pocaterra Cirque

Trip Date: October 2016

If you're looking to view the golden Larch Trees in the fall but want to avoid the crowds in Larch Valley you should try Pocaterra Cirque. The trail is located in the Highwood Pass area of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, which is in Kananaskis Country. It's worth mentioning that at 2,206 metres (7,239 feet) Highwood Pass is the highest paved road in Canada. Please note that a section of this highway (Highway 40) is closed from December 1 to June 14 between the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park entrance and the Highwood House Junction. This means that this hike and others in the area are inaccessible (at least with vehicle assistance) during that timeframe.

The sign at the summit of Highwood Pass
The trailhead for Pocaterra Cirque is the Highwood Meadows Day Use Area, which is the same as the Ptarmigan Cirque trailhead. Ptarmigan Cirque is more popular than Pocaterra Cirque, so don't be too alarmed if the parking lot is full when you arrive. The trailhead is approximately 140km southwest of downtown Calgary. Pocaterra Cirque is considered an unofficial trail and you won't find it listed on the map at the trailhead. It is clearly marked on the Gem Trek map we were using and the trail is well-worn and easy to find. This trail is also a great jump-off point for longer day-trips including Pocaterra Ridge, Grizzly Col, and Mount Tyrwhitt. We only went as far as the Cirque on this trip, which was approximately 7km roundtrip with about 400m gained in elevation. The parking lot was fairly empty when we arrived at about 9:00am and the temperature was hovering around -3 degrees Celcius. The sun was quickly rising and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, so we were expecting a great day outside.

The trail through Highwood Meadows with Storm Mountain in the background
The trail starts on the Highwood Meadows Interpretive Trail but you'll quickly reach a fork. If you go right you'll access Ptarmigan Cirque whereas left will take you to Pocaterra Cirque. We opted for the left fork and began our day. If you've never been on this trail before (which we hadn't) you might find it a bit confusing at first. The trail is quite braided in areas due to running water and muddy sections. As far as we could tell all of the braids eventually lead to the same spot so don't be too concerned. After a short time you'll reach another unsigned fork in the trail. This fork didn't appear on our map so we were a bit worried about it. There's a faint arrow carved into the tree bark pointing left and a small piece of flagging tape on the left side of the tree, so we opted to go left once again. Eventually we arrived at the Cirque so we assumed we had made the right decision. It wasn't until we were on our way back that we discovered either trail would take you to the same destination. If I were to do it all over again I think I would go right as it felt like the easier of the two trails. Please be aware that there are numerous trails winding throughout the forest regardless of your choice at the fork so some basic route finding skills are required.

Here's the fork in the trail. If you look closely you can see the arrow pointing left carved into the tree.
Christine on the trail
The Cirque and a few larch trees peeking through the forest
This is where the trail opens into the meadow before crossing a few avalanche slopes
The first section of the trail is in the trees without much to see, but it eventually opens into a lush meadow with spectacular views. The trail follows an unnamed ridge on your left with unmatched vistas of the Kananaskis Valley and Pocaterra Ridge on your right. In front of you lies the Cirque with countless Larch trees shining in the sun. We continued along the open trail until we reached a small unnamed lake. It's a perfect spot to stop for a snack and snap some photos as the scenery here is gorgeous!

You're rewarded with great views down the valley of Mount Rae (right) and Elpoca Mountain (centre)
Even though the trail was covered in Larch needles many of the trees were still clinging to theirs!
Elpoca Mountain
The small unnamed lake with Pocaterra Ridge on the right in the background
The final push to the Cirque is pretty straightforward. As you approach the Cirque the trail has a couple of options. The trail to the right eventually leads to Pocaterra Ridge (I hope to be back next year to tackle this), while the lefthand option takes you up to Grizzly Col. We went left for a short distance before branching off and finding a big boulder in the Cirque to sit on and enjoy lunch in the warm sunshine.

The final push up to the Cirque. Here I am looking back down the trail with Mount Rae in the background.
Another small meadow immediately below the Cirque. That's Mount Rae peeking above the Larch Trees.
The view from the Cirque
Rome and I standing in the Cirque with Mount Tyrwhitt in the background
Even thought it was warm in the sun the wind coming off of Mount Tyrwhitt was very chilly, so after a quick bite to eat we were back on the trail and headed for the truck. The trail is equally as beautiful on the way back down and the sun that was now above the surrounding peaks made the hike out all the more enjoyable.

Golden Larch Trees
Back at the small lake
I could have spent all afternoon sitting beside this body of water
Christine standing amongst the Larch
One last look at the Cirque before entering the forest-covered section of the trail
Once back at the truck we realized just how popular Ptarmigan Cirque could be. The parking lot was completely packed and there were dozens of vehicles parked on either side of Highway 40. It didn't feel like the Pocaterra Cirque was very busy so most people were likely headed to Ptarmigan.

I can't wait to come back here next year and explore beyond the Cirque. As I previously mentioned Pocaterra Ridge looks like a great day-trip and it's now firmly on my adventure list. We couldn't have asked for a better day at the beginning of October when the weather can be notoriously unpredictable. If this was the last hike of the season we definitely picked a great one!

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