A colorful fall visit to Highwood Pass

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Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Saturday, September 22, 2012

Kananaskis country is one of the lesser traveled gems of the Alberta Rockies.  Locals know this area well but it's off the radar for most tourists traveling to the Rockies, who selectively go to such highly worthwhile (but much busier) locations like Banff and Lake Louise.  Kananaskis country stretches from the southern border of Banff National Park (Canmore) due south for several hundred kilometers.  It includes the same type of rugged mountainous beauty you expect in the Canadian Rockies, replete with lakes and streams and lush pine forests.   It's also rich in wildlife but unlike Banff National Park, where a large fence keeps the animals away from traffic, the wildlife in Kananaskis is free to roam where it wants.  So the chances of you seeing animals here is excellent, especially Bighorn Sheep (I've always encountered at least one herd of bighorns on my trips here).   For that reason, drive with extra caution on these roads.

 Located in the mid part of Kananaskis country you'll find Highwood Pass, which at about 7200' (2200 meters) above sea level is the highest driveable mountain pass in Canada.  The pass is only open during the summer (closes for almost a half year on Dec. 1st for animal migration), but there's no place you get closer to the treeline and alpine areas in the region.  There are a number of great hiking opportunities near this pass, located in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park   I visited Highwood Pass three times this past year, once in the summer when I wanted to hike the nearby hills (but couldn't because the trails were closed due to a grizzly sow hovering near a carcass).  And twice I visited during the fall to enjoy the great colors of the region as the aspen (poplar) and birch's leaves turn golden yellow, and close to the treeline larches (tamaracks) are also golden yellow for a very short period.  Larches are an interesting species of deciduous pine whose green needles turn bright yellow during the fall, then drop to the ground within a few weeks.  There are also a lot of larches in British Columbia, Idaho and Washington state but I've never been anywhere that there are so many of these trees in such close proximity to a road.

At the Highwood Pass, you have easy access to an alpine meadow at nearby Ptarmigan Cirque.  There's a parking lot at the pass from which you take a short trail north, then cross the highway and over the next kilometer or so you work your way up a fairly steep hill for 200 meters (around 700').  The spruce forest thins as you reach the top and the trail levels off as you enter a zone of stunted trees followed by treeless alpine meadow.  Ptarmigan meadows is a great place to see alpine wildflowers early in the year but it is equally appealing in the fall because of its colors.  A one way loop trail leads you through the meadow in clockwise fashion, with the option of a hike up to the stark rocky Ptarmigan Cirque at the end of the valley, a lifeless area filled with glacier-created scree where you can still see a small reminant of the glacier that shaped this valley.  As you return you cross a small stream twice below the cliffs of Mount Arethusa before descending back to the highway.The meadow can be quite busy but it's a well worthwhile destination that I'd highly recommend.  It's especially beautiful on a nice fall day. 

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