Ptarmigan Lake by Buena Vista
August 10, 2019 · San Isabel National Forest
The trail to Ptarmigan Lake by Buena Vista is inside the San Isabel National Forest and is a beautiful trail. It is a moderate trail with the final pitch to Ptarmigan Lake being the only tough part of the trail. It is a popular trail, so it's best to start early. Having said that, I got a late start of just after 9am, though my biggest concern was not the crowds on the trail, but rather the weather. The forecast called for rain in the afternoon. Thankfully, the trail moves very fast. The trail has a rugged texture to it with cantaloupe-sized rocks sticking out on the trail. But they are easy to navigate and does not cause the trail to be difficult on the return.
The weather was overcast for most of the 7.6-mile trek to Ptarmigan Lake. There were a couple of times it looked as if the clouds would break and you could see blue sky, but the breaks in the clouds closed as fast as they opened. For as popular as the trail is, I mostly saw people on the way down from camping. I would image this is a beautiful place to camp, especially the lake just below Ptarmigan Lake. The views from the lake just below Ptarmigan Lake are breathtaking. It is a U-shaped valley with gently sloping valley walls, and you can look down the valley to an incredible view of Mt. Yale.
The trail is just outside of the Wilderness boundary and is solely in the San Isabel National Forest and the Forest Service as done a lot of fire mitigation along the trail. Even though most of the trail up to the lake just below Ptarmigan Lake is in tall stands of healthy conifers, the ground cover is not so thick that it gives off "The Forest has Eyes" feeling. So, it feels very airy and roomy on the trail. An additional factor that makes the trail so pretty is that the trailhead is just over 10,500 feet. In my experience the foliage above 10,000 feet tends to look healthier. That coupled with the fact this valley drains north-east, which usually means the conifers are less prone to beetle kill; at least that is my experience.
The gently sloping valley walls and the open meadows are beautiful this time of year, everything is very green. As I was taking in the views around this lake just below Ptarmigan Lake it struck me, this is perfect Bear country; and it is Bear country, though I did not see any signs of Bears. However, I did see one campsite that was begging for a large four-legged visitor. Someone had decided to pitch camp about 15 feet from the trail. The rule the National Forest Service asks for is that campsites are pitched at least 200 feet from the trail.
There's an aesthetic and practical reason for this. The aesthetic portion is to not detract from the visual experience for others on the trial. The practical reason is, that while during the day the primary users of the trail are people, with the rare four-legged traveler. However, at night the trails are used by many four-legged travelers and having a campsite that close to the trail is begging for a midnight visit from a large wild animal.
Aside from the strange place for someone to pitch camp, the clouds created some great textures of the granite walls of the valley as well as changing the ground cover and conifers different shades of green as the clouds thinned and thickened throughout the hike. The surrounding terrain absorbs the campsites and conceals them very well. The lake just below Ptarmigan Lake also has a spectacular view of Gladstone Ridge whose face is comprised mostly of talus and gave off dramatic shadows as the clouds moved around.
Even with the late start, by the time I made it Ptarmigan Lake there were very few people at the lake, spread out enough to make it feel like you had the lake to yourself. Jones Mountain offers a dramatic backdrop to Ptarmigan Lake and with the overcast skies the lake looked like glass. The lake is above treeline and from here the views of Mt. Yale are even more impressive.
Moving a little higher above the lake and looking down the valley, the lake begins to look like a hanging lake and with the clouds above gave the lake a silver or mercury appearance. Maybe Silver Lake or Mercury Lake would have been a good name for this lake. I did meet some nice people at the lake, a family sending their daughter off to college. I see this often at this time of the year, but mostly near the Wild Basin area of RMNP.
Continuing up past the lake to the saddle you have an excellent view of Mt. Yale and in the opposite direction there is a vast range opening into the Gunnison National Forest, it's breathtaking. I got a good laugh as I was looking out over the mountains in the Gunnison National Forest. There are a series of 4x4 off-road trails leading up to a lot where you can park and walk about 10 minutes from there to Ptarmigan Lake; that's one way of getting to Ptarmigan Lake. Whichever suites you; I like the longer-by-foot route.
I got very lucky with the weather, at times on the hike the clouds were so thick and low that there was no noise of any kind. Which, in my experience usually means rain will start very soon. It did sprinkle a little just before I stepped off the trail. The trailhead is along highway 306 - better known as Cottonwood Pass. They are doing a lot of construction along 306, it is still under construction and the road is closed at the summit of Cottonwood Pass. The updates to the road are great, it makes the east side of Cottonwood Pass a joy to drive. On the drive back down the rain started; very good timing. Even though it was overcast for this hike, the clouds change the personality of the surrounding mountains, giving off a very different perspective. I am very a happy with this hike.