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.


SIMILAR TRAILS

Blue Lake

September 27, 2014 · There are a number of lakes and ponds on the way to Blue Lake. Blue Lake can look deceptive large, depending on which angle you take a picture from. It’s a very pretty lake, but it has a very different character depending on which direction you look at it. For late September I go...

Horn Fork Basin - Bear Lake

September 26, 2020 · The trek to Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake is a particularly nice hike, most of the trek is in a wide U-shaped glacial valley. From the trailhead to the split to either the Horn Fork Basin or to Kroenke Lake is well shaded and a smooth glide. There are three 14er's accessible from...

Olsen Lake

September 7, 2019 · The hike to Olsen Lake inside the Holy Cross Wilderness is a hidden gem. The first half of the trail is outside of the Holy Cross Wilderness and is well traveled by trail runners and people walking their dogs. It's a straight trail with a steady incline. However, because the firs...

AREAS HIKED

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness9
Eagles Nest Wilderness10
Fossil Ridge Wilderness1
Fraser Experimental Forest1
Gunnison National Forest1
Holy Cross Wilderness12
Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness3
Indian Peaks Wilderness17
James Peak Wilderness1
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness2
Mount Evans Wilderness2
Mount Massive Wilderness2
Pike National Forest1
Raggeds Wilderness1
Rocky Mountain National Park41
San Isabel National Forest6
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness1
White River National Forest10
Zirkel Wilderness1

TRAILS BY MONTH

January3
February2
March2
April3
May5
June16
July26
August26
September27
October5
November4
December3

SEASONS ON THE TRAIL

2021

The 2021 Season has started. Though the pandemic created a challenging 2020 season, I am looking forward to building on the 2020 season to create an incredible 2021 season. The pandemic has taught me a few things about when and where to go hiking. As such planning for the 2021 se...

2020

The 2020 hiking season has been incredible, even in the face of adversity. The pandemic has made for a logistically challenging season. Somehow, I was still able to piece together an incredible 230+ miles on the trail this season and able to see some truly spectacular places. Enj...

2019

The 2019 hiking season was an interesting season, this was the first season that I started and ended the season snowshoeing and a full summer of hiking for a total of just under 225 miles on the trail. What this season has taught me is that it's winter in the mountains for a long...

2018

The 2018 Summer Hiking Season has come to an end. What a season, incredible views and just over 230 miles on the trail. Even with 230 miles, this season seems short to me, perhaps I'll add something to it during the winter season - snowshoeing perhaps. In the meantime, I hope you...

2017

The 2017 hiking season was interesting, I was able to explorer more of Colorado's National Forests and get in some camping, not as much camping as I would have liked, but hopefully next year I'll able to get in more multi-day hikes. This season came in just under 129 miles roundt...

2016

The 2016 hiking season was about spreading out and exploring more of Eagles Nest Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness and touching on White River National Forest - and of course a few trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. These are amazing National treasures. This season came i...

2015

The 2015 hiking season was a big hiking season, I decided to do a fundraiser for The Red Cross (I learned a lot about fundraising - it was very interesting) with my pledge to hike over 200 miles for this season, I came in at 217 miles for the season; what a great time out on the ...

2014

The 2014 hiking season was almost all about exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, it really is a beautiful park. What I learned during the course of this hiking season is, although people may roll their eyes when you say you're going on a hike in RMNP, it really is spectacular ...

2013

2013 is the year this all started. The hike to Pitkin Lake started it all. Although it was a difficult trail, I was hooked immediately. However, I didn't have the right gear and the seasons were changing quickly. So, even though this season only brought two hikes, I new this was ...