Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ptarmigan Trail to Bench

Distance: 2.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,150 ft - 10,100 ft
Elevation Gain: 950 ft
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Dogs: Off leash
Date Hiked:  31 March, 2012

Aspens and the Tenmile Range dominate the view to the southwest from the "Ptarmigan Trail Bench"
The Ptarmigan Trail is one of the few trails along with Acorn Creek that ascends to the top of the Williams Fork Range in the town of Silverthorne.  This is a pity because the Williams Fork Range looks across to the more scenic Gore Range with its jagged peaks and enticing passes.  You can take this trail all the way to Ptarmigan Peak (12 miles round trip), do a lolly pop loop (~7 miles round trip), or make a shorter jaunt to an open meadow looking down on a field of Aspens and across to Buffalo Mountain.  On this trip we had intended to do the loop but were finally turned around at 3 miles by deep snow.  Elsewhere the trail was dry, except for a few icy spots when the trail drifted into a Spruce/Fir biome.

Even at the trailhead there are views
Trailhead kiosk
I can see the Ptarmigan Trail from my condo on the slopes of Buffalo Mountain but because I have always wanted to go all the way to the peak I have ignored it.  I should not have waited because this trail is just lovely and will now become a favorite after work doggie outing along with the Tenderfoot, North Tenmile Creek, and Lilly Pad Lake.

The short road segment with signs.  This portions is actually wickedly steep.
A nice view of the hill the early segment traverses.
To get to the trailhead, drive up past the hotels on the east side of the Silverthorne exit until you see Ptarmigan Drive. Turn right here and drive a short distance to a small parking area on the right.  A trail kiosk is on the other side of the road.  The terrain here is Sagebrush, rocks, and relentless sun.  Even though we were hiking this trail on the last day of March, it was HOT.  I can not imagine what a sunny day in August would feel like.

American Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)
Looking southeast to Dillon Valley, a small "town" hidden by the walls of I-70
The guidebooks will tell you that the first 0.6 miles of this trail are a calf and lung buster and they are right!  After cutting along the edge of some private property the route intersects a road and then heads STEEPLY upwards for around 100 yards on the hot pavement until it heads off into the Sagebrush again.  Fortunately, there is a nice wooden sign with an arrow pointing the way and another wooden sign with the text "Ptarmigan Trail" at the point where you leave the road.  This short segment is as fatiguing as the notorious approach to Mt. Sniktau and only slightly lets up as the trail goes up and around a  large hill.  Having to photograph the area is always a good excuse to stop and gasp and I found myself turning around frequently to admire the views of Lake Dillon, Peak One, and the many Pasqueflowers that were already blooming, God help us, in March.

A critter version of a buffet line.  Grubs and insects are on the menu.  Shall I make you a reservation?
The second trail kiosk at 0.7 miles
On the other side of the hill is another trail kiosk that reminds hikers that this trail will eventually end up in the Ptarmigan Wilderness Area.  Dog owners, don't worry about this yet.  The boundary is not for another 3 miles!

Heading into the Aspens at 1 mile
A view of the Gore Range and Aspens
From this point on, the trail drifts in and out  of Aspens as it climbs more gradually northwards and upwards along the lower slopes of the Williams Fork Range.  When the trail curves inwards the biome changes from Aspens to Spruce/Fir and Lodgepole Pine, and becomes darker and damper.  These interludes are short lived, however.  Most of the trail is on exposed slopes with lots of sun and Aspens.  I had read that this trail was a Fall color bonanza and I can see why.

I caught this American Red Squirrel in the act of protesting my presence with its ear shattering call.
The turn around point for this post is an open area with majestic views of the Gore Range.  Over the years, hikers have manipulated fallen trees to form a series of benches upon which to lounge.   We did not linger too long however,  because our goal was the loop.  From this point on the trail goes deep into a Lodgepole forest, filled with downed trees that must be navigated.  It was not for another half mile that we finally came across deep snow.

Forest Service Trail #25, the Angler Mountain Trail, intersects the Ptarmigan Trail at 2 miles.  I did not even know this trail existed.  We ran into two hikers who came up this way.  They said it was steeper than the Ptarmigan Trail, which means I will have to check it out!
Slick ice prevailed in the Spruce/Fir Forest.  We had brought our micro-spikes just in case and they came in handy but we had to take them on and off. 
For those of you who have not visited Summit County this winter, the realization that we did not find snow until we were only a mile away from the tundra may shock you.  In 2011 the snow did not melt until late July and we grumbled that summer never really came.  2012 saw hardly any snow and the fact that we were hiking on bare dirt in MARCH is actually scary.  Two days before this hike, there was already a fire near Keystone.  2012 looks to be a dangerous drought year.  It will however promise to have a long hiking season.  Everything is a trade off in this world.
The bench
This is the 2.5 mile view from the bench. From left to right is Peak One (barely visible), Buffalo Mountain, and Red Peak.
The only thing that disappointed me about the Ptarmigan Trail was the fact that I had not hiked it sooner.  A favorite with the locals, it traverses four different biomes and a fifth if you make it to the tundra, so it is great for experiencing the entire ecology of Summit County in one day.  If you are just visiting, the initial ascent should be taken very slowly (or not at all...there are easier trails to be had), but for locals, this is a great way to stay in 14er shape in the off season.  Don't wait as long as I did to give it a try.


Linda W. said...

Great photos and looks like a good hike.

Linda said...

I didn't know that there were ptarmigan in North America - I thought they were unique to Scotland. At least I'm assuming you have them because of the trail name.
So lovely to see Pasque flowers in the wild - I have some carefully nurtured specimens in my garden.