Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ptarmigan Lake

Distance: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation: 10,678 ft -12,154 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,820 ft (cumulative)
Date Hiked: 2 September, 2012
Dogs: Off leash
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes
Tags: #hiking, #coloradooutdoors, #mountainlake, #buenavista, #gearguide
Nearby Hikes: Lake Ann

Ptarmigan Lake near Buena Vista is a great fall hike. The tundra turns golden.
Ptarmigan Lake near Buena Vista. That is Jones Mountain (12,995 ft) behind the lake.
Ptarmigan Lake near Buena Vista is an incredible journey to a high mountain lake surrounded by towering peaks. I expected to have this trail to myself but found the parking lot overflowing and the trail packed with people. I know they support the economy and all but I have to ask: who let these people in!?

The amazingly nice bathroom at the trailhead. Note the trail starts off to the left not behind or near this structure. 
Crossing the first talus (e.g. rocks larger than a human head) slope
Walking through the mossy, dank Spruce/Fir Forest...yeah!
At least the hordes have taste. Ptarmigan Lake Trail gorgeous from start to finish.  It first travels through a moist Spruce/Fir forest, an absolute blessing after the blazing heat of Colorado's 2012 summer, then wanders past ponds, and willows, and finally climbs to a broad shelf with incredible views and fishing options. We did this during the first blush of fall and the willows and tundra were a rusty brown and the air had a hint of crispness. I was almost giddy with the realization that the earth was in fact still traveling around the sun and our summer from hell would eventually end.

Crossing the Forest Service Road.  This nice arrow points the way across.
Coming out of the trees and into the meadow
Looking down on the lower lake
The trailhead to Ptarmigan Lake is located 14.5 miles up CR 306 (Cottonwood Pass) out of Buena Vista. There is a short 0.1 mile drive to the parking lot from the main road. This lot can hold around 13 cars with overflow occurring on the wide shoulder of CR 306 itself.  A 4-star Forest Service Pit Toilet is available at the trailhead so feel free gals to down those Starbucks on the way won't have to bare you nether parts to the cold morning breeze on this trail!

Heading up past the lower lake
Further up now...looking down on the lower lake with Mt. Yale  (14,196 ft) in the distance
Approaching the shelf
Spoiler Alert:  The actual trail starts on the left side of the parking lot (while gazing at the 4-star accommodations)...BEHIND the cars.  You won't see it unless you wander in that direction.  There is no kiosk, just a dirt track that heads down towards the creek.  Miss this and you will be wander around the parking lot until the end of days.  Once on the trail though you are golden!

Looking back down on the small pond at the base of the shelf
Ptarmigan Lake
I found this elongated shelf lake prettier than the main lake.
Here are some milestones on the route:
  • 0.23 miles to the first talus slope
  • 0.7 miles to the second talus slope
  • 1.45 miles to the Forest Service Road crossing
  • 2.7 miles to the meadow
  • 2.8 miles to the lower lake (the big one)
  • 3.1 miles to the pond below the shelf
  • 3.4 miles to Ptarmigan Lake
So now you are at the lake and are in a total quandary about what to do next right?  Here are some of the options we saw others do (note we did 6 and 7):
  1. Lounge on the shore like a bunch of drunken Marmots (the most popular option)
  2. Stroll around the lake
  3. Fish on the far side of the lake
  4. Hike up to high saddle on the far side of the lake
  5. Continue from the pass to Jones Mountain (12,995 ft) (the second most popular option)
  6. Wander off to the left to discover another shelf lake scenically placed with views of Mt. Yale far below. 
  7. Sit on the broad tundra shelf looking down on Mt. Yale while eating gourmet cheese smothered in fig compote, crusty french bread, salami, and peaches from the Western Slope so juicy they exploded when you looked at them.
View from our lunch awful
Heading down now, some spindly Sub-alpine Firs against the blue sky
A storm was building as we reached the small pond near the lower lake.  It did rain on us most of the way down. I dug out my rain coat while my hiking companions enjoyed the cooling drench. 
So would a hike to Ptarmigan Lake be worth a drive from Denver to Buena Vista?  Totally!  Go on an off day and you can lounge in Mt. Princeton Hot Springs after the fact.  Note this hike is very similar to Lake Ann north of Buena Vista but much easier to get to. 


KT said...

This looks like a wonderful trail. I have never seen such an arrow in stones (but can think of a handful of locations where it would have been helpful!).

We were out in Colorado about a week ago and did take some hikes from your site - thanks! Such a beautiful state. I wish we could find employment...but we just haven't been that lucky. Well, there is always the retirement years. Slowly, I am posting pictures.

PS. The forest service pit toilets are the best in country. One day after lunch, I told my husband to stop at the next trailhead/campsite he saw...we pull in...Hokey Smokes! I would definitely have given it 4 stars!!

Linda W. said...

What a wonderful hike! Your photos are gorgeous.

Linda said...

Have just shown this to my husband at a vulnerable moment (ie he's just woken up), as propaganda as to why we need to save up for a house exchange holiday in Colorado. 'Mmmmfff', he said. I'm working on it.

sylvia murphy said...

Oh Linda do come! Then I'll visit you n Scotland :)

Unknown said...

It's well worth to traverse the Ptarmigan Lake along its southern shore and then ascend a low pass at the elevation of 12,295 ft, i.e. only 140 ft above the lake level. It opens wonderful views of the upper Cottonwood Creek basin. It takes only about extra 10 minutes, but views both sides of the pass are incredible, especially of the Mt. Yale, Mt Columb.ia and Mt. Harvard. Don't miss it :-)