Published with permission from the guide book: Mellow Mountain Trails Hiking Guide to Colorado’s Upper Arkansas River Valley
by Nathan Ward.
Named for the lovely ptarmigan birds, which live in the area year-round, Ptarmigan Lake sits in a high mountain cirque of big peaks. The trail starts at Cottonwood Pass and climbs through dense pine forests before breaking out into flowery meadows dotted by small ponds. At the lake, look up to see Jones Mountain (12,995 ft.) and the bulky Gladstone Ridge which tops out at 12,661 feet. Looking toward the northern horizons you will see Turner Peak (13,283 ft.) and Mount Yale (14,196 ft.)
The ptarmigan live near treeline year round, feeding on willow buds. They are brown and white colored in summer but change to snow white in winter – the perfect camouflage. You often see them with chicks in the summer and the parent will feign injury to a wing to lure you away. Please treat these gentle birds with respect. Keep your dog on a leash at all times in ptarmigan habitat.
Once you reach Ptarmigan Lake, you can hike around the lake and climb to the saddle between the South and Middle Cottonwood Drainages – about 0.6 miles round-trip.
Trailhead Access & Facilities
From the stoplight in downtown Buena Vista, drive west on West Main Street, which turns into CR 306. Follow CR 306 just 14.5 miles to the Ptarmigan Lake Trailhead. Turn left, drive 0.2 mile into the trailhead and park. The trail starts here.
There are pit toilets at the trailhead.
Location: Cottonwood Pass, West of BV
Distance: 6.4 Miles – Out & Back
Hiking Time: 3-4 Hours
Best Months: June through September
Trail Type: Singletrack
Dog Friendly: Yes – on leash.
Elevation in Feet: Low Point 10,678; High Point 12,154; Climbs/Descends 1,476
Land Status: San Isabel National Forest
Maps: Trails Illustrated #129
Note: There are many excellent camping spots near the top of this hike. Camp 200 feet away from any water and practice low-impact camping.
0.0 Trailhead – Start hiking from the parking lot (N38 48.15, W106 22.25). After about 100 yards, cross Middle Cottonwood Creek and sign the trailhead register. You’ll hike through pine forest most of the way.
0.2 Hike through an area filled with boulders.
0.7 Hike through another area filled with boulders.
1.2 Intersection with dirt road, FSR 346. (N38 47.30, W106 22.10). Continue walking on the trail on the other side of the road.
2.5 Look left to see the lake. There are also small ponds to the right. Now the land has changed from dense forest to open meadows with lots of wildflowers in the summertime.
2.9 Finally you reach Ptarmigan Creek, after being able to hear it for some time. The trail switchbacks a couple more times up to the lake. You are almost there.
3.2 Ptarmigan Lake. Feast your eyes on the incredible setting. (N38 46.40, W106 22.57). It’s a great place to have lunch or an overnight camping trip. If you have time, walk around the lake or climb to the saddle. Follow the same trail back to the trailhead.
6.4 Back at the trailhead.
The Colorado backcountry is popular – bikers, hikers, motorcycle riders, hunters and equestrians use the trail system in the Arkansas Valley, and everyone wants a private piece of heaven. Even if you don’t agree with everyone’s motives or methods of travel, please treat them in a courteous manner.
If you require search and rescue services, it can be costly. Buy a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card to protect yourself. Funds from the CORSAR program go into the Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR) Fund. If a CORSAR card holder becomes lost or injured in the backcountry, the Colorado SAR Fund pays eligible search and rescue expenses.
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