After a cold, soggy Spring, we thought for sure our high country adventures wouldn’t start until at least mid-July. A warm, wet late May/early June accelerated melting in the higher elevations allowing us to hike a completely snow free trail the last weekend in June. That was definitely a first for us!
As is the case every year, our trail legs happened to be squishy and weak. At the end of every season, we say to one another that we will stay in shape over the winter. We lie to ourselves. It never happens, and we usually pay for it the first few backpacking trips of the high country season. Due to Drake getting bigger, and adding Neva to the family, we found ourselves in need of a three man tent. We hadn’t pulled the trigger on one before this hike, which meant we had to do a day hike. Day hikes are tough for us since we can’t blaze up the trail anymore. Drake takes his time examining flowers, digging in the dirt, picking up rocks, and planning where he will step. Sometimes it frustrates us that we go so slow, but we have to keep in mind who is the most important here. If we want to foster a love for the outdoors, we have to let him explore it in his own way. This happens to be true for everyone…a topic I shall elaborate on in a later post.
Day hikes are also a little tougher given our new starting point. We used to be 45 minutes from RMNP; now it takes us 2.5 hours to reach the high country. For a kid that doesn’t love the car, that is rough. For us, I think this has been the hardest thing to get used to, and for me to accept. Sure, we have mountains right out our back door, but they are the foothill variety, peaking at 9,000 or so feet, and dry as a bone. However, it is what it is, and we have tried to make the best of it. After all, this country is new to us, and begs to be explored. It is our mission to explore as much as we can before we move again.
Ptarmigan Lake was high on our list from “Roogle”; Ptarmigan Lake is a popular destination right off Cottonwood Pass Road, or County Road 306. You can access it from Cottonwood Lake, but we chose to take the road to the trail head. From our house to Buena Vista is about 2 hours, and we drove maybe another half hour, or 14 miles, west out of Buena Vista to the trailhead. The trail head had about 10 spots, and a vault toilet. According to the the Trails Illustrated Buena Vista/Collegiate Peaks Map, the trail is 6.4 miles round trip. We logged ten miles on our Garmin, however. We did hike around the lake a little bit, but not four miles worth. Our starting elevation was about 10,700 and our highest elevation logged on the Garmin was just over 12,200’. That puts the elevation gain at about 1500 feet. Just shy of the first lake, there are several campsites in the trees, which, I think, makes this place one I will recommend to first time backpackers, or those that are looking for a beautiful, yet easy place to spend a weekend in the backcountry. Given the shallow elevation profile of the hike, it fit the first hike of the season requirement perfectly for us as well. For once, we weren’t completely exhausted when we got to the lake!
From beginning to end, this trail was truly a treat. The lush, dense spruce and fir forest enveloped the trail until tree line. At about a quarter of a mile we encountered our first talus slope. Drake calls these, dangerous areas, but this one wasn’t. However, the size of the rocks made me appreciate the sheer power Mother Nature possesses. We encountered another talus slope about a half mile from the first. A forest road intersects the trail just shy of the 1.5 mile mark. The trail is marked, and it is easy to decipher the correct direction to head. Once you arrive to the meadow, there is a lake/pond to the the left. On the way out, we descended to this pond, and saw it teeming with cutthroat. Although, these were not nearly as large as those lurking in Ptarmigan. It made a good side trip, and we noticed more campsites for future reference.
Goosebumps cover my skin every time I get the first glimpse of an alpine lake, especially the first one of the summer. Ptarmigan was no different. Silhouettes of the surrounding peaks reflected of the lake, and the sun felt warm on our faces after climbing through the dense forest. I spun around, and caught my breath as Mt. Yale stood magnificent in the distance. Rod always told us RMNP and all our beloved NoCO wilderness areas had crappy vistas; I thought he was nuts, but now I understand what he meant. We’ve never seen vistas like we have seen this summer. Our first “aha” moment was at Ptarmigan. Again, everything Rod has ever told us has been right on the money. We’d be so lost without him.
As we ate our lunch, I almost choked when I saw the size of the cruisers. Dustin and I have rarely seen cutthroat this large, and NEVER this chunky. Again, Rod was right. The southern lakes grow bigger trout. About that time, we noticed a few people descending on the other side of the lake. We realized this was the trail which provided the shorter route, given possession of a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle. Due to the easy access of this lake (and most lakes in this region, we are learning) we shared the lake with several other fisherman. This was another new experience, as Dustin and I are normally the only anglers at the places we have visited in the past. Even still, the lake was large, and we were on the best side given the wind. While it is harder to fish with wind blowing in your face, it always proves to be the best strategy to get into the highest quantity of fish. You know, the ol’ 90/10 rule. With that said, the fishing for everyone on the lake was slow that day. It was so early in the season, and we weren’t sure when ice out occurred. I am not sure if the fish were staging or were spawning or the water just hadn’t quite gotten warm enough to spark feeding. We didn’t see any spawners, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t. We also didn’t have our thermometer, so we were completely clueless about water temperature. I can say, there was zero surface activity, and the ones we caught were subsurface, indicator fishing if I remember correctly.
In Masters’ family fashion, we stayed too late. It is always so difficult to leave when we do day hikes. This is especially true now since we drive so far to do them. Ptarmigan is on our list of lakes to do again; we would like to do a mid-week trip so we see fewer people, but even then, this lake is a huge draw for everyone, and solitude isn’t on the menu here. However, there are so many lakes off the beaten path in the Collegiates, that one should be able to find solitude if he/she is willing to put in the work to get it.
Just the Facts:
Trip Date: 06/27/2015
Snow Depth: None Encountered
RT mileage: 10.2 (ours) 6.4 (according to map)
Elevation gain: 1532’
Beginning Altitude: 10,670’
Lake Altitude: 12,132’
Successful flies: #14 Hare’s Ear
Species: Cutthroat trout
Until next time,