Ptarmigan Lake

A quick glance at Google tells me there are two Ptarmigan Lakes in Colorado. This one, of course, is in RMNP. The Foster guide lists two ways to get there, one from the North Inlet trailhead and the other from Bear Lake. I hiked the North Inlet trail last September as far as Ptarmigan Creek, where I headed off-trail to Bench Lake. It was over seven miles to Bench Lake, and to proceed to Ptarmigan Lake would entail a couple more miles of bushwhacking. So I chose to start at Bear Lake, hike to the summit of Flattop Mtn, take the Tonohutu Creek trail northwest, then head off trail to the west and descend the better part of 900′ to the lake.

The trail up Fattop Mtn (12,324′) is busy and well maintained. It is the most popular route for hikers to reach the continental divide from the east side of the park. It’s about 4.4 miles from the parking lot to the sign at the trail junction at the “summit” (it’s flat on top, of course, so the generally accepted summit is the sign at a trail junction) and climbs 2,874′. Near the start of the trail, you get a nice view of Long’s Peak, then nothing but forest until reaching the Dream Lake overlook about a third of the way up. The next landmark is the Emerald Lake overlook about two-thirds of the way. From there, the trail takes you to the northern flank of Flattop, overlooking the Odessa Lake trail. It’s common to hear marmots barking their alarms as you work your way up the trail.

I’ve been on the top of Flattop several times. I’ve headed south to descend Andrew’s Glacier twice, summited Hallett once, and just sat above Tyndall Glacier for a picnic a few times. This was my first time taking the trail to the north. Not far along the trail you reach another trail junction, this one the North Inlet Trail. The Tonohutu Creek trail then proceeds along the eastern edge of the divide toward Ptarmigan Point, affording a nice view down the valley towards Odessa Lake: Ptarmigan Glacier, two unnamed pools, Lake Helene, Two Rivers Lake, and Odessa Lake are all visible below Notchtop Mountain.

The trail undulates a bit then turns almost due north near Ptarmigan Point. I headed off the trail, down the gently sloping tundra more or less in the direction of Snowdrift Peak in the distance. The mountain slopes gently at first but steadily becomes steeper and before long the lake comes into sight. I was expecting to descend a talus slope but it was almost entirely tundra. The descent is about 800 vertical feet from where I left the trail and it happens in a very short distance.

I set up the camera for the time lapse and ate my lunch. I wanted to stay for an hour, both to get a nice long video and to rest up for the steep climb back to the trail but I didn’t like the looks of the darkening clouds. After about 40 minutes I packed up, headed near the outlet for a quick panorama, then started the steep ascent.

About half way up I turned around to check out the view. I could now see Snowdrift lake to the west. I was about to take a picture, but the wind kicked up rather fiercely and nearly blew me over. It was so strong, in fact, that it made the steep climb much easier. I quit zig-zagging my way up the slope and headed in the same direction as the wind and was onto nearly level ground in no time.

Then the snow started coming down. “Coming down” isn’t exactly correct – it was coming sideways. In no time visibility to the north was very limited. Hallett Peak was just a silhouette and the peaks beyond it were totally obscured. Meanwhile, the Mummy range to the northeast was still bathed in bright sunshine. The blizzard continued for about a half hour, much to my chagrin. I was dressed in my usual hiking uniform of Hawaiian shirt and shorts (plus a windbreaker).

The weather finally broke when I started down the east side of Flattop. There I found a group of ptarmigans grazing in the tundra. (What’s the group name for ptarmigan? A pton?) They were conveniently working their way across the trail when I arrived and didn’t seem too bothered by me.

The remainder of the hike was under mostly clear, blue skies and the wind died down to a gentle breeze. Hard to believe I was experiencing such wintry conditions just a short while before.

Here’s the obligatory time lapse. It includes a short sequence filmed at Emerald Lake overlook on the way up and another from Dream Lake overlook on the way down. Yes, the weather varies that much in just a few hours on the continental divide!


Out In
Trailhead 07:30 AM 03:20 PM
Odessa trail jct 07:55 AM 02:50 PM
Emerald Lake overlook 09:00 AM 01:30 PM
Flattop summit 10:00 AM 12:45 PM
Ptarmigan Lake 11:05 AM 11:45 AM