Summit County Hiking Places: Ptarmigan Peak near Silverthorne
May 27, 2017
The Ptarmigan Trail is a great local hiking trail located east of Silverthorne, across the Blue River Valley from the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
SUMMIT COUNTY — The Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness Area is 12,594 acres of forest, meadow and tundra, making it an ideal hiking place. The Ptarmigan Trail begins at 9,100 feet and ascends 5.4 miles to the summit of Ptarmigan Peak (12,504 feet), with a gain of 3,400 vertical feet. Thanks to a deceptively level grade during the first three miles as the trail proceeds north above the town, the trail profile is actually longer and has greater elevation gain than the route to Quandary Peak (14,265 feet), one of the "easy" 14ers found six miles south of Breckenridge.
The Ptarmigan Trail route
I needed an early-season hike to help get in shape after a long winter. Ptarmigan Peak seemed like the ideal hiking place, since I had not been on the mountain for a decade. I made sure I had my hiking essentials; I dressed in my gaiters to keep snow out of my boots and carried compact mountaineering snowshoes to ascend through the snow-covered forest above me. I wore a down jacket for the first half-hour of hiking, though I expected to strip down to my fleece once the effort of the climb thoroughly warmed me. For provisions, I carried my usual daypack with a couple liters of water and trail snacks.
Since I was hiking near Breckenridge I set out on this through the south-facing sagebrush above the residential neighborhood at the base of the mountain. Among the bundles of sage, I found the blue pastel blooms of pasque flowers — a hopeful sign that warm weather is arriving in the High Country. Turning a bend into a stand of aspen, I began trudging through packed snow only a half-mile along the trail and 500 vertical feet above the trailhead.
Although my usual pace is two miles an hour, it took nearly two hours to reach the junction of the Angler Trail, a feeder trail above the Blue River, located 2.2 miles north of the main trailhead. A few minutes later, I reached a log bench at 10,050 feet and took a break to enjoy a view that this hiking place extended southerly from the Tenmile Range in Breckenridge to the northernmost extent of the Gore Range.
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Across the Blue River Valley, I faced the rounded belly of Buffalo Mountain (12,777 feet), with the valley of South Willow Creek separating it from the ragged cliffs of Red Peak (13,189 feet). Streaks in the snowfields marked avalanche lines across the bowls on each mountain. Next in line to the north was the North Willow Creek watershed descending from the bowl of Willow Peak (13,357 feet). In the distance, the long, inclining ridge of Keller Mountain (13,085) rose from east to west, like a blade above the white blanket covering South Rock Creek and North Rock Creek. Then, the peaks of the northern Eagles Nest Wilderness rolled like choppy waves into the horizon.
I continued on my way, hiking upwards and following the trail as it curved into the gulch forming Hamilton Creek. The snow became deep, slushy and loose as the trail rose through a stand of dead lodgepole pines. The drifts of snow touched the blazes marking the trail. I strapped into my snowshoes and continued up the steep switchbacks toward the tree line. Soon, I was busting my own path through the steep expanse of snow, continuing until I had been climbing for four hours and was four miles from the trailhead. I took another break on a fallen log in a clearing above 11,000 feet, still 1.5 miles from the summit of Ptarmigan Peak.
I began daydreaming of visiting this hiking place again in spring to climb this mountain when wildflowers cover the tundra scree. I turned to face the Gore Range again to begin my descent. More than 1,000 vertical feet above me loomed the cornice on the ridgeline of the Williams Fork Range, slicing the sky as far north as I could see.
How to get there
The trip to the Ptarmigan Peak Trailhead is simple and easy for anyone in Summit County. From the Silverthorne interchange with Interstate 70, drive north to the first intersection and turn right onto Rainbow Drive. Take another right turn onto Tanglewood Drive, the next intersection. Then, turn right at the next stop sign onto Ptarmigan Trail and bear right to the trailhead parking area, found about a half-mile up the road.
Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails in Colorado. His writing includes, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," both available from Amazon Kindle books.
Originally published in the May 14, 2016 issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.