Watch: Bootprints Hiking Guide to Ptarmigan Peak
SILVERTHORNE — Heading into my hike of Ptarmigan Peak, there was one variable affecting the climb. On the National Geographic map of Vail, Frisco, and Dillon I was using to plan my hike, it said the summit of Ptarmigan was at 12,948 feet. But on every other guide I looked at for the hike, including from our former Summit Daily hiking columnist — the late Kim Fenske, it said Ptarmigan’s summit was closer to 12,500 feet.
Looking at the topographic lines on the map, it seemed clear the summit was just under 12,500 feet, meaning my climb from the Ptarmigan Peak trailhead would be just under 3,500 feet. That said, I wasn’t eager to find out that Nat Geo was correct once I got above tree line and had another 500-ish feet to scale.
From the parking lot, the trailhead is across the road. For the totality of the hike, the trail is almost impossible to lose. From the start, looking at the Nat Geo map I estimated a 6 mile hike to the peak with 3,400 feet of gain. After starting up the trail from the trailhead, be aware that you will soon come across a road crossing. At the pavement, follow the road that heads uphill. In a bit, you will see a sign post that indicates the continuation of the trail on your right.
From here the trail will gain pretty well over the first 0.6 miles, ascending 500 feet of switchbacks that will get your heart pumping. Take in a view of Interstate 70 down below before you come into an aspen canopy, you will soon lose about 90 feet of elevation through this treed portion. To give an idea of how steady the climb is, this is the only elevation you will lose for the entire hike.
After the singletrack bottoms out in the trees here, you’ll begin climbing again until, at 1.9 miles, you’ll reach the junction with the Angler Mountain Trail coming up from your left. This was 860 feet of gain into my hike, which took about 38 minutes. Twelve minutes after this junction I came across a beautiful clearing with a bench to sit on — 2.5 miles and 1,100 feet of elevation gain into the hike. If you’re in good shape, this would be a great first rest point in your hike as you overlook Silverthorne and the Gore Range.
The steady moderate climbing will continue over the next mile-and-a-half . At 3.9 miles into the ascent and 2,200 feet of gain, you’ll approach tree line at 11,300 feet.
Here, the trees begin to become shorter, a sign you are walking through the krumholz, a term used to describe the short, sturdy trees that become smaller the higher you hike — they are the only trees strong enough to survive a Rocky Mountain winter’s wrath.
The view northwest toward Elliot’s Ridge at the northern point of the Gore Range from here is spectacular.
At the 4.3 mile mark, 2,500 feet of gain, you will reach the Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness line, where the old Ptarmigan Loop trail meets you coming up from right. At this point, any mountain bikers need to turn around, and dogs must be leashed. To this point, dogs under voice command are permitted off leash within 10 feet of their owners.
Difficulty: Moderate to more difficult
Distance: 6.05 miles to the peak
Elevation gain: 3,496 feet
Elevation loss: 91 feet
Starting elevation: 9,081 feet
Summit elevation: 12,498 feet
Elapsed time: 2:47:32 to summit
Average speed: 2.17 miles-per-hour
Average pace: 27.68 minutes-per-mile
Parking: Lot aross from trailhead on dirt road portion of Ptarmigan Trail road in Silverthorne
Ideal for: Alternative to 14er hike, sunset hike, wildflower viewing, mountain biking to wilderness sign
At this wilderness line I came across Kyle Lutz of Ohio. Kyle was in the middle of his Continental Divide Trail hike, 3,000ish miles from New Mexico to Canada. For Kyle, it was his final American through-hike to complete the Triple Crown after traversing the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in previous years.
Kyle said his favorite part of the Continental Divide Trail to this point was the southern San Juans. Snow depth hadn’t been that bad to traverse, with just a few annoying pockets over trails here and there. He went off the trail to bag Mount Elbert before entering Summit via Copper Mountain en route over Ptarmigan Pass.
I bid adieu to Kyle at the pair of wooden post markers where Ptarmigan Pass continues with a faint trail at right, the singletrack to Ptarmigan Peak continuing straight ahead. From here, it was an alpine meadow all the way to the short jaunt at right to the cairn, or rock pile, that signified the 12,498-foot summit of Ptarmigan off of the Ute Peak trail. There’s a ridgeline traverse that continues north to Ute Peak and Pass.
Views from the summit after the hike of just over 6 miles was 360-degrees, of Grand County to the northeast, the 14ers Grays and Torreys to the southeast, and Summit County to the west.
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