Monday, June 13, 2016

Jones Mountain and Ptarmigan Lake

After driving a large drill bit into my hand last weekend, I've been taking it fairly easy ever since.  Even though it's only my hand, it has a pretty deep wound and too much activity causes it to throb as blood flows to my hand.  It  is still bandaged and still has a little bit of drainage.  A full week has passed and I was eager try something outdoors and active.

Puma worked overnight Saturday.  Since she needed to sleep when she got home, I figured it would be a good time to get out the house and take a hike.  I had to stop in Buena Vista at some point, so I figured that was a good place to find a hike.  

After climbing a 13er above St Elmo last week, I was hungry for more alpine scenery.  I didn't want to hike anything requiring any scrambling since my hand is still tender.  I was also looking for something where I didn't need too rely to heavily on trekking poles for my hand's sake.

Just west of Buena Vista is the road leading to Cottonwood Pass.  I have hiked in this area several times. There are numerous trailheads along the road with good access to some nice areas.  One such area is  Ptarmigan Lake.  I have never been there before but have heard good things about the scenery in the area.  Since the trail to the lake is relatively easy, I figured I'd climb nearby 13er Jones Mountain, rising about 1000' above the lake as well.

Since I last hiked, about nine days earlier, the weather has been quite warm and there has been a lot of melting.  I read trip reports for higher nearby mountains the night before and most have been getting by without any winter gear.  I expected some snow and settled on microspikes and gaiters for winter gear.

Because of a high chance of thunderstorms by early afternoon, I was on the trail before 7AM.  Jones Mountain is well above treeline as is the Ptarmigan Lake Basin and I didn't really want to deal with lightning.  Although there was snow along the trail from the start, the trail was generally clear other than a few steps here and there.  Views of surrounding mountains started pretty quickly.

The trail below treeline is pretty tame.  There are a couple place where the trail crosses talus fields, but generally the trail is easy hiking and climbs gradually.  Because of the rapid snowmelt, a few sections of the trail had minor running water.  It was pretty close to treeline where I encountered unavoidable snow.  There wasn't much transition from the bare ground to the snow.  The snow was pretty consistent at that point.  Previous hikers left some nasty postholes that could be followed to avoid too much sinking.  

Early view of 13er Turner Peak
Talus crossing early on the trail
First snow crossing
Start of consistent snow
Pretty soon, the trail disappeared when I reached a meadow.  Below the meadow, the snow was avoidable. The meadow itself had a lot of standing water that was often unavoidable.  After leaving the meadow I reached the lowest lake in the basin.  The basin was a mix of snow or meadow with standing water.  The first several traverses across the snow resulted in consistent postholing so I opted for the standing water.  The water wasn't very deep, but enough to get my feet wet.

Meadow near treeline
Mix of snow and soggy grass
From my vantage point at the lower end of the basin, it appeared to be all snow to the still out of sight upper lake.  Rather than struggle in the snow, I opted for high ground.  Jones Mountain has a fairly long ridge with a few summits.  Much of the ridge appeared clear of snow and seemed like a better option than traveling through the basin.  I picked my way through patches of snow and headed up the slopes toward the middle of Jones Mountain.

Entering heavy snow in the basin
Looking into the snowy basin
Making my toward the ridge
Looking toward the basin as I climb toward the ridge
Nice grassy tundra ahead
Another good look into the basin from a steep
section as I gained the ridge
Except for a few minor patches of snow, travel up the slopes was easy going.  Majority of the terrain was grassy tundra.  Jones Mountain is a couple mile long mass with the true summit anchoring the south end and Jones Mountain North on the other.  I headed up to a high point in the middle of the ridge. Perhaps this is Middle Jones?  20 yards or so before reaching Middle Jones there was a deep moat of snow blocking the summit.  Most of the snow was firm, the last several feet I postholed to my waist.

Looking north toward Mt Yale
Jones Mountain North (12,995')
Close up of Jones Mtn North
Deep moat of snow guarding Middle Jones
Good look into Ptarmigan Lake Basin
I was now on the ridge proper leading to the summit of Jones Mountain.  Except for a few short snow patches,  I had a beautiful tundra walk ahead of me most of the way to the summit.  From this high ridge the views were phenomenal.  Despite several hundred feet of elevation gain, the route was never steep and never veered off the grass more than a few steps.  The visibility was endless and the wind was calm.  I could have walked on this section all day.  Despite taking my time to enjoy views while traveling, I reached the summit pretty quickly.

Looking at the Continental Divide
Continental Divide with foggy Taylor Park and Elk Range in distance
Jones Mtn North from top of Middle Jones
Harvard, Columbia, and Yale L-R
The ridge toward Jones Mtn summit
Distant Three Apostles over Cottonwood Pass
Looking toward Antero and over UN 13,078 

Continuing along the ridge
Snow crossing along the ridge 
Walking along the cornice
Nice grassy walk to the right of the cornice
Looking back down the cornice
Despite it's modestly high by Colorado standards elevation, 13,218' Jones Mountain is immersed in the heart of the Sawatch Range.  Jones is surrounded by other mountains are the scenery is great in every direction.  It's not just the summit, but the entire ridge offers this scenery.  The Continental Divide is just a mile to the west with its numerous line of summits.  The area west of the Divide, around Taylor Reservoir, was engulfed in fog adding a nice visual effect.  Beyond the fog stands the mighty Elk Range between Crested Butte and Aspen.

Just below the summit proper
I'm not sure what this is, (some sort of trap?) that was
on a flat area below the summit
Continental Divide toward 13ers Kreutzer and Emma Burr
13,538' Emma Burr Mtn
13,055' Chalk Rock Mtn with foggy Taylor Park and Elk Range beyond
Elk Range close up over Taylor Park fog
To the north is the ridge of Jones Mountain leading to North Jones.  Turner Peak's pointy profile is just beyond North Jones.  The 14er trio Harvard, Columbia, and Yale stand out just east of Turner's profile.  Centennials, Emerald Peak and the Three Apostles are further north.  I believe 14ers Missouri, Belford, and Oxford are visible just beyond Harvard.

Looking north along the ridge I traversed
Mt Harvard is the high peak top center
The Ptarmigan Lake Basin with its numerous small ponds sits just below Jones with Gladstone Ridge's long grassy ridgeline towering over the basin.  The south stands a large cluster of peaks including 14ers Princeton, Antero, Shavano, and Tabeguache as well as dozens of 13,000 foot peaks.  UN 13,078, the summit I climbed last week is visible on the next ridge to the south, just 4 miles away.

Gladstone Ridge over Ptarmigan Lake
Last weeks summit UN 13,078 with Antero in the distance
Antero, UN 13,078 is the grassy high ridge on the
left side of the frame in front of Antero
From the summit I had a good look into the Ptarmigan Lake Basin.  The upper reaches of the trail was visible through much of the upper basin.  Rather than retrace my route, I decided to descend through the basin and take my chances with the snow further down.

Looking at the snowfield that was troublesome
The ridge to the lakes was mostly snowfree.  Getting to that ridge wasn't straightforward.  Between the summit and the ridge was a soft cornice and very deep snow field.  I skirted around the cornice and most of the snowfield leaving just a brief stretch of snow to cross.  I immediately sank to my waist two steps into the snow.  After wriggling my way out,  the snow was firmer the last bit, only sinking to my knees at the most.  The travel was easy the rest of the way to the head of the basin.
I sank deep to my waist in this little strip of snow.
I couldn't touch the ground with my pole at the
deepest spot.
Making my way down the ridge
Mt Yale is always visible on this trip
Looking back at Jones from below
I made it to the main Ptarmigan Lake pretty quickly.  Only minor snow patches covered the trail.  Mt Yale looms ahead over the basin with Turner Peak and an unamed bump on Gladstone Ridge framing Princeton.  This view alone would make the hike just to the lakes worth the trip.
Approaching Ptarmigan Lake
Ptarmigan Lake is still mostly ice covered
Looking over one of the lower lakes
Jones above Ptarmigan Lake
Another smaller lake
Once the trail drops off from the main Ptarmigan Lake, it quickly becomes lost in the snow most of the way back to treeline.  I followed previous tracks that had postholed consistently.  Soon I was back to treeline at the meadow below the lowest pond in the basin.

Back in the snow
Luckily a lot of this snow was still firm and
supported my weight
A break from the snow in the willows
Old postholes
The upper reaches of Ptarmigan Creek
One last look back before leaving the meadow
Back in the trees, my trip became a little interesting.  There were old tracks that were on route just below treeline.  The trail briefly broke out of the snow showing bare ground.  The bare ground was short lived however.  The trail disappeared back in the snow.  At this point I completely lost the trail.  The trail generally followed a Ptarmigan Creek.  Numerous snowmobile trails also travel through the area.  I followed the creek a short distance which also had snowmobile trail markings.  I knew I would eventually cross the path.

As the creek became steeper, the snowmobile markings stopped.  I stopped and consulted my map.  The trail stayed close to the creek for a while.  Soon I reached a pond in the woods.  At this point I needed to reassess my route.  I checked the map again.  Despite traveling in the woods, I had a good view of Turner Peak most of the time.  Traveling toward Turner Peak would get me pretty close to the trailhead.  At the very least it would dump me out on the road.  Just in case I lost the peak in the trees, I took a compass reading to get a bearing.  In addition to Turner Peak, I had good lines of sight to the lower ridges of Gladstone and Jones, which funneled me in the right direction.  

Even though the trail was generally free of snow, my trailless bushwhack toward the valley had plenty of snow.  I passed through one thigh deep drift after another.  With the snow melting, there was also a lot of flowing water through the forest.  Eventually I reached a well cleared snowmobile trail heading downhill.  I knew the area well enough to know that the snowmobile trails in the area would take toward the road and close to my trailhead.  Based on the position of Turner Peak and the lower Jones Mtn ridge, I could tell I was moving in the right direction.  Eventually, I could hear the occasional car on the road.  I soon reached the stream that paralleled the road.  The stream was dangerously deep and fast so I traveled upstream where I was able to cross on a fallen log.  Very quickly after crossing the stream,  I could see the road above me and a sign along it.  I walked to the road to see the sign and it read "Ptarmigan Lake".  This was my trailhead.  I stuck to the snowmobile trail and it dumped me behind the parking lot.  

Despite my little setback, I didn't lose much time.  My only real inconvenience was wet feet.  Knowing the area and having a good map made my unscheduled detour go quickly and let me find my way to destination without any complications.  When I returned to the trailhead, it was now overflowing with cars.  Losing the trail allowed me to miss the crowds at the very least.

A few minutes after I left the trailhead it began to drizzle.  By the time I got to Buena Vista there was a little thunder.  I don't think it amounted to much but I would much rather hear thunder in my car than when I'm on a mountain.  This was around 1130AM.  

Conditions are improving quickly but it will be at least a few weeks until some areas are in summer conditions.  Because much of the snow was intermittent, I doubt I would have used snowshoes, even if I had them with me.  I never needed my micropikes.  Gaiters are a good piece of gear to take right now.  Based on the people I saw at the trailhead, and a group I saw in the meadow dressed for a hike in August in the valley, I'm guessing they were in for a surprise if they planned on hiking to the lakes.

Even though I had my some hurdles with deep snow and losing the trail, I really enjoyed this hike.  The Ptarmigan Lake Basin is quite scenic.  In the summer it can see a fair amount of people.  I had it too myself.  I saw only one group as I was getting back into the trees, and a lone hiker fairly early.  The ridge walk along Jones Mountain is absolutely beautiful and quite a pleasant walk.  The trailhead to 14er Mt Yale was crammed full when I passed it at 630AM and the mountain probably had a busy summit.  Not another soul was on Jones Mountain.  Although Jones Mountain is probably climbed a bit since it's fairly easy access from Ptarmigan Lake and Grassy Gulch on the south side, I'm guessing the ridge that I traversed sees very few people.

Another look at the 14ers
One last look down the ridge from Jones
If you aren't up to climbing Jones Mountain, the hike to Ptarmigan Lake Basin is worth the trip for an easier outing.  The scenery is quite nice and the basin has numerous small ponds.  I hear the fishing is decent as well From the trailhead to the upper lake is about 3 miles.

If interested, I have several blog posts on many of the nearby views from this hike including: Turner Peak, Mt Yale, Mt Antero, and UN 13,078 to name a few.  Browse through my old posts to see more on these hikes.

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