Ptarmigan Lake
Difficulty Moderate
Length of hike 5.2 mi. RT
Starting Elevation 10960 ft.
Top Elevation 12980 ft.
Type of Vehicle Regular
Distance to Trailhead 22.5 miles
GPS track download Ptarmigan Track
Hiking time up 3 hours
Hiking time down 2 hours

Directions to Trailhead
From the Traffic light in Ridgway, drive 22.5 miles south on Highway 550 towards Red Mountain Pass. Go past Ironton and the white buildings at the overlook and park on the right at a pullover about half a mile before the summit of the pass. The parking spot is before the 30 mph sign.





Hikes in the San Juans usually are visits into the mining history, and so is this one. A well-preserved mining shack, displaying the Spartan living conditions of the miners, is perched on the edge of Ptarmigan Lake with some interesting machinery nearby. It’s obvious that those guys were not only tough but also innovative. And this trip, following along the remnants of the power line that brought AC power over Imogene Pass to the Camp Bird mine, reminds us of a profound innovation, the first commercial AC power plant, at the turn of the century. History buffs may want to learn more about the Battle of the Currents.


Lucien L. Nunn, owner of the Gold King mine, realized that he could not maintain profitability using the existing steam-powered equipment and decided to contract George Westinghouse to build an AC power plant at Ames. Westinghouse used the patents of an engineering genius, Nikola Tesla, to design the equipment and in the process decided the future course of the electrical power industry. The project, completed in 1891 and using a power line of 2.6 miles in length, was such a huge success that the operators of the Camp Bird mine soon brought AC power across Imogene Pass. You can still find the old power poles and many shattered insulators lying on the ground where the trail gets close to the lake.


From Ptarmigan Lake you can see Imogene Pass to the north with Fort Peabody perched in a strategic location. The fort, named after the Colorado governor, has recently been restored and reminds us of a brutal struggle between capital and labor during the mining era. The owners of the Camp Bird Mine on the Ouray side of the divide treated their miners very well and paid good wages, while the mine owners on the Telluride side squeezed their workers mercilessly, resulting in a strike. The Colorado National Guard was called in to break the strike and evict the strikers from San Miguel County. To prevent anyone from crossing back into the county, Fort Peabody was constructed and manned for several years by armed guards. A wealth of information is available here and here.


Several sections of the trail to Ptarmigan Lake are in good shape, but the trail is non-existent in some places. There are fine views into the Guston mining area and the Million Dollar Highway. The trail visits several small lakes along the way and is easily accessible from the Million Dollar Highway.