Big Meadow and Ptarmigan Pass Loop Trail is a 25.3 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Grand Lake, Colorado that features a waterfall and is rated as moderate. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October.

DISTANCE
25.3 miles
ELEVATION GAIN
4,202 feet
ROUTE TYPE
Loop

backpacking

birding

camping

fishing

hiking

nature trips

skiing

walking

forest

river

views

waterfall

wild flowers

wildlife

no dogs

This is a beautiful multi-day loop through Rocky Mountain National Park! There are several wilderness campsites to choose from, depending on the mileage you want to cover each day. A $25 wilderness permit (available at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center at the west entrance to the park) is required for all camping. It is a great 3-day, 2-night trek if you are able to hike a little over 10 miles a day. I camped at July site and Haynach site the two nights I was there.

hiking
3 months ago

Due to the length of this hike, I’m splitting the review into two parts

Part One: Big Meadow and Ptarmigan Pass Loop Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)

This trail should be on every backcountry hiker’s short list. At around 30 miles (not 25) it can be done in two days (pushing it) or over the course 3 to 4 days (recommended). Let me tell you about it, including its meadows, wildlife and commanding views from Ptarmigan Pass.

The Hike:

I strongly recommend that you hike this trail clockwise. Get yourself the Nat. Geo. Trails Illustrated topo map (#200, Rocky Mountain National Park) and use it to plan your trip. This trail is well marked but you should always have a map and compass before heading into the back-country.

To hike this loop, you must reserve your campsites in advance. Go to the RMNP “Wilderness Camping” registration page, fill out the forms, give them your money ($26.00 USD as of 2018), and pray. When you do get your sites, you must stop at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center to pick up your permit the day of your hike - so plan ahead.

To begin the hike (going clockwise), drive to the Tonahutu/North Inlet trailheads just north of Grand Lake, CO. Park at the North Inlet trailhead (this is where you will exit the loop) and walk the couple of yards back to the Tonahutu trailhead to start the hike.

Day One - Jumping In

Going clockwise, try to reserve one of the following campsites on the West side of this loop: Paint Brush or Green Mountain or South Meadows. Each of these sites borders a BEAUTIFUL meadow with Moose and Elk, as well as a good water source close by.

If you cannot get one of these sites, try for Upper Onahu, Onahu Bridge or Onahu Creek, just North and West of the loop. Of these three Onahu Creek is by far the nicest, though getting to it from the Tonahutu trailhead makes for a 7 to 8 mile first day - a long hoof if you start late.

Day Two - Heading Up

For day two, try to get a site that is as far up the North side of this loop as you can, for example Renegade or Haynach or Timberline. If you cannot get one of these, try for Granite Falls or Lower Granite Falls, both nice, but BEWARE, these sites have had issues with bear activity in 2018.


Day Three - Summit

What makes this trail worthwhile is summiting Ptarmigan Pass. Plan on packing up about 2 liters of H20 (or so), because while this trail is well-watered throughout, the summit has a nearly 5 mile stretch without any water.

This summit is not, especially going clockwise, a tremendously strenuous hike. It is however, a bit of a psychological beat-down. Running nearly six miles from treeline to treeline, it is the pass that seems to never end. Just after Ptarmigan Pass, watch for the sign marking the junction with the Flattop Mountain Trail and turn right to the North Inlet Trail. Down this section of the trail you will see a row of double cairns stretching off and over the horizon - cool but weird.

There is a large, resident herd of Elk that loves this summit. If you are lucky, they will cut the trail in font or in back of you, giving you a “caught in a herd of creatures” Jurassic Park movie type feelings. Again, just cool.

Plan to get above treeline early and watch the skies closely. This section of the trail may take you some two to three hours, and that’s a long time to be exposed above 12,000 feet, especially in bad weather.

On the way down, try to get reservations at July or North Inlet Junction campsites. If these are full, Ptarmigan is OK as well.

Day Four - Getting Out

On the way out plan to stop at Big Pool (shortly after the campsite of the same name) for a killer swim, and Cascade Fall for an awesome view.

Once off trail, but before you leave RMNP and Grand Lake, plan to make a stop at Sloopy’s Grill for great burgers, fries and even fried chicken. It's a bit of a biker joint, but the staff is friendly to smelly hikers and the service is fast - just the ticket!

hiking
3 months ago

(Due to the length of this hike, I’m splitting the review into two parts)

PART TWO: Big Meadow and Ptarmigan Pass Loop Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)

This is a great hike, but as with any wander-through-the-woods, this trail has its ups and downs. Here are some of the pro’s and con’s.

Pro’s:

This trail is located in Rocky Mountain National Park: If most of your backpacking has been two to three day excursions and you are looking to make the transition to longer trips with more time on the trail - this is the hike for you. The trail is well marked and well maintained, and even without a map, you might have to work at getting lost. Since it is in a NP (no hunting) the wildlife is used to us two-legged creature, and will, if left unharassed, allow you to watch them for as long as you like.

This trail is popular: While I love remote treks, I also like the company of other hikers, and this trail has plenty of that. You are likely to meet some interesting people on this loop, some of them even hiking the whole CDT which overlaps a long stretch of this trail.

Con’s:

This trail is located in Rocky Mountain National Park: I have a love/hate relationship with hiking in National Parks. While they are well maintained, they are also well regulated, requiring that you walk here and not there, sleep there and not here and so on. If I want to be told where I can and cannot walk/stand/sleep, I’ll check into a hotel. Having to reserve camping sites, carry a BearVault and get checked two or three times for each by a ranger tends to rub me the wrong way, but that's just me.

This trail is popular: This trail is so popular that it suffers (IMHO) from an excess of what I call the “Idiot Factor,” or IF, and the resulting IF-driven regulations. The IF is that small percentage of people who, wherever they go, just cannot keep their damn hands inside the ride, stay the hell away from the lip of the canyon or, in the case of RMNP, figure out how to poo in the woods and NOT feed the bears! As a result, the IF never fails to scare the jeepers out of the resident authorities (and we don't blame them), leading to an excess of regulations that must be suffered by the rest of us. In RMNP, the scenario has gone something like this:

“What this!” Some people cannot figure out how to dig a hole and bury their crap? Well, we’ll just have to require that everyone pack-out their toilet paper AND, coming soon, all human waste!”

“Whoa, hold on, hold on!” “Some hikers just gave their dinner to a bear!? Pass the regulations, and quick! Two to three pounds of useless, dead weight in the form of a BearVault must be carried by everyone!”

Concerning the requirement of a BearVault, I asked the nice ranger folks why they did not allow hikers to hang their food in bear bags, notably in PCT style. They responded that they tried that, but after some hikers pulled trees down on themselves (yes, I know, loud facepalm “smack!”), it was BearVaults for all.

And there you have it. All pro’s and con’s considered, should you hike this loop? Absolutely. Why? First and foremost, it is a beautiful hike. Second, and this could be true of many hikes, this trail, with its stunning meadows, majestic wildlife and sweeping alpine pass, may not always be with us.

Cheers,

JG

backpacking
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Awesome 3 day hike!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Great 4 day hike into the back country with awesome primitively camping sites

hiking
1 month ago

Monday, September 18, 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

hiking
Sunday, August 04, 2013