Ice Lake Basin Trail Guide

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Jennifer and I stop to rest on a very flat rock near the Ice Lake.

We had been hiking for hours through a thunderstorm as well as the rain and hail that came with it. We were soaked to the bone and glad the lighting had never shown. The trail was a deceptively difficult 3.5 miles with 2,500′ of elevation gain, but we had finally arrived at our destination. The Ice Lake Basin, living up to it name, still half frozen in mid-July.

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The Ice Lake surrounded by 13,000′ jagged peaks.

The stunning landscape was thawing out from its icy existence for its short lived, but fruitful summer. Snow still blanketed a lot of the basin, but that didn’t stop the wildflowers from painting the basin in beautiful hues of all different colors. This is one of the best hikes Colorado has to offer so get out there!

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Getting to the Ice Lake Basin Trailhead

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Looking across the San Juan Mountains from the top of Ice Lake Basin. This is the direction from which we came.

Ice Lake Basin is a remote location deep in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, but it is still fairly easy to get to. We made it to the trailhead in a Subaru Impreza. The Impreza sits low to the ground, but it handles well off road with is all-wheel drive. Still, I think you could manage to make it to the basin’s parking area at South Mineral Campground in almost any vehicle. As some of this is a dirt road it could be washed out requiring a high clearance vehicle, but the road crew seems to maintain the road well.

Make your way to Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, Hwy 550, between Silverton and Ouray. This drive through the San Juan Mountains is one of the best in the country and is really a destination in and of itself.

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There are lots of reflective ponds like this one located off of road 585 along Mineral Creek.

About 3 miles west of Silverton you will turn off of Hwy 550 and head west onto the dirt road 585, which follows Mineral Creek for nearly 4 miles to South Mineral Campground. The road continues past the campground, but it quickly becomes 4WD only. There is a fee for this campground, but you can park in the pull out area across the dirt road for free. The trail starts on the north side of 585, the campground is on the south side.

Hiking to Ice Lake Basin

From the map below (provided by Google Maps) it looks like the trail starts on the 4WD only Clear Lake Road, but it actually starts on the north side of 585. It is an easy trailhead to find. I have attempted to draw in the approximate trails that Google doesn’t have.

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A hiking map provided by Google Maps. The dashed grey line is the trail, but it was incomplete so I added the solid grey lines… This isn’t accurate but should give you an idea of where the trails are located.
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This is the view from the west side of the parking area. You can barely see the trail on the lower right of the image.

As stated before, the trail is a strenuous 3.5 mile (one-way) trek with about 2,500′ of elevation gain. This trail starts out switchbacking its way through the woods near Clear Creek. When we went this part of the trail was more mud than dirt, and the creek had over ran its bank in areas and found its way onto much of the trail.

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The water coming through the forest and onto the switchbacks through the woods.
Unnamed Waterfall on Clear Creek
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The unnamed waterfall on Clear Creek. There appears to be a trail on the right. Don’t go that way.

At a certain point you will be faced with climbing up the right side of a unnamed waterfall or crossing over Clear Creek on some shady looking logs. While the trail up the right side of the waterfall is a possibility, you will have to wade across Clear Creek above the falls, inches away from the precipice.

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Jennifer crossing the log bridge to get across Clear Creek. This was on the way back.

Trust me and take the logs at the bottom. This will lead you across the creek and back onto a few more dryer switch backs away from the creek.

 

 

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The view from on top of the unnamed waterfall. This is where you would have to wade through if you go up the right side.
The first Junction
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The unnamed waterfall plummets over the cliff edge.

After about another fourth mile or so you will come to a junction in the trail. If you turn right this will take you back to the top of the waterfall where you can truly appreciate what you missed out on by venturing across the shady logs at the bottom. When you return back to the junction and head west (left) you will continue the trip towards Ice Lake Basin. There is an old homestead in the trees on the left side of the trail not too far from the junction. This section through the trees is one of the flatter sections along the entire trail.

Straight up the trail
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The cascade near the path. To get this glimpse you will have to take a short side trail up onto the adjacent ridge.

You will soon find yourself exiting the tree coverage and gaining elevation quickly near a cascading creek. While there are a few switchbacks through this section, it feels a lot more open and less like you are just heading back and forth climbing the side of a hill. Once you top the cascade you will head back into the trees and then into an open field. I remember this spot well as it is where we got caught out in the open during the rain and thunder.

The last push to the Lower Basin
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Looking back down the valley along the route on our way to the Lower Ice Lake Basin.

Soon you will find yourself back in the trees, but still climbing steeply. In a few long switchbacks you find yourself at a junction and also at the first spot flat enough for a campsite. Don’t camp here as it gets much better. Take the trail to the left as the one to the right takes you a long ways deep into the mountains to the small town (village) of Ophir.

Lower Ice Lake Basin
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The Lower Ice Lake Basin. You can see the trail on the right climbing up the end of the valley between the rocky cliffs. The large waterfall is from Fueller Lake.

The trail from the junction up to and through the Lower Ice Lake Basin is very easy compared with what you have experienced thus far. The Lower Ice Lake Basin is very flat with ample opportunities for campsites.

Up the cliff
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Nearing the end of the Lower Ice Lake Basin. The cliffs are intimidating. The waterfall is the run off from Ice Lake.

At the west end of the Lower Basin you will find a 900′ nearly vertical cliff. It looks intimidating, but even with a little snow on it, it is very doable. It is basically just a set of really long switch backs. Once you reach the top of it you will find yourself in the Ice Lake Basin and it is a short hike across the basin to Ice Lake.

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The very top of the switchbacks. Looking back down the trail into the Lower Ice Lake Basin.
Ice Lake

When it comes to alpine lakes, Ice Lake is one of the best. The lake sits at the base of a ridge line with 13,000′ jagged peaks. Add in the reflections found in the calm waters of the lake and you have a photographer’s dream location. It is also a pretty nice spot for lunch.

Ice Lake Basin 001We made it to the gorgeous Ice Lake!

The other Lakes
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Where the runoff from Fueller Lake breaks out of the snow pack. You can see the old mining shelter ruins on the right.

From here you can add on Fueller Lake by following the mile long trail to the south. It is a relatively easy 300′ of elevation gain. Fueller Lake also has an old mine shack on its shore.

Or you can add on Island Lake by crossing over the run off of Ice Lake and heading along the 1/2 mile trail north on the adjacent ridge. We didn’t do the latter because it was sill covered in snow. Lord willing, I will be going back.

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This is the run off from Ice Lake. You have to cross this rather icy creek if you want to head north on the trail to Island Lake.

Camping

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The Lower Ice Lake Basin is a great spot for backcountry camping.

Some people rather foolishly risk camping at Ice Lake Basin, which at 12,270′ is above tree line and very susceptible to lightning strikes. We had setup camp in the Lower Ice Lake Basin nearly 900′ below and a great spot to spend a night or two. There are lots of spots with ample tree coverage as well as fresh mountain water all around.

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Jennifer crossing over the creek in the Lower Ice Lake basin headed back to our campsite.

I would suggest making your way to the southwest corner of the Lower Ice Lake Basin. As you find your way over the last creek in the Lower Basin, along the trail heading west towards the Upper Basin, turn left (south) and make your way into the batch of trees. There is a waterfall coming off of Fueller Lake located here and an excellent spot in the trees for camping. It is one of the best spots I have ever found in the backcountry.

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The waterfall at the west end of the Lower Ice Lake Basin. There is a camping spot in the trees that is the best in the basin.

Best time to go to Ice Lake Basin

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Fueller Lake still frozen in mid-July.

Mid-July was very nice because the remaining snow really adds to this picturesque landscape, but late July/early August might be best so hopefully the lakes have completely thawed. When we went Fueller Lake was little more than a giant block of ice and we found it impossible to make it to Island Lake as the trail was covered in ice and we didn’t think to bring our micro-spikes. It was also still pretty cold at 12,000′ with the wind rushing across the icy terrain. Our campsite, at about 11,400′ in the lower basin, was very pleasant.

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Jennifer sitting next to the Ice Lake runoff in the Ice Lake Basin.

Tips:

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    The often overlooked lake in the Lower Ice Lake Basin.

    Come prepared for any and all circumstances as help is not close.

  • Head Lamp – Even if you don’t plan to overnight.
  • Gortex shoes – This is a very wet area and you want to make sure your feet are dry.
  • Micro-spikes (aka Yak Trax) – It never fails that at least once a year I find myself on a Colorado trail above tree line in mid-summer needing micro-spikes and I don’t have them. I don’t like to carry them because they are extra weight, but I almost always need them. Before August these are a must in Colorado when hiking near or above tree line.
  • GPS/maps.me – I found the trail very easy to follow, but I read some blogs before heading out that said it was hard to follow. So I guess you should probably take a GPS to be safe. I like maps.me (free app) and find it very helpful for these kinds of trails.

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    Jennifer walking along the hard to locate trail between Ice Lake and Fueller Lake.

 

 

 

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