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 lightning 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 its’ name, still half frozen in mid-July.
The Landscape of Ice Lake Basin
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!
- Distance: 3.5-mile (one-way)
- Approximate Total Elevation Gain: 2,500′
- Type: Out & Back
- Class: Strenuous
- Season: Mid-July thru late September
Getting to the Ice Lake Basin Trailhead
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 its 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.
The Million Dollar Highway
Make your way to Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, Hwy 550, between Silverton and Ouray. The drive through the San Juan Mountains is one of the best in the country and is really a destination in and of itself.
Dirt Road 585
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 pullout 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.
The Clear Creek Switchbacks
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 overran its bank in areas and found its way onto much of the trail.
Unnamed Waterfall on Clear Creek
At a certain point, you will be faced with climbing up the right side of an 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.
Trust me and take the logs at the bottom. This will lead you across the creek and back onto a few more dryer switchbacks away from the creek.
The First Junction
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 flattest sections on the trail.
Straight up the trail
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
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 way deep into the mountains to the small town (village) of Ophir.
Lower Ice Lake Basin
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
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 switchbacks. 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.
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.
We made it to the gorgeous Ice Lake!
The other Lakes
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 runoff 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 still covered in snow. Lord willing, I will be going back.
Some people rather foolishly risk camping in the Upper Ice Lake Basin, which at 12,270′ is above the tree line and very susceptible to lightning strikes. We had set up 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.
The Best Campsite in the Lower Ice Lake Basin
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 with 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.
The Best Time to Go to Ice Lake Basin
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.
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 the 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.