Ice Lake Basin Trail: The Best Hike in San Juan National Forest

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Nestled high among the San Juan Mountains outside Silverton, Colorado lies an aqua-blue paradise more than 12,000 feet in the sky. It goes by the name of Ice Lake Basin and the hiking trail leading to it is just as spectacular.

Its water is bluer than the Bahamas. Its salt content is non-existent. It’s colder than any ice pack you’ve ever put on a healing injury. It is way out of its element — in the best sense of terms.

The stunning Ice Lake, Colorado trail is steep and strenuous at points. At more than 8 miles of simple-to-rocky terrain, it’s long. Its sudden increase in elevation will leave you gasping for air.

But the sights throughout this challenging Ice Lake Basin hike, the experience of dominating the pathways and the million-dollar payoff panorama view of one of the bluest lakes in the United States truly makes this one of the best hikes San Juan National Forest and the entire state of Colorado.

Ice Lake Basin Trail Details

  • Round Trip Distance: 7.3 miles to Ice Lake & 8.4 miles to Island Lake
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation Gain: 2,430 feet to Ice Lake & 2,550 to Island Lake
  • Peak Elevation: 12,265 at Ice Lake & 12,400 at Island Lake
  • Amount of Time Needed: 4 to 5.5 hours
  • Trailhead Coordinates: Ice Lake Basin Trailhead, Silverton, Colorado

Ice Lake Basin Trail Hiking Essentials

If you’re hiking Ice Lake Trail during the summer months, you may want to get an early morning start to avoid the crowds of people and afternoon storms common in the area. If you’re visiting during fall, I suggest you begin hiking in the afternoon because there won’t be summer crowds and the photos are better at the lake.

Although I only did the Ice Lake Basin hike, there’s another trail leading to a blue lake called Island Lake about 0.5 miles further. I recommend you do if you have the time and stamina.

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Everything You Need to Know About the Ice Lake Basin Trail Hike

The trail leading to Ice Lake Basin, Colorado can be split into four parts. The first part is the easy section that takes you about 1 mile through the forest on relatively non-steep switchbacks. The second part of the trail is when the going gets tough. This is about 1 mile of steep switchbacks on red dirt.

The third section is the easiest of the trail, navigating about 0.75 miles through mostly flat meadowlands. The fourth section is by far the most strenuous part of the hike, as you traverse the last 0.75 miles on steep, rocky terrain and switchbacks — but getting to the top means a payoff view of Ice Lake!

Getting to Ice Lake Basin Trail

Getting to Ice Lake Basin Trail is pretty easy, although it may take a while depending on where you’re coming from. From downtown Silverton, it’s about a seven-minute drive on paved roads and another 15-minute, slow drive on unpaved gravel roads.

From Ouray, you’ll need to travel about one hour across the scenic Million Dollar Highway before getting to the 15-minute drive on the unpaved gravel road. To get to the trailhead, you just need a two-wheel-drive vehicle, as it’s very easy to traverse.

There’s plenty of parking at the trailhead and at South Mineral Springs Campground directly across the road. If you plan to camp, South Mineral Springs Campground will set you back $20 per night, while the other five campgrounds leading to the trail are free. They all have bathrooms, too, so you may as well go with the free sites!

First Section: Easy Forest

Before you begin on the trail, make sure you sign the hiker log located at the trailhead. This lets park rangers know how many people are on the trail and how many have finished for the day. If you sign in and don’t sign out, it also lets them know if someone may be lost or injured on the trail.

This part of the trek begins by taking you through a forest filled with aspen and cedar trees, navigating on a dirt path littered with naturally flowing, miniature waterfalls and stepping stones to get across. You’ll get to see a vivacious waterfall flowing from a few hundred feet in the sky and cross its small creek via hand-laid trees.

About three-quarters of the way up, you’ll stumble upon an old mine shaft that has crumbled almost beyond recognition. The only way you can really tell it’s an old mine shaft is because the 1,000-plus-pound steel mining equipment still sits on the ground seemingly untouched through the decades.

After navigating through the mile or so of the easy forest section and uphill switchbacks, you’ll pop out of the trees, into a clearing, and come to a fork in the path that veers straight (left) or right. You’ll want to stay straight on the left-facing path to get to the Ice Lakes. (See picture below.)

A few hundred feet past that is another fork, which visibly veers left and right. Stay right to continue on an upward path and complete this first easy section of the trail

Second Section: Steep Dirt Switchbacks

The second section is where the going gets a little tough and you may have to start taking more regular breaks to catch your breath. It traverses through another forest of aspen, firs and cedar trees, but it does so on gruelingly steep switchbacks made of red dirt and a few stones are strewn throughout.

Every time I completed a section of switchbacks, I had to take a break and pump myself up again. After navigating about seven switchbacks in a row, I began to give myself the challenge of completing three or four switchbacks before I could stop and rest.

This actually worked for me and allowed me to successfully push myself to complete this one-mile section with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain in roughly 45 minutes. The good part is that nearly the entire section is shaded, so you won’t have the mid-summer sun beating down on you.

During this mile-long section, you’ll gain roughly 1,000 feet of elevation very quickly, so taking breaks to rest and drink water is necessary — especially because this isn’t even the toughest part of the trail.

Third Section: Mostly Flat Meadows

When you emerge from a 2-mile hike through the woods to find a field of flowers, lush greenery and flowing streams in the summer, you’ll be on a 0.75-mile trek through mostly flat meadows. Look left and you’ll catch your first glimpse of Lower Ice Lake and a few waterfalls in the distance.

You can hike to Lower Ice Lake to get an up-close view, but I suggest you keep going for the true payoff views. Lower Ice Lake isn’t too spectacular, especially if you visit in the fall. It’s also worth noting I visited in mid-October, so there weren’t many flowers remaining, the green grass was turning yellow and the flowing streams were quickly icing over. Still worth it!

If you brought a snack, this section is a good spot to take a break and gobble up some energy for the next, most-strenuous section of the hike.

Fourth Section: Strenuous Rocky Switchbacks

So you’ve made it through the 2 miles of forest trail and a brisk 0.75 miles through the meadowlands while taking in the scenic 360-degree views. Now you’re in for a treat. The fourth section is by far the toughest part of Ice Lake Basin Trail.

It’s steep. It’s strenuous. It gains elevation quickly. You may have to use your hands at some points. But it’s worth every step of the 0.75-mile journey to the top.

You’ll be greeted by a flowing stream without a bridge that you must cross via stones scattered throughout. After navigating this quick section, you’ll look up at a rugged, rocky path that doubles as nature’s natural set of stairs and the toughest part of the hike.

On one side of this 0.1-mile section, there will be a rocky cliff face on your right and a steep, long dropoff on the left. My advice is to keep right. It’s a tough section that may require a little scrambling on your hands and feet, so you must be fully capable to get through.

Once you get through this section, the scary part is over and the steepest section of switchbacks is all that lies between you and Ice Lake, Colorado!

Let me start by saying I live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a mere 1.5 feet above sea level. So having about a 2.75-mile hike to properly acclimatize isn’t really the easiest thing to do, especially when you begin the section around 11,400 feet and need to get to the Ice Lake elevation of 12,265 feet within 0.75 miles.

Let me put it into perspective. It takes the average person 2,000 steps to walk a mile, so you must gain 865 feet of elevation in 1,500 steps. That means you’re averaging a little over a half-foot of elevation gain per step.

While that may not seem like a lot, the average stair is 7.5 inches in height. That 865 feet of elevation is equivalent to 10,380 inches. That means you’re theoretically climbing 1,384 steps. The Empire State Building in New York City has 1,250 steps.

So you’re basically climbing the entire height of America’s fifth-tallest building — and you’re doing it between 11,400 feet and 12,265 feet of elevation.

But anyway, back to the hike. After navigating countless switchbacks and thinking you’ll never get to the top (at least in my case), you’ll finally get to the last section that leads to an open field that’s set in the middle of 13,000-plus-foot mountains.

Then you’ll finally see Ice Lake, a lake that’s bluer than the sky it sits under. A lake that’s perched more than 12,200 feet above the sea and is kept safe by the rugged mountains that surround it.

Ice Lake is such a beautiful lake that, less than a minute after I headed toward the trailhead, I stopped dead in my tracks. I turned around and walked to the water’s edge again.

After spending about 3.5 hours hiking 2,340 feet on 3.5 miles of trail, I just couldn’t fight the urge to hike a few hundred feet back to Ice Lake and simply stare at its aqua blue and greenish tones, the rugged mountains that keep it safe and take it all in one final moment before I began my descent back to the bottom.

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