Located near the towns of Ouray and Silverton in Colorado, hiking to Island Lake and Ice Lake Basin is a must do for anyone looking for spectacular colored lakes, gorgeous peaks, and thousands of wildflowers. I did this hike on July 25, 2017 as a backup plan due to inclement weather. Originally, I planned on summiting a few 14ers in the area, but four days of nonstop rain chased me away. I ended up in the Ice Lake Basin by chance, and it definitely will not be my last time going.
Know Before You Go
Location: San Juan National Forest
Distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,093 Feet
Season: Summer and Early Fall. Winter and Spring will see a lot of snow. If you go during this time, be prepared for potential avalanche conditions and bring the proper gear with the knowledge of how to use it.
How to Get to the Trailhead
To get here, you are looking for the Ice Lake Basin Trailhead, outside of Silverton. It begins from the South Mineral Campground. To get here from Silverton, Colorado, go North on Highway 550 (Million Dollar Highway). This is 2 miles outside of Silverton, and then turn left onto County Road 7/Forest Road 585. There is sign here for the South Mineral Campground. You’ll head down the gravel road for 4.3 miles until reaching parking for the trailhead on the right. This is a 2WD road. However, if the parking lot is full, you can drive up Clear Lake Road for a couple minutes and park there. You will need a 4WD vehicle to get up to this parking lot.
The Trail to Ice Lake Basin and Island Lake
Hiking to Ice Lake Basin
I ended up hiking to Island Lake and Ice Lake Basin by chance. My friend, Lindsey, and I drove down from Denver for three days with plans to hike Mt. Sneffels, Wetterhorn Peak, and Uncompahgre Peak: three 14ers in the area. When we got down there, the weather changed, and it ended up raining the entire time with chances for lightning. Neither of us wanted to be on top of high peaks with the chance for lightning. Nor did we want to be climbing class 3 mountains that would be very slippery and wet with three days of non stop rain. So we changed plans.
I read something online a few month before, about an insanely greenish blue lake that everyone swore wasn’t photoshopped. I remembered the name Island Lake. So we looked it up and found the trailhead was extremely close to where we were camping. There is the main parking area, but we took the 4 Wheel Drive road up to the other trail head. It wasn’t too rough, and did not require a high lifted vehicle to get there.
We grabbed our hiking gear, rain jacket, and rain ponchos and set off on the trail. Going this way, we crossed the creek near the waterfall, which was pretty cool. The water was deep enough at the time that we were going to get wet, so we did take off our shoes to cross it.
The trail is very easy to follow throughout the hike. You immediately start hiking uphill through the forest. You will encounter some meadows and a stream crossing with a nice view of a waterfall. Once you pass the stream and waterfalls, you gain elevation quickly. You’ll pass through some pretty meadows with great views of the basin and start hiking the steep trail through the forest. After you exit the forest, about 2 miles into the hike, you’ll pass through a flat section of the hike across the stunning, wildflower-filled, Lower Ice Lake Basin. It depends on when you go, but when I was there in late July, there were thousands of wildflowers. The columbines and lupines were especially pretty.
You will hike through the basin for a little bit, and then cross the stream to gain the trail. After crossing the stream, the trail goes sharply uphill. This will be the most strenuous section and the steepest portion of the trail. There are some really pretty waterfalls you will pass along the way. Finally, the trail mellows out again as it brings you into the Upper Ice Lake Basin. Hike through this section for a couple minutes and you’ll see Ice Lake. This will be around 3.5 miles.
Hiking to Island Lake
From here you can explore more of the area. I definitely recommend planning for at least a full day here to explore. If you follow the light trail south for a few minutes, you’ll come to Fuller Lake. Follow a slightly less trafficked trail north to hike to Island Lake.
Depending which of the trail offshoots you follow, you may cross a stream. Then hike up a steep trail, though not as steep as previous sections, before arriving at Island Lake. to explore more, you can cross a stream at the bottom and continue around. Arriving at the lake will put you at about 4 miles. You can head back the way you came, or you can follow the trail loop back down into the basin. We ended up going back the way we came, stopping by Ice Lake again to take more photos.
If you only have time, or the energy(!), to do just on more lake, I would definitely recommend hiking to Island Lake. It offers great views of the surrounding mountains and into the basin below. We stopped to take a lot of photos on the way. It’s hard not to; the area is stunning!
While you may a decent amount of people at the lower lakes, a lot of people turn back before reaching Island. We only saw two other people hiking up to Island Lake, and didn’t see anyone coming down until we reached the upper basin.
You don’t just have to hike here. The area serves as a basecamp for the 13ers that tower behind it: Vermillion, Pilot’s Knob, Golden Horn, Fuller Peak, V3, and US Grant Peak. Backpack into the area for a night under the stars. Just be sure to practice ‘Leave No Trace’ while there. While it may make an Instagram worthy shot, camping on the island on Island Lake is not practicing LNT. On a hot summer day, you can take a dip in the waters too. But be warned, it will be more of a polar plunge than a leisurely swim. Others have been known to packraft the lakes as well.
Afterwards, you can find plenty to do in the Silverton area, from a one day adventure to a multi-day excursion.
Backpacking: Backpacking is free in the area. There is plenty of places to camp, but make sure you are following National Forest Regulations and practicing ‘Leave No Trace’ ethics. This includes not camping within 200 feet of water sources. The tundra is a fragile place, so set up your tent in an established place to protect the area. Forest Rangers do recommend camping in the lower Ice Lake Basin to help preserve the tundra in the Upper Ice Lake Basin.
Camping: There is paid camping nest to the Ice Lake Basin Trailhead at the South Mineral Campground. Get here early to reserve a spot. You will most likely not find a spot on weekends. There are other campgrounds in the area as well. Some are free, but most will be paid. Expect to pay $14.00 per night or more. Dispersed Camping is allowed in designated spots along Forest Road 585. This is a popular area, so be prepared with a backup plan if coming on a weekend.
Lodging: Silverton may be small, but there is an abundance of accommodations in the town. Though the drive will be a bit further, there are a lot of options for lodging in Ouray as well. While there’s options, you should expect to pay, at minimum, $100.00 a night. There are quite a few cute AirBnbs in the area as well.