Ice Lakes

Distance: 7.8 - 8.2 miles (round trip)

San Juan National Forest, near Silverton in Southwest Colorado

Introduction

The Silverton area boasts a number of great day hikes but none can compete with the sheer scenic beauty of Ice Lake.

The trail wastes no time gaining elevation, climbing 1,600-ft. in 2-miles through forests and wildflower-filled meadows to the beautiful Lower Ice Lakes basin. Upon reaching the lower basin great views open to Fuller, Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob rising above the ridge at the head of the basin.

As you wander up the lower basin waterfalls emanating from unseen alpine lakes and snowfields tumble down clefts in the rocky hillside watering a breathtaking array of wildflowers. A sea of columbine, larkspur, aspen daisies, chiming bells and cow parsnips blankets both sides of the trail.

But the best is yet to come. A steep climb to the upper basin leads to the turquoise blue waters of Ice Lake nestled in a magnificent cirque of sculpted ridges and peaks soaring well above 13,000-ft. The alpine tundra wonderland around the lake invites exploration, with routes heading toward Island Lake, Fuller Lake and beyond.

Trailhead to Lower Ice Lake

View of lower Ice Lake basin

Distance from Trailhead: 4.5 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 11,510-ft.

Elevation Gain: 1,670-ft.

The head of the South Mineral Valley is the starting point for Ice Lake, one of the premier hikes in the San Juan Mountains. The signed trail departs from the west end of the trailhead parking lot, located across from the South Mineral Campground (see driving directions below).

The trail crosses a meadow and starts climbing through trees on moderately steep switchbacks. At 0.4 miles the path crosses Clear Creek and ascends the slope to the west of the creek on well graded switchbacks with intermittent views of Twin Sisters rising across the valley to the south.

After 30 minutes a detour to the right (east) leads to a scenic waterfall tumbling down the rocky hillside. An old wooden bridge crosses the creek beneath the falls. Do not cross the bridge instead return to the main trail.

Beyond the waterfall the trail heads west, climbing steeply up a grassy slope filled with wildflowers. Keep a lookout for the ruins of an abandoned mining building and equipment on your left. The grade abates as the trail crosses a meadow and then enters the trees. The trail now climbs steep switchbacks up a headwall to the Lower Ice Lake basin.

After gaining 1,600-ft. in 2 miles the trail crests the ridge into the beautiful Lower Ice Lake basin. Rock outcroppings provide a nice place to rest and enjoy the view of Fuller (13,761-ft.), Vermillion Peak (13,894-ft.), Golden Horn (13,780-ft.) and Pilot Knob (13,738-ft.) rising above the ridge at the head of the lower basin.

Lower Basin to Upper Ice Lake

View of Upper Ice Lake

Distance from Trailhead: 7.0 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,270-ft.

Elevation Gain: 2,430-ft.

The trail now traverses lovely meadows on gentle grades, passing Lower Ice Lake nestled in trees to the left (south). Waterfalls, emanating from unseen alpine lakes and snowfields tumble down clefts in the rocky hillside to the north of the trail. During late July to early August the well-watered meadows around the falls host spectacular wildflower displays. Masses of columbines, larkspur, aspen daisies, chiming bells and cow parsnips blanket both sides of the trail.

At the head of the lower basin the trail curves left (south) and starts a steep ascent up the basin’s headwall. Ahead you will see a waterfall on the outlet stream for Fuller Lake cascading down a rocky crevasse. Just before reaching the waterfall the trail swings to the left (north) for the final stiff climb to the upper basin. Reach the top of the headwall in 0.6 miles after gaining 700-ft. in elevation.

The grade now abates as the trail traverse alpine tundra for the final quarter mile to Ice Lake (12,270-ft.). As you walk toward the lake note the faint trail climbing the grassy slope on your right (north). This trail leads to Island Lake.

Turquoise blue Ice Lake sits in a magnificent cirque amid subalpine tundra dotted with wildflowers. U.S. Grant Peak (13,767-ft.) rises to the north. In a clockwise direction the sculpted peaks and ridges of Fuller Peak (13,761-ft.), Vermillion Peak (13,894-ft.), Golden Horn (13,780-ft.) and Pilot Knob (13,738-ft.) form the southwestern walls of the upper lake basin.

Return to the trailhead by reversing your route or, if you have time, take a side trip to Island or Fuller Lakes. (See descriptions below.)

Ice Lake to Island Lake

View of Island Lake

Distance from Trailhead: 8.4 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,392-ft.

Elevation Gain: 2,552-ft.

A side trip to Island Lake (12,392-ft.) is well worth the effort. To reach the lake cross Ice Lake's outlet stream (to find the best place to cross wander downstream a bit) and follow the faint trail climbing the grassy slope to the northeast. The trail is initially hard to see but becomes better defined further up the slope. As you climb, enjoy stunning views of the upper and lower Ice Lake basins.

The trail crosses the base of a tailings pile and then ascends above a rocky outcrop before swinging left (north). The grade now abates as the trail traverses a hillside above the lake. The aquamarine lake is nestled in an intimate cirque at the base of U.S. Grant Peak. If you look carefully, you will see a faint trail climbing the talus ridge to the north of the lake. This route leads to the Ophir Valley. Total distance to Island Lake from Ice Lake is just over 0.7 miles with a 130-ft elevation gain.

Island Lake to Fuller Lake

View of Fuller Lake

Distance from Trailhead: 8.8 miles (round trip)

Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,605-ft.

Elevation Gain: 335-ft.

The gentle rolling hillsides beyond Ice Lake invite exploration. One popular side trip is the short hike to Fuller Lake. To reach Fuller Lake (12,605-ft.) head up the hill to the south/southwest of Ice Lake to a pond. (There is now a use trail, which fades in places, to help keep you on track.) Go around the left (east) side of the pond and then climb up the open hillside to the south/southwest of the pond. At the top of the hill is a broad shelf. The way to Fuller Lake should now be obvious. Cross a small creek and then travel along the west side of the creek to Fuller Lake. The lake is 0.9 miles from Ice Lake with a 335-ft. elevation gain.

From the lake enjoy fine views of Fuller Peak, Vermillion Peak and Golden Horn. An old metal-sided mining cabin still stands beside the lake.

Hike Facts

  • Distance: 7.8 - 8.2 miles (round trip)
  • Elevation: 9,840-ft. - 12,392-ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 2,552-ft.
  • Difficulty: moderate-strenuous
  • Basecamp(s): Silverton / Ouray
  • Region: Southwest Colorado

 

Elevation Profile

Ice Lakes Elevation Profile

 

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This opinionated guide includes all the hikes in the Ouray, Telluride and Silverton sections of the website plus info on local services and nearby attractions.

 

Driving Directions

From Ouray: Follow Highway 550 south from Ouray for 19.6 miles to CR 7. (The distance from Ouray is measured from the bottom of the switchback exiting the south end of town.) Make a sharp right onto County Road 7 (signed for the South Mineral Campground) and follow this good gravel road for 4.4 miles to the trailhead parking area on the north side of the road (right) across from the South Mineral Campground.

From Silverton: From the intersection of Highway 550 and the turnoff to Silverton (110), drive 1.9 miles north on Highway 550 to County Road 7. Turn left on County Road 7 (signed for the South Mineral Campground) and follow this good gravel road for 4.4 miles to the trailhead parking area on the north side of the road (right) across from the South Mineral Campground. If you reach Silverton you missed the turn.

 

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