Some things in Nature are impossible to process. Ice Lake is incomprehensible, the color of myth and legends.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US 550 about 47 miles to Silverton. Continue north towards Ouray for 2.0 miles. At the sign for the South Mineral Campground, bear left onto a good dirt road. In 4.2 miles, park in a large lot on the right at the trailhead. There is an outhouse but no water. Allow 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.8 miles; 2,800 feet of climbing for the loop; The Ice Lake Basin out-and-back is 7.2 miles and 2,450 feet of climbing.
Time: 4:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Ophir, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: October, 4, 2014
Quote: The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural...The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white. Wassily Kandinsky, painter
Route: This is a stem and loop trail hike. Meander freely in both lake basins. The loop portion may be hiked in either direction. However, the pacing is more pleasing and wonder crescendos when doing the circuit counter-clockwise as detailed in the text below.
There is a sign for the Ice Lake Trail at the northwest end of the oft-crowded parking lot at TH 9,840'.
Switchback up the generous path with an excellent surface. Flora is rich on the woodland floor of the subalpine fir and aspen forest and includes some uncommon plants such as fringed grass of Parnassus. Use logs and rocks to hop across Clear Creek on its mad rush to South Mineral Creek at 0.5 mile. In autumn, snow may compliment brilliant foliage in the first clearing.
At 0.9 mile, leave the trail on a short, right spur to see the Clear Creek cascade. Some guide books recommend accessing the Ice Lake Trail from what locals call the "Cheater's Lot." It is located up a 4WD track on Clear Creek Road, San Juan CR12. Yes, it will admittedly save 0.8 mile each way and 600 feet of climbing. Be advised, parking is very limited and sometimes it is absolutely impossible to cross the creek, shown, to reach the main trail.
The glade at 1.3 miles is rimmed with filtered gold in late September.
The trail enters a thick stand of mature conifers at 1.6 miles. In this forest the Hardrock 100 course comes in from the left and joins our route to Island Lake. This hardcore footrace begins and ends in Silverton, linking Telluride, Ouray, and Lake City with 33,992 feet of climbing over 100 miles.
At 2.2 miles, the secondary trail to Island Lake turns off on the right/north at 11,460 feet. This juncture is rarely marked with a cairn and is easy to miss. It is located at the very beginning of Lower Ice Lake Basin (N37 48.754 W107 47.493). When the timber fades and the grade eases, search around for the faint trail. The image below was taken from the start of the Island Lake trail.
The track begins due north then turns briefly NE to contour across a hillside under a cliff band. Once past this obstruction, the thin treadway switches due west. Enticing mountains ring the upper Ice Lake Basin. As seen from the trail, the pyramidal and most easily obtained Fuller Peak, 13,761', is on the left. The mighty and dominant structure at center is Vermilion Peak, 13,894'. The beguiling Golden Horn, 13,780', completes the high triplet. All three are non-technical scrambles.
Cross a small rivulet several times on the ascent. At 3.2 miles, step across the outlet of a shallow pond.
As can be seen on the map above, there are two choices; both will take you to Island Lake, 12,400 feet. The most direct route is to leave the trail after crossing the stream and make for Knoll 12,483', directly above the lake at 3.4 miles (dotted blue line). Alternatively, stay on the Swamp Pass trail until it presents a remarkable cirque vantage point at 3.3 miles, 12,535 feet. From there, proceed off-trail down to the knoll. Standing on the rise, the setting and beauty of Island Lake will take your breath away. It is nestled intimately in a diminutive high basin, walled in by venerable US Grant Peak, 13,767' (right) and V4 (left).
The trail to Swamp Pass may be cyphered on the right as Island Lake prepares for winter. Caution: avoid the temptation to swim to the island, even in the warmth of summer. I have a friend who braved the icy passage but nearly died of hypothermia.
To reach Ice Lake, use a social trail to descend southwest from the knoll to the lake's outlet. Cross it and climb a small hill and bear roughly south, staying above a circular pond. Interlaced social trails filter into a more prominent track. Soon Ice Lake appears and the way is obvious. There is a short, rocky Class 2+ stretch with mild exposure on a lateral across the hillside. The footholds are good and it should not be problematic.
Ford Ice Lake's outlet. Generally, this can be accomplished right where the trail meets the watercourse. If the stream is too swift, there are other rock-hopping possibilities upstream. Parry's primrose, king's crown, alpine avens, and marsh marigold in this image are but a sampling of the array of alpine flora.
In the west there is so much blue you can fall right into it head first. Ellen Meloy
The color of water defines this place. Color is why we make the pilgrimage. The water is diamond-twinkle sky blue, the color of happiness.
There is much to explore in the basin, a myriad of lakes to visit. The largest, Fuller Lake, 12,585', is 0.8 mile southwest. Follow that trail and in just 0.2 mile, you will come to my favorite mirror pond, pictured. Pilot Knob, 13,738', is the attention grabber on the left, a technical climb.
Upon your return, bypass the upper trail to Island Lake and reach the edge of the hanging basin at 4.5 miles (mileage assumes no exploration). Lower Ice Lake Basin is 800 feet below.
The trail, somewhat steep and rocky in places, winds down through a willow patch. It penetrates a black headwall and then crosses the Ice Lake outlet at 5.1 miles--a boot soaker if the water is high. It is great fun to mess around in the boulders and cascade off-trail. Mid-summer, flowers in the lower basin are bowl-you-over opulent and ravishing.
Pass to the left/north of the lake in the lower basin. Complete the loop, bypassing the trail to Island Lake at 5.8 miles. Finish on your pleasant incoming path, reaching the trailhead at 7.8 miles.
Ice Lake from Golden Horn, picturing the author and her hiking partner. (EJB, photo)
Color is the first principle of place. Ellen Meloy