Known as one of the best hikes in all of Colorado, Ice Lakes is a spectacular hike that brings you to the bluest, most beautiful lake you’ll ever see. The crystalline waters are surrounded by dozens of gorgeous peaks and beautiful meadows. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to take on the strenuous hike to Upper Ice Lakes.
I have been wanting to tackle the Ice Lakes hike for almost 2 years but every time we got close enough to the San Juans, we always took a detour and decided to explore something else. This fall, we finally made the effort to take a trip to the Silverton Side of the San Juans, almost specifically for this hike.
While I wish I had more time to make it a backpacking trip and spend a whole night camped out in the Ice Lakes Basin, the day hike was stunning!
Even amongst the various natural wonders and heart stopping adventures in the San Juan Mountain Range, Ice Lakes stands out. Sure, I’ve seen turquoise lakes and moraine lakes but never have I seen a lake so perfectly blue.
Though strenuous, there are few hikes in the world as rewarding as this one is for so little effort. Sure it’s steep, but in a short 2 hours, you can be sitting on the shores of a stunning alpine lake surrounded by the San Juans at nearly 13,000 ft elevation.
One you reach Ice Lakes, the adventures beyond are endless. From Island Lake to the 13er Fuller Peak, you can make camp in Lower Ice Lakes Basin and spend days continuing on more adventures from there.
Ice Lakes Hike Stats
Distance (roundtrip): 7.4 miles (8.5 miles with Island Lake)
Elevation gain/loss: 2,500 ft
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Starting elevation: 9,800 ft
Summit elevation: 12,300 ft
Trailhead: South Mineral Campground
Nearest city: Silverton, Colorado
Getting to the Ice Lakes Trailhead
Ice Lakes Trailhead lies at the very end of South Mineral Creek Road, which lies off of the Million Dollar Highway running from Durango to Silverton then Ouray.
To reach South Mineral Creek Road, you’ll head north on the Million Dollar Highway (AKA the US-550) for 5 minutes past the turnoff for Silverton and you’ll see a sign for South Mineral Campground on your left. Turn here and continue down the 12 mile dirt road.
Though it’s a dirt road to Ice Lakes trailhead, the drive is accessible by almost any vehicle including large RVs since there are so many popular campgrounds along this road. The dirt road is smooth and well maintained with little uphill or downhill grade. That being said, conditions may vary year to year so use common sense.
The Ice Lakes trail begins at the obvious trailhead on the right side of South Mineral Campground.
There is only a small amount of parking for non-campers which can be an issue during the peak of summer.
In the summer months, try to arrive before 8am to get parking at the trailhead, especially if you have a large vehicle/RV. If there isn’t any parking left by the time you arrive, supposedly they’re really strict in the summer months that you can’t park in the campground so you’ll have to sit and wait for a car to leave the parking lot.
Tips for Hiking Ice Lakes
Best Time to Hike to Ice Lakes
Ice Lakes can be reached at all time of the year. In the winter, the lake is a popular snowshoeing route and from mid-June through mid-October the trail is generally snow free and the weather is often warm and sunny.
That being said, June is the often dreaded mud season meaning it’s hikable but come prepared with the right hiking shoes and be sure to check the trail conditions (See trail conditions section below).
July and August bring stunning weather and wildflowers are in bloom. Summer can often bring afternoon thunderstorms so start this hike early and keep an eye on the weather.
September and October are prime hiking season in Colorado and starting in mid September, fall colors make everything even more beautiful. On the other hand, fall can make conditions drier and less green than earlier in the season.
While I normally say that fall is the absolute best time to hike in Colorado, Ice Lakes is one of the few exceptions where mid summer is best because of the fact that 1) it’s not a great place to see the trees change color 2) a big part of what makes Ice Lakes so stunning is the green meadows that contrast against the blue lakes and 3) this is one of the best places in Colorado to see beautiful wildflower meadows.
It’s still pretty to see the lakes when the hillsides are dry and orange colored, but it’s surely even more spectacular in the meadows of summer.
If you plan on hiking Ice Lakes in the shoulder season of spring or fall, be sure to check the trail condition ahead of time so as to make sure it’s not snow covered.
Elevation and Difficulty
I’ll be honest, even as an experienced hiker I totally underestimated the difficulty of this hike.
I’ve spent a lot of time hiking peaks throughout Colorado including many 14ers and so initially I thought a seven mile hike to a lake, and not a summit, would be a walk in the park. It wasn’t until I looked at the elevation profile shown at the actual trailhead that I realized Ice Lakes wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
The trail is moderate in terms of distance but don’t ignore the fact that it gains 2500 feet of elevation in less than 4 miles.
To an experienced hiker, the elevation gain it’s nothing to be worried about but to an out of state hiker or local Coloradans that don’t get on the trail too often, it’s a leg (and lung) burner. Take it slow and try this train for a strenuous hike workout to help get in shape for the trail.
Related: How to Train for a Strenuous Hike
On top of that, don’t let the fact that this is a “lake hike” fool you into believing the elevation is low. This hike starts 9,800 feet and tops out at Upper Ice Lakes basin at 12,300 feet…that’s high. Because of that, it’s also really important to see pay attention for signs of altitude sickness.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an intense athlete or rarely exercise, some people are affected by altitude more than others. I didn’t even realize we were at high elevation on this hike however my younger sister was experiencing a slight headache and was really short of a breath, a sure sign of mild altitude sickness.
If you know that you struggle at altitude, try a few easier hikes in the area before you go tackle this strenuous one and when you do, take it slow.
There’s a saying in Colorado, and a lot of other states for that mater, that if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes. All this really means is to check the weather forecast ahead of time and don’t do this hike in stormy weather.
If you do somehow catch yourself in bad weather, you’ll want to get down off the mountain and below treeline as soon as possible. Treeline on this hike is at Lower Ice Lakes Basin, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Though it’s safer below treeline, you still don’t want to be outside if a thunderstorm is rolling through, in which case you should get back to your car as soon as you can.
Backpacking at Ice Lakes
Ice Lakes is a fantastic day hike and an even better backpacking trip. The reason for this is because there are so may incredible lakes to explore in the upper basin that by making camp for a night, you’ll have enough time to go explore all of them or even go summit 1 (or more) 13,000 foot peaks.
There are many great places to set up a scenic backcountry campsite on the Ice Lakes trail. One of the most popular spots is in Lower Ice Lakes Basin which isn’t at the crystal blue lake itself, however it’s more spacious, less exposed, and more ideal as a jumping off point. Bonus: if you camp here, you can make the final ascent up to Upper Ice Lakes without having to carry your heavy pack.
You can camp within Upper Ice Lakes Basin too at either Fuller, Ice, or Island Lake but remember that you are far from treeline here and the alpine tundra is even more delicate.
No matter where you decide to camp, please follow leave no trace principles as to not damage this beautiful ecosystem. As a brief overview, please follow these rules:
- Avoid camping on the alpine tundra and wildflowers. But if you must, don’t stay more than 1 night.
- Pack it in, pack it out (that includes human waste).
- Camp at least 200 feet from any source of water.
- No campfires. It’s precious tundra and it won’t grow back for years.
While it’s discouraged to camp on delicate tundra, you basically have no other option when camping in the Lower and Upper Ice Lakes Basin. It’s fine to camp on tundra so long as you try not to damage the tundra.
Avoid doing your cooking on the ground and don’t leave your tent in 1 place for more than 1 night.
Water on the Trail
Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking it’s nice to know what the water situation looks like for a hike. For the Ice Lakes hike, you’ll have water access at South Mineral campground but only from Mid June to Mid September. After that, the campground shuts off the water.
On the trail, water can be found at the first waterfall 15 minutes into the hike (it’s dry in the fall though), at the creek crossing when you reach the headwall at the end of the lower basin, and at Ice Lakes.
Note that you can use these sources as a water supply but you’ll definitely need a water filter. Click here to see our recommended HydroBlu water filter for hiking.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to reserve a permit 6 months in advance to do this hike. One person from your group does however need to quickly fill out the hiker’s log at the start of your trek.
Camping + Accommodation near Ice Lakes
As you drive down South Mineral Road, you’ll pass 4 great National Forest campgrounds that are designated free dispersed camping areas. For more details on the campgrounds along South Mineral Road click here and see the campgrounds section of our Million Dollar Highway blog.
Along with the free dispersed camping earlier on the road, the trail itself begins at South Mineral NF Campground and is a great place to camp the night before or after your Ice Lakes hike.
South Mineral campground has pit toilets, water supply, and trashcans. Though it isn’t free, it’s only $14 per night in the summer months.
All the campgrounds here lie around 9,800 feet so be warned that if you camp here, it will get cold at night.
If you’re looking for accommodation nearby, click here and check out our related blog on where to stay in Ouray, Silverton, and Durango.
How to Hike to Ice Lakes
From South Mineral Campground, the trail starts off steep from the get-go. For the first 15 minutes the trail ascends switchbacks through evergreen forest upon which you’ll pass a waterfall which could be massive or totally dry (which is what it looked like for us when hiked in October) depending on the season.
The trail continues steeply and will bring you through a grove of aspen trees. If you are hiking in late September or October, this will be the one section where you can spot stunning fall colors.
After a little over an hour, the trail will momentarily level off in Lower Ice Lakes Basin. The half mile of flat terrain is warmly welcomed after already gaining 2,000 feet of elevation but don’t relax just yet, the next section ahead of you, marked by a large headwall, is the steepest section of the Ice Lakes hike.
Lower Ice Lakes Basin makes for a great place for backpackers to set up camp for the night before continuing on to Upper Ice Lakes basin.
Even if you are doing this as a day hike, Lower Ice Lakes Basin is a common place to have a quick picnic before making the final 30 minute push to Upper Ice Lakes.
While Lower Ice Lakes basin does indeed have a lake, it’s not accessible by foot but you will get a great view of it when ascending the headwall toward to the upper basin.
From the end of the basin at mile marker three, you’ll cross a creek and begin the steepest part of the hike as the trail ascends to the left, traversing its way up and around the rocky face.
This is the section where it finally occurred to me that Wow, this is actually a pretty hard hike. There’s no tree coverage at this point so the sun beats down harshly.
On the bright side, it’s only 20-30 minutes of hiking from the start of this ascent (at the junction where you make a left up the headwall) to Upper Ice Lakes basin.
Finally you’ll reach the icy blue colored lake that gives this hike its name. The unique color of the water is what makes this hike so unique and though I’ve seen many teal colored lakes, I’ve never seen anything this blue.
The lake itself is surrounded by stunning 13ers including Vermillion Peak, Fuller Peak, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob, and in the summer, wildflower meadows blossom all throughout the basin.
At this point, you should sit back, relax, and take it all in for at least an hour. It’s truly spectacular and after all the hard work, you should let it all sink in before heading back.
From here, you have multiple options that you could extend this hike to:
- Island Lake
- Fuller Lake
- and Vermillion Peak
If you’ve made it this far, I highly recommend that you continue just 15 minutes further to Island Lake, a stunning alpine wonder equally as beautiful as Ice Lakes with less crowds.
To continue on to Island Lake, you’ll head just 2-3 minutes back down the trail from the shores of Ice Lakes and you’ll see a well worn trail to your left (when looking back toward the valley you ascended).
To get to Fuller Lake, you’ll find the continuation of the trail on the south side of the lake. It adds about 2 more total miles.
Here’s a great map that shows to 2 trail extension options created by gjhikes.com.
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