Ice Lake Basin
San Juan National Forest, Colorado
Distance: 9.3 miles
Traveled: Ice Lake Trailhead to Ice lake and Island Lake
“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
After months of anticipation I finally set off on a Friday after work to start my drive to California to hike the High Sierra Trail. Taking advantage of the need to head generally south and west, I opted to switch up my route that usually has me stopping in Moab, and instead divert through the San Juans for a jaunt.
After spending the night camping in my car in the Curecanti National Recreation Area along Blue Mesa Reservoir, I woke up at 3:30am to get to the Ice Lake Basin Trailhead near sunrise.
I stopped for coffee, pulled over at a few admiring lookouts along highway 550, and arrived at the trailhead shortly after sunrise. I still had another 10 hours of driving to get me to Vegas by that evening so I had to hustle. My hope was to finish and be back on the road by 11:30 (which did not happen).
The trail starts climbing immediately through the forest, crossing Clear Creek and opening up to a view of a pretty waterfall. There was little respite on the climb, and with the trail gaining nearly 2900’ of elevation I figured it wouldn’t be incredibly unforgiving.
Switchbacking upward, I passed through occasional open meadows with views up toward the basin above. The wildflowers in these meadows were ridiculous.
Near this point I started to realize that this hike would truly be something special.
The day began to heat up and once the trail wound under the cover of trees for one last time, I stopped to shed some layers. Unfortunately, while stopped, the mosquitos quickly found me. I slathered some bug spray on my unprotected legs and continued on quickly (I’m always with the ridiculous mindset that I can somehow outrun them?).
After about 1.5 miles the trail arrived in the Lower Ice Lake Basin. The trees now sparsely scattered, were nearly behind me with the timberline quickly approaching. The view of the 13,000 ft mountains and the basin below was breathtaking.
The wildflowers here just got, well….stupid. They were stupid pretty. So ridiculous and stupid. Unreal.
At points the flowers were waist high.
I couldn’t stop gushing about the wildflowers to myself.
Around this point I started leap-frogging a guy and a gal on the trail, and we eventually got to talking and hiking together. Ken and Claudia, from Durango and Texas. It seems like this always happens to me, I start solo but ending up making new friends on the trail. We ended up hiking the rest of the way up to the lakes together and chatting all the way, and it was great to have their company.
About a half mile after entering the flat area of Lower Ice Lake Basin, the trail crosses a stream that is actually the outlet of Ice Lake. The stream was unlike any other stream I have seen. Whatever mineral is in Ice Lake that causes the water to be such a brilliant color blue, has deposited on the rocks in the stream giving them a milky appearance. With the water being clear and blue, and the rocks appearing like they had been painted white, the stream looked fake – as if you’d find it at a miniature golf course or at Disneyland.
After the stream crossing, the trail starts its last climb toward the upper basin. The climb was steep and rocky, but the wildflowers wallpapering the hillside and the views down into the basin below were entirely distracting.
On the last push before reaching Ice Lake yellow and white flowers (I should really invest at this point into learning the names of more Colorado wildflowers), covered the hillside and were incredible.
And then the trail topped out at the lake….Ice Lake. Oh, that lake.
That lake blew my mind.
I’ve seen beautiful lakes, I’ve seen many lakes filled with water colored by glacial silt. But. This.
Ice Lake was something special.
A brilliant, electric blue color that I have never seen nearly close to being matched anywhere in nature before.
We plopped down our packs, took obligatory lakeside photos, ate snacks, and couldn’t shut up about how pretty it was. It was perfect.
I was hoping to visit both Fuller Lake and Island lake after Ice Lake, but my time was running short as it was already near to 10:30. Knowing I had to pick just one of the other lakes, I decided to head on to Island Lake.
My new friends were still basking lakeside, so I told them I’d see them up at the lake.
I started back down the trail, and apparently had missed the actual trail leading up to Island Lake, so I found myself wandering the edge of the outlet of Blue Lake for a bit looking for a good place to cross (and also a little preoccupied with how trippy-looking the stream was, and taking too many photos of it).
I crossed and started heading up, and turned to see Ken and Claudia also wandering the stream looking for a good crossing. Apparently we had both missed the actual trail.
I showed them where to cross and we headed up to Island Lake together.
The higher we climbed, the more incredible the view down into the basin became.Again I was blown away by the wildflowers. They were everywhere. Every inch of the hillside was covered in yellow flowers and columbines.
After a super pretty walk that hugs tightly to the steep hillside, the trail turns toward the upper basin that contains Island Lake. The basin looks incredibly unsuspecting on the approach. I imagined the first humans wandering up there, perhaps feeling tired and bored at this point in their wandering…and then BOOM.
Ken and Claudia were a bit behind me, and I walked up to the top of a small rise on the trail in front of me. There she was, laid out before me in all of her glory. A lake like I have never seen before.
“This is insane.”
Some laughter to my right, and I turned to see 3 hikers sitting on the hill above me laughing at me.
“That’s the best reaction ever!” they laughed.
“I have no idea what else to say”, I yelled to them, “this is ridiculous!”
I turned and beckoned Claudia and Ken from behind me.
“Get up here, you guys aren’t going to believe this.”
And they were just as awestruck.
I wandered the shoreline to take in the lake from other angles, still not believing the vivid color of blue-green before me. I had seen photos of this lake, and honestly had likely assumed that whatever colors I had seen in those photos might have been a little oversaturated in Photoshop.
The colors are real. The colors in these photos are real. This color, and this lake, somehow exist, and are real, and I felt lucky to have laid my own eyes on it.
My time was running short, and I didn’t have nearly enough time on the shoreline of Island Lake. I could have spent days in this basin, just staring with my jaw perpetually hanging open, but unfortunately (or fortunately?) I had to get to Vegas tonight to start an 80 mile trek in the Sierra Nevada the day after tomorrow. I couldn’t stay.
I walked back down the trail a bit with Ken and Claudia, but then had to abruptly leave them behind to fly back down the trail to my car. It was getting too late. We exchanged contact info, and I began my flying descent back to the car.
As I pulled away from the trailhead near 1:00, I was in a bit of a daze. I would tell my husband later when I called him from Durango, “I feel pretty confident saying that was the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done.”
“Coming from you, that’s a bold statement, “ he challenged.
And I didn’t have to ponder it any further to know whether it was true. I’ve seen many beautiful places. Many. Ice Lake Basin is a truly special place, though. It’s not the longest hike, or the shortest, it’s not the easiest, or the most rigorous, it’s definitely not unknown or secret in anyway (Thanks internet and social media! To which I am now contributing!), but that basin just blew my mind. The colors of those lakes – especially the electric-blue of Ice Lake – still leaves me giddy every time I think about it. It just doesn’t seem like it should be real.
I’d love for this place to forever remain a secret, but alas it’s already inundated with sweaty hikers – so based on that, I hope you get a chance to see it with your own eyes, and that when you do you will recognize and appreciate how truly special and unique it is.
There’s nothing like it. Go.
(Don’t make it your first hike though, because you’ll set the bar too high and you’ll forever be let down.)
Onward to cross the Sierra…
Thanks for the wonderful memories.
I am now 82, but remember every foot of that trail and the wonderful views along the way. My family (wife, brother-in-law, 5 year old son) made the hike to Lower Ice Lake Basin in 1973, while camping at South Mineral Creek Campground. It was as fabulous as you describe, including he awesomeness of such beauty. We did return several years later, and in I accompanied some friends on an over-night trek that included the upper lake. My wife and I just re-visited via your post. Thanks again.
Thank you Marvin! That is trail is definitely a wonderful one to remember.
I came from a random search of Sierra Nevada. Thanks for your article. The pictures are so beautiful. The narratives remind me of my countless solo trips. Nobody around me, but incredibly happy.
Thank you, Kevin! I appreciate that!