Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ice Lakes Basin in Silverton San Juans


Ice Lakes Basin in the San Juan Mountains!!





In all the time I've lived in Colorado and all the hiking I've down in various parts of the state, I had never hiked in the San Juan Mountains until this last summer. The San Juans rise in the southwestern part of Colorado encompassing the old mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, Creede, and Telluride. They form the largest mountain range in Colorado and include many dozens of peaks over 12,000 feet, six of which are 14ers. The San Juans are rugged, steep, and receive more rain and snow than most ranges in the region, which makes them rich with plant and animal life. I have now seen them only once but the day I was hiking in the Ice Lakes basin I repeatedly told my friend Keith that it was the most beautiful place I had seen in Colorado, perhaps in the country.



We spent our first night at Little Molas Lake campground, which was a great place to wake up in the morning, next to a picturesque lake with the spiny peaks of the San Juans jutting skyward in the background. From the campground we headed down to Silverton for a quick breakfast before heading to the trailhead for the Ice Lakes. A long dirt road follows Mineral Creek up a stunning valley with steep red walls towering on all sides to the campground and trailhead at the end.



The trail up to the lakes is about 3 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain, making for a very steep climb across lush meadows and dense forests, first aspen and then conifer, up to double tiered basin and the lakes beyond. I wish I had more pictures from the hike but my camera was almost dead so I only have a few. Regardless, pictures cannot convey the beauty of the experience you have on a bright and beautiful day hiking in the San Juans. We looked out on a sea of green, red brown grey black mountains and jagged white peaks against the clear blue sky.
After winding up switchbacks through forest and flower-filled meadows, wading through streams and passing a beautiful cascading waterfall, and mining ruins, we climbed one last steep switchback and suddenly came out into the breathtaking lower basin. Surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, the lower basin is filled with wildflowers, tundra plants, snowmelt streams and even a small lake. It is a classic landscape typifying the idyllic beauty of the Rocky Mountains. This is the source of the Colorado Rocky Mountain High! Not to mention, an awesome place to camp!!


The trail continues up the western wall of the basin where the landscape transforms to low grass and rock. We climbed up a steep slope towards the upper basin where Ice Lake sits. From below the lake Mt. Ulysses S. Grant towers high to the north, and in the shelf below it sits the fabled Island Lake. We stumbled up the last bit of trail to the upper ice lakes basin, and stretched out before us, white and covered in snow and bright blue ice that reminded me of blue raspberry syrup on a snow cone, was Ice Lake. I had seen pictures of it's powder blue waters and shores covered in fuchsia, yellow and blue wildflowers. But we were there on the 4th of July, perhaps a month too early for the lake to be free of snow. Behind the lake Golden Horn, Fuller Peak and Vermilion Peak rise in the spire-like form typical of the San Juan mountains. 

I would have loved to hike another mile further west beyond Ice Lake to Fuller Lake, and climb up to the hanging basin where Island Lake sits, however the storm clouds were starting to come in so we ate lunch and hurried back down the mountain.

Here's a brief video from the hike


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