Distance: 7.7 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 2,680 feet
Difficulty: very difficult/hard
Features: multiple alpine lakes, alpine tundra, wildflowers, mountain views
Located near Silverton, Colorado, and just south of Ouray in the San Juan National Forest lies a massive alpine basin that’s home to several magnificent lakes. The most famous of these lakes are upper and lower Ice Lakes and Island Lake, all of which can be seen on the same hike, Ice Lakes trail, and are varying shades of blue that range from bright blue ice to deep sapphire depending on the lighting conditions. Hiking the trail is quite difficult, and should only be attempted by those in good physical shape who are adjusted to the altitude. Sitting at over 12,000 feet, these lakes are hard to reach and will test your mental and physical strength. That being said, this hike is one of our favorites in the entire state, and is well worth the effort to see these amazing alpine lakes.
Panorama of Island Lake (right) and the surrounding mountains
From Ouray, head south on Hwy 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway. This highway offers fantastic summer and fall scenery, including a pit stop at the Switzerland of America scenic pullout just outside of town. Continue on 550 south for 20.9 miles, keeping an eye out for amazing mining history on your way. Turn right onto County Road 7 / US Forest Service Road 585 and continue for 4.4 miles. On the right side, you’ll find a parking area for the trailhead, and on the left you’ll see South Mineral Campground. The trailhead is located on the northwest corner of the parking area.
The very beginning of the hike is a heavily forested area with a moderate incline. Soon enough, you’ll come to the first series of switchbacks that follow Clear Creek Falls, a decent-sized cascading waterfall to your east. The creek that runs through this valley is a great place to find water in the backcountry The trail then tears away from the waterfall and heads west, cutting through alternating areas of pine trees, aspens, and flower meadows. This section is not as steep, but enjoy it while it lasts because the next set of switchbacks is quite difficult.
This third set of switchbacks leading up to the lower basin was the most difficult section in my book. Even with switchbacks breaking up the elevation gain, the trail was quite steep and this is where people were really struggling. Once you clear this area, the trail opens up into the Lower Basin, and this is where we decided to camp for the night. From some areas, you can see Lower Ice Lake down to your left, but we wouldn’t recommend a side trip here as it is very buggy and uneventful. Save your energy for the next lakes.
Once you pass the lower lake, you’ll walk through a massive meadow with tons of tiny streams winding through it and beautiful wildflowers, some as tall as you are. At around 2 miles in, you’ll start the final ascent to Upper Ice Lake, and this is difficult with few switchbacks, just straight up. This is definitely where you make most of your elevation gain. Keep an eye out for small waterfalls to your left! Also remember to take a look behind you, as this view overlooking the lower basin and Fuller Peak to your far right (not pictured below). This was one of our favorite views of the hike!
View looking back over Lower Ice Lake Basin towards the trailhead in the valley below.
Once the trail starts to flatten out, you’ll reach a split somewhere around 3.4 miles. Continue left to first visit Ice Lake, which was a pristine, bright light blue colored lake. The color of the water really is awe-inspiring. Trace your steps back to the fork and continue the other way. You’ll need to do some rock hopping to cross the outlet stream from Ice Lake, then continue uphill towards Island Lake. This portion was surprisingly difficult, as I wrongly assumed they were just near each other. But you actually have to cross a ridge and hike up a couple hundred feet in elevation before descending into the Island Lake basin.
Ice Lake, Colorado
This section had a couple of sketchy stretches, all of which I would highly not recommend for any beginner hikers, kids, beginner backpackers, or anyone who’s afraid of heights or exposure. It’s very do-able, just wanted to put the disclaimer out there that we were quite nervous in some areas. But once the trail opens back up again into the basin, you’ll get amazing views of Island Lake. The day we were there, it didn’t feel like showing off it’s true colors, so we didn’t get a glimpse of the stunning sapphire it’s famous for, and instead enjoyed a deep, dark blue with a beautiful reflection. We ate lunch here then retraced our steps back to the trailhead.
Island Lake as seen early in the morning, with Ulysses S. Grant Peak center right.
Camping Along 585
We arrived at the trailhead on a Thursday afternoon, and South Mineral Campground was completely full, as were all the dispersed camp sites along US Forest Service Road 585. South Mineral Campground is smaller, but there’s tons of dispersed sites, and we were thoroughly surprised to find them all already occupied. If you have a 4×4 vehicle with decent clearance, you can continue past the trailhead and campground and continue along the road to more dispersed campsites, which were much less busy but also didn’t have much protection from the strong winds. Instead, we decided to use our backpacking gear and hike in a few miles that afternoon to set us up for an early hike the next morning.
While there’s plenty of space for backcountry camping, this trail is also very busy and we recommend getting there early to set up camp in your favorite spot. That being said, there’s not many opportunities for camping along the first 2.4 miles of the trail because of the generally pretty steep incline. We did find a small spot between the second and third series of switchbacks, but we also found heavy evidence of wildlife bedding down there so we decided to find the next best place.
We ended up camping on an outcropping near the first lake. We stayed closer to the trail instead of venturing off to camp closer to the lake. We found later in the day that this was a fantastic idea, because after hiking down the lake in search for fish, we found the lake area to be absolutely swamped with bugs and mosquitos. There was also a lot more people down there, leading to little privacy. Overall, we were very happy with our camp spot.
Camp at sunrise
There were also several people that camping near Ice Lake, but we don’t recommend this as much as camping lower in the basin for several reasons. 1) The main ascent between the lower and upper Ice Lakes is a doozy, and I wouldn’t have wanted to carry a pack up that after all the switchbacks we’d already done. 2) The upper basin is above tree line, meaning there’s absolutely no privacy or protection from the elements. That night, we experienced an angry thunderstorm and couldn’t have imaged being above tree line for that. 3) Why carry your backpack farther than you have to when you are just going to carry it right back down the next day? Unless you’re making it a thru hike by continuing over the saddle of Ulysses S Grant Peak, we didn’t see a reason to lug our packs up any higher than we did.
Remember, if you’re going to backpack up to Ice Lake Basin you must follow the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, so we can preserve the alpine tundra for future generations to enjoy.
Map of of Ice Lakes Trail with the trailhead shown in the lower right. Map courtesy of COTrex.
Where is Island Lake and Ice Lake in Colorado?
Both Island Lake and Ice Lake are located south of Ouray, just outside of Silverton, off the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. They’re both situated in Ice Lake Basin, a massive alpine tundra basin with several beautiful lakes you can hike to.
What elevation are Ice Lake and Island Lake in Colorado?
Island Lake is at 12,042 feet in elevation and Ice Lake is at 12,271 feet in elevation.
Is Island Lake Colorado closed?
Island Lake and Ice Lakes trailhead was closed from approximately October 2020 to September 2021 due to wildfire damage. The fire did not damage the lakes themselves, and the trail reopened in September 2021. Dangers related to burn scars (such as flash flooding and mudslides) still exist in that area, so it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and not visit during heavy rains.
Can you hike to Ice Lake and Island Lake in the same hike?
Yes, you can hike to both Ice Lake and Island Lake from the Ice Lakes trailhead on Forest Service Road 585. You can even make it a loop by adding Clear Lake to your hike, or expand your trek across the alpine tundra by visiting Fuller Lake, which is also located in the same area.
What lakes are in Ice Lake Basin?
Ice Lake Basin has several unnamed lakes and streams in addition to the popular Ice Lake, Island Lake, and Fuller Lake, all of which can be accessed from the Ice Lakes trailhead on Forest Service Road 585. There’s also Lower Ice Lake in the which can be accessed from Ice Lakes Trail as well.
Overall, we highly recommend hiking to Ice Lake and Island Lake. If you want to make it even longer, consider visiting Fuller Lake or even summiting the saddle near Ulysses S Grant Peak (above Island Lake). You could also make it a loop including Clear Lake, which several hikers we talked to on trail recommended. It was a very difficult hike and backpacking trip, so would say to make sure you train appropriately, adjust to the altitude, and properly prepare for your hike. Set yourself up for success, and you will be highly rewarded with incredible views, alpine lakes, and an adventure you’re sure to remember!
In 2020, Ice Lake Basin experienced a fire that burned nearly 600 acres, causing hikers to be evacuated by aircraft and the trail to be closed for almost a year. Burn scars related to the fire caused dangers such as fallen trees and flash flooding are prone in this area. Also, there are talks of a permit system going into effect in the near future, so make sure you appropriately research before going.