So many people have asked me where this picture was taken. Per the new Leave no Trace social media guidelines, I haven’t geotagged it on Instagram. But if you’re searching the Google machine for “Island Lake Colorado” or “Ice Lakes Basin,” you’re probably already in the loop about these amazing hiking trails. In my mind, they’re some of the best hikes of Colorado. So I thought I’d create a post for folks who want to hike this gorgeous area safely, responsibly, and with minimal hassle.
Ice Lakes and Island Lake (Colorado) Hike Details
The following stats assume you plan to visit Island Lake, Ice Lakes, and Fuller Lake, which all share the same basin.
- Round Trip Distance: ~8 mi.
- Elevation Gain: ~3,000 ft.
- Max Elevation: 12,400 ft.
- Best times to visit: July to September. July and early August are the best times for wildflowers. Fall colors are best in September, but the exact timing varies from year-to-year.
- Be prepared for: some mild exposure (especially on the trail spur to Island Lake), afternoon thunderstorms, stream crossings that may require wading, intense UV, lingering snow fields, mud, crowds.
Tips for a great hike to Ice Lakes and Island Lake (Colorado)
- Arrive early, especially on weekends. The parking lot at the trailhead fills up fast! Starting early will also help you avoid afternoon thunderstorms, which are common from April through early September.
- Carry your essential survival gear. The Ice Lakes Basin trail will take you into the backcountry where conditions can change rapidly. A rescue in this area may take many hours. Always carry the 10 essentials of hiking gear to ensure you can survive in an emergency.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun can be brutal at high elevation, so wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and reapply it every 2-3 hours. Sunglasses are essential in this environment. I also recommend protective clothing like sleeves and sun hats.
- Move slowly. This is especially important if you are coming from the flat lands! Much of this hike is above 10,000 ft. in elevation. Going too fast will quickly exhaust even a fit hiker. If you have time, spend at least one night acclimating in a mountain town before attempting to hike. Once you hit the trail, move slowly, taking plenty of breaks. The good thing about this hike is that there are photo opps at every turn!
- Bring creek crossing shoes. You may need to wade across streams, especially early in the season (before mid-July). Poles may also be helpful for stability.
- Conserve this fragile environment. The alpine tundra, once trampled, can take a century to grow back. Stay on trails, even when it means walking through water and mud. When traveling off trail near the lake, try to step on rocks and worn spots to protect living plants.
- Respect fellow hikers. Keep unnecessary noise to a minimum. Yield to uphill hikers. Consider splitting large groups into smaller groups. Leave your drone at home on a busy Saturday. Control pets and consider leashing them when the trail is crowded.
Where to stay
There are several great places in southwest Colorado to base yourself before your hike to Island Lake and Ice Lakes.
A large town with plenty of restaurants, lodging options, and services. Montrose is located about 90 minutes from the Ice Lakes Basin Trailhead. Check out Colorado Boy Pizzeria and Brewery on Main Street for pre-hike carbo loading fare.
A smaller town about 45 minutes from the trailhead located in a scenic box canyon. Ouray is famous for its ice climbing park (not open in summer) and hot springs. For delicious food and beer, check out Red Mountain Brewing.
Where to go to get away from it all! This rustic wild west mining town has limited services and restaurants, though I do love the food at Handlebars Food and Saloon. Silverton lies on the far side of the Million Dollar Highway (see below), so you won’t have to drive over it in the dark to reach the trailhead.
The South Mineral Campground is located near the trailhead and has 26 sites available on a first-come, first-serve basis. You may also camp in designated areas of Forest Road 585 near the Ice Lakes Basin Trailhead.
The Million-Dollar Highway
The road from Ouray to Silverton via Red Mountain Pass snakes up the Uncompahgre Gorge while clinging to the side of a cliff, making for an adventurous drive. Guardrails are minimal, and the drop to the canyon floor is hundreds of feet. Give yourself plenty of time on this section of the drive and obey all posted speed limits.
Surprisingly, only 9 fatalities have occurred on the Million Dollar Highway since 1980. (We asked the locals.) This is especially shocking considering that the road is open year round and driven in icy conditions.
Arriving at Ice Lakes Basin Trailhead
Drive two miles west of Silverton on Highway 550. Turn onto County Road 7/Forest Road 585, following signs to South Mineral Campground, and drive another four miles to the trailhead. The dirt road is generally in good condition and should be passable by 2WD vehicles in summer.
There are two vault toilets at the trailhead that actually belong to the campground. A better option may be to carry a wag bag.
How to hike it
Trailhead to Upper Ice Lakes Basin (Colorado)
From the trailhead, follow a well-defined trail to the scene of an avalanche slide. Cross the river on a makeshift bridge made of downed trees. Some people find this crossing a bit spooky. Poles may help.
Follow switchbacks up the avalanche area, keeping to the main trail. There are a few smaller social trails that will lead you in the wrong direction. Stay on the main trail. You’ll encounter a bit of exposure in this area, but nothing too dicey.
The trail climbs for awhile, then flattens out in gorgeous Lower Ice Lakes Basin. This place is truly spectacular in wildflower season. Look down and to your left to see Lower Ice Lake.
The trail will soon come to a stream crossing that may require wading early in the season. Look around for a good crossing spot. A pair of old sneakers and poles may be helpful for this task.
On the other side of the crossing, the trail becomes steeper and rockier. Follow it, pausing for pics at the waterfall, to Upper Ice Lakes Basin.
The two Ice Lakes in the upper basin are truly spectacular and worth a stop in themselves. They’re famous for their deep turquoise color that changes throughout the day. From the upper basin, you’ll also have a great view of several Colorado 13ers, namely Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, and Golden Knob.
From the upper basin, you have a few options:
Continue to Island Lake (Colorado)
Island Lake lies just 0.5 miles and 250 vertical feet above the Upper Ice Lakes. You’ll need to cross the creek that drains Ice Lakes to reach the Island Lake trail spur. Again, creek crossing shoes and poles may be helpful, especially early in the hiking season.
Parts of the Island Lake trail have been damaged by landslides, creating some exposed areas. So this hike may be somewhat difficult if you are afraid of heights. Just take your time and move one hand or foot at a time. The reward will be worth it!
Island Lake itself is truly spectacular and one of the best hikes in Colorado, in my humble opinion as a resident of 21 years. Follow the trail around the lake to the right and find a rock for an Instagram-worthy photo.
If you are interested in climbing the 13ers in the area, a faint approach trail continues up to the right from the far end of Island Lake.
Alternate destination: Fuller Lake (Colorado)
Fewer people hike to Fuller Lake, making this a great place to escape the crowds in the basin. Follow the trail from Upper Ice Lakes Basin over a rise and across a plateau. The trail to Fuller Lake can be quite wet and muddy, but staying on the trail will help preserve the fragile alpine tundra.
Fuller lies in the shade and often stays frozen later than the other lakes. The picnic table next to the ruined cabin is a great place to snap a few photos and rest from your adventure.
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So there you have it. My guide to hiking Ice Lakes and Island Lake, one of the best hikes of Colorado.
(In my humble opinion.)
Have you done this hike? Comment below to share your tips!
Originally published January 28, 2020.