Ice Lake 1San Juan National Forest, CO
Canon 5DS-R, EF24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 35mm, 1/20 sec @ f/16, ISO 100, 5 image panoramic
Ice Lake is a high alpine lake fed by meltwater from the snowfields on several prominent 13’ner peaks (13,000 feet or greater in elevation) that surround it. This hike also includes the picturesque Island Lake and several cascades created by meltwater from the snowfields. It’s a strenuous hike with about 2,400’ of elevation gain over 3.5 miles with an average slope of 27 degrees and some sections exceeding 40 degrees. Planning this as a one or two night backpack would provide more time to explore the area around Ice Lake and the basin while taking advantage of the light throughout the day.
This is a very popular day hike, especially on weekends. So, to minimize the impact of people on photographic compositions it is recommended to plan this hike during the week. The lower half of the route is below the tree line and shaded. However, once you’re above the tree line you will be fully exposed, so use sunscreen and watch for adverse weather.
The window for visiting this location is limited due to the deep snowpack that usually lingers through June. Intrepid hikers can use a combination of crampons/spikes and snowshoes to reach the lakes, but through June they are usually ice covered which limits their photographic potential - unless you are visualizing a winter-like scene. The wildflowers usually arrive by mid-July and will persist through August or early September. Snow usually returns in October.
If you are planning an overnight trek, be prepared for rapidly changing weather and temperatures. It’s common for overnight low temperatures at this elevation to be in the 30s or 40s even in the summer. I’ve had rain, lightning, hail, snow and 80 degree temps all within a 24-hour period at this location. Please observe all Leave No Trace principles.
| GPS Coordinates
|| 37.81459, -107.80729
|| 4 - highly scenic
| Time of Day
|| Sunrise, Morning
| Trailhead Coordinates
|| 37.80665, -107.77391
| Distance & Time
|| 7.0 mi / 7-8 hours
| Elevation Change
| Type of Route
|| Best done as a 1-2 overnight backpack
From Silverton drive north on US-550 towards Ouray for 2.0 miles then turn left onto the South Mineral Creek Road for 4.4 miles to the trailhead. The road is well-graded and maintained gravel suitable for 2WD cars. The parking area is large but due to the popularity of this hike it is often full by 8 am, especially on weekends. Parking is permitted along the road provided the vehicle’s tires are off the road.
|TH - Ice Lake Trailhead
||Parking lot is across from the South Mineral CG
|1 - trail junction
Unsigned junction with the trail to Island Lake heading to the right and the Lower Ice Lake Basin to the left
|2 - Island Lake
Steep ascent to Island Lake. For a two night backpack, this is a good campsite location for the first night
|3 - Ice Lake
There's a water crossing at the lake's outlet filled with rocks that enable an easy crossing. However, high water conditions may result in your feet getting wet.
There’s a hilltop on the south side of the lake that provides a terrific view of the Lower Ice Lake Basin and the valley across to Mt. Anvil.
|4 - Fuller Lake
A bonus location to explore especially if you are camping overnight
|5 - Lower Ice Lake Basin
Steep descent onto the Lower Ice Lake Basin crossing a couple of cascades and a tarn nestled amongst the trees.
|TH - return to trailhead
Steep descent retracing the route up to the trailhead.
Google Earth Satellite View
Lenses. Ice Lake and Island Lake are in basins surrounded by tall peaks thus most compositions require a 16-24mm wide-angle focal length to encompass the whole scene in one image capture. The focal length can be increased to about 35mm if taken vertically for a multi-image panoramic, which is how I took the photographs included in this blog. Using a focal length of 50-70mm to reduce the distortion effect of wide-angle lenses would require a 2 or 3 row panoramic of 6-8 images per row.
Shot Direction. While you can circumnavigate both lakes, the compositions incorporating the cirque of peaks is north or northwest oriented. As such the peaks receive excellent morning light and captivating reflections in the water if there’s no wind.
Nuances. There are good compositions throughout the day as the sunlight reflects off the mountains and the foliage providing interesting colors and patterns in the water. However, wind is a constant challenge in the mountains and it can be difficult to capture the reflections in the water - patience is a virtue. When the water is windswept it tends to turn a muddy brown color. Neutral density filters enabling a long exposure may help, but wind and sky conditions will really dictate the colors and reflections.
Since both locations are oriented northward the Milky Way will not be visible over the lakes. Through the summer the apex of the moon will be directly over the lakes limiting the photographic opportunities since the moon will generally be high in the sky and small.
Equipment. Using a pano rail that has been calibrated for each focal length to reduce parallax distortion will improve the quality of multi-image panoramic image captures. For multi-row panoramas a gimbal head is a necessity - make sure you determine the arc positions with 30-50% overlap for each focal length in advance.
Island Lake 2San Juan National Forest, CO
Canon 5DS-R, EF24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 35mm, 1/80 sec @ f/16, ISO 100, 4 image panoramic
Permits. No permits are required for the hike or overnight camping.
Density of People. This is a very popular day hike which can attract an extraordinary number of people along with dogs, especially on weekends. Plan this trek for midweek to minimize the risk of high density of people. Very few people camp overnight - I’ve only encountered a few campers even during peak season. Few day hikers arrive at the lakes before 9 am. So, if you’re camping you should have generally people-free compositions early in the morning during the best light.
Cell Service. None that is reliable. You may get a sliver of a voice signal at one of the high points where you have an obstructed view of the valley.
Overnight Camping. There are several USFS campgrounds along South Mineral Creek Road and nearby along US-550. During the peak summer season these campgrounds fill up very quickly, especially on weekends. Most are free and all are first-come-first served (FCFS). The South Mineral Campground is one of the few hosted campgrounds and does require a fee. There are numerous dispersed camping sites throughout the area along US-550 and on South Mineral Creek Road alongside the creek. Overnight camping is not allowed at the trailhead and is enforced by the USFS Rangers. Please follow all Leave No Trace principles - there are no garbage containers so pack all your trash out.
Lodging. There are a number of lodging options in Silverton and Ouray, mostly historic hotels, lodges and B&Bs. There are numerous hotel chains and other lodging options in Durango which is 55 miles south and takes about 90 minutes to drive.
Restaurants. Numerous high quality restaurants with diverse menus, breweries and coffee shops in Silverton and Ouray.
Other Services. Full range of services are available in Durango. Services such as fuel stations, laundromats and grocers are available in Ouray and Silverton but are limited. There are no public showers except at the Ouray Hot Springs.
Cell Service. Generally adequate LTE voice and data signals for all carriers in Silverton and Ouray. You may get adequate signals at high points along US-550.
Storm Over Ice Lake BasinSan Juan National Forest, CO
Canon 5DS-R, EF24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 35mm, 1/60 sec @ f/16, ISO 100, 4 image panoramic
Bonus Location - Fuller Lake
Hike about one mile west across the Ice Lake Basin to a couple of small alpine tarns and alongside outflow creeks from Fuller Lake and the tarns. This is high alpine tundra, so please try to stay on the rocks and minimize your impact on the soils and vegetation. There is a surprising amount of marshy areas hidden under the foliage so staying on the rocks will keep your feet dry. The creeks have created a riparian environment with large areas of lush vegetation and wildflowers. You can wander north over the ridge line towards the Golden Horn and Pilot Knob to another couple of tarns and outflow creeks. These are not as photogenic and are very close to the mountain peaks which makes compositions difficult unless you are using a very wide-angle lens. There are remnants of an old mine at Fuller Lake, but the buildings have completely collapsed.
Golden Horn CascadesSan Juan National Forest, CO
Canon 5DS-R, EF24-70mm f/2.8L lens @ 50mm, 1/20 sec @ f/16, ISO 100, 2 image panoramic
If you have questions about this hike or locations please feel free to contact me.
Be an outsider, go on a hike!