Backpacking Ice Lake Basin is in a class of its own. The beauty, difficulty, and pure determination required to reach Ice Lake Basin are immense. With 35+ pounds on your back, and every step taking you higher and higher, it’s truly a spot for serious adventurers. However, once inside the basin, the views will blow you away and continue to wow you at every turn.
I backpacked to Ice Lake Basin, sitting at 12,300 feet in southwestern Colorado outside of Silverton, and remembered why this is recognized as one of the most beautiful places in the western United States.
The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Ice Lake Basin
Below I’ll outline everything you need to know about a trip to Ice Lake Basin, including what to pack, where to stay, and key details of the hike.
Plus, you get stunning photos showing why this is such a stellar area to explore!
Planning your trip to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains
Key Trip Details for Backpacking Ice Lake Basin
- Length: Between 6 and 8 miles round trip
- Starting Elevation: 9,800 feet
- Highest Elevation: 12,500
- Views: Out of this world
- Drone Flights Okay – but be respectful
- Remember to Leave No Trace Principles
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Where to stay before and after your trip
You have a few options of where to stay before and after you backpacking to Ice Lake Basin.
First, you could camp at South Mineral Campground. Unfortunately, this is also the trailhead parking lot. However, if you want to disperse camp, there are plenty of options along the road.
Secondly, you can stay in hotels/motels in Ouray, Silverton, or Durango. The first two are closest, while Durango has about an hour’s drive to the trailhead.
Common Questions about Backpacking to Ice Lake Basin
Can you camp at Ice Lakes Basin
You can camp in all parts of the basin. Just know it is an alpine zone, so minimize your impact and camp in areas that look like they’ve been camped on before. Also, dig holes for your waste or pack it out.
I spoke to a ranger on the phone (August 2023), and the rule is 100 feet from all water sources. They also recommend you stay in the lower basin to lower your impact, but that’s not a rule.
Can you swim while backpacking Ice Lake Basin?
Yep! Swimming will be chilly, but incredibly refreshing after a long day hiking in the sun.
How do I get there?
Ice Lake Basin trailhead is about 20 minutes northwest of Silverton. It’s off a well-maintained dirt road that any car can travel on. So if you’re coming from Durango, it’s about an hour-long drive up there.
What to pack on your trip to Island Lake and Ice Lake
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- Light backpacking tent
- 15-30 degree sleeping bag
- Light, yet comfy sleeping pad
- 55L-65L backpacking bag
- Jet Boil Stove
- Water filter
- Hiking Poles
- Backpacking Chair
- Backpacking Meals
- 1x Hiking Pants, 2x Sunshirt, 1x Down Jacket, 1x Rain Jacket, 1x sleeping shirt, 1x leggings, 1x beanie and hat
Three amazing days backpacking Ice Lake Basin
Day One Backpacking Ice Lake Basin – Island Lake Colorado
We knew the parking would be a madhouse before Labor Day weekend at Ice Lakes Basin trailhead, so we hung back and waited for the morning hiking rush to begin trickling back and scored a spot in the parking lot right around 12:30 pm.
After putting the finishing touches on our packs, we clipped our belts and began our trek backpacking Ice Lake Basin and, specifically, Island Lake, Colorado.
The hike is broken into three parts. The first push into the lower basin, then the easy walk through the lower basin, and the final ascent into Ice Lake Basin. You can also split off as you enter the lower basin and take the mile-uphill push to Island Lake. That’s what we did.
Initially, the first part isn’t too bad, and you’re treated to waterfall views walking up. Then, you begin challenging switchbacks, taking the air from your lungs as you’re already over 10,000 feet. Overall, it takes about two miles to reach the lower basin and the potential split towards Island Lake.
At this point, you’ll likely be noticing the elevation as you’re at 11,400 feet.
We split off and headed towards Island Lake, where we would spend the first night of our two-day backpacking trip. Over the next mile, we gained over 1,100 feet and moved pretty slowly. This would be my second time to Island Lake, and I love it up there. It’s less crowded but magnificent if you catch it in the right light.
Once we finally reached the final hill, Island Lake said ‘hi,’ and we looked for a nice place to camp. Due to it being an Alpine Tundra zone, we made it a point to camp on dirt to limit environmental damage.
Both of us were exhausted, but we quickly set up camp and went to the water. It was close to 4:30 pm, so we hardly saw a soul after arriving. The peace and quiet were so nice.
Before dinner, we headed over to Ice Lake to watch the sunset and eat dinner by the lake. Our views were stunning, and we were given an incredible sky show.
Related: How to plan for a backpacking trip
Day Two Backpacking Ice Lake Basin – Island Lake to the back of Ice Lakes
A slightly chillier night than expected hit Island Lake, but thankfully we weren’t too uncomfortable. We took our time waking up, making breakfast, and moving around. However, hikers quickly swarmed the lake, making our hidden paradise less secluded.
The two of us decided that morning that we wanted a different view. So we packed up and headed to Ice Lake, less than three-quarters of a mile away.
Instead of camping on the close side with everyone, we walked counter-clockwise around the lake and found a great spot on a ledge overlooking the lake. As it was already warming up, we quickly set up the tent, changed into our bathing suits, and headed down to the chilly water’s edge.
After doing mental gymnastics, we both went in. While quite cold, it felt amazing to cool off and soak our muscles.
Once we were dried, we headed up to Fuller Lake to check out the views and see more of the larger Ice Lake Basin. The views up there were just as grand. It allows you the chance to look down on Upper Ice Lake and Ice Lake. It’s maybe a mile from Ice Lake and has just a slight elevation gain before getting to the lake.
As the sun began falling behind the 13ers surrounding us, we headed back down for dinner and watched the sunset on the peaks to the east. Day two of backpacking Ice Lake Basin was phenomenal!
Related: Summiting Mt Sneffels
Day Three Backpacking Ice Lake Basin – The Trek Down
We enjoyed a much warmer night, and the sunrise over the lake was simply incredible. With no plans later that day, we took time out to wake up and pack up. After adventuring through a mini canyon behind the lake, we started the three-mile trek down to the car.
We moved slowly due to everyone making their way up and adhering to hiking etiquette, which gives the right of way to the uphill hiker.
Once down at the Ice Lakes trailhead, we were so happy with how the trip turned out. Backpacking Ice Lake Basin was truly a weekend we wouldn’t forget. And then we got pizza and beer…because pizza and beer make everything better after backpacking!
Wrapping up – Backpacking Ice Lake Basin
- Backpacking Ice Lake Basin is not for everyone. You’re embarking to a high-elevation destination. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you have some trips under your belt.
- Prepare for the weather. The mountains make crazy things happen; come prepared.
- Stay warm. Learn how to make your tent as warm as possible and what gear to bring.
- There’s plenty of water in the upper basin. Probably don’t need to bring more than 2L on your hike up
- The parking lot will definitely be full by 7 am on a weekend – likely on a weekday too.
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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