I had been aiming for the Ice Lake Basin hike and Island Lake in Colorado for around a year, and in the middle of August 2019, I finally nailed it!
This place, it’s absolutely unreal and surreal. The mountains are so majestic that they blow your mind, and the endless greenery is a welcome sight coming from the desert. The shot below is why I wanted to see this place. I was in love with the Ice Lake Basin hike.
Ice Lake Basin was my final stop on my Colorado road trip. I almost didn’t make it, but I figured I should knock it out as I was so close. I originally wanted to backpack here but was sore from backpacking Blue Lakes and summiting Mt. Sneffels, so I figured a quick day hike was good.
Everything you need to know about the Ice Lake Basin Trail in Colorado
Key Details of the Ice Lakes Basin Hike
- Ice Lake Basin Hike Distance: 8ish mile loop
- Elevation Gain: 3,100 feet
- Ice Lake Trailhead Starting Elevation: 9,800
- Highest Point: 12,600 (if you go to Upper Ice Lake), 12,400 otherwise
- Beauty: Mind-blowing
- Trailhead location: Next to South Mineral Campground
- Can I swim in Ice Lake Basin? Yes, you can! It’s fabulous.
- Start early and be prepared for afternoon storms
Related: Read about my backpacking trip here plus a packing list
Planning your Trip to Ice Lake Basin
The Ice Lake Basin hike is a mile or two north of the Silverton exit, where you’ll head west and onto a dirt road for probably 15 minutes. The turn-off will be for the South Mineral campground, and the parking lot is adjacent at the very end.
The lot isn’t too big, so it’ll fill up quickly – especially if you’re there on the weekend.
Pro tip: South Mineral Campground is a good spot if you want to camp, but there are also A LOT of dispersed camping opportunities as you drive in. There’s a river within eyesight, so you’ll have plenty of water to drink.
Silverton has some lodging options, but due to the town’s small size, you’ll have much more options in Durango and Ouray. If you can score Silverton or Ouray, you can start your Ice Lake Basin hike earlier.
How long is the Ice Lake Basin hike?
If you do the full loop, hit the main two lakes, and do a little meandering, it is an eight-mile hike. It actually goes by pretty fast as there’s a lot to look at, and you’ll be blown away by the beauty of the area.
Is it hard to hike to Ice Lake or Island Lake?
Most people will find this to be a very hard trail. You are starting around 9,800 feet and going up to 12,000 feet. The majority of Americans do not do anything at that elevation level, and it’ll be a wake-up call.
Take your time, drink plenty of water, and do not come if you are not in good shape.
Interested in backpacking to Ice Lake Basin? Read my trail report here.
The Ice Lake Basin Hike
Starting your trek to Island Lake and Ice Lake Basin
The Ice Lake Basin hike itself is wonderful – challenging but wonderful.
You start around 9,800 feet, so if you’re out of shape or coming from sea level, you’ll definitely feel this. But in terms of hiking conditions, it’s a breeze. The trail is well maintained (you cross a couple of small streams and maybe have to hop over a few downed logs, but that’s minute) and easy to follow.
Now, the hike is pretty tough, partially due to altitude and partially due to conquering a good amount of elevation in a short amount of time. But the views at the end. O.M.G.
You can split the Ice Lake Basin hike into three parts.
Related: San Juan’s best backpacking spots
Head to Island Lake first
The first part is hiking amongst the trees to the lower basin, where you’ll find the split that takes you to Island Lake or Ice Lake Basin proper. This is 1.7 miles from the Ice Lakes Trailhead and about a 1,600-foot elevation gain.
From here, I went to Island Lake first. Most people go to Ice Lake… I don’t know why. The hike to Island Lake is phenomenal. But oh well.
Anyways, go right to Island Lake or keep going straight into the Ice Lake Basin. If you go right, it’ll be somewhat tricky for a bit. I had my All Trails map out to ensure I was on the right way. (It’s hard to describe, but there’s a false trail; if you look hard enough, you’ll see it’s not the right one.)
This was likely the most exhausting part of the hike. It’s pretty steep to reach Island Lake, and the air is thinning at every step. Not the best recipe for functioning lungs.
The third part is getting into the upper basin. For lower Ice Lake, it’s 1.2 miles and 900 feet of elevation gain (another 0.5 miles takes you to the highest lake). If you go right to Island Lake, it is 1.1 miles and 1,000 feet. Basically, it’s the same.
From there, there’s a connecting trail between the two lakes up top. If you hike to Island Lake first, you’ll have a downhill to Ice Lake Basin and vice versa.
Hiking into Ice Lake Basin for Crazy Views
The All Trails map takes you to Ice Lake first and then to Island Lake but do whatever you want at this point.
I didn’t go to the furthest lake as storm clouds blew in. But it looked nice from my drone.
(Side note: Drones are legal here as of Sept. 2019. Just be careful and respectful of others. I flew mine away from people and got it up into the sky quickly to not disturb people with buzzing.)
Things to be aware of for the Ice Lake Basin hike and Island Lake
You’ve heard it before. Mountains make weather. It was a beautiful morning with a chance of stuff happening around noon. And what do you know? The clouds appeared, and I assume rain fell on the lakes. (I out-hiked the weather…just barely.)
2. Few Bugs
I went in mid-August and didn’t find bugs to be of any issue.
3. My Pack
I had an extra layer, plenty of water, snacks, and a water filter. Nothing too fancy. This is a pretty short hike, and outside of breaking a bone, you can get down in less than 90 minutes if you really need to. I did bring my camera, tripod, and drone, as mentioned previously.
As I said, it can fill up fast. I went on a weekday, and it was pretty full by 11 am when I got down from my Ice Lake Basin hike.
5. 13er Summits
A few 13ers are surrounding the upper basin that you can do if you’d like. If you backpack here, I’d recommend seeing how high you can get.
FAQ: Hiking Ice Lake Basin and Island Lake
Do you need a permit for Ice Lake Basin, Colorado?
At the moment, no permit is needed to backpack or hike into Ice Lake Basin outside of Silverton. Please remember Leave No Trace principles to protect this environment.
Are there bathrooms on this hike?
There are bathrooms at the trailhead in the campground. But on the trail, there are no bathrooms. Because it’s a fragile alpine environment, they are urging people to pack out their waste. If you choose not to do that, please dig a deep cathole and bury your poop.
Can you drive to Ice Lake Basin?
You can drive all the way to the Ice Lake Basin trailhead. You will have six miles on a dirt road, but very easy and nicely maintained. I’ve driven it multiple times in my Prius and had zero issues.
Can you swim in Ice Lake?
Yes, you can, and it feels absolutely amazing on a hot summer day!
Where is Island Lake in Colorado?
Island Lake and Icelake Basin are located in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. This area is hands down one of the most stunning areas in the state and the nation. It is home to many magical alpine lakes, 14ers, and incredible hiking and backpacking opportunities.
It’s truly an honor to get to spend time in these mountains.
Other than that, enjoy the heck out of this place, and then go get a cold beer and pizza at the brewery in Silverton. My mouth was salivating when the pizza arrived.
Wrapping up – Ice Lake Basin hike and Island Lake
This is truly a magical hike, and Ice Lake Basin will forever ebb and flow in your mind, wanting you to come back and experience it again! Do it! I’ve been twice, and it was just nice to enjoy it for a second time. Plus, don’t leave out the Island Lake hike, as it’s just as perfect!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
You can follow along the journey on Facebook and Instagram or shoot me any questions and comments about places to go. And don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to get notified when new posts come out!