[Backpacking] Ice Lake Basin

Southern Colorado has been on my “wish list” of trips for a long time now, and I decided that it was finally time for Ryan and I to make it happen! I decided to keep our destination a secret– only telling Ryan to take Friday off from work, what to pack, and to prepare for a 7 hour drive. What he didn’t know is that we would be heading down to Silverton, CO for a three day/two night backpacking trip to Ice Lake Basin!

We left town right after work on Thursday night and drove half way down, stopping for the night in Gunnison. After a quick night’s sleep, we were back on the road by 5am on Friday morning and on track to be at the trailhead by 8am. This entire drive blew our minds with its beauty. From the small town of Ouray to the massive peaks of the San Juans, we had never seen anything to unique or spectacular.

We drove over Red Mountain Pass, exiting onto South Mineral Road. There were TONS of lovely car camping spots along the river here, and most of them were occupied. We drove on to the South Mineral Campground, pulling into the trailhead which is right across the road. For 8am on a Friday morning, I was surprised to find the parking lot nearly 80% full. We used the restroom, had a quick snack, fitted our packs.. and off we went!



Our goal for today was to reach the Lower Basin where we would camp. While this is only ~2 miles to reach, it contains nearly 2,000ft of elevation gain.. ending at 11,510ft. We hiked with a consistent pace with the occasional break to catch our breath, and reached the Lower Basin in two hours. You can continue on to camp the Upper Basin where Upper Ice Lake and Island Lake are, but the weather forecast this weekend contained a lot of thunderstorms so we did not want to be above treeline.

The trail starts off with a moderate incline, taking you from wildflower-filled fields to thick, healthy forests. There were several creek crossings that were easily passible by either fallen logs or rock hopping.


Soon the trail begins to steepen considerably. We found ourselves slogging up the switchbacks, taking quick breathers on every turn, before continuing on. We were able to pass several other day-hikers and backpackers on this section as we pressed on. We could now see the top of the basin ahead of us and appreciate the beauty of the valley from which we had hiked from behind us.

We were relieved to finally top out! We were greeted once again with wildflowers and foliage that was as tall as I am, and we had a pep in our step as we looked on at the beauty that would be our home for the next few days (it helped us to quickly forget the challenge of the hills behind us!).

From here, we began searching for a campsite. There were tons of social trails shooting off from the main trail, and when Ryan saw a series of 15-20ft cliffs in the distance, we knew that we would camp on top of them. So off we went!

After crossing a river (with the clearest/bluest water we have EVER seen!), crossing a field, and climbing up the cliffs.. we made it. There was a perfect spot for the tent that boasted valley and waterfall views in the distance.

As we set up camp and had lunch (at 10am?), we sensed that the forecasted storm was beginning to blow in. We decided to play it safe and stay close to camp, saving further hiking and adventuring for the next day.

This turned out to be one of our better ideas, because it soon began to rain.. and hail.. and thunder.. for the next six hours. We hid inside the tent, napping and reading and chatting until the storm finally left. We enjoyed a nice evening watching the clouds move out as we cooked and ate dinner. Although the temperatures were in the mid- to low-40s, we were both very comfortable.

The next morning around 6am we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent.
Such. A. Bummer.
I was hesitant to hike up to the Upper Basin with this sort of weather. Would we be able to see anything? Would we get soaked trying?

We ended up falling back asleep until around 9am when we decided to get up and have some breakfast. Although the skies were completely grayed over, we determined that they were the least-threatening that we have seen and since the rain had slowed to more of a sprinkle/mist.. that we would attempt the hike!

Everything was wet and misty, but it made everything look just that much more magical. From the Lower Basin to the Upper Basin, it is an additional ~1 mile hike with 700ft in elevation gain. This gets you to Ice Lake which sits at 12,270ft and is surrounded by several gorgeous peaks (13,761-foot Fuller Peak, 13,894-foot Vermillion Peak, 13,780-foot Golden Horn, 13,738-foot Pilot Knob and 13,767-foot U.S. Grant Peak).

This section of the hike is no joke!

The amount of wildflowers was astonishing. Not only was the high number of flowers beautiful, but the variety as well! I have never seen so many wildflowers in one place before. Alpine forget-me-nots, moss campion, sky pilot, fairy primrose, purple fringe, columbine, chiming bells, neon pink paint brush and spring beauties… the list goes on. This place was popping with color.

This section took us around a half hour to accomplish, and we were not disappointed with our views at the top. I was so happy for my surprise to Ryan to finally unfold as we overlooked Ice Lake.

I always thought that photos of Ice Lake had been retouched to enhance the color or clarity– but I was so excited to see with my own eyes that the lake was naturally this beautiful color. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face!


The sun actually began to burn through the clouds a bit, so we snapped a few more photos and headed to the next lake on the menu– Island Lake.

You have to cross the stream flowing from Ice Lake, and then the trail moving up the mountainside to your right becomes apparent. Although this section of trail is short, it took us a while to traverse because we spent so much time admiring the wildflowers, views of the Lower Basin below, and Ice Lake behind us.

This is only ~1/2 mile with 200ft in elevation gain. Island Lake sits at 12,392ft.

We finally rounded the corner… walked across the final alpine meadow… and bam! We were hit right in the face with the beautiful turquoise colors of Island Lake.

We sat and took in the views for a while, listening to the nearby marmots and pikas chirp to each other. Island Lake was much less crowded than Ice Lake, and we enjoyed the solitude.  We heard thunder rumbling in the distance and decided to head back down to camp before the next storm system moved in.


On the way down, we made a quick detour to some waterfalls that spill from the mouth of Fuller Lake. We played in the water and flowers a bit before the thunder and increasing amount of rain forced us back to our nearby campsite.

Looking at these photos, I can almost feel the raindrops and waterfall spray hit my face again as I stood there staring up for what felt like an eternity.

We crossed over the creek (with a helicopter blade bridge?! How did this get there?!) and passed some empty campsites and followed a “trail” through a wildflower-filled field before getting back to camp just as it began to hail. We hunkered down for a few more hours, escaping the tent only around 7pm as the storm cleared and we prepared our final dinner.

The next morning, there was not a cloud in the sky (just our luck, ugh!). We were up and breaking down camp around 6am when the sun’s first beams of light passed through camp. We stuck around a bit, enjoying the quiet serenity of the morning before hitting the trail. We did, after all, have a long drive home.


We took one last, long look at the forest and cliffs that we had called home before leaving. The hike back down took us a little over an hour.


Thanks to our early start, we had the trail mostly to ourselves and were certainly the first ones back to our cars. The parking lot was completely full with people arriving to day-hike at this point, and we were glad to be gone before the crowds arrived.

We drove into Ouray and enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the Backstreet Bistro before making the long drive home. Although, it did not feel long because we were feeling fresh, relaxed, and excited for the next time the we would be back (hopefully with less stormy weather!).

Oh, Southern Colorado. You’ve stolen our hearts!
Photos simply do not do it justice.

5 thoughts on “[Backpacking] Ice Lake Basin

  1. Your photos are amazing and I truly appreciate your detailed descriptions! I am hoping to do this hike later this summer and have a few question for you as I am not experienced in backpacking yet. Did you pack a bear bin for this hike? Were others camping in the Lower Basin area and if the weather was nicer would you suggest to camp at Ice Lake or even Island Lake? And then lastly do you have any tips for backpacking? Like what items are your favorite gear for backpacking or what is the camping gear you can truly go without for a short backpacking trip?


    1. Hi Katie! I’m so happy that my blog has been helpful to you. That’s the whole reason that I write up my trips 🙂

      For this hike, I did not bring a bear bin nor did I see any evidence of bears in the area. There are a lot of (hungry) marmots however. It is always good practice to keep your food in a bag, and tie it up high in a tree to keep it away from any critters (both big and small). Food or smelly items should never be kept in your tent, or left around camp when you are not there. There were a lot of people camping in the Lower Basin, but it is large and everyone was able to find a spot to camp out of sight and hearing distance from one another. If there was no chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, I’d absolutely reccomend camping up at the lakes! It is very exposed, and does get crowded with day hikers, but it is so beautiful. Just be sure to move your tent each night if it is an extended stay to help protect the sensitive high alpine environment.

      For backpacking tips… oh I could go on forever! The most important thing to have is a water purifier (we use Katadyn which works well for us) so that you don’t have to pack in all that extra weight. There is a lot of clean, fresh water here to drink. My favorite gear has to be a good sleeping bag (at least rated to 20 degrees), extra layers (insulated jacket & a raincoat, plus a separate pair of thick sleeping socks is a must), a hammock, and a book.


      1. Ah thank you for your quick response and even more details! I am looking into water purifiers now. It’s looking like our trip might be over Labor Day weekend since like you said its a long trek from the front range. Do you think that is too late in the year for wild flowers?


      2. It’s a long drive for sure. But it goes quick because of how beautiful it is! I think that it may be a little late for wildflowers, yes. We went in the first week of August and it felt like the wildflowers were at their maximum bloom. So over Labor Day there might be only a few left. Absolutely still worth the trip though!


  2. Hello Emily,
    You did a wonderful job in describing your hike into the glorious Ice Lake Basin. And your photos are wonderful also. I have been backpacking here in Colorado since 1963, into several ranges, and the Ice lakes are the most beautiful that I have experienced. I discovered your web page when I did a search regarding the helicopter rotor blade that you mentioned. I’m trying to find out how the blade happens to be located there. I found it in 2009 laying in the campsite very close to where you found it. I have included a link to a page in my website which describes our experience there at Ice lake. Many thanks for sharing your experience.


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