Hikes Around Durango and Silverton

Ice Lakes
By Paul Pixler
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Ice Lakes

There are two Ice Lake basins—upper and lower. The upper (main) basin is far more interesting. The lower basin is on the way to the upper; its lake is small and shallow. The main basin lies above 12,000 feet and is one of the most interesting high-altitude basins in the San Juans. There are two rather large lakes (several acres each) and several small ones. Ice Lake is at 12,257 feet. Three-quarters of a mile south of it at 12,585 feet is Fuller Lake. About the same distance northeast of Ice Lake on a traverse around the end of a ridge in its own basin is Island Lake. This whole basin area is surrounded by sharp and colorful peaks, all well above 13,000 feet but none quite reaching 14,000 feet.I will describe only the hike to the basin. The peaks all make interesting climbs, but climbers can find their own routes out of the basin rather easily, for this is all open country well above timberline. These peaks, in order from south around west to north, are: Fuller Peak (13,761 feet), Vermillion Peak (13,894 feet), Golden Horn (13,600 feet), Pilot Knob (13,738 feet), and U.S. Grant Peak (13,767 feet). Clear Lake, even larger than those named, is only a mile northeast of Island Lake and at a slightly lower altitude, but a high ridge separates it off. Therefore, it is to be approached by a different route.

To get to the trailhead for Ice Lakes, take U.S. Highway 550 two miles northwest of Silverton. Make a left turn downhill into the valley and drive six miles to the lovely South Mineral Campground. Park here; hike on up the road to the point where it turns south and crosses a stream. Just a few yards before this point, the Ice Lakes Trail climbs steeply up the hill (north and west). Later it moves more westerly, climbing steadily through both straight stretches and switchbacks up to the lower basin. The trail does not climb much through the lower basin; in fact, it descends a bit. At the far end of the basin it begins to climb again; the first 200 yards are rocky and furnish the only difficulty in the whole trail, but it is bad in only one short spot. Another mile brings you to beautiful Ice Lake.

This is an easy trail to follow into the large upper basin, where it quits; then you are on your own to explore the lakes and the surrounding guardian peaks. You cannot see out except to the east through South Mineral Creek Valley. But the surrounding peaks and the lakes make the hike well worthwhile. These lakes are high but large enough for good fishing. There are many beautiful wildflowers along the route and small tundra flowers in the basin itself.

The return is to be made by the same route as the approach.

Island Lake
A short and worthwhile extension of the Ice Lake trip is Island Lake. Fuller Lake is in the same basin as Ice Lake, but Island Lake is separated off in its own basin and needs some additional explanation. It is six-tenths of a mile farther and, at 12,400 feet, is 143 feet higher than Ice Lake. It is located in a tight glacial pocket surrounded by U.S. Grant Peak and its shoulder ridges. There is a single large flat-topped rock island rising out of the middle of it.

To get to Island Lake, hike northeast, starting on the north side of the stream that drains Ice Lake. At first there is no trail, but looking ahead a little in the tundra you can see several sheep trails converging. From this point on there is a well-defined trail the rest of the way around an east-west ridge to the lake. The trail has a couple of rocky spots, but the hike can be completed easily in twenty minutes. Ice Lake is frequented by many on nice weekend summer days, but Island Lake is more isolated and is seen by a much smaller number of people. It is beautiful and well worth the extra time.

U.S. Grant Peak
Those who wish to consider climbing U.S. Grant Peak will want to come around to Island Lake and climb along its south side to a saddle between Grant and an unnamed peak to the south. At the saddle, turn right up the ridge. It has a few difficult spots, the most difficult being where it joins the main part of the mountain. Here is a straight-up spot about five feet high, but the holds are adequate for you to make it up. At the top is a narrow ledge. The ledge appears to be blocked off, but a close squeeze next to it, going right around the corner, opens up to easier going and a scramble up to the summit. All the tops in this area are very rugged. Grant rises 1,367 feet above the lake.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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