Great Lakes

We drove 1,762 miles, hiked 15,594 vertical feet (sometimes in the dark!), and spent 14 days on the road seeking out Colorado’s most magnificent alpine lakes. Here are seven stunners that will leave you breathless—and not just because of the altitude.

June 2011

Ice Lakes

San Juan National Forest

  • Nearby city: Silverton
  • Ranger district: Columbine, 970-884-2512
  • Trail length: 2.2 miles to Lower Basin, one way; Upper Basin is 1 mile beyond Lower Basin, one way
  • Elevation gain: 1,697 feet (Lower Basin); +750 feet (Upper Basin); Upper Ice Lake sits at 12,257 feet
  • Skill level: Trail to Lower Ice Lake Basin is moderate; trail to Upper Ice Lake Basin is strenuous
  • Camping: There are free, no-permit-required backcountry sites available in the Lower Basin. You can camp in the Upper Basin but be forewarned: It’s exposed and windy. Campfires are permitted when there are no restrictions in San Juan National Forest.
  • Lodging: Reserve Room 2 (it’s spacious and has its own bathroom) at the Teller House Hotel along Silverton’s Main Street. www.tellerhouse.com
  • Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. 285 south toward Fairplay. After about 123 miles on U.S. 285, turn right onto U.S. 50. After 124 miles, turn left onto U.S. 550. After 60 miles, take a slight left onto C.R. 110 into Silverton. The Ice Lakes Trailhead is a short drive from downtown Silverton. Take U.S. 550 toward Ouray. Go left on F.S.R. 585. Drive about four miles until you see South Mineral Campground. The trail begins from the campground.
  • Quick tip: If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, take a right at the Clear Lake four-wheel-drive road (before you get to the campground) and drive until you reach the first major switchback. You can park in the elbow of the curve and catch the Ice Lakes trail there, cutting off about 500 feet in elevation gain and about a half mile of hiking.

As Colorado hikes go, the 2.2 miles to the verdant Lower Ice Lake Basin are manageable. Rife with pines, streams, waterfalls, and soaring cliffs, the Lower Basin is stunning, even if Lower Ice Lake is unspectacular. The climb—and yes, it is a nasty mile-long ascent—to Upper Ice Lake takes us about an hour, longer than we thought it would. We walk for a few minutes after reaching the top of the narrow trail and scan the rolling Upper Basin floor. We’re above treeline; it’s windy and cold and there’s no water in sight. But then I see it. A happy shriek escapes my lips, attracting the gaze of my hiking buddy. The bluest lake we’ve ever seen rests just to our right.

Upper Ice Lake is a glacial tarn—a lake carved and fed by glaciers—that gets its near-fluorescent blue color from rock flour. When a glacier moves, it grinds the bedrock below, creating a crushed-rock powder that suspends in the water and absorbs the sun’s light spectrum in a way that creates a beautiful cerulean appearance. There are only a handful of similarly colored glacial lakes in the state—Lower Blue Lake, near Ridgway, is rumored to be just as gorgeous—and although we’re standing along its banks, we still can’t believe its hue is natural.