PLEASE NOTE: The area surrounding and trail leading to Ice Lake Basin have been closed since November 2020 due to a wildfire and is subject to stay closed until September 2021. Please check trail conditions before heading out.
I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t blog very much about hiking adventures because hubby and I just don’t do very much hiking outside our adventurous vacation hikes. It’s kind of a shame we don’t hike very much these days because Colorado obviously has some amazing hikes we should be out doing and seeing!
Besides the fact that we prioritize our weekends for camping and drinking (which takes up enough time as it is), hiking in Colorado gives me the metaphorical hives just thinking about the traffic and crowds we have to put up with to enjoy what should be a peaceful and rewarding experience.
The only way to attempt to enjoy hiking in Colorado is to get up before the butt-crack of dawn on a non-weekend day and hope that there will be less traffic and fewer crowds, but even so, there is still no guarantee. And how often do we get weekday days off that we want to punish ourselves by getting up early for anyway? Never!
But, it just so happens I did just that earlier this summer when I took a last minute day off before the Independence Day holiday. Hubby had to go to work that day because he has fewer vacation days to spare than me, so it was just me and the girls (the dachs)!
We hiked a four-mile round-trip, 1,400-ft elevation gain hike to Silver Dollar Lake and Murray Lake outside Georgetown in Arapho National Forest. It was a rejuvenating and tranquil hike passing by lake after lake, stream after stream, and flower after flower…. until the return trip when we had to keep stepping aside on the single track trail to let other trail users by that had started their hike later in the day.
My thirst was quenched though! I forgot how fun it was to actually hike when you’re outdoors and not just set up a tent, be lazy, and drink.
A week after that hike, hubby agreed to get up somewhat early with me and do a hike to Blue Lake and Little Blue Lake outside Nederland. While I typically utilize trail websites to find hikes with features I might like (hint: water!), I try not to look up too much info about the hike I’m about to do because I want to be somewhat surprised by the scenery and experience. In doing so on this particular hike, I overlooked the small detail that the hike required a small cash fee because it was located inside a state park. And state park = busy!
It wasn’t even 8 am yet and I already felt very irritated that morning that I had picked a hike that not only required a small fee, but was located in a busy state park with a queue to get in (!!!), however, the hike ended up being worth every penny and premature minute of frustration! The end reward was a gorgeous alpine lake with a small waterfall spilling into it in the far distance.
We hiked beyond the first lake and there was even more beautiful scenery hidden in the green, snow-patched basin just above the lake. Drool!
These hikes just made me think how much I actually missed living in New Mexico! You see, when hubby and I lived in Albuquerque, we would often travel [traffic-free] up to the southern parts of Colorado where hubby was lucky enough to grow up around and was familiar with all the best spots. I experienced love at first sight with Colorado, based solely on the unique and lush beauty that the southern part of the state held. More importantly though, it also seemed to be a lot quieter. We would hardly see a soul when we did camping trips and hiking!
After we moved to Denver, it was always on my mind how much I wanted to go back to this more serene part of the state and get away from the crowded and relatively less scenic spots around Denver. There was one gem in particular, Ice Lake Basin, that I wanted to revisit, but the vehicle traffic, long drive, and long hike seemed to make this an impossible trip to do in one weekend.
After successfully making it through our first backpacking trip together with the dachshunds the summer of 2017, we realized backpacking would be the perfect solution to be able to revisit this hike for a weekend trip. We had always been rushed to do this hike in the past due to bad weather or time constraints, but by backpacking, we would have almost an entire day to explore.
As it turns out though, in doing research on backpacking this trail, we discovered that the reason southern Colorado seemed relatively uncrowded was likely because the gems in this part of the state were previously untouched by social media. Recent trip reports of our favorite hike to Ice Lake Basin were littered with complaints of heavy foot traffic now that more people had found out about the surreal, teal blue alpine lake that was located at the end of the hike. If we were to revisit this hike, we would have to set our expectations low on it being as peaceful as we remembered it, but it would likely be a worthy sacrifice for the beauty that definitely could not be found in any areas around Denver.
We decided to leave work a couple of hours early Friday and drive all the way to the trailhead located near the South Mineral Creek Campground outside Silverton, an approximate 6.5 hour drive (plus dinner time!) from Denver. We arrived less than an hour before midnight, set up our tent in the pitch darkness, and woke up six short hours later to start our hike before the sun had even touched the trail we were walking on.
Although our initial plan had been to take our time on this hike and enjoy the scenery, this plan was immediately scratched the morning of our hike when we realized that possible storms were set to roll in around 11 AM and not let up after that. We had been up in these mountains several times when storms rolled in and even in the unlikely case of there not being deadly lightning above tree line, the storms almost always produced hail, which was not fun to be stuck in!
Furthermore, even when we did stop for a quick five-minute snack break halfway up the trail, we were quickly passed by no less than five groups of hikers, meaning there was already a crowd developing behind us.
Fortunately, the hike to get to the basin went rather quickly, and we arrived in the Lower Ice Lake Basin around 8:30 AM, only 1.5 hours after starting our hike.
After arriving in the lower basin area, we did the customary search for a camping spot, so we could set up our tent and drop off our heavy packs — which included an entire [mandatory] bottle of wine and a heavy bear-proof container with our food — in exchange for our lighter day packs.
I remembered from our previous treks that hiking through the lower basin area included a short and narrow hike through a field of corn lilies. Everyone (and I mean, everyone!) stops to take an obligatory shot of this field before continuing on to the river crossing and final steep leg of the hike up to the ever-famous Ice Lake… but I had to cue hubby to take my obligatory [totally casual] shot.
At last, we had arrived to Ice Lake! It was as blue as we had remembered, but not nearly as snowy in the backdrop, even though we were visiting about the same time of year that we had in the past.
We I took a million photos at Ice Lake, but we had to quickly move on because we were continuing on to do the “loop” option of the hike which included hiking to two other lakes to south and northeast of Ice Lake. We had not visited these other two lakes before because it felt unfeasible to do more uphill hiking after finishing one uphill hike, but with a whole day ahead of us, it seemed mandatory to knock out these hikes, even if we ended up getting caught in a storm.
The dachs were absolutely beat at this point, but they trekked on with us, hardly even waiting for us to keep up except for the momentary pause to cool off in the many streams.
I was thoroughly disappointed with Fuller Lake as it was not blue at all or even very scenic with its bare landscape and deteriorated metal miners’ shack, but the hike to get to it was short and very beautiful with endless fields of wildflowers in every color and streams cutting through the open landscape everywhere.
Even more incredible (IMO) than the wildflowers was a tall waterfall flowing off of Fuller Lake that we could hear a short ways away from the trail that beckoned a visit.
After Fuller Lake, we returned to Ice Lake in order to continue on to the third and final noteable lake, Island Lake. The trail to this lake was steep and narrow, but afforded us beautiful views back towards Ice Lake and the lower basin area we had hiked from that morning that couldn’t be beat!
While the storms had thankfully held off much longer than we expected, after taking our first (!!!) rest break of the day at Island Lake around 12:30 PM, we decided to not push the weather gods any further and get back to our camp.
Furthermore, because we had expected to hurry up to the three lakes and be back down to our campsite before lunchtime, we had only brought small snacks in our day packs and also had only nibbled a small breakfast at the beginning of our hike. We were hungrrrry!
Although I really wanted to go back the way we came and visit Ice Lake just ONE more teeny tiny time, hubby convinced me that we should continue on the loop option as planned so we could see new scenery (and also to keep me from taking a million more irresistible photos of Ice Lake).
It ended up being a good choice to continue on the loop because we were able to see a few more interesting, shallow lakes that appeared higher than the mountains in the backdrop behind them and continue on a completely desolate and quiet trail…
…well, quiet until thunder started rumbling behind us. Looking back behind us, a dark storm was forming and threatening us to move faster down the steep trail, but looking ahead of us was nothing but blinding sunshine and blue skies. But nonetheless, we hurried!
The loop trail shot us back onto the main trail shortly before the start of Lower Ice Lake Basin, but we didn’t have to retrace our steps very much to get back to our camp. Before we knew it, we were enjoying our well-earned lunch and wine with the storm miraculously gone from the skies without spitting a single drop on us!
In fact, it was actually too sunshiny and hot back at camp! We had expected the entire afternoon to be stormy and for us to be held captive in our tent listening to pitter patter of rain pelting nylon — or at least blessed with some nice cloud cover — so we had not set up near any shade! The dachshunds tried to retreat to the tent for cover from the sun, but it was more like a sweat lodge inside!
Not only had we poorly chosen to set up camp nowhere near shade, in our haste to set up the tent earlier that morning, we hadn’t picked a spot with much privacy. It was tough to find a spot that followed leave-no-trace guidelines — which dictated that we should set up camp at least 100 feet away from lakes and streams — while also trying to avoid the many other campers that had already staked their claim in the lower basin. The whole lower basin area seemed to have streams branching out everywhere from the main two waterfalls that spilled out into the lush basin at the far west ends. And where there weren’t streams, there was either uneven terrain or thick vegetation.
We ended up setting up camp on an exposed hill right above a stream. At the time, the spot seemed fine and I especially loved the view of the waterfalls from our tent, but when we returned to our tent later after exploring, we realized there was absolutely no privacy to take care of business (especially for a female without a convenient “tool” to easily whip out) without people below, above, and beside us seeing everything.
In hindsight, if we had been more patient and hiked further south of the main trail closer to the cliffs, I think we could have found flat terrain that would have also been further away from day-hikers passing through the basin and other campers.
Eventually more clouds rolled in, which set the scene for some gorgeous, moody photos of the basin while we finished up the last few sips of our wine.
Later that night, the very moment we laid our heads on our pillows for the night, the rain finally arrived just in time to create some white noise to put us to sleep and get us well-rested to wrap up our 9-mile, 3,000 ft elevation gain hike the next morning.