Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ice Lakes

Distance: 8 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,850 ft - 12,270 ft
Elevation Gain: 2,420 ft (net) 2,736 ft (cumulative)
Dogs: Off leash
Bathroom at the trailhead: Yes
Date Hiked: 27 Aug, 2013

Glacier ground rock causes Ice Lake near Silverton Colorado to be so blue.
Surreal Ice Lake near Silverton Colorado is mind-blowing in a good way. 
Ice Lakes near Silverton CO is one of THE premier hikes in the state. Not only is the destination an otherworldly cerulean blue lake nestled beneath towering spires, but the journey itself will take you up several shelves filled with water falls, majestic pines, and dramatic boulder fields. If you are traveling to Colorado to hike, this should be at the top of your list.

Looking up to the first shelf from the trailhead. 
Standing on a small spur trail looking at the upper falls. The trail crosses what turned out to be Clear Creek on some rickety logs far below and then switch-backed up to this point. It looks like the trail use to cross here, but I would stick to the new trail and not chance the dilapidated construction. 
The trailhead to Ice Lakes starts at the far end of South Mineral Campground. You get there by taking highway 550 north from Silverton for two miles and then county road 7 for 4 miles. While the route to the campground is well marked, there is no signage at the trailhead. If you find yourself continuing up a rough 4x4 road off into the trees, you will have gone to far. The trailhead is actually in a large parking lot across located across from the bathrooms. We missed it because it was empty and looked like just another part of the campground.

Crossing some of the rock rivulets on the first shelf
The route leaves the upper shelf through a series of steep switchbacks that wander in and out of stands of Spruce and Fir Trees. 
Even though the elevation gain on this hike was close to a hefty 3,000 ft, the trail was so soft and the switchbacks so continuous, that I practically glided upwards. The only confusing moment came around 1.0 miles near the upper segment of a large water fall that the trail laboriously skirts. Near the top of the falls the trails begins to descend again and heads off in a totally different direction. Since we did not know where the lake was in relation to the various cliffs visible from below we wondered if we were meant to take one of the many social trails around the falls.

The first view, at 2.6 miles, of the second shelf. Ice Lake is on the next shelf. 
Walking through the fall color to base of the second shelf
A half a mile from the upper falls, the trail breaks out into a wide sloping meadow below the first set of cliffs. Rivulets of rock cascade down from above and the route crosses these several times as it inches upwards. Don't worry about the imposing vertical barrier ahead. The trail will sidle off to the left and enter the trees where a few tenths of a mile and a hard pounding assent will take you up to the next shelf.

The second shelf is surrounded on three sides by vertical cliffs dripping with waterfalls. 
Looking up at some old mine tailings. 
The stroll across this middle shelf was a journey to a Coloradan Shangri-La. Despite the fall color, the air was humid and the ambience tropical. Had we passed through a wormhole that had transported us to Hawaii? There were waterfalls cascading down all three sides of the amphitheater-like bowl and water was clinging to our shoes deposited there from the overgrown shrubbery. I did not want to leave this unusual place but my friends had already bolted ahead towards the final pitch (at 3.3 miles, 11,500 ft) so I gamely began to climb the cliff face near a large waterfall on the left.

We got quite wet crossing this stream to get to the base of the second shelf. If you follow the stream into the meadow a bit there are a couple of places you can jump over with little difficulty. 
Heading up the wall of the second shelf. The route will go close to the waterfall on the left.
We did run into some mid-westerners who had turned around at this point claiming the exposure and terror of this segment drove them whimpering backwards. With some trepidation I began to ascend the well defined but steadily upwards-sloping route at the base of the bowl. Within two tenths of a mile the route did indeed get rocky but it was at least ten to fifteen yards wide and only required the most modest of bracing on the uneven terrain. Unless you have never stepped off the sidewalk in your life this portion will be a piece of cake.

Looking down on the route from half-way up the wall of the second shelf
The easy trail to the third shelf
From this point on, the route traverses horizontally across the face of the bowl as it weaves in and out of the steadily diminishing shrubbery. There is still a ways to go once you reach the upper shelf, but you will sense the lake is near and hasten your step for that final view.

Oh and what a view it is. Ice Lake is a geologic marvel. Its startling color looks more like a fancy liqueur than a mountain tarn. The blue comes from "rock-flour", superfine ground up rock produced by glaciers. When the glaciers that used to exist there melted, they deposited this material in the lake itself. This rock is so small that it remains suspended in the water instead of sinking to the bottom. These particles absorb the reds, yellows, and oranges in sunlight allowing only the blues to be reflected back to the eye. Ice Lake is seriously and totally blue. The kind of "did I toke too much?" sort of mind-blowing blue. Wow is all I can say.

Once you reach the third shelf, the lake is still a ways away. 
After sitting awhile, my brain cells popping in awe like overheated popcorn, I wandered off to the left where a short distance takes you to a small, alas boringly green, tarn further up the shelf. This is pleasant though because you get better views of the eroded spires that frame the lakes. You can continue another half mile to Fuller Lake but after 4 plus miles I was not in the mood to wander all over planet. I wanted another fix of Ice Lake.

Ice Lake...ahhhhh
To the right of the Lake is another trail that heads up and around the cliff face to Island Lake that apparently has a small round outcropping smack in the middle of it. We did not go there either but several other hikers did. Apparently it is worth the extra effort.

Small but scenic Upper Ice Lake

1 comment:

Linda W. said...

Wow - gorgeous! Love all the fall colors. I need to put this hike on my bucket list.