Stem and loop

Thursday, July 16, 2015 9:02 AM
Hikers cross a floral embellished alpine landscape on their way from Island Lake to the Ice Lake Basin.
Ice Lake is incomprehensible, the color of myth and legends.
Island Lake is nestled in a high elevation cirque at 12,400 feet. Leave from the same trailhead to scramble up Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak, and Golden Horn.

Ice Lake Basin has a devoted local following and an international reputation.

We are seduced by the color of the lake, great swaths of tundra, ease of the trail, and the surrounding wildly high cloud-house mountains. Mid-summer, flowers are luscious and inimitable. Come autumn, first snow compliments filtered gold.

This is a stem-and-loop trail hike to contrasting Island Lake and Ice Lake. Meander freely in both lake basins. The loop may be hiked in either direction. However, the pacing is more pleasing and wonder crescendos when doing the circuit counterclockwise as described here.

Ice Lake Basin is a gathering place for drenching rain, hail, sleet, snow, shivers, and electricity, so start out early on a reasonable weather day. There is a sign for the Ice Lake Trail at the northwest end of the oft-crowded trailhead parking lot at 9,840 feet.

Switchback up the generous path with an excellent surface. Flora is rich on the woodland floor of the subalpine fir and aspen forest and includes some uncommon plants such as fringed grass of Parnassus. Use logs and rocks to hop across Clear Creek on its mad rush to South Mineral Creek.

In one mile, leave the trail on a short, right spur to see the Clear Creek cascade. Ascend through a sunny clearing and then penetrate a thick stand of mature conifers at 1.6 miles. In this forest, the Hardrock 100 course comes in from the left and joins our route to Island Lake. This hardcore footrace begins and ends in Silverton, linking Telluride, Ouray, and Lake City with 33,992 feet of climbing over 100 miles.

At 2.2 miles, the secondary trail to Island Lake turns off on the right/north at 11,460 feet. This juncture is rarely marked with a cairn and is easy to miss. It is located at the beginning of Lower Ice Lake Basin. When the timber fades and the grade eases, search for the faint trail.

The track begins due north then turns briefly northeast to contour across a hillside under a cliff band. Once past this obstruction, the thin treadway switches due west. Enticing mountains ring the upper Ice Lake Basin. As seen from the trail, the pyramidal and most easily obtained Fuller Peak is on the left. The mighty and dominant structure at center is Vermilion Peak, 13,894 feet. Beguiling Golden Horn completes the high triplet. All three are non-technical scrambles.

Cross a small rivulet several times on the ascent. At 3.2 miles, step across the outlet of a shallow pond.

There are two ways to reach Island Lake, elevation 12,400 feet. The most direct route is to leave the trail after the stream crossing and make for the knoll directly above the lake at 3.4 miles. Alternatively, stay on the ascending Swamp Pass trail until it presents a remarkable cirque vantage point. From there, proceed off-trail down to the knoll. Standing on the rise, the setting and beauty of Island Lake will take your breath away. It is nestled intimately in a diminutive high basin, walled in by venerable U.S. Grant Peak, elevation 13,767 feet.

Avoid the obvious temptation to swim to the island, even in the warmth of summer. The icy passage is deceivingly overlong.

To reach Ice Lake Basin, use a social trail to descend southwest from the knoll to Island Lake’s outlet. Cross it and climb a small hill and bear roughly south, staying above a circular pond. Interlaced social trails filter into a more prominent track. Soon Ice Lake appears and the way is obvious. There is a short, rocky, Class 2+ stretch with mild exposure on a lateral across the hillside. The footholds are good and it should not be problematic.

Ford Ice Lake’s outlet: Generally, this can be accomplished right where the trail meets the watercourse. If the stream is too swift, there are other rock-hopping possibilities upstream. Parry’s primrose, king’s crown, alpine avens, and marsh marigold are but a sampling of the array of alpine flora.

Rejoin the Ice Lake Trail at four miles. Turn right and walk a short stretch to Ice Lake, elevation 12,257 feet. The color of water defines this place. Color is why we make the pilgrimage. The water is diamond-twinkle sky blue – the color of happiness.

There is much to explore in the basin, a myriad of lakes to visit. The largest, Fuller Lake is 0.8 mile southwest. Follow that trail, and in just 0.2 mile, you will come to my favorite mirror pond. Peaks ring the western horizon. Pilot Knob, the multi-hued attention grabber, is a technical climb.

Upon your return, bypass the upper trail to Island Lake and reach the edge of the hanging basin at 4.5 miles. Lower Ice Lake Basin is 800 feet below.

The trail, somewhat steep and rocky in places, winds down through a willow patch. It penetrates a black headwall and then crosses the Ice Lake outlet at 5.1 miles – a boot soaker if the water is high. It is great fun to mess around in the boulders and cascade off-trail. Mid-summer, flowers in the lower basin are bowl-you-over opulent and ravishing.

Pass to the left/north of the lake in the lower basin. Complete the loop, bypassing the lower trail to Island Lake at 5.8 miles. Finish on your pleasant incoming path, reaching the trailhead at 7.8 miles.

Trail basics

Travel: From Durango, drive north on U.S. 550 about 47 miles to Silverton. Continue north toward Ouray for 2.0 miles. At the sign for the South Mineral Campground, bear left onto a good dirt road. In 4.2 miles, park in a large lot on the right at the trailhead. There is an outhouse but no water. Allow 1 hour, 15 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.8 miles; 2,800 feet of climbing for the loop. The Ice Lake Basin out-and-back, exclusive of Island Lake, is 7.2 miles with 2,450 feet of climbing.
Time: 4-6 hours
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; no exposure
Map: Ophir, Colorado 7.5 Quad