Backpacking in the San Juan Mountains

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Trip Date: August 30- September 1, 2019

Trail Overview

Trail: Ice Lakes Trail & Island Lake

Distance: 7.6 mile loop

Elevation Gain: 2,535 ft.

Location: San Juan Mountains, CO.

Permits: Not required.

The Story

Over Labor Day weekend, three friends and I took a road trip to Colorado for an extended weekend of backpacking to some of the most amazing alpine lakes in the San Juan mountains! During our trip of three days and three nights, we hiked over 15+ miles and explored 3 of the most colorful alpine lakes I had ever seen!

Labor Day weekend is known to be the last weekend of official summer in California, but in Colorado, snow from the previous winter has just melted and the lakes have finally thawed out! Ice Lakes Trail is a popular hiking destination in the San Juans and it is very clear as to why. The trail itself can be difficult, but one doesn’t seem to mind too much when your hiking in colorful Colorado!

We arrived at the parking lot around noon on Friday and to our surprise, there was already a full lot. Luckily, because of our late start, there were people already coming back down to leave and we scored a site almost immediately. Our original plan was to hike to our destination, Island Lake- camp for one night and make way to Ice Lake the second day, where we would camp for another night and then decide between the two where we would spend our final night. Packing up for this journey was a little difficult because we had to carry 3-days worth of food, I trekked in an adult float and Tiffany packed in her pack raft!

We were on the trail a little before 2 pm. There were more day hikers than backpackers and once we reached the junction- we were the only group to go directly to Island Lake first and so glad that we did! Many hiking reports encourage you to first hike to Ice Lake, but as avid hikers- we knew that we wanted to get most of the incline out of the way on the first day. Did I mention the difficulty of this trail?

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“The elevation climb of the Ice Lakes Trail is almost twice the height of the Empire State Building!” 

I clearly remember thinking that spring has just sprung in the San Juans because everything was so lush, alive and GREEN! We took our time as the elevation gain eventually got to us all and eventually made it to Island Lake around 4:30 pm, taking us a little over 2 hours to hike a little under 3.3 miles with nearly 2,050 ft of gain. We were tired but happy to see the amazingly turquoise colors of Island Lake!

And the best part, only one other person was camping there that night! Tiffany and I wandered a little to find a campsite and get all set up while the guys hung out and enjoyed a beer by the lake. We enjoyed a few hours of daylight before we lost the sun, made dinner, watched the sunset and crawled into our tents as the stars started to appear.

The next morning, we contemplated packing up and hiking to Ice Lake (which is a 7 min walk from Island Lake). We weren’t too eager to pack up and hop back on the trail, so we literally hung out around camp, took our time and eventually decided to stay at Island Lake another day- besides, Tiff and I had plans to float around when the sun popped out! As the day got later, day hikers and backpackers started to arrive from Ice Lake, proving that we made the right decision to stay put.

After dancing around the clouds for a few hours, Tiffany got her pack raft ready and set out to paddle around the island of Island Lake. She even got out and hiked to the top of it! You bet she had an audience! Which is one reason I couldn’t get myself to go in right away? It worked out perfectly though, as I was able to get some footage of her paddling around directly from our campsite.

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As crowds started to disappear and the sun still shining bright, I wanted no regrets as to why I trekked in my floatie and did not get in the lake. So down to the lake we went, big yellow floatie in hand.

If you’ve been following my journey, you know how much I love a good dip in an alpine lake!

It started as a joke, but then I was determined…I too, paddled my way (using only my arms) to the island of Island Lake! The water was cold but bearable and there was no way I was going to fully submerge myself in. It was refreshing. It was cold. It was my first alpine lake (dip?) in Colorado!

The afternoon was still young, so we decided to take a little walk around the entire lake. We enjoyed dinner and some Coors beer as the sun started to set and this time, we all appreciated the amazing colors of our last sunset here. A few of us took an early nap as we planned to watch the stars a little later that night and it was truly something special. I have always wanted to lay out in sleeping bags, looking up at the night sky and we even saw a few shooting stars! A night I will never forget.

After spending two days at Island Lake, we finally packed up and made way to Ice Lake to complete the Ice Lake Basin loop. As previously mentioned, the hike to Ice Lake from Island Lake is a ~7-minute walk. Some steep sections must be hiked slowly, but it’s very doable. I forget what time we left Island Lake and what time we arrived at Ice Lake, but it was still pretty early in the morning and there were a lot more people camping here.

Ice Lake is beautiful! The royal blues of the lake were nothing compared to Island Lake, but in my opinion- I enjoyed Island Lake so much more! I don’t think we even dropped our packs for photos, but we were here for only 15 minutes before completing the looped trail and making way back to the car.

It was a Sunday morning and there were a lot more people hiking in that day. Our friend David, stopped and talked to almost all hikers going in and recommended our same route.

To date, this is by far my favorite backcountry trip this year and I already have plans to head back next summer! 🧡

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Vanessa is an outdoors enthusiast, hiker at heart, and the storyteller behind Forever She Wanders; a women's lifestyle + travel blog inspiring all to get outdoors, seek adventure and live an active lifestyle. As an outdoors enthusiast, Vanessa has found passion in being outdoors while backpacking, camping, hiking and creating memories of a lifetime.

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