8 Tips for Backpacking Ice Lakes Basin

By Emily Leikam on September 27, 2023
7 min read

Within the impressive San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado lies the unfathomable Ice Lakes Basin, a place that stimulates the imagination and intrigues all who travel to this alpine bowl. The vibrant blues of the lakes, the never ending mountainous views, the flowing waterfalls, and the grassy meadows make this location one of the most popular sites to explore in Colorado. Many outdoor enthusiasts love to hike the difficult, but incredibly rewarding, 8-mile trek. For an even more exciting adventure, some choose to take an overnight backpacking journey around these glowing alpine lakes. With the proper gear and a bit of preparation, anybody can enjoy the wonders of sleeping in the clouds. Here are 8 tips for backpacking Ice Lakes Basin: 

1. Know the Basics

The Ice Lakes Basin trailhead can be found within the San Juan National Forest, directly across the road from South Mineral Campground and 7 miles west of Silverton, Colorado. This is a popular place, so the earlier you arrive at the parking lot the better chance you’ll have of getting a spot. The trail is a steady climb upwards with a complete elevation gain of 2,877 feet. As you begin your journey you’ll travel through a lush old-growth forest, and across alpine meadows slightly shrouded by giant peaks. 

Two familiar destinations the trail leads to include the upper and lower basin, each having unique atmospheres. As you hike your way up towards the lower basin you’ll be met with a series of steep switchbacks and a sparkling waterfall that flows into Clear Creek. Once you travel through the flower-filled lower basin and make your way to the upper basin, you’ll discover the incredible, brilliant blue Ice Lake. Along the trail you’ll encounter plenty of wet and muddy terrain, so be prepared to get your boots wet. This hike is tough and not meant for those not used to hiking in high elevations, take it slow if needed and stay hydrated!

Open landscape view of green wildflowers meadow and footpath trail
Lower Ice Lakes Basin. Photo by: Mor.

2. Take a Short Detour

Ice Lake isn’t the only lake within this alpine wonderland. Take a short detour to another majestic lake to the northeast known as Island Lake. This lake is surrounded by U.S. Grant Peak and, as you might guess by its name, has a small island in the middle of it. The trip to Island Lake will add a little over one mile and 130 feet of elevation gain to your hike. 

Another small side trip is the hike to Fuller Lake. This lake can be found by following the trail south past Ice Lake. This hike will add about 1.75 miles to your trip with an elevation gain of 355 feet. There’s an old collapsed mining shack along the shores and more trails for exploring in the area. 

3. Forget the Fire

While camping in Ice Lake Basin, it may be tempting to start a fire to keep you warm and comfortable throughout the night. But when you arrive you may notice dark rings in the bright green vegetation. These rings, or former fire scars, have harmed the vegetation and left a permanent reminder. Help protect this special place by not starting a fire. Instead, you could bring a few candles for the comfort and safety of a fire, or a small compact lantern that will give you light during the dark nights.

Island Lake and Mountains
Beautiful Island Lake. Photo by: Kojihirano.

4. Leave No Trace

This is a simple principle when you think about it and should be followed anywhere you travel in the world. Leaving no trace is all about not making any sort of mark to show you were at a specific location. In the Ice Lake Basin this principle includes your own number two. This area is incredibly rocky, making it rather tricky to dig any sort of hole to do your business in. To help protect this beautiful land, use a waste disposal bag and a ziplock bag for your toilet paper. It may sound intimidating at first, but just try to imagine accidentally stepping in somebody else’s “you know what” while on the trail, doesn’t sound too pleasant, does it? The WAG Bag is an easy to use waste disposal bag that’s effective and simple to carry with you on the trails. 

Leave No Trace goes beyond your poo, as well. It also applies to material objects, any sort of trash like wrappers from protein bars, and even the steps you take. There are certain trails within the basins that are specifically meant for hikers to stay on. When you see others coming your way, try to find a sturdy rock or solid surface to step on and let them pass. This simple gesture can help protect the delicate vegetation around you by not stepping on it.

5. Where to Camp

Realistically, you’re able to set up camp anywhere you see fit in the Ice Lake Basin, but camping in the Upper Basin comes with risks. Since the upper basin is 12,270 feet above the tree line it is susceptible to lightning strikes, especially in the summer. The Lower Basin is your best bet when deciding on where to camp as you’ll have more tree coverage and be around the freshest mountain water around. If you plan on staying for multiple nights try to move your tent to a different location so you don’t harm the vegetation.

Young woman girl swimming cold colorful water
Have a quick swim in the colorful Ice water of Ice Lake. Photo by: Andriy Blokhin.

6. What to Bring

Here’s a list of some items that would be helpful on your backpacking trip to Ice Lakes Basin:

  • Sturdy, water resistant hiking boots. You’ll most likely be traveling through a few streams of water or muddy ground, so it’s a good idea to have some solid water resistant boots that are able to get wet.
  • Trekking poles help out a lot by enhancing stability and reducing force on your knees on long backpacking journeys.
  • Headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries.
  • Small first aid kit as you won’t be near any form of emergency services.
  • Warm clothes and rain gear as the weather can be incredibly unpredictable.
  • Your favorite water bottle.
  • Plenty of snacks and an easy meal when staying overnight.
  • A pocket stove for cooking a small meal or heating up water for a warm drink.
  • A tent with a rainfly and a warm sleeping bag.
  • San Juan Mountains map either downloaded on your phone or a waterproof topo map.
  • Disposable waste bags.
  • A field guide for all the flowers you’ll see or to identify edible plants (optional).

7. What to Wear

Girl in Kuhl Jacket In Orange Tent
Product shown W's Spyfire®Hoody

The weather in the Ice Lake Basin is usually cold, windy, and sometimes rainy due to high elevations. It’s a good idea to dress in layers and have moisture-wicking clothing that allows you to get through your hike without worrying about being too hot or too cold. Here are a few items that would work well for unpredictable weather:

  • A base layer like the Valiant™ short sleeve shirt that was designed with oder resistant merino meant to regulate body temperature and keep you dry. Or the KÜHL Engineered™ long sleeve shirt for a soft, breathable, and lightweight option.
  • A jacket from the Spyfire® collection that’s made from down material, meant to keep you warm while also being lightweight; perfect for hiking in high elevations. 
  • A rain jacket is an important item for when clouds appear at any moment. The Parajax™ jacket is a fantastic option that’s made with a water/wind resistant finish and is incredibly lightweight for easy transport.
  • Solid hiking boots, merino wool socks (two pairs), and a pair of lightweight gloves.

8. The Best Time to Visit

June, July, and August are the best times to visit the Ice Lakes Basin as this is when most of the snow has melted and the flowers are in full bloom. There will still be some snow through June and mid-July, but come late July and into August most of the lakes have completely thawed and the weather is beautiful. Expect to find seas of columbine, larkspur, aspen daisies, chiming bells, and cow parsnips surrounding the valleys. 

Gear Up for Your Ice Lakes Adventure

Backpacking the breathtaking Ice Lakes Basin is a trip of a lifetime. From vibrant pure blue alpine lakes and rushing waterfalls to mountainous views and gorgeous wildflowers, the adventures in Ice Lakes Basin will surely be one to remember. Strap on your pack, lace up your boots, and enjoy the view.

Sunrise at Ice Lakes Basin by: Will McElwain.

Emily Leikam
Emily Leikam

Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!


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